Sunday, June 24, 2012

The Things They Carried

I have just finished reading The Things They Carried by Tim O'Brien. If you aren't familiar with the story, it's a collection of stories (some true, some based on true stories) from Vietnam during the war. This post won't be a book review, so if you're looking for that, I'd google it. This book had a profound effect on me, but not for the reasons that a lot of people find war stories profound.

Many members of my family have served during war time. Both of my grandfathers were in the Navy in WWII and both my father and step-father were in Vietnam. My father was in the Air Force and in all the time I knew him he never said anything about his experiences in the war. My step-dad was a Marine and played in the President's personal band, but spent a good deal of time in Vietnam and shared a few stories of his time there. I didn't go into the book with them in mind-I picked it up on recommendation of a friend. Early into the story, however, I began to place my dad in the story. NB: for the rest of this post, I'll only be referring to my father as opposed to my step-father.

The book begins by describing the specific weight of each item of a soldier's pack. Boots, ponchos, weapons, rations, articles of clothing. He weighs items specific to individual soldiers-one carried moccasins and a New Testament. One carried a pack of letters from a girl, one carried his father's expectations. War is heavy. Literally and figuratively. Early on, the author describes his own experience with the draft and how he wrestled with the idea of going off to war, particularly this war. Part of the weight lies in the fact that, unlike WWII, there wasn't a clear enemy, a clear reason to war. Many of the same people being drafted to war did not at all agree with or at all support their government, or even trust their government. And really, was the government of that time to be trusted? Concurrently, the Civil Rights movement was happening. Assassinations, riots, protest lyrics, hippies. This was the volitive soil that produced these young men going off to war at their country's mandate. This was the war my father went off to. My dad wasn't in Alpha Company, but it's easy to read him into the story.

One of the things that really struck me and made the book profound to me was the realization that I was born less than ten years after my father returned home. My brother less than five. In some small way Vietnam is a part of my story. For my dad, Vietnam was still a very fresh and raw wound when my brother and I were born. Seven years (really four, my brother was born in 1976) is a remarkably short period of time to readjust to civilian life, get a job, get married, start a family. My father had always been a very inward, silent person. It's a safe bet that he never talked about his experiences with anyone and likely struggled with what he had seen alone. I've written about my father before in an effort to process my relationship with him and his alcoholism. I can begin to understand what life looked like through his eyes upon returning home after war. I can better imagine the things he saw and emotions he felt. I can't ever fully relate because I've never been in combat. I can't know what it was like knowing while you are dying that your cancer was caused in great part because of Agent Orange (never mind the bitter feeling he must have felt having been drafted to fight a war and survive only to be killed slowly over the next 23 years). I can't say that I'm glad my father became an alcoholic, but I sure think I can understand his position. Understanding leads to forgiveness. I have always loved my father. The time we had together was good. However, I wrestle a lot with my identity and fears of abandonment because of the choices he made. But understanding leads to forgiveness. The book offered me a new perspective and a good deal more understanding.

Lastly, war stories need to be told. They need to be told for the profit (not monetary) of the teller and for the profit of the audience. These stories belong to all of us. Whether one agrees with whatever war happens to be taking place at the time or not, there are men, boys barely of age, offering their lives in exchange for ours. For this reason, their stories are ours and should be told and received with grace and gratitude.  

Thursday, March 08, 2012

Girl Power

International Women's Day is trending on the twitters today. Generally, I like to make fun of trending topics because they are often really ridiculous. This particular topic brought to mind some ideas I'd been throwing about this week anyway, so it was super convenient. Thanks, the twitters, for making my life easier. You're swell!!

I rarely like when folk begin opinion articles with caveats, though I'll take this brief moment to say that I'm not entirely sure I endorse the views I'm about to throw out. I plan on throwing them out and seeing where it all goes.

I've known (and currently know) plenty of strong ass women in my lifetime. I studied about lots of strong ass women in the history books and am proud and grateful for their accomplishments, which I owe a great of my rights and freedoms to.

However, I feel really uncomfortable with "women empowerment" propaganda. I got started thinking about this when I saw an advertisement for Rochester's Estrofest. The keynote speaker for the entire event was TV's Greg Brady. Really?! Greg Brady? What about Greg Brady makes anyone think about women? Why does Greg Brady get to be our spokesman? I do not feel, as a member of the female sex, that Greg Brady speaks to me or represents me in any way. What disappointed me about this is that it makes me think that this is an event for older women who need to feel good about themselves. Which paints a whole picture that women of that age are somehow less, or weak and in need of empowerment. I'm sure there was much more to this event but that's where my mind went. Sheesh. Plus, if you're going to get a dude for your keynote speaker (which makes no sense) at least get someone a little easier on the eyes (cough cough LEE PACE).

I know that there is still a ways to go in achieving equality for women. There's no disputing that. I feel that events such as Estrofest do little to help us gain any ground. Constantly pointing out that we need to be inspired and empowered implies that we are weak, wilty women who are incapable of meeting the challenges of life. Understand, too, that I am disagreement with affirmative action. I understand the reasons why it exists and I suppose that there is some small justice in it, but I'd rather employers not be assholes and simply employ the applicant who is the most qualified, regardless of race, sex, orientation, etc. Why can't people just not be assholes? See, I've solved the world's problems right there!! I'll be expecting that Nobel Peace Prize any day now!

If women are to raise the bar and highlight their abilities and strengths, it really doesn't do for us to be portrayed this way. As I said before, there are role models a plenty both past and present. Read their stories, hear them speak, but for heaven's sake, stop marketing these things as women's self help events that need to be led by an old sitcom male actor.

I suppose I've gotten down to maybe what bothers me more, which is marketing. I think I hate it. That's a different topic. And I'm tired. And the flow of this post is all off, like I didn't eat any fiber this week. This means I should stop writing now.

Sunday, March 04, 2012

Nothing New

Today I relayed a story to a friend from the days when my oldest daughter, who will be turning 11 on Wednesday, was an infant. I recalled phoning my grandmother on a particularly difficult day and her simple response was to say there was nothing new under the sun. Of course my baby would cry and fuss and throw up and never sleep. Every baby that had come up before and every baby that would come up after would be just the same. I found this both a frustrating and wonderfully reassuring piece of advice. There was relief in knowing that millions of babies over hundreds of thousands of years behaved the same way. Cara was normal. Of course when you are sleep deprived and a person who values personal space, this was also frustrating. But mostly a comfort.

It's not widely publicized that parenthood is as hard as it is. Sure, lots of moms and dads say it's hard. But then they walk out into the world with their hand sanitizer, unstained clothes and cartoon grins and tell the world how super easy it is to have a great family! No one is ever upset, the kids always do exactly what you ask, when you ask it. Even the Cleavers and the Seavers had more complications than what your average family is willing to publicly show.

I say all this to remind myself in a particularly hard moment that there is nothing new under the sun. All children have neglected their dinners for weeks on end, yell at you and then stomp off to their rooms and slam the door, and all children that come up after mine will behave the same way. It's really frustrating. But, I remember frustrating my mother in this same way. Karma, apparently, really is a bitch! Heh.

So, all you young moms and ladies who may someday have children, there is nothing new. In a particularly hard moment, call your grandmother or a friend with a kid. She will listen to you and remember when her kids were just as ornery, and then share her own battle stories. You'll each have a good laugh and the moment will pass. I know because in the time it's taken to write this post, sweet Bubs was making all kinds of fuss at the table (long after the rest of us have finished), ran off to her room in tears because she had to finish a small helping of sweet potatoes, changed into her pajamas and is now happily playing Old Maid with her sister. Maybe she's bipolar, or worse-completely normal!

Saturday, February 11, 2012

Growing Up Absurd

Last night I went to see a documentary/biography of Paul Goodman entitled "Paul Goodman Changed My Life". It was quite an interesting film to be sure and I'd certainly recommend watching it. Seeing the film was my first exposure to Paul Goodman and his most famous work, "Growing Up Absurd"- a book about the problems of disaffected youth in relation to society. Since the film was the first I'd ever heard of either Paul Goodman or the book, I've obviously not read the work, though it is certainly in my plans to do so.

The director of the film was at the Dryden last night and was on hand to take questions and discuss the film. We couldn't stay for all of the discussion but if we could have, I'd have asked if the director, or anyone who had read the book, saw any correlation between the youth of the mid-late 60's (the book was released in 1968) and the youth/young people of today. Obviously, the late 60's was an extremely volatile time. It's quite understandable that the youth of that generation would feel disaffected, disconnected from their country/government, angry, feeling they had been sold a lie, perhaps. I suppose I ask the question because I notice a similar disaffectation among young people today.

I'd say it's safe to believe that we, too, have been sold a lie, albeit a different lie from that of the 50's and 60's. We were told from the beginning that we could do anything, be anything we wanted. From an early age the idea that the world is completely open for our taking, we are capable of anything-any profession is within our reach if we want it. This idea is great for opening up one's imagination and for creating dreamers, which is necessary, otherwise you'd never have any invention or forward progress. But this idea, however, is a lie. We can't be and do whatever we want. No matter what you believe about creation/evolution, each person is programmed with specific skill sets. This is necessary to propel life forward. Everyone has a job and a place within society/community to keep it flowing. This is true among the animals, too. A worker bee in a hive cannot be the queen. He wasn't made for that job, he was programmed for a different, yet equally important task. No one told him he could be the queen bee if he wanted it badly enough. That's absurd! So I believe it's true in human society as well. I cannot be an astronaut. My brain simply isn't wired to understand all that is necessary to understand in order to navigate space. Do I find space and space travel absolutely fascinating? Yes indeedy. But I'm incapable of the responsibilities of that job.

I believe that this lie has created apathy, laziness and a feeling of disconnect and lack of purpose among people of my generation and younger-those in their mid-late twenties. When the world is your oyster, it's difficult to choose what to do. This is the same reason why it takes my patients an hour to choose a prize after their dental work. There are simply too many choices. The pressure is really piled on starting around junior year of high school to start looking at colleges and really think about what you want to do. Of course, college is practically mandated so you have to go, and you have to choose a major at some point if not in the first year or so. Because we've been told we can do/be anything the likelihood of choosing something that befits our strengths is not always high. And if we've chosen poorly, failure to succeed is almost guaranteed. This creates an enormous stress. No one likes to be or feel like a failure. Plus you can just add on the stress of wasted money, either yours but more likely your parents, who are also disappointed. Hookah hookah hookah, disaffectation!! This is apparently a word I've just made up because it keeps giving me the little red squiggly underneath.

Anyway, I pointed out in the beginning that I've not read the book. I'd like to read it and revisit this idea and see for myself what correlations there may be. As a parent, I feel it's an important thing to consider. How will I raise the girls to find their place in society without them feeling like a cog or that they've been stripped of the ability to dream and imagine. That's what makes us human and individual. Yes, we all have our place and purpose in contribution to society, but I kind of agree with Ayn Rand, that our entire purpose is not to morph into the greater good of all society to the point that the individual is lost. The individual is vastly important. But that is a post for another time. This one is already long enough!

Wednesday, February 08, 2012

Stroky Beard Talk

I take issue with the idea that one would choose against Christianity, or any religion as far as that goes, on the sole basis that there are poor examples of Christianity/those who profess affiliation with a religion in the world. Please note that I do not take offense, rather, noting that this has been a topic of discussion in a few different settings over the last month or so.

I'd start by saying simply that I have no personal opinion on what religion, or lack thereof, people decide to associate with. I do not walk around trying to win the world for Christ, nor do I feel it's my job to rescue people from the jaws of hell, and my own "brand " of understanding Christianity is pretty minimalist. Therefore, I feel relatively unemotionally attached to the discussion beyond simply enjoying the conversation.

That said, I'd really like to engage this idea of rejecting a system of belief because it's members are just bad examples of it. As a sole basis for rejection, I think it's lazy. Every single one of us is guilty of not practicing what we preach as the saying goes. For instance, as a hygienist, I constantly drive into my patients not to drink pop because it's really harmful to your teeth. And almost every day, I'll go home and drink a big fat can of Coke. And I rarely brush before bed. I've set a bad example. For one to look at my behavior and subsequently judge that dentistry is categorically horrid and refuse to participate is silly.

Now I realize that that metaphor can only apply to an extent and that I've grossly simplified the problem. But, in a sense it is that simple. The problem with this rationale is that it grants other people a ridiculous amount of power that they simply shouldn't have. As adults we are all fully capable of making decisions for ourselves. To allow others the power to make our decisions for us is irresponsible and does not allow for growth.

I rather think that bad examples of Christians are actually just bad examples of humanity in general. It would be ridiculous to say one rejects humanity because there are humans who are behaving poorly. Humans will always behave poorly in some respect or another. I recognize that it's more apparent when some humans who are behaving poorly are also riding the high horse of religious morality. I also recognize that was a super clunky sentence but I don't care enough to go back and rewrite it.

I've not turned a blind eye to some very real situations and hardships that lead people away from a system of belief. There are some very public religious folk who, behind closed doors lead a very different life. Some of those folk are in positions of power and take advantage of others. Some of those people are responsible for a great deal of hurt. I've been on the wrong end of a church lynch mob. It sucks and it hurts and in some respects I'm still dealing with the fallout of that some 8 years later. I believe I'll always carry a little of it around with me, if nothing more than to remember how not to be. Having come out on the other side, though, I waded through all the bullshit and looked at all the people who behaved grossly out of turn and still found something worth pursuing a little. That's my story, though. I take no issue with people having an honest look and deciding not to look any further. That's their story. And we can be friends and coexist peacefully, each living our stories in the way that makes the best sense. I see no reason why others living their lives differently need be threatening.

I guess my point is that it's irresponsible to ourselves to decide against a way of life simply because some other people who ascribe to that way have behaved poorly. People will always find a way to fuck it up. That's life. We can only be responsible for ourselves and cannot choose other's actions for them. While other's actions sometimes do have an effect on our lives, it's only up to us to decide how much power that has over us.

Sunday, January 22, 2012

On Art

This is a beautiful letter written by Ansel Adams to his best friend. I very much appreciate his definition of art-the taking and giving of beauty, bringing out inner expressions and feelings, the ability to take reality and produce it craftily on another plane, perhaps an easier plane to understand and convey to the world.

The taking and giving of beauty is no small task. I think sometimes artists are stereotyped as brooding or moody, but it makes a certain amount of sense. To take in life in all its complexities and also in all it's simplicities, in it's joys and hardships, pain and happiness and, in turn, then give beauty out of it is remarkable. It's like a constant state of pregnancy-growth, expectation, care, pride, love, pain, birth.

It takes a lifetime of learning to master the medium, whichever it might be-canvas, photographs, literature, music. Are there other jobs that require that level of learning and mastery and so much of your heart? Perhaps because I'm feeling sentimental, none come to mind.

And when considering art, or consuming it, it's so easy to overlook the artist. It is so easy to access art thanks to the internet, and because of this, I think, easy to forget where the art came from, what person created it and born from what circumstance?

Though I'm not so naive to think that legislation such as SOPA protect artists as much as it protects the media corporation's wallets, it still brings to light the importance of recognizing the artist as a creator-someone who has taken and given beauty. Though I never at all intended on turning this post into any kind of statement, please pay for your art. Even if the artist already has millions and likely doesn't need your $0.99 from iTunes (or however much they get from one purchase), the point is that it shows a respect for the artist and for the art.

Anyway, like I said in the beginning, the letter itself was beautiful and I appreciate the sentiment of it.

"I wish the thundercloud had moved up over Tahoe and let loose on you; I could wish you nothing finer."

Wednesday, January 11, 2012


The twitters just suggested that I follow "Cindy" whose 'about me' tagline starts out by saying how she's just trying to be a good Christian. I don't know how the sentence ended because I did not finish reading it, which I suppose is a little unfair to Cindy. However, it was the phrase "good Christian" that caught my attention.

I have no idea what Cindy means by this phrase. What, exactly, is a good Christian? A person who follows the Bible to a t, whose crimes are petty, like poking a badger with a spoon. Original, but hardly very terrible. Though I suppose that you aren't going to get very far by actually being good. The reality is that Cindy is as broken as the rest of us in her own way.

I think "good Christian" is a facade, a dated term my grandfather uses to mean a good Bible reading relatively unstained boy or girl looking for a spouse. Perhaps Cindy understands the term in a more humble way-flawed and sinful but trying and trusting in grace. I can wrap my head around that. To me, it seems that to be a good Christian means that you sort of are a bad Christian, falling short, not always doing what you want, rather doing the things you don't want. Kind of like Nick Lowe's song, Failed Chrisitan.

Personally, I'm hard pressed to even use the label "Christian". It has been so marketed, mass produced and surface that I don't at all connect with it. I believe in God, his existence, Jesus and his earthly task and I try to make the things that are important to him important to me. I usually never come close to the mark. Upon occasion I have some shining moments. I don't read the Bible nor do I feel bad about that. I rarely even go to church. By my grandfather's understanding, I'm not a good Christian girl. I'm pretty ok with that. Because I think, in the end, my grandfather, Cindy and I are all saying the same thing, it just looks different. And different need not be divisive which is a whole other post for a whole other time.