Do We Care So Little?

I don’t know why the killers did it. I don’t know their names or their ages. I don’t know their political affiliations, or if their mothers loved them when they were young.

What I know is fourteen people died on December 2nd in San Bernardino, California. They were killed at a Christmas party. I know that the two murderers were later killed by police officers. I also know three people were murdered in Colorado Springs last week, at a Planned Parenthood facility. I know dozens of people were killed in Charleston, South Carolina, and Aurora, Colorado, and in Newtown, Connecticut, among many other places. I know that hundreds of grieving survivors are left behind to ask questions that will probably never be answered.

There are other things I don’t know. I do not know why we as a society do not rise up against this madness, and demand an end to it. I do not know why the National Rifle Association has, over the last few decades, refashioned itself into a rabidly irrational political lobbying organization. The NRA and their ilk clothe themselves in the flag and posture as though they are the defenders of American democracy in the face of a continuously-prophesied but never-happening Federal confiscation of every gun in the country.

The NRA’s main purpose, however, appears to be creating fear and paranoia in people, and then collecting as much money as possible from those in whom they have stirred up the false specters of crime waves and government takeovers. At the same time, they mindlessly oppose any measure or regulation that might dial back American gun culture in even the smallest way, and intimidate any politician who supports such measures.

Here’s something else I don’t know: Why has Wayne LaPierre, Chief Executive Officer of the NRA, had nothing to say in the wake of the murders in San Bernardino? Or after the killings at the Planned Parenthood facility in Colorado Springs?

This isn’t going to turn into a screed against the NRA. That would be too easy. (Pry your gun from your cold, dead fingers? Seriously?). It would also be futile. (See “mindlessly”, above.)

No, this is about a question.

Why are we not rising up as a society, a people, and demanding an end to the carnage? Why are we not marching in the streets, furiously stating our children’s need, our society’s need, to end the violence that now happens with depressing regularity from one end of this country to the other – from Newtown to San Bernardino? Do we care so little? Are we so powerless? Is America so in thrall to the NRA and their minions?

The tragedy of these killings radiates out, like ripples in a pond when a stone is thrown into it. It’s not just fourteen people in California who won’t celebrate Christmas this year. There are all of us left behind who have to deal with the impact and consequences of the murders in San Bernardino and Roseburg, Oregon, and Charleston, and on and on.

A great many right-wing conservative politicians in this country (several of whom say they want to be the next president of the United States), abetted by like-minded television and radio commentators, make big talk about “taking back our country.” From what I can tell, they mean taking the country back to around 1955.

Well, I don’t want to take the country back. I want to take it forward. I want to do whatever is necessary to make it exceedingly difficult for mass murders like the ones in San Bernardino to take place.

Why in the name of heaven does the NRA not want the same thing? Oh, I know – they say that’s what they want. But then, they turn around and sabotage any meaningful, sensible regulations through their bought-and-paid-for politicians.

How long will the 80% of Americans who want expanded background checks and other reasonable regulations allow themselves – our selves – to be dominated and ignored by the likes of Wayne LaPierre and the rest of the Second Amendment fanatics?

How long?

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Seasons’ Greetings

I have a question: When exactly did “The Holidays” become a season?

In addition to spring, summer, autumn and winter, we now have the so-called Holiday Season, which, unlike the other four, has no fixed duration. It generally ends around New Year’s Day, but the starting date of this superimposed season is another matter. Creeping ever earlier in the calendar, it now commences around Halloween (which also starts earlier than it used to). This year, I saw an illuminated, artificial Christmas tree in a restaurant on November 16th – a week and a half before Thanksgiving!

Have our modern lives become so drab and unexciting that we have to cheer ourselves up with faux evergreen boughs and flashing electric lights, in anticipation of a holiday that is still many weeks away? Apparently so.

*

Years ago, there was a house in my neighborhood which marked the holidays and seasons in a unique way. The elderly people who lived there owned a wondrous assortment of string lights, which they mounted in their windows. They had a set of lights for almost every holiday and season on the calendar: bottle rockets in red, white and blue for July 4th; snowflakes for winter; American flags for Veteran’s Day; Santas and reindeer for Christmas; four-leaf clovers, autumn leaves, little bunnies and Easter eggs, jack o’lanterns, hearts pierced by arrows … I could go on, but you get the idea.

Not only did they have lights for every occasion, they were careful about timing. Smiling pumpkins and little black cats went up a couple of weeks before October 31st. Then, a week or so later, they would be replaced by turkeys and pilgrim hats. Christmas-themed lights never went up before the first of December, which I thought showed admirable restraint.

Although I no longer live in the neighborhood, I happened to drive past the house a couple of days ago. Like so much of the rest of that part of Denver, the house is being gutted and renovated.

Perhaps the previous owners died or were sent to a “rest home.” I hope their collection of seasonal lighting wasn’t just thrown out. I would’ve liked to have known, if there’d been an estate sale. I would’ve picked up a set or two, just for the sake of the memories they would induce.

*

Don’t worry – I’m not going to start waxing nostalgic about the golden autumns of yesteryear, nor will I complain about hearing “White Christmas” prior to Thanksgiving. Though I could.

Instead, I’m going to talk about war. Not a real war, but the fake war some elements of society think is being waged against Christmas.

I know many of our fellow citizens believe religion – specifically, the Protestant Christian variety – should have a prominent, central place in society; by which, they mean “everywhere, all the time.” By and large, they’re the same people who think there’s a war against Christmas in America. They must be a pretty thin-skinned lot, given the recent brouhaha about the plain red cups being used by Starbucks coffee shops during The Holiday Season this year.

From what I can tell, the Christmas Defenders – CD’s for short – think their way of life is threatened by socialists, secular humanists, radical homosexuals, and the Democratic Party. They claim that a War on Christmas is being waged by these godless sorts, who are trying to destroy Christianity, and maybe replace it with Sharia Law.

If there is a war being conducted against the Baby Jesus and his entourage, with the intent of eradicating all the crèches and crosses and “Happy Birthday, Jesus!” signs woven into The Holiday Season, the anti-Jesus faction must be pretty incompetent, because every year, like clockwork, America is inundated by Christmas carols, tons of Chinese-made schlock, discount sales, fake snowflakes, and ho-ho-ho’s ad nauseum.

If the CD’s would stop complaining long enough to take a good look around, they’d see that they’re winning. Or at least, they aren’t losing.

Being a secular humanist, and a Democrat, I think the so-called War on Christmas is nothing more than a chimera called forth by crass, self-serving politicians and sanctimonious scolds. In a quest for votes or television ratings, they denounce a non-existent movement, calling it an assault on Judeo-ChristianValues and The American Way of Life.

Nevertheless, I do think there’s a war on Christmas; just not the one Bill O’Reilly and Donald Trump like to talk about.

The merging of autumn and winter festivities into a single Holiday Season is a direct product of a war whose only objective is parting as many dollars as possible from as many people as possible. The weapons deployed to accomplish this are desire and guilt, coupled with nostalgia and credit cards.

For those who say Jesus is the “reason for the season”, it’s good to remember that Christmas is a pagan, mid-winter celebration that was co-opted by the Catholic Church. Yule logs, fir trees, and the like were all part of winter solstice festivities among German and Scandinavian tribal groups, and revelry and gift-giving were part of the winter celebration of Saturnalia, long before Jesus was born.

Given the multi-front corporate attack on our collective wallets that occupies almost a quarter of the year, why is the excuse for that attack a celebration of the birth of a Middle Eastern socialist whose parents were refugees? If you look at the distinctly un-Christ-like behaviors of many of the self-avowed followers of Jesus, and the Black Friday mentality that increasingly pervades The Holiday Season, doesn’t it make more sense to rededicate December 25th in honor of Mammon, who, depending on the source, was a deity or a devil, and was the embodiment of the worshiping of money and possessions?

We could rename the day Mammonmas, or perhaps Mmas for short. At midnight on Mmas Eve, we would go to mega-churches where the Prosperity Gospel is preached, light golden candles, and put 25% of our annual income in the collection plate (Visa, MasterCard, and PayPal accepted!). Then, when it came time for communion, people would line up to receive their Mmas blessings, in the form of a new Xbox 360, or a 110” Ultra-HD flat screen TV, or a fantasy holiday in an undisclosed location (either Hell or Walmart, whichever is closer).

I keep hoping for push-back against pro-Mammon behemoths like Target, Best Buy, Macy’s, and all the rest. Not because I want time to reflect on the Baby Jesus. No, I want to stop being made to feel guilty because I haven’t bought a $50 gift certificate to Olive Garden or The Golden Corral for Aunt Myrtle. Never mind that we haven’t spoken in over ten years. Do I want to jeopardize my chances of getting into Heaven by overlooking the old girl?

And what about all those people in your office, most of whose names you couldn’t recall if your life depended on it? Do you want them to think badly of you?

One last thing: While you may not want to spend $350 on gifts for your six-year-old son, do you really want to consign him to years of therapy because you inadequately expressed your love for him when he was a mere defenseless lad?

I thought not. Now get out there and buy something! And remember: If you don’t spend at least $1,500 on Mmas gifts this year, ISIS wins.

#

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Saying Goodbye

Yesterday, I finished going through, and cataloging, all the architectural drawings I still have. Then I stacked them beneath my flat file and took a photograph. There it was: my professional life, all heaped up and waiting to be carted off.

As I prepared to send the photo to my girlfriend and my daughters, I began to cry. This is what I’ve spent 35 years of my life accumulating. Here is the evidence of what I’ve done; how I’ve spent my hours and days. A great deal of the work is mundane. Some of it is inspired. I would like to think that a lot of my work goes relatively unnoticed because it blends so well with the existing structure, or the neighborhood – “the context”, as architects like to say.

Years ago, I wanted to leave my mark in the world, and I have in fact done that, albeit in subtle ways. I didn’t design a great public monument, or a prominent building that people will admire while it lives and mourn when it’s gone (like Pennsylvania Station in New York City, for example). I haven’t always been able to do what I wanted, but there is a piece of me in everything I’ve designed.

Even while thinking I wasn’t, I have accomplished something. Architecture is an art of compromise, and persuasion. They may be my ideas, but someone else will inhabit the spaces, and someone else will spend the money to have them built. I did the work that needed to be done, while simultaneously encouraging people to dream expansively, because dreams are free; and in any case, if you dream hard enough, sometimes even the most fanciful dreams can be brought to reality.

It’s clear to me now, that what I’ve really worked at, all this time, is exactly this: helping people bring their dreams to reality. There have been no magic wands involved, no pixie dust, no arcane incantations. Just pen, pencil, and paper.

There is sadness in letting go, but also release; permission, if you will, to move on with my life. Besides that permission, I’ve gotten something else from sorting through my drawings. For a long time, perhaps a bit self-pityingly, I felt I had little to show for the three and a half decades I’ve spent as an architect. However, as I looked at the drawings one by one, all the people I talked with, all the time I spent conjuring up solutions to challenges, came back to me, and I realized that I have something tangible to show for it after all.

My name is not engraved on a cornerstone somewhere, my personality has not towered over clients like Wright’s did, and no one will recall my name in a hundred years. Nevertheless, I have touched many people’s lives, and tried to help better them in some way, as best I could, while also trying to make a living.

That’s enough of a legacy for me to leave behind: a comfortable room here, a beautifully framed view there; some solid pieces of work. It all adds up to more than I thought, which is a comforting realization to carry forward with me as I journey on into the new, evolving stretch of life that lies before me.

It’s hard to say good bye. Those drawings are my children – the physical manifestation of my ideas and my work – and they each carry with them some little bit of my genetic material. Possibly, just possibly, some of that recycled paper will one day end up as part of a pad of drawing paper, upon which some inspired young person will sketch out her dreams. That thought makes me quite happy.

So – good bye, drawings. Have a beautiful afterlife.

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Being Ok

Whether you or someone you know suffers from it or not, you probably don’t need me to tell you that depression is a pernicious affliction. Its milder forms can be debilitating, while the more serious forms can be fatal; not because depression itself is a fatal disease, but because of the lost and hopeless state it creates within a person.

We have numerous drugs to deal with the ways in which depression manifests itself. The medications usually work – if you take them, which many people stop doing once they begin to feel better. They think, “Oh, I’m all better now,” so they leave off the medications. What happens next is as predictable as, and rather like, night following day. There is a long, or perhaps not so long, descent back into a depressive state, which sometimes becomes so severe that the person considers taking her or his own life. Sometimes they follow through on the thought.

It’s a very quiet epidemic, these depression-induced suicides. The epidemic isn’t quiet for those affected by it, though: the families and friends and children left behind, with dozens of unanswered, and now unanswerable, questions.

I’ve suffered from depression for a long time. Recalling how I felt in 1967 and 1968, just before I joined the Army, and reading things I wrote during that period of my life, it seems pretty clear that I was often in a depressive state. At the time, people probably called it “melancholy” or “feeling blue” (an evocative and accurate phrase); unless you were a woman, in which case you were likely to be described as “hormonal,” or some other dismissive term. “Hysterical” was a popular word to use, as were “overly emotional,” and “being too sensitive.” Or the person was written off as being “weak” and “unable to handle it,” whatever it is. Pressure, I suppose, or life.

I wrote that they were being used, but the truth is that people, men and women alike, are still be ignored or marginalized by the use of descriptors like the ones I just mentioned. Those words and phrases are used as ways of writing off someone else’s feelings and difficulties; judging them as abnormal or out of control, and we all know how important control is, right? Because if someone else is out of control, their lack of control might taint you, or worse yet, throw you into an out-of-control state, as if depression is contagious.

Well, actually, it is contagious: emotionally, not physiologically; in the same way that suicide is contagious. It often happens that a suicide in a family is followed, perhaps years later, by another life being taken by one’s own hand. The depression and sense of being lost or overwhelmed gets transferred to another person, because the reasons someone you know and love takes her or his life are so often mysterious; hidden beneath layers of hopelessness and disconnectedness that the person has kept buried as much as possible, because it’s just not ok to be hopeless and disconnected in our bright, shiny, modern world. That behavior is for those people you see wandering the bright, shiny streets, pushing heavily laden shopping carts and having animated discussions with someone only they can see. “Probably off his meds,” people might jokingly say, seeing one of those afflicted, modern gypsies.

This is America, damn it, and it’s not ok to not be ok in America; whether that means mental illness, poverty, or one’s ethnic or gender identity. It seems our rugged sense of individual expression has limits after all.

The only reason I can sit down today and write about depression is because I’m not feeling depressed. Unlike love, which is incredibly easy to write about when you’re feeling it, depression impairs both your vision and your motivation. It narrows your view so tightly that you can only see the negative and destructive things that are immediately in front of you. At the same time, it narrows the focus of your memory, such that you can only recall the negative and destructive things you’ve experienced.

“Feeling blue” is actually not quite accurate, at least not for me. It’s more like “feeling black” – black and tired and hopeless. The more accoutrements of success and happiness you possess – job, car, house, beautiful/handsome significant other – the more difficult it is to live with your depression, because all those things are supposed to add up to happiness, not sadness. They don’t, though, not for everyone, but no one wants to talk about it, until it’s too late, after which survivors are left to divine what went wrong and why.

My depression became more pronounced some twenty years ago, or perhaps it just became more recognizable. I’ve been taking an anti-depressant (Wellbutrin) for almost fifteen years now, and it helps. But the drug is no panacea. There have still been periods of time when I’ve felt severely depressed, despite faithfully taking my pills every day.

Fighting depression is a lot of work, and sometimes I don’t feel like fighting. At times like that, I pull my depression around me like a shroud, as though it will protect me from some unknown, and perhaps unknowable, threat. There have been times when my depression has become so deep that I have thought about suicide. I have a 9mm, semi-automatic pistol which sits in the back of a drawer in my desk, and during those times, I have wished I didn’t know it was there.

It’s thoroughly illogical. I have so much in my life about which to be thankful; so much to live for! But during the black hours and days, none of that seems to matter, because the losses and the failures and the disappointments crowd out everything else. Oh yes, medications help, and exercise helps, and love helps – except when nothing helps. I’ve been fortunate that when those times have come into my life, I’ve been able to talk myself through it, and out of it.

I’m also fortunate that I haven’t been through a period like that for almost three years. At that time, I was in a relationship in which it was not helpful to talk about the kinds of feelings I’ve been describing. I am no longer in that relationship, which is a blessing on many levels, but I do still feel depression at times; medications, exercise and love notwithstanding.

I’ve pretty much resigned myself to the fact that I will live with depression, and struggle against it, for the rest of my life. I’d like to say that familiarity makes the struggle easier, but that’s not always so. Occasionally, familiarity makes it more difficult, because “Oh no, here it comes again.”

So, I will continue to take my medications, and exercise, and eat properly (whatever that means), and I will continue to cherish those who love me, and whom I also love. One thing I am not going to do, though, is be quiet about my depression; or the suicidal thoughts I’ve had, for that matter, because with depression, silence really can mean death.

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The Geography of Love

Your fingers glance along my side, from peak to valley and back again, exploring new territory. It’s a landscape that was unseen and unvisited for several years, until you came along with your shy inquisitive looks and your delicate touch. You have come over me in the same way that a warm wind sweeps across the land, now gently, now forcefully.

If you believe that the Earth is a living thing, which I do, then you have to wonder if it can feel, really feel, the wind as it moves over its skin; in the same way that I can feel your fingers and your legs and your breasts, as they move over my body, sometimes like a breeze, sometimes like a hurricane.

If the Earth feels the wind, then it must also feel the oceans, as they surge and fall according to their own rhythms … their own, and those of the Moon. It’s strange that such a windless, cold, and arid sphere has such a warm place in our stories and in our dreams. Perhaps that’s because it pours out all its strength and love onto us. Its light, though, is reflected sunlight, that is gathered up and showered on Earth during the dark hours.

The Sun and the Moon are like two lovers, except that each person, the woman and the man, is both the Sun and the Moon. We, you and I, are both the Sun and the Moon: all of the nurturing warmth, all of the glorious light of love that we radiate, is reflected back onto each other, and magnified with each successive reflection, with each new round of day and night.

Sunlight creates shadows, and the light and shadow play across our bodies in concert with each other, illuminating some parts of our geographies while making others shaded and mysterious, rendering our explorations more involved and complex than we expected. Better than we expected, in fact; expectations, like discoveries, being malleable things.

When you are ascending a hill, you have thoughts, ideas, dreams about the vista that will greet you at the top. Sometimes, when you reach the top, what you find there is a countryside spread out before you that is more beautiful, more embracing, more fertile, than you thought possible. So, you move forward, each discovery more revealing and more satisfying than the one before. Then you think, “I don’t need to keep moving restlessly on. I could live here, in this place, very happily, for the rest of my days.”

In that same way, your hills and valleys embrace and comfort me. Your landscape is country enough for me, and the light you cast, the light I reflect back onto you, warms my heart and illuminates the path ahead. I can see that path much better now. If we hold each other closely, it’s just wide enough for the two of us.

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Love … again

Despite the tag line at the top of this page (Exploring how lives are transformed by love, war and travel), I’ve written a great deal here about war, but not much about love. Or travel, for that matter. I will try to rectify that imbalance in the coming weeks.

One reason I want to correct the imbalance here is because in my real, off-line, non-cyber life, the imbalance has begun to be corrected. It has happened because love has come into my life again, after a very long absence. It has come in the form of a beautiful and wonderful woman who need not be named here, because if she reads this, she’ll know I’m writing about her.

Recently, in the local newspaper, I read a piece about a man who was in his 70s and had been single for over 40 years. He spoke, rather smugly I thought, about his extended singlehood, and how perfectly happy he was in that state. Oh yes, he likes women a great deal, and enjoys their company, but he really likes living alone, and just wants everyone to know that he is happy as a clam, so please stop telling him that he’ll “eventually find someone” to share his life with. He’s ok. Really!

Reading that, I thought: How lovely for him, that he has this life, this way of living, that he clearly treasures, and that brings him satisfaction. I also thought: Living alone for 40 years is not a fate I want to befall me. I’m ok living alone and not in a relationship – I’ve done so several times over the years – but it’s not what I want for a permanent state in my life.

Unlike the gentleman interviewed in the newspaper article, I do want to share my life with someone (the right someone, mind you) because, for me, so doing magnifies the joyous times and makes the difficult times easier to bear. We have such a cult of individuality in our American society, and the proudly single fellow, whose happiness in his life I do not doubt at all, exemplifies that to me. Maybe he has five cats, or a large number of friends and relatives living nearby with whom he is close. Or he just lives quite alone, happy to not have to take anyone else’s thoughts or desires or foibles into consideration: whether they leave the cap off the toothpaste tube, or don’t put the toilet seat down, or they like foie gras, which he finds reprehensible.

I, on the other hand, do want to take into consideration the thoughts, desires and foibles of someone else. I want to seek balance. Find equilibrium. Mix elements, and create a new material of life in the process. It’s not alchemy; it’s chemistry, of the most elemental and wondrous sort.

Life, or the universe, or the gods or angels, or devas or celestial beings – whatever or whomever they might be – have given me the chance now to find that equilibrium, to create that new stuff of life that I think is so essential to the fulfillment of our humanity and our spirits – our souls, if you will.

I’ve done things both well and wrong in my life, when it comes to love. At one time or another, I have loved a lot, and I have loved too little. I’ve also been loved a lot, and too little. From the times when I loved too little, I have regrets … many regrets. I cannot do anything about those regrets now, though I have tried, and so I have to forgive myself and let them go.

The most important thing I can do about regrets, though, is to not make new ones. The most important thing I can do is to love well: to love honestly, and unreservedly, and kindly. To be present and open, every moment of every day. To give, and be willing to receive.

That is the chance this woman has given me. It is so very important for me to take this chance, to create the love and the life I desire, that I sense is possible with her; that I think she too desires. To love, and live, in a more connected and cherishing way than I have ever done. It feels attainable, now, with her, and the experience is teaching me the meaning of gratitude.

And so, for all of that, at this moment in my life, on this beautiful August morning – august in every sense of the word – I am profoundly grateful: for life, for love, and most especially for her.

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Love

Love is a strange and wondrous thing, isn’t it? It’s like a chemical reaction between two people. That’s why we call it “chemistry” – that spark or chain reaction we can feel with another person, when we sense something about her or him that we cannot yet put into words. In time, we may find that chemistry is all it is: hot times, great sex, but no real connection beyond that. Or we may discover a greater, deeper connection than we thought possible. It does happen.

Most people, me included, hope to find a soul mate, someone who will be both best friend and lover, at some point in their life. A great many of us never do. We have relationships that we think, or hope, will fulfill those desires, but often don’t.

If you believe in Fate or Destiny, then you may go through life believing that you will ultimately find that person.  It might take years for you to know whether you have or not, or you might realize it in a flash, after seeing someone only two or three times.

I do think that Life, or Fate, or the gods, have a hand in things here on our Earth. We don’t always see it, or understand it, but I believe we are given opportunities to make choices that have the power to enhance and better our lives; to bring us the peace and joy that each of us seeks in our life. To bring us the love we seek.

Sometimes we choose well, sometimes not. Sometimes, if we’ve experienced enough, loved enough, lost enough, we can intuit things about another person and know that this is the person you want to know better than you’ve ever known anyone; love better, deeper, more wisely, than anyone you’ve ever known and loved; build something stronger with this person that will be more resilient and durable than any relationship you’ve ever experienced, and more fulfilling as well.

When you intuit that about another person, it’s like an explosion has been set off in your head, and in your heart. When everything you thought you might never have suddenly seems possible, it’s as though doors that were sealed shut for years are thrown open and light floods every corner of your life, and all those once-dark corners and recesses that hold sad memories, old fears, old wounds, don’t matter anymore, because that light has the power to ameliorate and heal, and also to give you the hope and courage to trust again, love again, even if you thought it would never be possible, because you were too wary, too wounded, too full of painful memories.

In the light, you have the opportunity to create new memories, new life, that will overlay and disarm the old, dark, painful ones. In the light, you can live, and love, and create with someone else a life filled with shared joy and love and compassion.

I believe that. I believe it is possible. I believe it now, more clearly than I ever have.

Such is the power of love.

-<>-

For RV

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Flowers on a Headstone

Today is that holiday which used to be called Decoration Day, because people would decorate the graves of the war dead. It was first observed in 1868, as a way of honoring the hundreds of thousands of men who died in the Civil War. It’s a quaint notion now, decorating graves. It sounds much too festive. Perhaps that’s why it eventually came to be known as Memorial Day, since the idea all along was to memorialize, to remember, the men and women who died in the service of their country.

I couldn’t begin to count the number of wars, great and small, that have taken place around the world since 1868. I wouldn’t want to, anyway, as it would be depressing. It would also make me feel cynical, and I vowed, when I sat down to write this, that I would not take a cynical tone. After weeks of rain in the Mile High City, we finally have a beautiful sunny morning this Memorial Day. I don’t want to spoil it.

I’m put in mind of Mark Antony’s speech in Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, wherein he claimed to have come to bury Caesar, not praise him. His goal, of course, was to do both. I, on the other hand, have no desire to praise war, and would be all too happy to see it buried forever. We all know that’s not going to happen. Wars continue to blossom, all around the planet. (Blossom is too nice a word, I know, just as decoration is too festive.)

It’s difficult to not be discouraged, or cynical. It’s easy to turn off the television or put down the newspaper, and ignore the dismal news. Especially if it’s foreigners killing each other in some obscure part of the world that most Americans would be hard pressed to find on a map or a globe.

Unlike Iraq. We all know exactly where that is, don’t we? Messrs. W. and Cheney saw to that. Those two gentlemen (another word that’s too nice) have long since exited stage right, leaving us with more white headstones to decorate today.

Their legacy extends well beyond that, though. As Mark Antony went on to say, “The evil that men do lives after them.”

My war – the one I did not fight to make the world safe for democracy, or to keep fictitious WMD out of the hands of madmen – took place over forty years ago. I bet you can find Viet Nam on a map now. Having survived that war, and its own aftermath, and being someone who cannot put down the paper and ignore the stories, I’ve been experiencing a weird déjà vu lately. I look at the top of the newspaper: yes, it’s 2015, not 1975. The stories, though, are disturbingly similar.

An insurgent group relentlessly opposed to foreign domination captures strategically-located cities and large swathes of countryside. In the face of this offensive, the national army, the one the United States supported for years with blood, money and matériel, drop their rifles and run away, leaving the keys in the tanks and the artillery intact.

Politicians over there complain that the United States strategy is flawed and that we’re not doing enough. Politicians here complain that the national army has no will to fight, and anyway, their army is ineptly led, the country is riddled with corruption, and there is flagrant discrimination against certain groups in their society. Some of the politicians here say things like, “If they won’t fight for their own country, why should we?”

I look at the top of the newspaper again. Yes, it’s still 2015. Not 1975.

It’s increasingly difficult to avoid cynicism on hearing the latest news out of the Middle East. And I said I wasn’t going to spoil this beautiful morning. I look out my window, instead. Dozens of flowers, perennially hopeful, have opened in the sunshine. They make me think of a song that became popular during the war in which I fought. The original version of it was recorded by Peter, Paul and Mary.

I was going to write something else, but now I think I’ll end this post with some of the lyrics from that song. They seem as relevant now as they did in 1975.

***

Where have all the flowers gone?
Young girls have picked them every one
Oh, when will they ever learn?

Where have all the young girls gone?
Gone for husbands every one
Oh, when will they ever learn?

Where have all the husbands gone?
Gone for soldiers every one
Oh, when will they ever learn?

Where have all the soldiers gone?
Gone to graveyards, every one
Oh, when will they ever learn?

Where have all the graveyards gone?
Gone to flowers, every one
Oh, when will they ever learn?

Where have all the flowers gone?
Young girls have picked them every one
Oh, when will they ever learn?
Oh, when will they ever learn?

***

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What Did You Do in the War, Daddy?

“War … it paid well and liberated children from the pernicious influence of their parents.” — Joseph Heller, “Catch-22”

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I’ve written elsewhere that I lost my innocence during the war in Viet Nam. Besides being a well-worn cliché, it’s also not true.

What’s true is that in Viet Nam I learned that I was not innocent.

Everything I did during the war – whether brave, courageous, foolish, mean, cruel, thoughtless, or violent – was already part of me. War simply eroded the layer of civilization, or civilized restraint, that covers all of us. That layer was deeper, thicker or heavier on some of us than others. But the war burned it off all of us eventually, and exposed our true selves. Which is to say, our selves in all their complexity. Maybe that’s why so many men don’t want to talk about it. Because of what they saw in themselves. What they realized they were capable of doing.

I thought war would be different. Dirty, sure, and dangerous. It was certainly that. I thought it would be exciting too, in a romantic way. Not romantic like love, but perhaps that’s not a bad analogy. Love is blind, and so is war. Blind, and blinding.

Real, actual war, is not like the ones depicted in the films of my youth: romanticized wars with no blood, lots of action, and heroic, lingering deaths. Maybe men don’t want to talk about it because not only was it a terrifying and starkly cruel experience, it also revealed things about each of us that we would like to have not known; things which, once seen, will never be forgotten.

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If you’re telling someone who’s never experienced war – a civilian – about your time in Viet Nam all those years ago, what exactly are you going to say? Are you going to tell your friend about the crappy C-Rations, and the insects and leeches? About how the water buffalo hated us because of the way we smelled? Will you talk about the beauty of the countryside, and the booby traps that were here and there? What about that time that a friend tripped one, and died right there in front of you?

Maybe you’ll tell stories about stand down. It was basically a three day party on the beach in the division base camp, with free beer, hot food, some marijuana if you could get it, and for further diversion, the painfully earnest, previously-unheard-of Australian and Filipino bands that toured around entertaining the troops. You could recall how you felt when the three days were over and you had to go back to work. Enough fun – back to death and destruction. You could tell your friend that it wasn’t good to think about how this could have been your last beer, your last party, the last time you’d see a good-looking woman. Because if you thought about that, it might jinx you, make you somehow less careful, and then you might end up like your friend, laying on the ground, blood rushing out of a hole in your side, knowing that the medevac wouldn’t get there in time to save you.

Instead of all that, you could tell your civilian friend about the Vietnamese peasants in the countryside, how funny they were in their little conical hats, the half-naked kids running around, everybody jabbering in that incomprehensible talk of theirs. There was that kid who tried to steal a grenade from your pack while you were digging a foxhole. Yeah, that was funny – the way you chased the little fucker, yelling about what you’d do if you caught up with him. You didn’t, of course, because he was too fast. But it was ok, because he didn’t get the grenade, which meant one less that would end up connected to a trip wire on some path out there.

You could talk about how terrified you were at times. You pissed in your pants once, when your platoon was ambushed in broad daylight. Most of the time, though, your life was a kind of lonely, wary boredom. People don’t expect that about war. That it can be boring, or lonely, but it can. Tell your civilian friend about that.

If your friend is a man, and he’s still listening, you could talk about how you went months over there without getting laid. The last time had been when you were home on leave before going to Viet Nam. Even so, when that dink guy brought a woman out to where your company was one night (she was a girl, really, and not too bad looking) you anguished over doing it with her, afraid of disease, but finally did do it, after bargaining the guy down to three dollars from five. You were the one with a gun after all, and besides that, she was a dink and you’d never had to pay for it before, so you sure as hell weren’t going to start now. Not for five bucks, when you could get it for three.  Maybe you should’ve told him you’d only give him two dollars.

Their villages were a sight. You could talk about that. What a mess. Dirt floors, and animals in the house with them. It was pathetic, really. How could people live like that? Hauling water from a well, and cooking over an open fire on the dirt floor? They weren’t really people, though; not civilized people like we were. And those houses weren’t really houses. They were just bamboo shacks: hooches, we called them. Bamboo hooches at that. They were easy to set on fire, especially the roof, which was palm thatch.  During the dry season, the thatch was as dry as a fallen leaf in autumn. And man, when you lit one of those roofs, the whole thing went up in, like, two minutes. That’s what you did sometimes, if a sniper had shot at your platoon from the village, or just somewhere near it. You wanted to show the dinks who was stronger, or maybe you just did it because you were pissed off and tired and angry, and watching one of those little villages burn was kind of fun; exciting in a different way than getting shot at was exciting.

Ok, here’s something funny you can talk about: R&R in Bangkok. Getting shit faced in some party bar. They were all a bunch of gook-looking people there too, but at least they didn’t want to kill you, because that would’ve been bad for business. There were plenty of ladies available too. Not as cheap as that girl out in the field, but at least you could do it in a bed. Then, later, you’d go to another bar with other GIs and get drunker, and make stupid drunken jokes about Bang Cock, and quietly hope you hadn’t picked up any nasty diseases. Although if you had, it might get you out of the field for a few days, so there was that.

Oh man, and the rain in Viet Nam during monsoon season! It was like a wall of water sometimes. Your company walked right through the flooded rice paddies during the monsoons because the paddy dikes were obvious places to put booby traps. There was that time Wilson dropped right out of sight in a corner of one of the flooded paddies. Who knew the dinks sometimes dug wells in the corners of those things? The M-60 Wilson was carrying weighed him down, but you and some others guys got him out. Him and the machine gun. He lost an ammo belt in there, but no one was going to dive down into that cold, muddy water to look for it. We’d just ask our Uncle Sam to send us some more. He was very accommodating in that way.

Talking about things you didn’t want to go down into, there were the tunnels. You can tell your friend how lucky you were to be as tall as you are, because it was the shorter guys who always got picked to crawl down into those things, hoping no one was home, hoping it wasn’t booby trapped. God damned booby traps. You thought it would just be easier to throw a couple of hand grenades down there and be done with it, but the lifers had this thing about checking them out. Not that they checked them out themselves, of course.

You could tell stories about watching air strikes. Talk about exciting. Jets screaming down, dropping bombs or maybe napalm. The way things blew up, trees flying in the air, all the dust and smoke, and villages exploding into billows of greasy, apocalyptic flames. It wasn’t as good as an orgasm, but it was pretty good. One time, after the jets had returned to Chu Lai, leaving huge holes in the ground that would fill with water when it rained, some old mama-san came squawking up with a young girl who’d been burned by the napalm. It was grotesque, what had happened to her arms and chest. They called a medevac and sent the girl and mama-san back to a hospital in Chu Lai – after they’d been searched for hand grenades and weapons. You could never trust those dinks.

There are so many things you can remember about the war. Too many to forget. Maybe it’s too complicated to explain to someone who never had to live it. Maybe it’s better to just not talk about it. Keep all that horror and adrenaline-fueled ecstasy shoved down deep inside, where it can’t hurt anyone, especially you.

Yeah. That’s a good idea. Just don’t talk about it.

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Whose Day is It?

I wonder if, when a guy has genetic testing done, whether for scientific, legal, or genealogical reasons, does he have only the Y Chromosome test done? That was the case in 2007, when a first cousin in my birth (biological) family suggested that he and I have a test done together. I think, in part, he wanted to be able to say to the rest of the family, “See, I told you we were related.” (We are – 100% – and I will always be grateful to you, Matt, for having done that. I regret I can no longer thank you in person.)

The Y Chromosome is passed down through the male line of descent. In order to track the DNA heritage of your mother’s side of the family, you have to have a Mitochondrial DNA (MtDNA) test done. I haven’t had MtDNA testing done, but have been looking into it. It would be interesting to see in what ways it aligns, and in what ways it differs from the Y Chromosome test my cousin Matt and I did a few years ago.

There are, however, things and inheritances that a DNA test cannot measure.

I’ve had two mothers in my life. Ruth brought me into this world. Dorothy brought me up in the world – her world, that is.

Dorothy fed and clothed me, bought me shoes and took me to the dentist. She and my adoptive father Harold and I went on family vacations (mostly to Estes Park, Colorado). She was my Cub Scout den mother, until I was asked to leave the Cub Scouts, for reasons unknown; unknown to me, anyway. She went to PTA meetings, and she sent me to military school for a year when I was nine. She and Harold paid for my college education, until I ran off and joined the Army in 1968. She reminded me several times over the years that she was the one who’d raised me and stayed up late at night when I was sick; not that woman who gave me up.

Ruth gave birth to me, and then relinquished custody to an adoption agency in Dallas. She had a three year old son back in Allentown, Pennsylvania. His father had been killed in World War Two. My father married somebody else after Ruth became pregnant, and moved to Miami.

I’ve never tried to quantify all this. Monetize it, as the current phrase goes. In a way, that’s what Dorothy was trying to do, by reminding me who had done all the heavy lifting of raising me; placing one level of value on what she did, and another, inferior level of value on what Ruth did.

I have to wonder, though, which of them paid a heavier price? For whom was it a greater burden? The mother who carried me for nine months, and then felt she had no choice but to give me up for adoption? Or the mother who did all that work for all those years, but who nevertheless seemed dissatisfied with the results?

DNA tests can’t answer those questions. There’s no metric, no control group; no scientific data that can be marshaled and formed up into an answer.

My love of words and books came from Ruth. She had two degrees and was a professional college librarian for most of her working life, save a period in the 1970’s, when she worked for John Wiley & Sons in New York City. When I met her in 1994, she had over 3,000 books in her apartment in Allentown, all neatly arranged on wooden shelves. Of course, I’ll never know what my life might’ve been like, had Ruth kept me, and raised me herself.

Growing up with Dorothy, I was able to spend time in the country, both in the farmland near Dallas where she grew up in the first quarter of the last century, and in the mountains of Colorado. I had a certain amount of freedom as a child that I might not have had if I’d grown up in Allentown. That freedom was rather overshadowed by Dorothy’s need for control, though, which is part of why I went off and joined the Army.

There’s no scale anywhere on which all of this can be weighed, Dorothy’s protestations notwithstanding. I had two mothers, and I’m thankful for the good, positive parts of me that I inherited from each of them – the gifts I received. Gifts can be both good and bad, and the less pleasant gifts I just try to deal with, the same as anyone who has only one mother. Am I a little more thankful for one of them than the other? I am, because one set of gifts helps balance the other set.

So, on this Mother’s Day of 2015, I give thanks for both of my mothers.

Thank you, Dorothy, for introducing me to collard greens with pepper sauce, and sweet potatoes, and corn bread. Thank you for piquing my interest in the natural world. Thank you for keeping all of the letters I wrote home from Viet Nam in 1969 and 1970.

Thank you, Ruth, for giving me life, and thank you for passing down to me your love of words and architecture, and your inquisitive mind. Thank you for agreeing to meet me, for the first time, in March, 1994.

Thank you both, and Happy Mother’s Day.

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