Laura Bush and the War in Iraq; my own part in evil

I dreamed that I was talking to Laura Bush about the War in Iraq. With many tears, I pointed to the utter and pointless waste of lives and money. She looked at me without expression. I think sometimes about George Bush’s family, about how it must surely contain dissenters who, out of loyalty to him, remain silent. I don’t think I could do that because I would think of the lives I might save.

The funny thing is that I don’t even like people, and this means that I don’t much care about people. Say what good you will about us, we are destroying our environment, and we WILL come to a bad end, perhaps shortly, and we WILL have deserved it. This negates all the good that we have done a million times over, so no, I don’t like us. We are a cancer upon the earth. Yet, I feel certain obligations. Sometimes, good is optional. Other times, the issue is too close to home, the obligation too pressing. I cannot always tell when this is the case, so I often choose to do nothing; other times I can’t deny it.

I’m not speaking only about big things. In fact, most good things are small things. Everyday and everywhere, I see people doing little kindnesses, and I reflect that, truth be known, these are what make life bearable. It’s people letting one another out in traffic; or holding a door open, or carrying a stranger’s groceries. It’s saying hello when you make eye contact. These I do. These I feel that I must do.

Other things, like not paying taxes to support a regime that is inept and evil, I would pay dearly for, and I seriously doubt that my resistance would do any good. Yet, if I lived strictly by principal, I would not pay taxes. But then I wouldn’t fly in a jet, because jets are too polluting. I wouldn’t live in this house, because it is too big. I wouldn’t buy products from countries that exploit their workers. I wouldn’t invest in a stock unless I approved of the company’s environmental and social policies. I wouldn’t buy merchandise that came in wasteful packaging or that had to be transported from the other side of the world. In such areas, I falter. I remind myself that I am married, and that many of my choices affect Peggy. I also rationalize that doing good would require too much time, too much study, too many hard choices, and, for the most part, it would make no difference.

Yet, I know that I act unjustly, and this means that I don’t like myself much more than I like the rest of humanity. I finance war. I support the destruction of the environment. I could point out that I seldom drive, and that I am an avid recycler, but no quantity of good justifies the least amount of evil. It’s like that diesel-tainted water on Pelieu. The diesel drums had been drained and washed; but still men doubled over in pain. I am like those drums.

It is the unnecessary suffering of other people and other life forms that make our affluence possible. But when I ask myself if it a completely good world is even conceivable, I doubt that it is. I suspect that we are evil simply because we are human, and that the most we can hope for is to ever expand our capacity for good.

Emily Brontรซ,Carson McCullers, Eugene Sledge

I just finished The Heart is a Lonely Hunter and Wuthering Heights, both of which were written by women in their twenties. Who would have thought that authors with such little worldly experience could create characters so complex and diverse. They’ve forced me to rethink some of my conceptions about youth.

Now, I’m reading With the Old Breed, a memoir of battles in the South Pacific during WWII. I want to throw myself out a window, not to die but to distract myself from the torment. No shade. 115 degree heat. Too little water and it tainted with diesel. Enemy artillery and machineguns firing down on flat, featureless coral. Little sleep. Land crabs. Insects. Afraid to rise up to poop. Blue-hot tracers passing within inches of your body. Violent trembling. Facial muscles tense for so long that expressions become frozen. Desperately resisting the urge to scream cry. Instantly becoming a cigarette smoker. Wounded Americans mutilated, their genitals stuffed in their mouths. A wounded Japanese with his cheeks slit open by a Marine who wanted his gold teeth. Observing corpses as they decay. Realizing that your life is casually expendable to commanders who live at a safe distance in comfortable quarters. A projected four-day battle that lasts four months. Thousands killed, maimed, or driven insane on a tiny island that contains an airfield of no strategic importance. The author writes. I can but list.

When goddesses die; thoughts on aging

I woke up today dreaming that I was having an affair with a 27 year old. Bonnie awakened at the same time, stretched gracefully, and looked at me adoringly, but it just wasn’t the same.

My dream was probably inspired by an old Western I watched last night, one of many old Westerns I have seen while Peggy is away. In this one, Abilene Town (1946), Randolph Scott plays a marshal who is loved by women from opposite sides of the street—one a virtuous, church-going, but somewhat boring, merchant’s daughter played by Rhonda Fleming; the other a sparkling, vivacious, and scantily-clad dance-hall girl played by Ann Dvorak. I was quite stricken by Ann Dvorak, and did what I often do with stars I don’t recognize—I looked her up on the Internet. Nothing too unusual. Started her career in silent films at age four. Married three times. Argued with Warner Brothers over money. Died at 67 of undisclosed causes.

I invariably get stuck on the last part—the died at __. How could she die? I just saw her. She was 33, could sing, could dance, was flirtatious, had beautiful eyes, looked like a goddess. One of her fan sites even called her a goddess. I get really bummed about all these beautiful women dying. They’ve let me down. Cheated me out of my fantasy of immortality. Well, not taken it from me, but made me feel more stupid for holding onto it against my conscious will.

I saw Elke Sommer last week on an episode of Jack Benny. She was 23, and as beautiful as a woman could get. I commented to Peggy that a fireman would leave a baby in a burning building for a date with Elke Sommer. It was an impolitic remark. Peggy sees my fascination with beauty as…well, excessive and irrational. She is right. But then I don’t actually do anything about it other than wish I had done more earlier on, when I still had my looks. Back then, even when I did act morally, it was out of fear rather than virtue. Fear of being rejected, fear of getting a disease, fear of being divorced, fear of making a fool of myself…

I went to the doctor last week to talk about my carpel tunnel problem. Kirk is his name, he’s my age, and I’ve known him for seventeen years. In 1990, he was muscular, big-boned, confident, competent, and charming. Three years later, I lost him as my doctor because he left my HMO. Last year, I got him back, and I wasn’t prepared for how bad he looked. He has age spots, wrinkles, a bent back, a tremor, and an expression of wisdom coupled with something that looks almost like humility. I thought, “God, man, you look damn near as bad as I—maybe worse, yet the last time I saw you, you were so full of life that I didn’t think the years would ever overtake you.”

The passage of time is like hiking in an arroyo when a little bit of water starts flowing, and you think that it looks kind of charming and refreshing way out there in the heat and the dust, and then, WHAM, you’ve been washed away, and your corpse isn’t even pretty. Generation after generation looks at their elders and thinks about how old and ugly they are, and their elders look back at them, and warn them against taking youth for granted, but the young ones think, “Yeah, right. One Christmas is separated from the next by an eternity; 39 is practically the same age as the pyramids; and six week report card intervals feel like six months. And I will never look like you anyway, because I couldn’t get that pathetic if I lived a million years.”

I used to impress the hell out of old people just by reading medicine bottles. They would carry on as if I had juggled ten balls while standing on my head, and I would conclude from this that their eyes must have never been as good as mine, and therefore mine would never be as bad as theirs. Old people try to tell the young about age, but they are doomed to fail because the speed of time is proportional to how much of it a person has lived. The young are like people who are standing too close to a painting to take it in, so the distance to the edge of the canvas appears indistinct and distant.

Not too many years ago, I would look at myself in a mirror and think I rated at least a 7.5. Now, I just try to find something redeeming to say, but the only thing I can think of is that I could look worse. I could have my ears burned off or one eye an inch higher than the other. Age spots annoy me most. Of course, all of my skin isn’t covered with age spots. My lower legs are covered with white spots, places where the color pigment got up and went, making me look like a splotchy albino.

Something that I didn’t expect about age was that it wouldn’t be an evenly paced deterioration. I thought it would be something like a one percent decline this year and then another one percent decline next year. I had no good reason for thinking this (given that my youth wasn’t a steady progression), but I never questioned it. Then I had knee surgery in March of 2006, and I think it likely that I have declined more in the intervening twenty months than I did in the preceding twenty years. I’ve become so fragile that I can practically injure myself staring at the wall. This has led me to re-conceive of my body as a row of dominoes; if one goes, the rest are sure to follow. I don’t mean this literally anymore than I meant the fireman abandoning the baby example literally. It’s just that exaggeration sometimes serves better as a pointer to truth than truth does—which is why readers sometimes learn more from fiction than from real-life accounts.

Gavain's massage; frolicking goddesses

I got that massage. I knew from Gavain’s website that he was young, sensitive, intuitive, elfin, and, most importantly, cheap. He lives in a big blue bus with Kaseja, a woman with whom he shares a non-licensed counseling practice. They are into aromatherapy, urban Shamanism, human/plant communication, radical epistemology (I can only guess), and music therapy, but, fortunately, not astrology or Tarot—I have my limits.

Gavain and Kaseja ask that everyone who visits their website donate two dollars so they can build a communal household. They say the universe is generous to the generous, so no one need worry about wasting their money. As evidence, they point to a man in Canada who started with one paperclip and, fifteen trades later, owned a house (Donald Trump would be envious). They think such miracles are possible for anyone who believes they are and lives with hearts that are honest and open. I envision them as the progeny of Peter Pan and Andrew Carnegie.

Peggy surprised me some years ago by telling someone that I would prefer a woman masseuse. “God forbid,” I said. “I want a man with muscles like Schwarzenegger’s and hands as big as catcher’s mitts. I want someone who can pick me up and work me like pizza dough. And I really, really don’t want to be distracted by lust.” I finally found such a man, and I went to him a few times with backaches. He said, “Not many guys can take it the way you can,” and I wondered if he had any idea how close I was to not taking it. I imagined that we were in a contest to see how much pain I could endure versus how much he could inflict. But he was good. I knew this because he worked mostly with athletes from the U of O, so I also knew that what hurt in the moment would help in the long-term.

Gavain had hands that were as soft as they were little, like a woman’s. I hadn’t figured on this, and I felt disconcerted, as if he had boobs. I suggested to no avail that he massage me harder, and I smiled when my massage became, at times, like a laying-on-of-hands. With my eyes closed, I imagined him somewhere way there above me, standing in the ether, trying to see into my soul, trying to find mystical insight into what I needed. I couldn’t tell if he was succeeding. I just knew that he wasn’t going to be like the locker room masseuse I wanted; he was going to be…well, gentle, sensitive.

Eleven years have passed since another human being—other than Peggy—touched me so long and so intimately. I realized more keenly than I always do (a hundred times a day) that I miss that very much. I am not a one-woman man. I have forced myself into the mold, but it’s like a shoe that doesn’t fit.

I paid Gavain and left. The drizzle turned to a downpour, and I stopped my bike under an awning. Three minutes later, roof gutters were overflowing above, and street gutters were flooding below. Three more minutes and the sun came out. I continued. Near 15th and Lincoln, a teenage girl was giggling as she played beneath a hose in her bra and panties. Another giggling girl, braless in a wet t-shirt, was taking her picture. I wondered how they could stand the fifty-degree weather. Just as I passed, the camera flashed, and I knew I would be in their picture, smiling broadly at the vision of more adolescent feminine flesh than I had seen in decades. Their youth and beauty overwhelmed me; they could have been frolicking goddesses.

A few minutes later, a much older—but equally beautiful—woman placed her hand on my wrist for balance as she slipped going into the library. I felt her electricity. That is to say, I felt my own electricity that she awakened. As I continued biking, the world seemed softer, younger, more alive, and more colorful, but was Gavain responsible? I just know that I hurt as much as ever.

A night spent brooding; comfort from Marcus Aurelius

Over the weekend, I dug trenches and drove posts. I think I broke my hand, but the pain from that was minor compared to total-body soreness and severe tingling in both hands. Saturday night, I couldn’t turn onto my side because of leg cramps, so after two hours of lying awake, I drank wine until I was anesthetized enough to sleep. Five hours later, the alcohol wore off.

I lay in the darkness brooding over the news of the week—the contempt that President Putin showed Condoleezza Rice, the statement by General Sanchez that the Iraq war was doomed from the outset, the announcement by the official in charge of stamping out Iraqi corruption that the whole Iraqi government is corrupt. Despite all this, the Bush administration retains its habitual optimism. I don’t just fear for the long-term, I worry about whether we can survive another year of George Bush.

How would we feel if Putin started putting missiles on our doorstep? Come to think of it, we already know because we damn near went to war when Khrushchev did it. Yes, much of the world hates us, and, yes, we give them reason. We ARE the greatest threat to world peace.

I concluded that I was too screwed-up physically to allow myself to sink deeper emotionally, so I read from a book about medieval history, a subject that has fascinated me for years. Then I read from The Heart is a Lonely Hunter. Then I went back to brooding about all that money and all those lives we have wasted in the Middle East, and I felt so ashamed to be an American that I wanted to apologize to the world.

Sunday, Peggy and I biked in the mountains, exacerbating my hand numbness. I am now waiting for a call from a massage therapist. I don’t go to massage therapists because of the cost, but today I might make an exception.
Some miscellaneous thoughts from Marcus Aurelius that add a cheerier light to my ruminations…

Let not thy thoughts at once embrace all the various troubles which thou mayest expect to befall thee: but on every occasion ask thyself, “What is there in this which is intolerable and past bearing?” For thou wilt be ashamed to confess.

A scowling look is altogether unnatural; when it is often assumed, the result is that all comeliness dies away, and at last is so completely extinguished that it cannot be again lighted up at all.

Why art thou disturbed? What is there new in this? What unsettles thee? Is it the form of the thing? Look at it. Or is it the matter? Look at it. But besides these there is nothing.

…pain is neither intolerable nor everlasting, if thou bearest in mind that it has its limits, and if thou addest nothing to it in imagination.

Neither the future nor the past pains thee, but only the present. But this is reduced to a very little, if thou only circumscribest it, and chidest thy mind.

When thou art offended with any man’s shameless conduct, immediately ask thyself, “Is it possible, then, that shameless men should not be in the world?” It is not possible. Do not, then, require what is impossible.

It is a ridiculous thing for a man not to fly from his own badness, which is indeed possible, but to fly from other men’s badness, which is impossible.

Wipe out the imagination. Stop the pulling of the strings. Confine thyself to the present.

Consider thyself to be dead, and to have completed thy life up to the present time; and live according to nature the remainder which is allowed thee.

Love that only which happens to thee and is spun with the thread of thy destiny.

Art thou wearied of enduring the wicked, and this too when thou art one of them?

Live as on a mountain…. Look round at the courses of the stars, as if thou wert going along with them; and constantly consider the changes of the elements into one another; for such thoughts purge away the filth of the terrene life.

Look within. Within is the fountain of good, and it will ever bubble up, if thou wilt ever dig.

Death hangs over thee. While thou livest, while it is in thy power, be good.

An encounter that might have gone badly

Peggy and I have been taking advantage of breaks in the weather to go biking in the woods with the dogs. Yesterday, we saw a pygmy owl sitting on a low limb. Our presence did not disturb it in the least. I wondered that an owl’s light sensitive eyes could bear the afternoon sun, but later read that pygmy owls are diurnal.

Last week, we encountered two large, strong dogs that came from a house that stood between one gated Weyerhaeuser road and another. They stayed with us for a disturbingly long distance, although I thought they seemed more curious than aggressive. Peggy—who was at the rear of our little procession—later said that one of them had growled at her, and forced her off her bike by pushing against it. When we passed them on our return, I encouraged Bonnie and Baxter to run so we could get past them quickly. This did not work, because the other dogs were upon us too fast. I nonetheless persisted with my approach until Peggy yelled from behind that they were becoming aggressive. “They’re okay,” I yelled back. “I don’t think so,” she said.

I did a U-turn, and found them on the verge of attacking Bonnie who was snapping furiously but unconvincingly at her powerful foes. I parked a few feet away, strode between her and them, and warned them sternly that they had damned well better back off. Their eyes met mine unflinchingly as they searched for some sign of weakness. Finding none, and without any apparent communication with one another, they turned in unison and walked away.
I marveled at their intelligence and perceptiveness, for the encounter would have ended badly for them had they been brainless brutes. I had in my pocket a can of Fox pepper spray, and I sorely wanted to see what it could do after being choked for several minutes last week when I sprayed barely a whiff of it on the patio floor.

With the marauders gone, I expected to find myself alone, Peggy and the dogs having had plenty of time to make their escape. Instead, there stood Bonnie right by my leg. I didn’t know whether she stayed to protect me or for me to protect her, although she invariably comes to me when she’s afraid. Baxter shows no preference, being as apt to run to a shrub as to a person.

I kidded Peggy about running out on me, but she knew that I handle dogs well—and that I had the spray. More than that, she wanted to get Baxter to safety, because he’s dumb enough to attack a passive wolf yet cowardly enough to be panicked by an aggressive Chihuahua.

Two non-vets reminisce

I visited a friend in the hospital during the recent PBS series about World War II. He was of military age during the war, but flunked his physical. He talked what that meant to him, and I talked about my maneuverings to avoid Vietnam and what that meant to me. We were hardly on the level of veterans comparing Iwo Jima with the Battle of the Bulge, but we shared such stories as we had, and congratulated one another on having never been shot at.

After 9/11, I would have seriously considered enlisting had I been younger, but now I am exceedingly glad that I was unable to fight in yet another pointless conflict based upon a lie; and I honestly don’t know if I would voluntarily risk my life for my country in any war. I’m not even sure my country is worth dying for, or what it would mean, exactly, to die for it.

I worked as a stock clerk at Woolworth’s when I was in college, and I took note, for the first time really, that my nation’s every sacred occasion was another excuse for a sale. Our nation was created by brave idealists—let’s have a sale. Millions fought for our freedom—let’s have a sale. Christ was born of a virgin—let’s have a sale. And, when we can get away with it, let’s move the sacred day to Monday so we can have a “three day sale.”

I sometimes wondered why almost no one seemed to object to this. I mean, come on, George Washington was born on February 22, but we’ll just honor him on whatever Monday comes closest—later renaming the day to honor all presidents (no matter how inept or evil)—and assume that Washington would be okay with that. True, every Christmas a few people write editorials about the real meaning of Christmas, but even they don’t usually object to commercialism per se, they just think we need to tone it down a bit, as in enough’s enough already.

So, I don’t know. To die for my country would mean…. To die so half of us can exercise our freedom to stay home from the polls? To die so the least among us can speak his piece, although most won’t bother because only the rich and famous are heard anyway? To die so …?

We lead the world in consumerism, waste, and obesity. In what else do we lead? Oh, yes, the cost of medical care, although our life expectancy continues to drop. If it is fair to say that our soldiers died for that which we do best, they died so that we can shop until we drop, and waste until we have wasted it all.

Most of my countrymen (adolescents mostly) who fought in wars probably thought about their sacrifice a lot less than I if only because I have been at it longer than they were able to remain alive. From what I can gather, they were entirely too trusting of their elders and too generous with their lives and fortunes. It’s not enough to be good, you also have to be smart lest your goodness serve an evil end.