Saturday, December 29, 2012

A Coastal Drive (6/8)

A French philosopher once wrote that the heart has its reasons of which reason knows nothing. He was probably addressing some weighty matter, like the validity of religious faith in the pursuit of truth, but his words equally apply to romantic passion. After all, what is it that motivates Maryanne to fall in love with John, only to have her heart so carelessly broken, and yet continue to have affection for such a dubious character?  And since we’re on the subject of blind passion, why did Cal deliver his heart and body over to Dan so fully despite the warning signs early on in the relationship? Why do we make ourselves so vulnerable? And how can it be that two entirely different people find each other at a deep emotional level after a tragic event?  The heart must have its reasons.
Maryanne arrived at the busy coffeehouse at 5:50. Mark, with a book in hand and sporting a Seattle Seahawks cap as ever, was sitting in a comfy chair next to the faux fireplace.  He stood up when he saw her.
“Maryanne!” he called out above the din of the espresso machine and a few tabletop conversations.
The Flaherty Saw Mill Café.  Maryanne knew the place well.  She used to go there to study for her BSN degree once the kids were in high school, and before she and Carla fell into Margaret’s kaffeeklatsch at the Bed and Breakfast Inn across the street.  The coffeehouse was so named because it was the site of the sawmill until the late Sixties, though the owner, known simply as Mary Jane by the locals, transplanted the premises three miles to its current location during Flaherty’s aforementioned urban renewal.  Old photos of the lumber industry in Flaherty and environs decorated the pastel-colored walls.  Maryanne particularly enjoyed a 1912 photo of a bearded, German-looking lumberjack in overalls posing with his two prepubescent daughters.
“It was a crazy day at work, my first since the accident.”  Maryanne started to get into the politics of Siebeck hospital before she caught herself.  “Oh, well, more than you need to know, right?  Sorry I’m late.”
“Not a problem at all,” responded Mark.  Maryanne read his face, and he responded with a reassuring expression.  “Really,” he added.
“Okay then.”
“Will this do?”  Mark gestured to a small table in the corner that had just opened up.
“That’s great.  Can I get something for you?”
“Nothing. I’m good.”
“Come now!”
“I’ll take a tea…whatever you’re having.”
“Really? You’ll get what I’m getting?”
“Sure, why not?”
“Fair enough.  Save our spot and I’ll be right back!”  Mark’s eyes followed her to the counter.  He watched every movement of her body as she ordered their drinks.  She spoke to the owner and a mutual friend who was also waiting in line.  By the time she returned to their table, Mark’s nose was again in his book.
“I got us lattes.  Does that work for you? They’ll call us when they’re ready.”
“Works great, thanks.”
“What are you reading there?”
Mark looked at his book, as if he were surprised to see it in his hand. “Oh this? It’s a book.”
“Right. What book?”
Uncle Tom’s Cabin.”
“A classic. Never read it, but I hear it’s good. I’d figure you more as a Tom Clancy reader.”
“Because of your military background…”
“Yes, of course. Right. No. My sister teaches American literature at a college in Washington and keeps me on a steady diet of novels she thinks I’d like, or that she likes anyway.”
“Wow! You’re a reader. I need to read more. No time, you know?”
“Believe me, I know. It’s a hobby I took up after retiring from the Army.”  Mark wasn’t being totally honest about his retirement, and the book-reading came about for a particular reason that he likewise chose not to reveal.

“I could have read more while I was hospitalized, but I just vegetated and talked with friends who were concerned about me.”

Mark’s tone suddenly turned quieter and serious.  “Look, I don’t mean to pry into your life.  I have no business asking you about…”
“About what I told you on that day?”
“Do you now remember what you said to me?”
“Honestly, no.  But I don’t deny that…that…”
Seeing her struggle, Mark intervened.  “I need to know that you’re okay.”
“I’m okay, Mark.  I mean, I take medication for my leg and I’m still seeing a physical therapist about my arm…”
“Good, and I wanted to ask you about your health, but I need to know that you’re okay…emotionally.”
The barista called out their drinks.  Two large skim lattes!
“Allow me to get our drinks,” said Mark.  “You want anything with it?”
“A pinch of cinnamon, if you don’t mind.”
Maryanne would take these seconds to gather her thoughts.  Was she really here, talking to the man who snatched her from death, a death that she sought only four months earlier?
“Latte with cinnamon!”  Mark handed her the cup.
“Have you had a latte before?”
“Yes.  What?  I can’t have had a latte before?”  Mark grinned.  “I might have been in the military, but I don’t just drink coffee black.”
“Before we talk about what we’ve come here to talk about,” said Maryanne, “let’s talk about something else.  Please”
“I need more conversation to develop before I can go there.”
Mark said nothing.
“Do you think that’s weird?”
“No,” Mark lied.
“Okay.  So ask me anything, anything besides…you know, and I’ll answer.  Then I get to ask you something.  Okay?”
“Okay.  Ah…”  Mark was fishing for something, anything.  “What’s your maiden name?”
“That’s your question?”
“It’s all I could come up with on the fly.  It’s just for conversation’s sake, right?”
“G-R-A-V-I-K,” she spelled it out.  “It’s Czech.”
“I’m from Ohio originally.”
Maryanne proceeded to tell Mark about her parents, her grandmother, and the circumstances that brought her to Oregon, including a bad marriage.  She omitted more recent information, such as her relationship with John.
“You’ve met my sister and brother-in-law.  They moved to Eugene because of Gavin’s job.  Knowing I was having trouble with Chuck, my Ex, Jen arranged for the move.”  Maryanne suddenly became self-conscious.  “Well, you didn’t ask about all of this, but the answer to your question needed some context.”
“Thanks for giving me the context.”
“Are you making fun of me?”
“No!  I’m serious.  Thanks.”
“See what happens when you ask about my maiden name?  Now it’s my turn.”
“Ask away.”
“Are you sure?”
“No, but ask anyway.”
“Why do you always wear that cap?  A bad haircut?  Going bald?”
“I didn’t see that coming, but I should have.”
“Well?  What’s the story?”
“A bald spot.”
“I knew it!  It can’t be that bad.  Can you take your hat off, for me?”
“I’m a self-conscious guy, narcissistic if you will. So, no.  Maybe some other time.”
“Wow.  Okay.  Let’s move on.”  Maryanne knew she wasn’t getting the real answer.  There was something about Mark’s demeanor that told her it wasn’t about a bald spot.
“So,” started Maryanne with the business at hand, “I guess I wanted to kill myself, but I don’t remember now.”
“You don’t?”
“This is hard for me, and I don’t know why I’m telling you…I was at a dark place in my life months ago. I was in a relationship, and it suddenly went in a direction that I never dreamed it would. But before you judge me, my depression wasn’t just because of a relationship gone bad…”
“I know.  You were on medication.”
Maryanne looked at him with a surprised look, only to recall that Jenny or Gavin told him.
“Yes, I wanted out.  I wanted to be done.  I’m so ashamed to admit it.”
“Don’t be,” Mark tried to reassure her.
“Don’t be?  Are you serious?  How irresponsible and selfish can a person be?  I was so full of self-pity that I didn’t care about my children, let alone anyone else!”
Mark let her go on without interruption.  Any attempts to soothe her conscience wouldn’t help.  She needed to talk things through.
“So there it is, Mark.”  Maryanne sighed.  “So are you sorry you saved me?”
“That’s not funny.”
“I know.”
“And for the record, I didn’t save you.  My van did.”

“What?”  It took Maryanne a moment to catch Mark’s wit. They laughed heartily.
“Oh, it feels good to laugh,” said Maryanne.  .  “But I, we, shouldn’t be laughing about that.  I’ve caused so much grief because of my decisions.”
“Call me Annie.”
“Okay. Annie. I owe you an answer.”
“About what?”
“About my hat.”
“Your bald spot.”
“I lied about that.  Brace yourself.”
Mark removed his cap.

Captain Denison walked down the tarmac of Bagram Airbase with his men in full battle rattle. Before they entered the Chinook, he paused to take a look at the forbidding, ice-capped Hindu Kush Mountains surrounding them. It didn’t matter if he were in Afghanistan or Iraq, he thought to himself, for he was meeting his destiny.
It was early March, and the Taliban were getting ready for their spring offensive. Higher-ups wanted to take the fight to the enemy before they got very far. This mission was different, though. Intelligence reports confirmed the location of a senior commander. Mark’s men were to provide a backup force for Special Forces who were going after the inveterate fighter in a secret operation.
What Mark could not have known was that he just spoke to his wife for the last time. Like any soldier about to enter an unknown hostile environment, he was scared. But also like any combat soldier, he knew how to bridle his fear and put on a brave face. This was probably easier than otherwise, for Mark had a strange feeling about his conversation with Kelsey and this feeling preoccupied his mind as much if not more than the destiny awaiting him in the mountains.

Thursday, December 27, 2012

Running in the Snow

A solitary black dot is moving slowly across a vast, white landscape.  Move in closer and you’ll see the dot become grey and grow appendages.  Now it’s starting to look like a virus attacking a white blood cell through the lens of an electron microscope.  Go ahead and get closer still. That’s actually a bird’s eye view of me running through a farm field in late December.  I’m trudging in 12 to 16 inch deep snow so quickly that you’d think wolves were on my tail.  I suppose I’m trying to flee from mortality, not ravenous beasts, for I’ve resolved to maintain my run workout throughout the throes of winter.  I need to do something to counteract my sedentary lifestyle.  Besides, I have so much energy inside me sometimes that I feel as if I am about to burst open.  There’s a fire inside my head, a passion, a desire, for something unattainable, indefinable. That sounds weird, I guess, or melodramatic.  In the distance cars pass by on a country road.  I wonder what the passengers are thinking: either I’m crazy for running in 25-degree weather or I’m getting a great workout.  Who knows?   Every once in a while a cross-country skier crosses my path.  Otherwise, I’m alone, as I usually am.  I enjoy the serenity and nothingness before me, though I can’t ever stop to take it all in.  I forge my path as I go.  I must press on for yet a while longer.

Monday, December 24, 2012

On a Precipice

One thing that still eludes me on this Christmas Eve is the meaning to life.  I was hoping for answers by now.  Will Santa stuff them in my stocking tonight? After all, I'm forty-something years old and have devoted a better part of my life to this question.  This year saw no second coming of Christ, no return of the Mahdi, no Mayan apocalypse.  Heck, I’d take a minor epiphany, something sufficiently transcendent, like a divine spark, to give me hope.  Am I condemned to traverse a precipice with an abyss on each side?  Apart from two or three friends, I can’t really share these deep thoughts with anyone.  Why?  There are those who seem to have the answer already: some of these people are of a religious faith and others are decidedly not.  The former profess a firm belief not merely in God, but an entire theological system of judgment and redemption.  I can no longer share this presumption. The latter dismiss any search that doesn’t conclude a purely materialistic existence ending with the degradation of our bodies.  I’m not saying they’re wrong or right, but I discern a smug sense of satisfaction in both of these groups.  They act as if they've given much thought to these deeper questions, but they've done virtually no research of their own.  I agree with T. S. Eliot’s assessment of humanity: “the majority of mankind is lazy-minded, incurious, absorbed in vanities, and tepid in emotion.”  Those who call themselves skeptics and unbelievers, he further writes, are merely “cloaking a disinclination to think anything out to conclusion.”  I have no interest in consulting posers.  Consequently, my quest is a solitary one.
What are my options?  I’ve come up with a few.  I could retreat into fideism.  Yes, I could embrace the faith of my forefathers in spite of my previous disillusionment.  I could sit in the pew, pray the prayers, and meditate on the sacred texts.  I didn’t say this was a likely option.  Few are those thinkers who have made such a trek back into the safe embrace of their childhood faith.  The disillusioned seeker is a refugee who can never return to her spiritual birthplace.  How about I join a cult and let others do the thinking for me?  Okay, I’m not serious.  How about taking up arms against a sea of troubles, and by opposing, end them?  No, I’ve always considered people who committed suicide due to psychological anguish, let alone lesser reasons, as cowardly narcissists.  I’m not about to join their ranks.  How about drinking and being merry for tomorrow we die?  Indulge the appetites and pay no need to the mind?  Such hedonism would be too boring and unproductive for my old Calvinist habits.  Why don’t I simply stop thinking about such things?  Just live and die.  Invest my life in others, and try to make a difference for the good.  Well, there's nothing wrong with this option.  And helping others shouldn't depend on any answer to an impossible existential quest.  Still, humanitarian efforts will always seem vacuous to me without a definitive answer to life's meaning.  Across millennia past, minds far superior to mine made little progress in finding an answer, so I have no arrogant pretense that I'll find what I'm looking for.  Worse than that, I fear I’ve already given less and less attention to this search in recent years.  I’ve become more lazy-minded and incurious than I care to admit.  If I’m honest with myself, I must ask: Is this quest for meaning really what keeps me up at night?  Maybe I suffer from insomnia because of the cares of this world.  Or maybe it’s the coffee and booze I consume.  Look, I just want some peace of mind.  Is that asking too much?  Wir sind Bettler.  Hoc est verum. 

Saturday, December 22, 2012

Highlights of 2012

I'd like to take this opportunity to reflect on the good things that happened this past year.   Readers of this blog are no doubt accustomed to dark themes and melancholy topics.  Granted, I have an indefatigable fascination with the absurd and perverse, not to mention the repulsive and downright psychotic.  For instance, omitted from my account here is almost getting arrested for indecent exposure in May.  (I was indeed naked and exposing myself to passers-by and children in the playground two blocks from my house, but the police officers who seized me forgot to read me my rights.  My lawyer got me off on a technicality.)  Another tidbit I could add here is that I accidently ate a lot of yellow snow yesterday (and kept coming back for more even after my wife informed me quite adamantly that it wasn’t lemonade slush, but my cats' urine).  I’m not sure why I have checked my natural inclination to dwell on scandals, misfortune, disappointments, and unsavory behavior.  Chalk it up to the holiday session, I guess.  Maybe I’ve dipped my cup into the Glühwein bowl too much this evening.  Then again, perhaps I just want to heed the words of Paul: Whatsoever things are true, whatsoever things are honest, whatsoever things are just, whatsoever things are pure, whatsoever things are lovely, whatsoever things are of good report; if there be any virtue, and if there be any praise, think on these things.  First off, my wife, daughters and I are in good health.  Erika got accepted to the university of her choice and just completed her first semester.  Jessi received a congressional appointment to the Naval Academy.  Teri and Monika went to seven European countries this summer.  In August I started full-time at a job I love and got promoted twice this year as an Army officer.

Sunday, December 16, 2012

Late Autumn Report

Before the end of the world occurs next week, I thought it prudent to record my experiences during the last two months since I wrote.  Who knows?  Alien creatures might someday land on this god-forsaken planet and want to learn about these fiendish apes, otherwise known as homines sapientes, nasty little creatures that succumbed to the Mayan apocalypse because of their persistent Neolithic habits and left behind only blogs and videos for intergalactic travelers to piece together the prelapsarian past.  Anyway, autumn is officially coming to a close, and with its passing another lost opportunity to find a modicum of solace regarding the essential questions of life.  On a positive note, though, the weather has been consistently temperate, uncharacteristically so in this neck of the woods, inviting me to go running in the woods whenever I can squeeze time between classes.  My moderate physical fitness is one of the necessary bulwarks against “black care.”  I digress.  Permit me to pick up the story of this most fascinating primate, Der Viator, from the end of October to the present.

Halloween was pretty fun: nursing a bottle of Jack and watching a freakishly scary movie within the four barren walls of my small rented room.  What more could one want?  The day prior I entered one of my classrooms dressed as the Plague Doctor, aided by heavy metal, black leather, and a strobe light; so I guess I celebrated Halloween in my own way, whether or not the students in this epidemics course got something out of this spectacle.  Self-amusement and pedagogy don't always work hand in glove.
Let’s move on to family, the other bulwark.   November is a month of birthdays and of course Thanksgiving.  Moments with the entire family are few and far between these days, and perhaps all the more enjoyable and precious when they occur.  The photo at the top captures Jessi's birthday shindig at a pizza restaurant where Erika works as a waitress.  I’ve gone to a couple of Jessi’s swim meets and basketball games, as well as Monika’s off-season indoor soccer matches.  I've had the opportunity to go running with Jessi and Monika on separate occasions at my usual stomping grounds.  Last week I attended with my wife Jessi’s swim team awards banquet at the Holiday Inn.  My post-911 GI bill finally kicked in; I had transferred my benefits over to Erika to pay a portion of her tuition and other expenses.  The paperwork for this was very difficult.  If you sense me souring on the military, dear reader, I’d say you have the gift of discernment; I’ll get to this topic shortly.  As mentioned in a previous blog entry, Jessi, a high school senior, had an interview to get a congressional nomination for the U.S. Naval Academy.  She got the nomination last week!  Now we’re waiting to see if she gets accepted.  If not, Jessi has applied to other colleges, two of which seem particularly promising, to me anyway.  I think my absences from the family have perhaps taken a toll in terms of family cohesion.  Then again, as my wife suggested, the weekends end up being a bit more qualitative and focused than might be the case if I were home all the time.  Moreover, as my daughters are now in their late teens and early twenties, the family dynamic would have probably changed in spite of my periodic absence.

We just got back from Menards where we bought a Christmas tree.  A kindly sixty-year-old man greeted us, helped us pick one out, and netted it for us efficiently.  I cautioned Monika and Jessi to beware of such kindness in a strange man.  Next thing you know you’re hanging upside-down, naked, and disemboweled from the guy’s woodshed ceiling and thinking What the f$ck?  The girls decorated the tree once we got home.  She's a  bute, isn't she?  We used to have a plastic nativity scene that goes at the bottom of the tree, but last year the dog chewed up Balthazar, the black dude among the three magi.  We didn't want visitors to think we committed a wanton act of racial violence, so we got rid of the display altogether.  Ironically, our black lab is named Balt, for Balthazar!

In November I watched Lincoln with my wife, the best movie I’ve seen in recent memory.  In Spielberg and Daniel Day-Lewis’ hands, the viewing public perhaps sees the Great Emancipator in a new light, a man devoted to his family, politically savvy, and with a wry sense of humor.  The film focused on efforts to pass the Thirteenth Amendment, a shrewd way to make a film on such a monumental figure in history.  To be sure, there were plenty of poignant moments both in terms of cinematography and dialogue.  Tommy Lee Jones’ portrayal of Radical Republican Thaddeus Stevens was second only to Day-Lewis’ Lincoln.  General Grant plays a peripheral role, as the film is not about the war front but about politics in Washington.  Still, I like the brief Appomattox Court House scene, though I don’t recall Lincoln actually being there and having a discussion with Grant on the porch before Lee’s arrival.  I bring up Grant because he’s one of my heroes and I like Lincoln’s response to a cabinet official who is doubtful about the progress of the war.  “My trust in him (Grant) is marrow deep,” explains the President.  I love that.

On the academic front, I just finished my first semester as a full-time instructor for Hexington College. I enjoy the faculty, staff, and students most of all.  I’m the faculty advisor for the International Club.  The students planned an intercultural awareness day on campus (see photo); they set up a fun booth and dressed up to represent their  various cultures.   The club also had a potluck movie night a couple of Fridays ago; it was fun.  I’ve been selected to participate in a program about bringing global issues into the classroom (or internationalizing the curriculum, to use the jargon).  It involves a lot of reading, online assignments, and a few days of face-to-face workshops and discussion at a university in January.  I also became the advisor for a new campus club, the Guitar Club, after a couple of students badgered me this semester.  I’ve been planning with colleagues a new course for the spring; it will engage students with the community and ultimately make meaningful connections between the university and real issues in the local area.  The work has been a chore and time is running out, but most of the people in the group are great and I love being a part of something so significant and potentially transformational!  I'm probably the least experienced in this group, but I enjoy the challenge.  Lastly, I had the good fortune of co-teaching another course this past semester with two faculty members who know their stuff.  I learned a lot.
Let me briefly touch upon military matters. I’m nearly sixteen months into my command time, and counting.  Other company commanders in the battalion are bailing after eighteen months, which I understand is an option. (Normally a command position lasts two years, sometimes three.)   Some of them have conceded that I have the toughest job: a headquarters detachment commander.  This kind of command poses particular problems, but I won’t get into them here.  I'll stick it out for the full tenure, as I want to leave the unit with certain objectives having been accomplished; moreover, I'm not ready to make a change until at least the summer. My tentative plan is to jump into the National Guard in the state where I currently teach.  I've had to give the boot to a few soldiers, as they haven't complied with Army standards for years.  It wasn't pretty.  They whined, cried, yelled, stabbed the air with their fingers, cajoled,  questioned my leadership, threw the blame on others, and otherwise refused to see the writing on the wall.  It's as if they were demon-possessed victims and I was the exorcist.  The more I confronted them with the truth, the more they hissed and howled.  At the top of November I had a four-day battle drill weekend at Fort Elroy, involving SRP (Soldier Readiness Processing), weapons qualification, and the physical fitness test.  I had to make arrangements for one of my classes, as I had to leave early on a Thursday.  A colleague generously helped me out by showing a documentary for my class and taking attendance in my absence.  I don’t like missing class, and this was the only time.  I told myself I’d never let my military duties interfere with my civilian job.  As it turns out, I’m on military orders for this upcoming week, which is finals week at Hexington.  But that’s okay, because I’m not giving a final and I need this time with my first sergeant to get my military house in order.

Music is a last defense against a “sea of troubles.”  Would that I had more time for it, but I no longer have much of a creative impulse anyway.  Apart from those occasions when I bring the guitar into the classroom, and notwithstanding the aforementioned guitar club, I’ve spent little time playing music, though listening in my car during long drives provides some panacea for my bemuddled soul.  Yet I managed to write a song a couple of months ago, something I haven’t done in ages.  Also, earlier this week I tickled the ivories on a grand piano tucked away in a basement hallway. Yesterday Monika and I sang songs together at the top of our lungs and she accompanied my guitar with the xylophone on a cover of Gotye’s “Somebody That I Used to Know.”  Fun.

Well, this concludes my little report.  Let me now turn to you, the reader, and express my thanks for your support these past three years. We’ve laughed together, we’ve cried together.  So often I've wished I could just reach through this laptop screen and touch you (not sexually).  It's like we have some kind of a bond, no?  Well, maybe not.  Anyway, I don’t know who you are, but I love you (not literally).  If we don't make it past December 21, I hope to see you on the other side.  And to any future alien invaders reading this: First off, how did you decipher our language?  Second, welcome to a world that was once ours but is now a smoldering ash heap of charred civilizations and extinguished dreams.  Enjoy (not really).