Osama Who?

This morning’s paper contained a brief story about a new book by former White House mouthpiece Scott McClellan with the jaw-breaking title What Happened: Inside the Bush White House and Washington’s Culture of Deception. As described, the book reminded me of a posting I wrote five years for a private blog. Here it is in its entirety:

When you’re wounded and left on Afghanistan’s plains,
And the women come out to cut up what remains,
Jest roll to your rifle and blow out your brains
An’ go to your Gawd like a soldier.
—Rudyard Kipling

I’ve done pretty well, I think, in keeping politics and the news of the day out of this blog. But enough is enough. You have to wonder if anyone in Washington has ever talked to anyone in the Middle East? Have they ever spent five minutes listening to an Afghan or an Iraqi?

In 2001, we heard a lot about Osama bin Laden, but a lot less about him lately. Our guys couldn’t find Osama, so we went after somebody thumbing his nose at us in plain view. The Russians could have told us about Afghanistan, but apparently our leaders had no questions. The thousands of Afghan refugees living here in the U.S. could also have told us a lot, but apparently there were no questions for them either. At some point, our government pretty much quit looking for Osama and started gunning for Saddam instead. We’ve heard all sorts of reasons for this that may play like beautiful music to the Republican faithful but not so well for the rest of us.

How could American policy makers at the highest level not know that there is a ferocity in the Middle East that is alien to the American sensibility. The Afghans possess it in abundance, and apparently the Iraqis have it as well. It seems as if the folks in the White House thought that by now both Afghanistan and Iraq would be pretty much like Indiana, settling in for a summer of picnics and baseball games. They don’t seem to realize even now that these people do not want to be like us. They may have hated the Taliban in Afghanistan—they may have feared and loathed Saddam in Iraq—but that doesn’t line them up to become Western-style democracies.

As prior posts to this blog have made abundantly clear, I am not a particularly religious person, yet I am praying daily that some sort of useful insight will reach our national leaders. Naturally, I’d like to see some of them hung up to dry, but I’d really settle happily for a change of course in U.S. policy for the Middle East.

Attention President Bush: If you won’t listen to the people of Afghanistan and Iraq, if you won’t listen to seasoned diplomats the world over, if you won’t listen to any living person who is not a member of your inner circle, will you at least drag out your old sophomore English lit anthology and read a little Kipling? I doubt that you actually did much reading back then, but you might learn something from it now.

An Only Child’s Solitude

Wrong solitude vinegars the soul,
right solitude oils it.

—Jane Hirshfield

Solitude is important to me for two personal reasons: I grew up as an only child, and I am the father of an only child, Elizabeth.

The arc of an only child’s experience is easy to trace. Solitude begins as a problem and grows into a necessity. The problem of solitude is that it is so easily transmuted into loneliness, boredom and isolation. This is wrong solitude. The necessity of solitude arises from an inability to turn off the “busyness” of other people.

These points will seem obvious to only children. We are the ones, for example, most likely to have imaginary friends who become involved in complex narratives of our own invention. This sort of thing is part of the only child’s solution to the “problem” of solitude, and it can easily ripen into the right solitude of serenity and psychological integration. I am stunned to learn that some “experts” have decided that the imagination necessary to dream up imaginary friends is somehow pathological! I doubt that any only children were consulted in making that determination.

I don’t remember much about my own imaginary friends, but Elizabeth had half a dozen or more, each with a unique personality and voice (she did the talking for all of them). She could play happily by herself for hours on end. As a fellow “only,” however, I put myself in the role of her advocate and protector whenever we were in large social settings because I knew what she was up against—the lack of effective mental filters that would allow her to focus on some things and ignore others.

It was hard-won wisdom, and for her sake I was glad I had it. Both of my parents grew up with siblings. They had, of necessity, developed the mental filters early in life and seemed to assume everyone was born with them. My mother had three sisters. My father had six sisters and a brother, all with loud voices. At family gatherings, I would quickly be overwhelmed by the level of activity and noise because I didn’t know how to ignore any conversation or activity. If someone was talking, I was listening. If something was happening, I felt drawn into it, even if it didn’t interest me. Again and again I would find myself trying to follow several conversations at once and keep track of what everyone was doing.

It was exhausting, and before long I would instinctively seek out a quiet corner. Non-participation, however, was never an option at these events. Invariably, one or more of my aunts would see me off by myself and try to pull me back into the middle of things. They called me “shy” and “stand-offish” and “spoiled.” It made me angry and hurt my feelings. It also failed to answer my most basic question: “Why can’t anybody ever shut up?”

I was an adult before I developed the necessary mental filters, but large groups can still wear me out. These days, of course, I can decide when I’ve had enough. At my best, I can take care of myself without seeming “shy” or “stand-offish” and without hurting anyone’s feelings. It is always a complex dance, but whatever I do I have simply aged out of the charge of being “spoiled.” I will never have to endure it again. That is quite simply the greatest blessing an only child can ever receive.

And anyway, if you think hanging around with large groups of kids is the sine qua non of healthy childhood, please take another look at Lord of the Flies. 😉

Memorial Day Weekend

To muse and brood and live again in memory,
With those old faces of our infancy
Heap’d over with a mound of grass,
Two handfuls of white dust, shut in an urn of brass!
—Alfred Lord Tennyson, The Lotos-Eaters

I’ve been reading over a folder of personal letters I saved from a former job. One of them, dated nine years ago yesterday, came from a former boss who had learned that my mother had recently died. Among the words of comfort he offered were these: “Time does heal a lot of the pain and sorrow. Memorial Day takes on a greater significance.” He was right, of course. I never thought much about Memorial Day when I was younger.

In junior high and high school, in fact, I actively disliked Memorial Day. I was a band member, and there was a long parade to march in every year. The uniforms were hot and ill-fitting—not to mention ridiculous, if the evidence of surviving photographs is to be given credence.

Think of an organ grinder. Now imagine what the monkey is wearing, and (except for the fez) you have an accurate mental picture of my junior high band uniform.

The march ended in the city park where we stood at parade rest to listen to the windy, politically cautious piety of local dignitaries. The ceremony culminated in an uncertain recitation of the Gettysburg Address, usually delivered by a student. My feelings then were appropriate to the energetic impatience of youth, but the time for that passes.

Several years ago, I read an interview with Jonathan Winters. Then in his late 70’s, Winters retained his blazing wit, yet the interview overall saddened me. As a boy and young man, Winters endured great coldness and cruelty from his parents. He had kept those injuries green, although he owed it to himself to allow the wounds to heal. After all, what is the point of long life if at its heart it is merely the sum of our wounds?

Winters’ emotional pain made me think of the old hymn I sing with the choir every year on Maundy Thursday:

Forgive our sins as we forgive,
You taught us, Lord, to pray;
But you alone can grant us grace
To live the words we say.
How can your pardon reach and bless
The unforgiving heart
That broods on wrongs and will not let
Old bitterness depart?

Like everyone else, I had my own injuries and wrongs and outrage when I was young, but they have mostly passed. Now, with a simple heart, I miss those old faces.

Asia Sends a Big Ol’ “Howdy!”

Years ago I attended what I thought was billed as an “International Music Festival.” Somehow I missed the word “Country” in the title. What the show turned out to be was American-style country music, played by bands mostly from Asia. The only song title I remember from the show is “Just a Singapore Cowboy,” but that should give you an idea of the flavor of the thing.

I thought the show was moderately entertaining and filed the memory of it under “Amusing Anomalies.” I mean, what could be more unlikely than Asian dudes in cowboy hats?

So, my jaw dropped when I opened this month’s issue of The Atlantic and saw this article entitled Thai Noon. Please check out the photo that accompanies the article. Thais, it seems, love the whole idea of the American Wild West, along with country music. They do their best to talk the talk and strut the strut.

Then I realized that Thais trying to sound like cowboys is only marginally odder than Mainers trying it. Cowboy hats and country music are huge here in Maine. Mainers can look the part, but the game is over when we open our mouths.

The International Dialects of English archive offers this sound clip of a traditional Downeast Maine accent. Shows ya kinda the way we talk around heah, chummy.

Riding with Ghosts on the El

I belong to a Congregational Church that is associated with the United Church of Christ. The U.C.C. is one of those liberal, mainline Protestant denominations for which many evangelicals feel seething contempt. The U.C.C. is different things to different people, however, and operates without a hierarchy of any kind. The differences between congregations can be enormous.

UCC LogoHere in New England, most U.C.C. churches began life as Congregational churches. Some of the congregations are centuries old. Each individual congregation voted on whether to join the U.C.C. when it was forming in the 1950s. As far as I understand the evangelical position, the chief sins of churches like mine are (1) the great majority of us are not biblical literalists and (2) our doors are open to everyone.

If that sounds easy, be assured that it is not. Opening the doors to everyone just about guarantees that you will meet people with whom you disagree, sometimes people whom you dislike. If you harbor prejudices of any kind (race, ethnicity, creed, gender, age, sexual orientation, political persuasion—you know the list) a church like mine will challenge you.

But each U.C.C. church is in some ways unique. Right now, my church is focused on inclusiveness and community outreach and service. Other U.C.C. churches have their own ideas. Some are so different from mine that members of hierarchical denominations have trouble understanding what the U.C.C. really is at its core.

I’ve been thinking about these these things because the U.C.C. has been in the news recently. The Rev. Dr. Jeremiah Wright, of Trinity U.C.C. in Chicago, has been a thorn in Barack Obama’s side as elements of the radical religious right and the progressive secular left joined hands briefly to condemn Rev. Wright and, by association, his former parishioner Sen. Obama. The whole business was so unsavory that, by supreme irony, it proved Rev. Wright’s point: racism is alive and well in this country, whether we want to acknowledge it or not.

Somehow it’s harder to talk about than in the salad days of the civil rights movement. Well-intentioned people of all persuasions like to believe that the era of racism is behind us, and it’s true that many battles have been won. But the ghosts of America’s past remain.

I suspect that most of us know more about these ghosts than we like to admit, but I’ll speak only for myself. I grew up in an all-white town in the whitest state in the nation and went to an overwhelmingly white college. I was a passionate supporter of the civil rights movement, but there wasn’t much going on in Maine.

After college I spent four years in the military where I finally had the opportunity to put my convictions about racial equality into practice, and I did well. Some of my supervisors were white and some were black. The respect I afforded each of them varied, but not along racial lines. When I left the military in 1973, my credentials as a person free of racism were impeccable.

Ghosts, however, are by definition elusive. When they appear, it is impossible not to be surprised. And so it was for me riding the El in Chicago one day in the summer of 1976 when I looked around and suddenly realized that mine was the only white face on the train.

The stab of fear I felt in my gut was irrational, unwarranted, and somehow overpowering.

At one level I understood that everyone on that train was, like me, just trying to get somewhere. And yet. And yet. They were all black. All of them.

The ghosts had taken hold of me, and I was afraid. The received wisdom of my all-white boyhood (“Eeny, meeny, miney, mo…catch a n****r by the toe…”) contained virulent racism that had waited patiently for decades to show itself. My palms were sweating, my heart was pounding, and I sat on the train shaking with fear and humiliation. My wild emotional turmoil soon coalesced into shame, however, as I realized that for years I had talked one set of values and lived another.

When I got off the train, I began the real work of freeing myself from racism. I’ve come a long way since 1976, far enough in fact that I will never again make the easy claim that I have left behind every trace of that old received wisdom.

My U.C.C. church is almost exclusively white. Rev. Wright’s is almost exclusively black. Our shared motto and goal, “That They May All Be One,” remains within our reach but somehow just beyond our grasp.

Dulce et Decorum Est…

If in some smothering dreams, you too could…
…watch the white eyes writhing in his face…
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est
Pro patria mori
Wilfred Owen, 1893-1918

The Latin means, roughly, “It is noble and gracious to lay down your life for your homeland.” Wilfred Owen was writing about watching another soldier die from mustard gas, as ignoble a death as can be imagined. Owen also died young, days before the Armistice, but not before he was able to write down his experience of war.

My own experience of war was much less wrenching, but I’ve been thinking about it ever since John McCain began fantasizing regularly about conventional military “victory” in Iraq. This morning, I did a Google search for my old outfit, the 509th Bomb Wing.

In 2008, the wing is located at Whiteman Air Force Base in Missouri. It has a website and a public relations staff. In 1945, the 509th, then known as the 509th Composite Group, flew the Enola Gay to Japan and dropped the atomic bomb on Hiroshima. Since then, wing members have been entitled (read “required”) to wear the Presidential Unit Citation ribbon on their dress uniforms. I never could bring myself to wear the ribbon.

Thirty-five years ago, when I belonged to it, the 509th was headquartered at Pease Air Force Base in New Hampshire. We flew KC-135’s (still flying!) and FB-111b’s—then the most advanced aircraft in service. The 509th flies B-2’s these days—stealth bombers, and perhaps the most advanced aircraft in service now.

I spent my entire Air Force active duty, after training, at Pease except for a few days in the summer of 1972 when I was inexplicably sent to Whiteman! It was a Minuteman missile base in those days, and there was absolutely nothing for me to do there. I was supposed to stay there for 90 days, but by pleading with my commanding officer I was sent back to Pease after only three or four days.

What I remember about Whiteman is chiefly Missouri’s suffocating July heat. Yet somehow that short temporary assignment to Whiteman was about the most exciting thing that happened to me in four years of service.

After all the agony and anxiety I went through before I enlisted (the draft notice I had received motivated me to make other arrangements), the most striking feature of my actual service was its astonishing banality. There was neither nobility nor graciousness in it. It was an unsatisfying job at low pay that I was forbidden to quit.

Four years is nevertheless a long time for a young man, and military service changed me in ways I didn’t notice until later. When I was discharged on January 15, 1973, I drove home to our off-base apartment and carefully hung my uniform in the closet, as if I were going to wear it again.

I sat in a disoriented fog—neither soldier nor citizen—for a couple of weeks and then began graduate school at the University of New Hampshire, just a few miles up the road. I quickly learned that on campus there was no sympathy for the military or for veterans. For the whole time I was a grad student, I kept a resentful silence about where I had been and what I had been required to do.

The experience taught me the difference between supporting the troops and supporting the war the troops have been ordered to fight. The former really is dulce et decorum; the latter, almost without exception, is not. The little video below lays out some of the reasons why this is so.


At the Red Cross

…who would have thought the old man to
have had so much blood in him?
—Macbeth Act 5, scene 1

When I went to give blood yesterday, I learned that it was my 22nd donation. That’s 11 quarts! I became a regular donor several years ago more or less on a whim. Stopped at a traffic light, I saw a sign for the Red Cross and remembered the transfusion I had needed back in 1994.

Giving blood, as it turns out, is pretty easy for me. I can answer the blood donor profile questions without embarrassment, I am blessedly free of needle phobias, I have a big fat vein that a nurse can hit first time every time, and I’m big enough physically that I don’t feel much in the way of after effects.

My patience, however, was sorely tested yesterday. The nurse I got (I’ll call him “Chuck”) was obviously new to the job and managed to combine a novice’s incompetence with a natural inclination toward officiousness in a way that left me out of sorts (and in some real physical discomfort) for hours later.

NeroI had a 1:30 appointment at the Red Cross, and when I got there the place was practically empty. I zipped through the paperwork with my usual elan, but things went downhill rapidly as soon as Chuck got hold of me.

Now I really do try very hard not to judge people on the basis of appearance (yesterday’s rant notwithstanding), but I’m only human. Chuck was a moon-faced fellow with an imperfectly realized Van Dyke beard and mustache. To compound matters, he had coiffed himself with ringlets that ranged damply across his forehead in the manner of the emperor Nero. But I could close my eyes on all that.

The real problems with Chuck were his lack of skill and his “bedside manner.” Typical Red Cross blood drive staff members can set up a blood draw in about 30 seconds. Chuck took the better part of 10 minutes. He poked and prodded; he hitched and released various hoses, lines, velcro tapes and other assorted gear; he twisted me this way and that; he set the IV itself as if it were an interrogation device. I half-expected him to waterboard me. When I flinched at one point, he said, “Oh please, sir! I’ll have to ask you again not to move that arm!”

Oh please, indeed.

In eight weeks or so, however, I’ll be back for another donation. Chuck will have improved or he will be gone. By the end of the year, I will have crossed the gallon mark. That really is a lot of blood.

Kids Today, I Tellya…

Our youth love luxury. They have bad manners and contempt for authority. They show disrespect for their elders and love idle chatter in place of exercise. Children are now tyrants not the servants of the household. They contradict their parents, chatter before company, gobble up their food, and tyrannize their teachers.

—attributed to Socrates, c. 450 BC

It’s a good thing we have written records of this bit of conventional wisdom. Otherwise, each generation might be tempted to believe no one ever thought of it before. Here is a partial list of the things that might draw me into it:

  • tattoos
  • piercings
  • Top 40 radio
  • celebrity culture
  • iPods
  • MySpace
  • mouth breathers

I deleted a few things from the list before publishing this post, because despite my intention to write this with a cool head and a broad perspective I was really getting worked up. (Have you seen the way some kids dress? Have you listened to the crap on the radio?) It’s just so damned easy to criticize kids and to forget that many of the irritating things they do are done specifically for the purpose of irritating people like me. This is how it has always been and how it probably should be.

These days I’m having a pretty good time on the “older generation” side of things, but I also had some fun when I was on the “younger generation” side. For example, I remember arguing with my grandfather about safe driving. This was in 1963 or 1964. Gramp was about 83, and I was about 17.

The argument was about whether old timers or teens were worse drivers. I knew that Gramp, when cornered, would instinctively manufacture evidence to support his position, and he didn’t disappoint. On this particular occasion, he pulled a statistic out of thin air and announced that teenage drivers had twice as many accidents as drivers over 65.

So, that’s how it’s going to be, I thought. Inspiration struck, and I was ready for him with a made up stat of my own.

“Of course we do,” I said, “There are twice as many of us!”

It stopped him cold. “There are?” he asked.

Victory was mine, but I couldn’t keep a straight face. Before long, Gramp couldn’t either. We had caught each other in similar lies at precisely the same moment. He was badly crippled by arthritis by this point in his life, but he extended his hand and I shook it. Man to man.

It was the best moment with him I ever had.

The Morning After Pentecost

The Apostle Peter may have known a lot about spirituality and the teachings of Jesus, but he didn’t know jack about booze. If you’ve ever been close to an active alcoholic (yourself or someone you love) you may share my view that the Pentecost story contains one of the most hilarious statements in the entire Bible.

sundialYou know the story. A “mighty wind” comes upon a group of the faithful, and suddenly they’re rolling on the ground, speaking in tongues. A cold-eyed observer suggests that they’re drunk. Peter is shocked by this impiety and says, “[T]hese are not drunk, as you suppose, for it is only nine o’clock in the morning.”

How’s that again? Rolling around on the ground isn’t something you’d do because you had two drinks in you. It would take more than most people ever drink at any one time in their lives.

So trust me here. If you were a serious drinker in those days, the kind who would drink enough to end up rolling on the ground, you wouldn’t let some joker with sandals and a sundial tell you whether you could have a drink. That is to say, for an active alcoholic the time of day is pretty much irrelevant because it is always five o’clock somewhere.

It also occurs to me that there are at least two routes to drunkenness at 9:00 AM: the frat boy’s still-partying-from-the-night-before and the real drunk’s vodka “breakfast of champions.”

Don’t get me wrong here. I’m not saying the Pentecost gang was drunk. I’m just saying that if they weren’t drunk it probably had nothing to do with the time of day.

Ars Poetica Redux

Recently a friend pointed out that this blog quotes a lot of poetry. I suppose it does, but I don’t think of this as a “literary” site. It’s just that I spent a lot of time in school studying literature. I probably would have a Ph.D. if I could have stuck with it. The proponents of literary theory, as it was practiced in the ’70s, however, can claim the kill on that one.

I like to tell the story of my leaving grad school as if the whole thing were a heroic march to better things. The truth is considerably less grand. To begin preparing for the program’s comprehensive exams, I had enrolled in a course in which the reading assignments included Roland Barthes’ S/Z. Barthes used words like hermeneutic, semic and proairetic. He speaks of “lexia” and the “axis of castration.” Dear God.

I managed to force myself to read through about half of the book, my personal b*llsh*t alarm trumpeting like a fire klaxon through every word. The critical moment arrived when I gave up. I closed the book and held it in my hand for a few seconds. Then Marge heard the crash.

“What was that?” she asked.

“It was this book hitting the wall,” I answered, “I don’t know if what I’ve been trying to read is true or not, but I am utterly certain that it doesn’t matter.”

Suddenly there was no turning back. In a single heartbeat, I moved from wondering whether I would stay in grad school to making formal arrangements for my departure.

I kept the book around for years. Every time I found myself wondering if I had made the right decision, I would take the book from the shelf and spend a few minutes turning pages in it. I never again found it necessary to knock paint off the wall with the book, but I also found that I never regretted my decision to leave grad school.

I have nevertheless continued to read. In the process I’ve made friends with a great many books, ranging all the way from “brain candy” to classical literature. Some of it makes me feel smart, and some of it is just plain fun. Better still are the moments when things I’ve learned from reading connect.

Years ago, for example, I had a good time reading Dorothy L. Sayers’ Lord Peter Wimsey novels. I had a real “aha” moment while reading Strong Poison. As the novel reaches its climax, Lord Peter, having driven himself to the brink of exhaustion to save the woman he loves from the gallows, falls asleep over a book of poems by A.E. Housman.

When he awakes, he knows the identity of the killer and the method of murder. And so did I.

Housman, I knew, really only published one collection of verse, a book called A Shropshire Lad. The best known poem in the book is called Terence, This is Stupid Stuff. The last section of the poem tells the story of King Mithradates who, in order to thwart would-be assassins, developed immunity to the poisons of his time by deliberately ingesting them, “first a little, thence to more.”

Now, in the Lord Peter novel there is a character, someone close to the murder victim, who has unusually shiny fingernails. This I knew could be an indication that the body contains high levels of arsenic. Therefore, to commit the murder, Mr. Fingernails prepares a meal laced with arsenic and shares it with the victim. Victim perishes, but Fingernails, thanks to acquired immunity to arsenic, does not.

Elementary, as another fictional detective might have said.

Anyway, what all of this means is that literary allusions and snippets of poetry are probably inevitable here. I hope most readers enjoy it, but those who do not should remember that there will not be a quiz at the end of the hour.