Sunday, March 21, 2010

Numero Bruno

One thing I have learned while writing this blog is how much I like dogs. Like many of you, I've had dogs cycle in and out of my life. The former was always more enriching than the latter. Dogs were the first pathway I took to explore unexplained thoughts and emotions. They were how I learned responsibility growing up - washing, feeding and caring for them. My son moved out of the house last week and took his dog Bruno with him. Bruno (pictured above) was with us for about four months and became one of the family. Why am I missing him so much? He wasn't my dog and wasn't with us that long.

As with dogs, I've had people cycle in and out of my life with varying effect. Sometimes with great feeling and sometimes not. I'm better now, but I have to say that sometimes I've regarded people like creme brulee; rich, tasty, and best taken in small, infrequent quantities. But dogs, never. What does this say about dogs, and more importantly, what does this say about me?

As stated before, is it that my fondness for dogs goes back to early childhood when God used our family mutt to prospect and have me discover a vein of caring I didn't know existed, then use it to bump up against a big wet nose? Growing up is growing out. Why is it that some of us read Where the Red Fern Grows, by Wilson Rawls (a plug) and are moved - and some of us not? Maybe with some of us, life decided to use the dogs as an outlet for emerging love and for others, life decided to use something or someone else. I guess I should be grateful. Whatever else dogs are, they're not as fattening as creme brulee.

Look at dogs' lives. Some would say they have the life of Riley. Dogs get an occasional tennis ball to gnaw. They sleep when they want, live in a climate controlled house, get steady meals, and are able to run around outside when permitted, and my favorite, don't have to work. On the other hand, they survive on the sufferance of owners and we can be a mixed bag. They are limited to one liquid, water - their entire life - get pretty much the same food every day; looking the color of landscaping bricks, tasting like buffalo chips with the consistency of #40 grit sandpaper. Construction re-bar would be easier to chew.

Their deliverance seems to be their attitude. They seem to greet all people with wagging tails and exclaim, "Life's a beach, what's to eat!" I remember one of the best parts of my life; the period when my son was growing up and was always at the door to greet me at the end of the work day, "Daddy's home!" Best feeling in the world, especially when the day fed you a steady diet of anxiety, disruption, stressful activity. Problem is, children grow up, but dogs are always there to greet when you come in the door - showing affection and gladness in greeting. Dogs grow old, but they never grow up. They provide that rare thing in life; unconditional, consistent love.

Its also amazing that there is so much agreement. Every dog I've ever talked to has agreed with me on political issues, sports outcomes, and well, life in general. Agreement without rancor involved the distaste of books over 300 pages, admiration of craftsman architecture, the genius of Alfred Hitchcock, and the glory of French Impressionism. Amazing!

And of course, like me, every dog I've ever had likes to take long walks on the beach.

Saturday, March 13, 2010

Church Project - Guess the Caption

Someone important said that public humiliation is good for the soul. Or I just made it up. This post is for my wife's church group project, Hope Community Church in Cary. One weekend, instead of going to church, everyone went out and did a community project. Donna's group decided to help split wood and stack in pick-ups for delivery to low income families - under the direction of the City of Raleigh. I went along to supervise.
It was of course a Spirit enriching and humble task....and of course one to made light of.

Guess the photo caption!!

(thinking) "Was that 2 blue pills every 6 hours, or 6 blue pills every 2 hours"?

(thinking) "Just stick to the plan Greg !"

(thinking) "I thought we hid all the axes from Kristen"?

(thinking) " That hat would complete me. What handsome haberdashery! Should I offer 4 pieces of wood or 6 pieces?"

(saying) " You did what! Before you left to come here you were worried it was too cold for the bees so you let them in the house"?

Monday, March 8, 2010

The Hurt Locker Hurts

I guess when a 3D graphic cartoon goes against a war picture at the Oscars, the war picture wins. I happened to see the "Hurt Locker" on Netflix, thinking at best it would be a mad bomber movie with a lot of Hitchcock tension. But it was more. The story line informed the bomb disarmament procedure as a metaphor for war. It was a perfect metaphor. Like combat; trying to disarm a live bomb must be  tension filled and either complicated or simple but always unpredictable. That part, you learn from the film. The film teaches that how you approach the bomb is how you approach life while stationed in  modern day Middle East during a military tour.

It is of course, just a movie but delivered under the aegis of authenticity and wrapped up with a semi-documentary style. If you pitch that tent, you better make sure of  high ground. A movie is another form of art. Like painting, writing, play production, and sculpture, etc, through the creative process anything is allowed, but good art has to be built on a foundation of truth. Yes, to forge creativity, if you want one of the characters to sprout wings during the story, you can; as long as it services the plot's truth. Stories are important and need to be told for what they say about us and the human condition. I will never live Jay Gatsby's or Hamlet's life, but when I read, I learn about them - and so learn something about myself.

The Hurt Locker fails as art because it fails as truth - I'll tell you why.

As a quick synopsis, the story revolves around 3 GIs during a combat tour in the Middle East. The story contains a private (unsure of rank) who barely confronts his perilous environment and is unsure of his next move. A Spec 4 who has experience, follows proper procedure, is competent, and wants to complete his tour and get on with his life. The third character is the sergeant who supervises the bomb unit. As the movie progresses, the main content becomes the sergeant. He is slowly seduced (or has been already) into a combat junkie. He is attracted to the excitement and tension of war. Although the film portrays the price he pays as the war consumes more and more of him, you are still left with a notion filled with tragic romanticism. The problem with this portrayal is that it is false.

War is hell and you don't get addicted to hell.

To be addicted to something is to give it value, even knowing its destructive power. Anyone who has ever been in combat knows this truth. You could call a meeting comprised of the bowmen of Agincourt (either side), riflemen from Gettysburg or Cold Harbor ( either side), and men from the Battle of the Bulge (either side), and have no trouble getting a quorum on the commonality of the experience - and every one's revulsion to it.

I only knew of one man who thought combat was beneficial - a path to maturity and manhood. He was a sergeant during the Vietnam War. he was a brave man and had what we called a lot of "time in country", wise in the ways of that particular war. He was cool under fire and had saved lives. But he told all replacements that war was a passage into adulthood that would mold character. He never tired of giving this speech and I came to believe he meant every word of it. He may not go as far to say, war is addicting, but he believed in its uses and its ability to forge manhood. His words and beliefs, for me, were an anathema. We did what was expected from us, protect ourselves and our buddies, suffer the least amount of violence, then go home safe. And if you think he was some yahoo without any reflections on life, you would be wrong. He was from Chicago, had an MA in English Literature from the University of Chicago, planned to do another tour, then get his PhD and teach college. He had a wide range of interests, but because of his views, to be honest, I didn't like him much.

May 13th,1970, Quang Nghai Province, Vietnam

I was in an infantry company, 2nd platoon, 1st squad. A platoon is made up of roughly 20 men, 2 rifle squads of 10 each; our platoon was commanded by the sergeant. We were helicoptered into an area invitingly called "Leech Valley". . We were told that "tank-like" noises had been heard in the Valley the last few days. Everyone thought, "great...tanks." Because of the nature of the conflict we hadn't been exposed to US tanks, let alone any enemy tanks. We had no idea what they looked like, but decided if we saw any and they started shooting at us, then we'd know.

Our company started a slow sweep of the Valley. Elements then came across a large, natural, fort-like structure that looked like it belonged in Beau Geste more than Southeast Asia. There were multiple openings, almost like natural gates leading to the inside. My squad was given other things to do and the sergeant was ordered with the other squad to investigate inside these berms. Some other elements of the company would simultaneously enter the other openings. The sergeant had been uncharacteristically quiet that morning. Two days before in another part of the country, he had led a patrol that had almost walked into an ambush. The enemy prematurely fired their automatic weapons and the patrol returned fire. The sergeant killed an enemy soldier. She had a North Vietnamese uniform on, was young and pregnant. She was firing her automatic weapon at the patrol when he killed her. I don't know how you begin to assume that reality into your life.

As soon as the squad entered the area of the dirt berms, the place became a killing field. Many, too many, North Vietnamese Regulars were inside; having been patient, well supplied, and thorough at planning. They had taken careful advantage of the terrain. What the sergeant's squad had walked into was more murder than war. During the gunfire, my squad was set up as a blocking force outside the berms, but we were really just witnesses to the carnage. Those who were left from the squad that went into the berm started crawling, running, and stumbling out. Even though I had lived with them for 6 months, many were covered in so much blood I couldn't recognize them. A passing helicopter gunship came in to ferry the wounded out. A medivac helicopter also arrived. It usually took 20 minutes, but they both must have been in the area and heard the radio traffic that increasingly had a desperate tone. Our squad assisted getting the wounded on the two helicopters. I don't remember specifically helping the sergeant, but he was close and had a glazed look of someone in mental shock. He looked lost and afraid. He wanted out and although stumbling badly, ran to the helicopter as fast as he could - to get as far away as he could.

Some days out in the bush we had the upper hand. But not that day. The North Vietnamese ruled that day and the evil of the morning was not through with the sergeant's squad. The North Vietnamese cleaned our clock. Like a rogue wave that increases its malevolent velocity just before it attacks land and dies, the evil of the day rolled up into itself and unleashed its full fury. We were outgunned and outnumbered.

Once we loaded both helicopters, the gunship ascended about 10 feet into the air, was hit with multiple enemy rockets, and slammed into the ground with a violent shutter. Most inside the cab were killed including the sergeant. That same process was repeated with the second helicopter, the Medivac, seconds later.

How do you become addicted to something like that?

Later, I used to have imaginary conversations with the sergeant. It was not about me being right and him being wrong. No one has complete traction on the truth, but I think he would have changed his mind. I believe he would have seen the fallacy in his thinking. I support the troops, but as individuals with foibles, not people careening down some a path of self-absorbed mental illness or complete destruction like in the movie. I am not a pacifist, but I am anti-war. If he were alive, I like to think the sergeant would agree with me on that.

Sorry to go on so long. This was hard to write and maybe hard to read. I know it's just a movie, but it's important. If we see soldiers as combat junkies, we demean them and they should never be demeaned. They should be loved. I realize most adults will see the movie and understand its nuances, but teenagers may see the movie, understand some of its nuances, but still think it's "cool." We just can't have that.

They need to know the truth. We need to tell them.

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Five Things

Guess what happened to me the other day?

I was working on my second cup of coffee the other morning, trying to come to grips with the coming day. It was 8:02am exactly. I was told by a member of my family, her name will not be mentioned, that I could be, well, grumpy, judgmental, and hard to be around in the early am. Imagine.
Judgmental? Me? She should talk!

So in that light, I decided to stop complaining (if I ever did!) and try to discover the good in some simple, mundane things over the next few days. And guess what? I did... five things.

Kyoto/Tic Tac
Did you ever click on "NEXT BLOG" at the top of this page. You may not have the time, but I do right now. There's a great deal of music/cinema/young family blogs and strangely more blogs than you would think on knitting and food. I never thought that food or knitting engenders words, but there you have it. I came across a blog from a 20 something computer engineer from Kyoto. He was uncomfortably honest about his inability, despite conscientiously working out with free weights, of developing a physique that would impress his friends and help him find his female soul mate in life. No six pack, no girl. He took his deepest fears and put them to words, sentences, then paragraphs. Some would say that this was an exercise in narcissistic drivel. I do not. He reached me because he was shadow boxing with his existence; in his own way, trying to come to grips with his failings and his future. He was saying to himself "I matter", and then he put all his fears on the blog and shared them with us; saying, "you matter too". That took courage.

Tennessee Williams wrote in A Street Car Named Desire, that Blanche, one of the characters, "depended on the kindness of strangers." We all do, but I pray he learns that we don't measure our worth against their approval. I also hope that life assuages his loneliness and youthful angst, and soon, perhaps walking down the street, his heart will whisper and another heart will hear and they will connect.

Ditto the young pregnant woman whose journaling blog elucidates her emotions about her upcoming motherhood. Her words give voice to her perceived inadequacies, maternal insecurities, and imagined thrills. She strives to be the perfect mother, but hasn't yet gone through the process and therefore learned that's impossible. I can tell by her wants that she will be a wonderful mom to the him or her she calls "Tic Tac."

Sometimes life is like reading a map in the mist. You get a vague sense of topography and a warren of squiggles without clear orientation. We shoot a moral azimuth and hope for the best. Unclear exactly where we are going and where we have been, but sometimes we know. Sometimes we are led on a path clearly defined to a good place we know with certainty. We call this place a happy ending

Donna showed me the attached picture from yesterday. Prior to moving back home last year, my son had two dogs that always got along famously until one day they didn't. He brought one, Kali, to live with us temporarily while we looked for another home for her. He was moving back with the other dog, Bruno, shortly, so there was a pressured, time consideration involved. As you may or may not know, giving a pet away is not easy. Kali was a wonderful dog that would be a great pet for any family. We dreaded giving her up and dreaded we wouldn't give her to the right family or worse, no family at all. The process is also overloaded with luck.

But sometimes luck is enough. Donna met a mom with two boys. Long story short, after several meetings, Kali found a wonderful home with a wonderful family. If you look close in the picture below, Kali is smiling. I can tell. If you never think anything ends happily in life and you can't point to any examples, you can borrow this one.

Bad Weather

It snowed this morning - about an inch. It is a pleasant reminder that we live inside nature and are dependent on it. I am no environmentalist, but anyone can see we live in a cell phone society, cut off from our surroundings. We give nature adoration after subjugation and then just plain ignore it. But nature finds ways to subtly remind us of our limitations and let us know those limitations are sagacious and life affirming. It's not us then nature, it's us and nature. Genesis established that symmetry in the first few pages. Have you ever lived without electricity? Even for a short time, summer camp or mountain hiking perhaps? Your body quickly gets into a natural rhythm with daylight. You do activities when the sun is up and don't when the sun is down. It is restful and relaxing. Thomas Edison did us no favors.

The snow came with that lesson. Eric Hoffer, the philosopher/longshoreman from San Francisco said that man's progress is measured by his supremacy over nature. To clear a forest to build a factory is man at his best. No, Eric. Clearing or not clearing the forest for the factory is not the measurement. The measurement is the decision not to clear the forest for the factory if it is not needed. That is man at his best because that is man at his wisest. (I love arguing with dead philosophers - you always win because you always get the last word.)

Mark Twain

I read yesterday on the internet the following quote by Mark Twain, "I didn't attend the funeral, but sent a nice letter saying I approved of it." The net is filled with a lot of mendacious attributions so I can't be sure it was him, but it sounds like Mark Twain.

I wonder if the subject of the sentence perhaps told Mr. Twain prior to his second cup of coffee that he was grumpy...around 8:02am.

Charlie, Kali and Willem...All smiling...All happy