Saturday, January 3, 2009

Niko's Fallujah

Niko’s memories from Fallujah:

We were in Fallujah that time. I think we’d been there about a week. The stupid supply train idiots couldn’t get us any water for some reason, so they got us sodas and some orange drink crap with chunks in it. We couldn’t even get ammo. We had to go to another battalion to get it. From another DIVISION. I hated those stupid supply weeners. It was at least 110 degrees every day. We were miserable.

One of our platoons goes out on patrol and gets absolutely annihilated. They walked into a perfect L-shaped ambush complete with bunkers and ended up with something like seven wounded, but amazingly, no dead. They called us up to go help them, which was a welcome relief from the stupid crap they had me doing. Fallujah was behind me. That’s where all the action was, but they had me watching the freakin’ Euphrates river. I was sitting there watching the river flow by and reading magazines through night vision goggles as the sun set.

So they called us up to go help them evacuate their wounded. I was in the turret on the 240 (medium machine gun). We grabbed their worst wounded and transported him back to the base – under sporadic fire the whole time. I lit up the whole cityscape from about 700 meters away as we egressed. I thought it was the right thing to do. Provide suppressive fire towards the source as we evaced the wounded guy. But of course, I got yelled at for it. Of course.

After we dropped him off we picked up a whole platoon of elevens (infantry foot troops) and headed back out to the scene to drop them off. They told everybody to get out and I figured we were going to go back to base.

“Movement to contact,” somebody hollered.

What the hell does that mean? I’d never heard it before, so I asked one of the elevens.

“It means we walk until we get shot at.”

Are you kidding?? I’d just given away my last canteen of water and crappy Gatorade mix. I’m already thirsty.

So we have to support this thing. I take the 240, load myself down with ammo, and we start walking.

We started getting sporadic shots and we didn’t do much, but then it got closer and we started seeing tracers, so everybody starts running for cover and taking positions behind shit that might stop bullets. My squad leader tells me and my team leader to get behind that berm over there. I was like, WHERE? I don’t SEE any berm (dirt mound).

The stupid thing was like 300 meters away, with no cover between me or it. We (me and my team leader) start trucking across the dirt and of course, the shots start focusing in on our dumb asses as we sprint for this stupid field.

We keep running as all the fire focuses in on us. I’m tired, thirsty, already dehydrated as hell and hot. My stupid pistol belt starts slowly riding down my waist, so I slow down. I didn’t want to drop my freakin’ pistol in the middle of the field. My team leader keeps yelling at me to speed up, but I tell him, screw you. I’m hot, tired, and my pants are falling down. I want to go home. Shut up you asshole.

These bullets were getting closer, and I can even feel the heat from some of the tracers pushing past my face. The team leader is still screaming at me to hurry up, but my pants are about to fall off so I just stop, throw down my gun, cinch my gun belt as tight as it would go, and then pick up my machine gun and keep running. Bullets are still landing all around me. This was like Medal of Honor shit, so I didn’t even care. I was thirsty. Screw it. I don’t care if I die. This is stupid. If you want to live, run past me. I don’t care.

So he’s still screaming at me to hurry up, but I told him to shut up. We’re NOT going to die. Shut up. I just shuffled the last hundred meters to the “berm,” which was actually just a stupid pile of goat feed up against a house – we couldn’t see clearly because it was dark and too far away.

We ended up getting in a firefight for like an hour, running from the rear of the line all the way to the front and taking position behind freakin’ goat feed. I found out later that one bullet had gone through my pants leg and somehow not hit me. There were a LOT of bullets landing around us. I know I took out at least one sniper, but most everything else was suppressive fire. After we slugged it out with the city of Fallujah for an hour or so, we got ready to leave and I managed to fuse my hand to the gun barrel when I accidentally touched it. The burn was bad. Turns out we held everything off while the entire company retreated. And then they left us. We had to run about 500 meters to get back to their positions. Idiots.

People told me later that they saw us sprinting at first, then just shuffling, then just two dumbasses strolling to their position. They don’t have any idea how we lived. Frankly, neither do I.

The funny thing is that the berm we were supposed to actually man was about ten feet from where were originally stood. We ran all that away for nothing. It was stupid.

Combat usually is. Good times. Where’s my stupid medal? No really…

Copyright © 2009, Ben Shaw
All Rights Reserved

Friday, January 2, 2009

Stupid Ramblings

The above title is an attempt to annoy my little sister, who finds the word “rambling” to be perhaps the most odious in the English language. I don’t exactly love it, but I suppose I see its occasional appropriate use (on useless blog postings). My favorite word is stupid. Just ask my family. If I don’t like it, it’s stupid. This title is therefore intended to annoy others and humor/satiate me.

I am discovering, much to my great dismay, that having a weblog (blog) these days is apparently the “emo” thing to do. If you are a teenager, think you’re spectacular, believe that you have something very important to say but nobody is listening, wear eyeliner and pants that are a size or two too small, you start a blog. And a few of your most dedicated friends – when they find themselves hopelessly bored in the middle of the night, will log on and read whatever garbage you write. Or they’ll simply hit the “refresh” button repeatedly to run up the counter and give you the impression that people actually give a crap what you say. The one potential disadvantage of running up the counter, however, is that your friends will have to sit and instead listen to you rave about how many readers/fans you have. Nobody cares. Not even them. You write because you aren’t sure of yourself, because you don’t like feeling small and insignificant, and simply because you can. You’re narcissistic. This, I am learning, is why most young people have blogs.

This whole realization wasn’t sparked by any great conversation, but by a brief visit to the website, which specializes in demotivating slogans, posters, and calendars – and more recently, “despairwear.” One shirt simply states, “More people have read this shirt than your blog.” I was unaware that blogging was such an emo thing to do – and I’m embarrassed.

The first thing that comes to mind having made this realization is the number of people I have confidently, boldly, and perhaps even proudly told that I have a blog. Most of them have been polite upon hearing this, but now I have to wonder how many were such because they assumed me just another troubled emo kid that’s desperately struggling to afford meaning to my dull, post-highschool existence. Maybe that’s why they were so overly encouraging… They were concerned that the slightest bit of negativity or naysaying would send me rushing back to the typewriter to compose angry, unsent hate letters to everybody who “just doesn’t understand or appreciate me.” Or they were concerned that I’d find a gun, or use it, or give poisoned Kool-Aid to a playground full of children. “Just don’t insult him. He’s a blogger, self-indulged, and unstable.”

Thanks guys. Had I known that blogging brought with it so many negative connotations, I would have been less excited to tell people about it. Maybe I would have simply told them I’m a writer on sabbatical (unemployed). Better that than a teenie bobber with inferiority issues.

At any rate, the purpose of this post is not to defend my blogging/writing. What I write either stands on its own merit, or it does not. The only part of it that concerns me is the challenge to write daily, and hopefully write well. Some days, I am fully aware, I do not write well at all.

I have never been a big fan of new years resolutions. Many are simply reignited guilt for things NOT done the year prior. By the end of October, people are starting to reflect on the year and all the things they either failed abysmally at, didn’t even start, or situations that have simply grown more dire. Out of self-flagellation and regret, they will think about changing. But not just yet, since the holidays are a busy time and there’s a lot of fatty food to eat first, bills to pay, and debt to incur and spend the next year trying to pay off. I’ll start it after the holidays. New Years. The convenient time to schedule all life-changes, before reneging on them for a couple of months, wherein we grow numb to the fact we’ve already totally failed to realize our ambitions and forget about them. We’ll think of them again next October, when we start to once again reflect on what we didn’t do before. New Years resolutions don’t change – they just get recycled.

This now said, I have made no resolutions, but I have made some decisions, which coincidentally fall at the end of 2008 and the beginning of 2009. They are not entirely new to most. Quite simply, it is time to approach this blog with renewed, and reoriented vigor.

The seventeen week vacation has ended – almost three weeks ago. It would be wrong of me to attempt to prolong it unnaturally – such as venturing out again aimlessly. Thus, this will not be happening. I will limit travel to something more purposeful.

I wish to continue writing daily, since much of what happens on a daily basis is fairly often worth mentioning. Regardless of where I go or who I meet, I tend to have an interesting conversation with somebody. People are neat. Writing will continue on a daily or near-daily basis. This I need to do, not only for practice, but also because I enjoy it. Amazingly, a few others do too.

As for purposeful travel, however, this is directly tied to purposeful writing. When I go somewhere, it will be for the purpose of pursuing a specific writing subject. For example, I leave for Maryland tomorrow to begin serious efforts at writing a novel with an old Marine buddy. We’ve collaborated in the past quite successfully, so we’re confident we can do it again. Fiction, however, is a different avenue for me, so brings its own set of challenges. Nevertheless, I look forward to the experience, and remain optimistic that something will come of it. It is a project, and undertaken with the intent of a finished piece of writing that may be interesting for others to read, and undoubtedly interesting to write. Work, but fun work.

Following this project (which has no specific timeline), I am considering other writing projects (which as of today are not developed into anything worth mentioning). The time for simply traveling around and writing has ended – as fun as it may have been.

My underlying purpose is this: Having been blessed with a tremendous amount of relatively free time and marginal financial independence, I wish to use my time wisely and productively. WHEN this time ends (and I am certain that it will), I want to be able to look back, content that I did well with the time I was given – and perhaps produced a publishable piece of writing. Just what to publish with who remains a mystery to me, but I will keep working on this and see what comes out of it.

Another way to consider this is that I am seeking to “redeem” my free time, rather than grow inappropriately comfortable with not working a regular job and pursuing a career. Thus, writing will necessarily become my “work,” and hopefully produce something that may someday amount to an income. I am not writing, however, because I want money, but because I enjoy writing. “I’ve just got to play music because I love it.” That quote still sticks with me. I just need to keep writing because I love it. Something MAY come of it, or not. That remains to be seen. But I won’t know until I make a reasonable attempt at trying.

Obviously, I have to consider the purpose of my writing aside from simply enjoying it. That is insufficient, undirected, and there is a strong temptation to never pursue it beyond a daily sounding board for my unclear thoughts and a few social encounters. This will become my work.

Why write? Because I like to tell a story. Just as much as this, I like to stir others’ hearts as mine is stirred. Clearly, stories can be found anywhere, so I am left making a decision of WHAT stories I wish to pour my efforts into. So far, I am undecided.

I have been blessed with having many avenues on which I may approach this decision, seeing as a rather diverse background has enabled me to “connect” with a number of different interests. There are the southerners because I claim to be one. The veterans because I AM one, the conservatives because I sometimes think like they do, and the weirdos because I, too am not exactly normal. Not only are there a number of ways to skin a cat, but I in my case several cats. All I have to decide is which has the tastiest meat. *Does anybody know the origin of the “skin a cat” expression? I’d love to hear it…

One project idea which continues to interest me is the notion of touring all the Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW) posts in Virginia and simply getting to know a very eclectic and interesting group of men and women. I would love to tell their stories. They have endured amazing and trying situations, lived to tell about it, and are forever changed from their experiences. In most cases, it is also good to talk about these things, even though it can be simultaneously difficult to do so. But harboring demons is even worse.

A further purpose of such an undertaking would simply be to familiarize an audience with a group of people poorly understood at best, often forgotten, and at worst ignored. I would be seeking to introduce them to America, to allow (not make) people more fond of them, and in so doing, bridge the rather large gap between civilian and servicemember that has seen combat on foreign soil at his or her nation’s calling. Millions have served thus, but many millions more don’t understand them so well. Maybe I could help to change this in a small way. I will have to put more thought and prayer into this decision, but so far it seems quite interesting. This is but one idea for more purposeful writing. None of these ideas are particularly prodigious, but, at least to me, they’re endearing.

Regardless, the days of simple blogging are now over. What I have to say is often uninteresting, but what others have to say is not. It’s time to tell their stories, not struggle to make up my own. I don’t want to be emo. Or wear too tight pants and a scarf – in summer. Or eyeliner. Or spike my hair straight up. Or worse yet, struggle for recognition and identity in a sea of useless, shameless, unedited writing. I already know who I am, as to my family, my friends, and God. WHAT I am is a God-chaser. What I DO, at least for the moment, is write. No longer aimlessly, but with direction.

Copyright © 2009, Ben Shaw
All Rights Reserved

Thursday, January 1, 2009

Science Made Me Skinny

Having biologists for parents has its ups and downs. One advantage is that at a young age you are instilled with an inherent curiosity about the environment in which you life. One disadvantage is that you are often dealing with some vile substance under sickening circumstances. My parents were attentive students in college, and the class from which they learned the most was probably parasitology.

Tapeworms, leeches and other parasites are fascinating little creatures, and from a very young age we were taught what sort of organisms dwell in undercooked meats. My father, while happily downing a steak, explained how a little cyst hiding in the meat would soon take up residence in my muscles and expand from there. Their knowledge rubbed off quickly on us, so the local Toastmasters Junior club had to be the only group to have been subjected to a rather informative and graphic speech about the reproductive habits and lifecycle of the guinea worm. My audience was particularly enthralled when I explained that the best way to remove the often 3 foot worms from one’s limbs was to slowly roll the worm up on a pencil. The rousing applause to this fascinating presentation was so moving that my next speech was about the joy of playing chess.

When I was four I was already collecting frog, salamander and toad eggs. It became a daily summer ritual to run about the streams every afternoon before Bernie (our St. Bernard) would slop about the pools, eating some of the eggs and disturbing most of the others. The poor dog never quite recognized that the goo in her mouth was not her own drool. That summer I also came across a large clutch of snapping turtle eggs. With out care, nearly all of them hatched and I kindly released them into my neighbor’s pond. Several years later I recall overhearing him complain that his ducklings kept getting eaten due the overpopulation of “those darned snappers” in is crowded little ponds. I kept my mouth shut.

We first acquired honeybees when I was about six. They were remarkable creatures, not only with a highly organized hierarchy of workers, drones, and a queen, but also constructing their hives and combs with geometrical perfection. These bees were splendid insects, flourishing the first year in their hives and consistently dying out the next. For reasons unexplained at the time, we could not keep any hive alive for longer than a year. Between my mother backing our old station wagon over one hive, bee parasites, and harsh winders, they never had a chance. Only once did we harvest honey from a hive, and the stupid bees protested the theft of the fruits of their labor by proceeding to die out soon thereafter.

When my sister and I were of school age, my parents did their best to instill us with a solid understanding of scientific theory. Through work on a science project for school, I learned at ten that the spores from Lycopodium are extremely flammable; so flammable in fact that the Chinese used them for centuries to propel their fireworks. Having ready access to a substance essentially equivalent to gunpowder provided hours of cheap entertainment, behind my mother’s back. Perhaps she knew all along though, because years later after hearing a sonic boom, however, she assumed automatically that I had blown something up. My fascination with Lycopodia soon ended, however, as the difficulty of harvesting the spores from thousands of plants met up with my discovery that I was allergic to them as well.

My parents’ further attempts to familiarize us with the process of forming and then testing hypotheses comprised some of the most unpleasant times of my life. One such project was testing what animal’s manure functioned best as a plant fertilizer. The task of obtaining these fecal samples was eased somewhat by our ownership of Noah’s Ark and nearly all its occupants. Collecting the samples, however, was not a treat, and at times quite difficult. IT was important to gather a fresh sample from our subjects: a goat, out pig, the pony, some chickens, the dog, and even the cat. The goats and pigs were sometimes easy, yet other times we had to wait long stretches watching the stupid animal’s backside wishing for a bowel movement. It was probably just as well that nobody could see our house from the state road, since watching a child chase after a got with a specimen jar in his hands had to be a most disturbing site. The chickens were the easiest study, since the appeared to defecate on demand. The cat was an entirely different matter. As anyone with a feline understands, cats to not like people – especially impatient children – following them around while they attempt to do their business. I wasted many an hour observing my cat glaring at me in disgust as the tried in vain to lose me in the bushes.

What was the outcome of this venture? I learned that chicken manure kills plants. I cannot for the life of me remember what actually helped the plants grow, since my memory is so heavily fogged with the images of collecting fresh dung. I preformed this project when I was 11 years old, and as a result of my research my appetite dropped sharply. It was at this time that I also began to lose my baby fat; I often wonder if there was a relationship between the two events.

When I was a teenager I performed a test to see what brand of ZipLock Baggies best held in odors. Scientists have known for years that humans have an underdeveloped sense of smell compared to most members of the animal kingdom. So with this knowledge in mind, I filled bags with samples of fox urine (which I, thankfully, did not have to collect) and sought the assistance of a neighbor’s scrawny hunting dogs. The idea was that the dogs would use their keen olfactory skills to lead me to the baggie that held odors the least efficiently. I’m not sure which was more rancid: the fox urine or the dogs themselves. As was the case with the dung project, the findings of my research were seared out of my synapses; this time by choking wafts of fox urine.

It has to be my parents’ fault that when I first came to college I spent days marveling over the startling realization that male birds to not have penises. My quest for more information regarding their mating behaviors was quickly stifled, however, by my roommate’s suggestion that bird genitalia was not a topic of general interest and should be therefore omitted from further conversations.

It is also to my mother and father’s credit that my siblings and me can walk through the woods and eat vegetation without fear of sickness, often to the chagrin of our friends. There was many a weekend that we obediently trooped after my father, whose only tool was a pair of clippers hooked to his belt. The belt, I might add, was often worn over top of the bib overalls. With his aid the four of us quickly learned what plants are edible, at what stage they may be eaten, and what kind of nutritional content they offered. This knowledge may be extremely valuable at some point in my life, and I am quite thankful for my parent’s loving instruction. I still must be careful, however, as my father admonished on many an occasion, the hardest part of eating wild vegetation is finding the plants that our animals had not defecated on.

Apart from a wide array of unusual edible plants in our area, we had also several acres of wild blueberries, strawberries, huckleberries, black and red raspberries, and even an odd peach and apple tree. Once our clever dog learned that these fruits were edible, we were often left fighting with her for the blueberries. She would flow down in a spot and proceed to munch every ripe and underripe berry around her. Her gaping maw was of such great size that more leaves and flowers entered than berries, but she apparently still tasted them nonetheless. For years she never pulled apples or peaches off the trees, but one summer she inevitably discovered that those still attached to the trees were far tastier than those on the ground. Our yield diminished from that day forth. Bernie also haunted our garden, and between her snatching gourds and pumpkins and groundhogs devouring our corn, we never got out of it much more than peas (which she didn’t even bother to trample).

My ambitious concluded one year that it would be a marvelous idea were we to begin to grow all sorts of fruit trees. He felt it necessary to plant domestic apples, peaches, and even a large grape arbor. We did this over the course of a couple years, but met with little success. I often thought our pet animals to be of little value; eating our food and messing in our house, and these wretched plants turned out to be of essentially no greater function. Despite the loving care of two plant biologists, all our apple trees we so very ignorant that 90% never yielded a single fruit. They became little more than pets. The grapes were no better, most of them producing lovely foliage but no grapes. The peaches undoubtedly communicated with the honeybees, and protesting our attempts to make them do anything, they died. It wasn’t that we were poor botanists or horticulturists, but rather that our stupid plants were in some way retarded. So, like our intellectually challenged animals, they were pets. And what became of those 10% of the apple trees that DID produce fruit? Well, our fine dog ate the lower apples and we fought with yellow jackets for the higher specimens, which were often small, stunted, or severely disfigured.

The only disagreement that I ever found between my parents regarding our scientific education was the handling of spiders. My mother was quite fond of them and permitted them to dwell in the house; and some days I even caught her conversing with these visitors on our ceiling. She required them, however, to be under one inch in diameter and nonpoisonous. All violators were squashed or evicted. This irritated my father no end. I’m unsure where he acquired the dislike, but he very much resented sharing his residence with spiders. He killed all the found, so my mother and I took to making sure our charges were out of his view. Some children sneak around their father’s back to avoid doing chores. I, on the other hand, sneaked around to shelter spiders. Years later in college I still took the time to feed and converse with the spiders inhabiting my bathroom. I don’t know where they came from, but they sure did enjoy the ants that also infested the apartment.

I’m still trying to decide if my rather unusual scientific background has helped me or not. I very much enjoy knowing how nature works, but I’m continuously learning how little people want to know about it. They are happy to see how pretty things are, uninterested in the daily range of a honeybee, uncaring how some animal’s feces actually strategically located the vegetation they now admire. Some day they’ll need me, I maintain, when I’m the only person around who knows how to remove the worms from their legs.

Copyright © 2001, Ben Shaw
All Rights Reserved

Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Eggs On Our Fingers, Peas Between Our Toes

Every family has its share of idiosyncrasies, skeletons in the closet and enigmatic behavior. These vary tremendously from one family to the next, but I am firmly convinced that mine has a veritable catacomb in its closet, in addition to a wealth of oddities that would cause a family with less than three children to gape in horror. To us, however, these were normal events, the worst of them being slightly unusual to us – no big real, really. Just another day on the farm.

As anyone who has come from a family of many children can well attest to, children are seriously taxing to a parent’s sanity and there is a point that the parent will just stop trying to maintain some level of mental stability and just give up. This is also closely tied with the appearance of great wisps of white hair and accelerated senility.

Getting the lot of us moving in the mornings was no small task. Our mother’s belief that a good day started with a good breakfast led her to raise us all with such a mean. Unfortunately, however, we had little control over what we ate. Throughout the bulk of my childhood I was subjected to eating eggs as part of my morning meal. My mother, somewhere in her studies and travels had reached the conclusion that every child needed at least one egg a day to maintain proper development. I suppose I can buy this, but actually owning the chickens from whence the eggs came made their consumption all the more difficult. Watching a smelly bird stare at you stupidly and then plop out an egg – which I was expected to eat – was hard to bear. A typical breakfast would go something like this:

“Mom, I don’t want an egg this morning!”

“You WILL eat an egg. It’s good for you. Get the pan; you’re making them.”

“Well, can I make an omelet and put some cheese on it?”

“We’re out of cheese.”

“Then can I at least put some salt in them…oh gross!” I stepped on a green pea, one of many littering the floor. We weren’t slobs, but our 150lb Saint Bernard was, and despite the fact that she had a snout bigger than my upper body she somehow had the dexterity to take a plate full of table scraps and push off all the peas, which, when cold, felt awfully strange between my toes. Bernie was a nice dog – perfectly harmless – but some of us wondered why she was ever allowed into the house. Apart from the food, she also tracked in dirt, leaves, twigs, whole branches, and muck clinging to her snarled hair, preventing out house from ever being clean.

“Why do I have to eat an egg?”

“Because they’re good for you.”

“Mommy, my little sister wined, “we’re out of Cheerios”

“Well eat something else.”

“But that’s what I wanted to eat” Elizabeth persisted.

“Hey, my teacher says that eggs are really just aborted chicken fetuses!” proclaimed my older sister Leah.

“Oh hush. See honey, we send them off to school and this is what they learn.” my mother mourned to my dad, who had just entered the kitchen.

“That stupid bird just messed in the hall again.” He griped at me. He was referring to my handicapped, flightless pigeon that he himself had rescued for me just a few months prior.

“I’ll clean it up when I finish breakfast.” I served myself the overcooked eggs. I much preferred them chewy to runny. Runny eggs made me think too much of mucus bubbling in a pan. As I sat down a big drooling nose appeared above the edge of the table, only to get swatted back down by my mother. The trouble with large dogs is that could actually see what it was they wanted to eat on the table, which made actually stealing it much easier. Bernie withdrew to continue nudging peas about the floor, creating an ever-changing obstacle course around which we had to navigate. Later my mother would clean them up, or the cat would bat them under the stove, but for now we walked around them or ended up with them between our toes. My mother was smart, she being the only one who wore slippers in the morning. The idea had yet to dawn on any of her four children, however.

My mother rummaged in the fridge for something, rustling some plastic, causing our guinea pig two rooms away to assume that the contents of the plastic was in fact something for him. He began squealing uncontrollably and running in circles in his cage. The shavings went everywhere when he did this, which might explain why 10 years later we are still trying to vacuum cedar bits out of my carpet.

“Leah, I want you to take care of the animals this morning.” My mother instructed my older sister, who was tending to the ducklings in our bathtub. “Benjamin, you can take care of the chickens.” She dashed into the den yelling at Bernie to stop drinking our goldfish, another one of her nasty habits. Within a year we had given up restocking the aquarium. The moronic dog didn’t even know she was slurping up fish. She also occasionally consumed our pet chickens, even my person favorite, a gimp bantam smaller than a crow. Her remorse convinced us all she was sorry. Yeah right.

Complaining about my assigned task was useless, so I skipped directly to insisting that I need somebody’s help with carrying all the water and whatnot out to them. I was assigned my little sister for this task. Caring for the chickens in our household entailed much more than tossing some feed on the ground and giving them fresh water. Instead, one carried out vegetable leftovers, water, apples or carrots, a watering can of water, and a bottle of water. The carrots and water bottle were not for the chickens, but for our squirrel, which had appeared lost so was adopted in account of looking cute. He didn’t mind, and actually enjoyed the treats.

When my mother said take care of the animals, she was referring to our herd of goats, rabbits, pony, wild turkeys, and a horse that was afraid to walk with a person on his back. My father acquired the goats years ago with the intention of raising them for meat, but as did everything else, they were soon pets: of limits. Then they proliferated… at their peak we had fifteen: about six mothers and the rest kids. They were cute for a few months but inevitably grew larger. I rather disliked those goats anyway; they ate the seat on my beloved four-wheeler.

The rabbits were meat rabbits that were illegally released into the wild near us. Of the score rescued, we only ended up wit five, which I believed to be five too many. Like the good scientists my parents were, they bred a couple of them, only to have the whole littler die when the mother was too afraid of them to nurse her own young (nature in her infinite wisdom, I suppose). Those rabbits were white, boring, and smelled bad. Later we acquired a beautiful brown male, but he was so oversexed that all he did was hump people, successfully turning them off to playing with him.

After feeding my sector of the zoo, I would have to return inside to care for a few more pets, but they were the easy ones. Apart from the squirrel, guinea pig and of course the dog and cat, my favorite pet was my vole, Fuzzy Wuzzy. A really interesting little rodent, he rooted around his aquarium of dirt happily all day popping up to eat some grain, berries (right from my hand) and return to his borrowing. Unfortunately, Fuzzy Wuzzy left us not too many months later, when I knocked his aquarium over while vacuuming and he went for a jaunt around the basement. Due to the fact I never smelled his remains, I assume the cat ate him.

Elizabeth came back to the house in quite a fury from helping me with the chickens. Apparently, she had forgotten about the eggs in her pocket, hugged the dog, and made a fine mess all over her clothes. She wasn’t the fist person to do this; I was the one that actually went sledding with goo oozing from my pockets. My poor mother acquired the chickens with the intention of collecting eggs, but we were always doing our part (though accidentally so) to make sure they never got to her. Somehow she salvaged enough to torture us every morning with a new batch.

My father avoided breakfast altogether, claiming that the last thing he wanted to do when he got up in the morning was eat. His interests rested solely in coffee. I believe strongly that his skipping breakfast had something to do with the eggs being served. I would have tried this, but I wasn’t old enough to belay an order from Fuehrer. Eventually my father would get out the door to go to work, but this was not after he completely dressed himself, came into the kitchen where my mother would correct his clothing choice and send him back to dress again. His color blindness caused all sorts of problems and he had to be the only man in our county that wore a pink jacket. We didn’t have the heart to tell him its color after he’d worn it out a few times. The embarrassment would really do him in. We didn’t break down and tell him for nearly eight years, and even then the shock was hard for him to bear.

As trying as breakfasts were, dinners were far more challenging. Between arguments about proper grammatical structure of sentences and political debates the ability to eat one’s food in peace was often compromised. It is no small wonder that the six of us still get along. Maybe it was the 200 or so pets that through the years kept our tempers at bay. Or perhaps it was the eggs.

Copyright © 2001, Ben Shaw
All Rights Reserved

Monday, December 29, 2008

Forever Hold My Peace

One of the primary gestures for which the conservative right is known is loudmouthed condemnation. If something or somebody is wrong, they are the first to publicly decry the behavior, often using Biblical reference to indicate just WHY it is wrong. While what they are saying may be completely factual, their delivery leaves much to be desired.

They neglect two things. First, shaming or condemning somebody into changing is, at very best, only temporarily effective. Any changes made will not be the consequence of some moral conviction or personal belief, but simply in response to outward influences and embarrassment. Decisions rooted in such external motivations do not last. It is the same reasoning that states an addict must quit solely because he or she wants to quit, NOT because of external pressure. Otherwise, there is insufficient will to overcome the problem. People change because they WANT to, not because they are ridiculed or condemned. Many conservatives seem to believe that if they rant enough, somebody will change for the better.

The second thing conservatives forget is that righteousness cannot be mandated. Righteousness suggests a personally held belief system about what is right or wrong. This may be in complete keeping with legal mandate, or it may be totally disconcordant. If you outlaw something, people MAY be more inclined to not do it, but only because of the legal ramifications if they do. Their hearts are wholly unchanged.

Making alcohol illegal, for example, does not diminish the desire of an alcoholic to drink. Nor does outlawing pornography alter the fact that there is a sizeable demand for such material. The human desire, whether it be for porn, booze, stealing, adultery, or even murder, remains fully intact.

Thus, I am puzzled what many conservatives hope to accomplish by openly condemning some issue or action. Sure, it may be indeed quite wrong, but chances are, the wrongdoer already knows this. All the religious conservatives have succeeded in doing is alienating themselves from people with problems. They have forgotten that they, too, have problems.

My purpose here is not to get into a lengthy discussion about the propriety of moral laws that attempt to hold society to some standard. That is a touchy, controversial subject – and I could probably argue both sides of it equally. My intent is simply to clarify what may or may not be accomplished by condemning others.

Jesus Himself rarely spoke condemning words. He did drive the money changers out of the temple with a stick, but this was an exception. The vast majority of His speech was intended to connect with people, not drive them away in shame.

When the adulterous woman was about to stoned in the street, He cleverly called out, “let he who is without sin cast the first stone.” Grumbling, the crowd slowly threw down their rocks and stalked off, until only He and the woman remained.

“Is no one left to condemn you?”

“No, my lord.”

“Then neither do I condemn you. Go and sin no more.”

Clearly, He knew what she was doing was wrong. I am firmly convinced that she knew this, too. Yet He didn’t lambast her, tell her exactly WHY she was wrong and how awful she was. He simply said go and sin no more. We cannot determine when somebody is convicted of their behavior. God does that. Our purpose, just as was Christ’s, is to love that person regardless.

I believe that if a Christian feels particularly compelled to march around telling everybody how wrong and sinful they are, the Christian has likely forgotten that they, too, are sinners. They have forgotten that faith isn’t a perpetual existence in perfection, but a moment-by-moment conviction, repentance, and return to God. We are all sinners. The Christian shouldn’t forget grace, because he needs it too. “There is none righteous, no, not one.”

I bring this whole matter up because it is an area where I know I need great improvement. I routinely fight the urge to grab some people by the shoulders and shake them. “Don’t you see what you’re doing?! It’s wrong! It’s destructive, and it is hurting not only you, but others around you!” But this will accomplish nothing good. All I will have successfully done is alienate myself from him or her. If this person needs to talk to somebody who will be graceful and patient, listen more than speak, they will certainly not contact me.

This is not to suggest that Christian organizations or individuals should never open their mouths about things to which they are fundamentally opposed. To remain habitually silent is equally wrong. It can be misconstrued as support, approval, tolerance, or even apathy. None are helpful. But when is it right for an person to speak and when it is right to remain silent?

Good question, and one which I cannot easily answer. I think it best to consider accountability. For example, if a man is a pastor and claims to be a spiritual leader, yet is obviously having an affair, he is to be held to a higher standard than most others. He, as a pastor, having voluntarily accepted the responsibility of setting a spiritual and moral example, is far more liable for his actions. Speak the truth – in love, for apparently they have forgotten the truth. This is an easy one.

But what about a person (man or woman) who is unmarried and not a church leader? Are they any less wrong for messing around? Are they not to be held accountable? Here we enter murky waters.

The only conclusion I can offer is this, and even it must be answered individually. Which is more important to you: informing this person that he or she is wrong, or having a relationship with this person? Which will accomplish more? Which will best reflect what Christ might say (or NOT say) to him or her?

Speaking the truth in love has always been a difficult phrase for many to understand, myself included. Frequently, my desire to speak the truth is rooted in anger, and therefore a wasted (and destructive) effort. Anger also implies that it is ME speaking, not God in me.

Given the aforementioned, maybe the best question is this: WHO is speaking, or WHO wishes to remain silent? If God is speaking, it needs to be said. If I am speaking, it most definitely need NOT be said. For me, it works out to the following. If I am struggling not to blurt something, chances are it’s something that needs to remain unspoken. Yet if I’m nervous about saying something, I probably need to say it boldly.

I realize I’m not answering my own questions very well, simply raising others. So I guess I’ll conclude with a few more queries which will help me gauge when I should speak or not speak. I will try to use these questions as my “litmus test.”

-Do I love this person?
-Who is the source of my words (or my silence)?
-Given that shame never productively changes a person, will any good thing come of my opening my mouth?
-Will this jeopardize or dissolve my relationship with this person?
-Is what I wish to say important enough to make this sacrifice?
-What would Jesus say?
-How can I best love this person?
-What action best demonstrates an understanding of God’s grace, and God in me?

And then I will pray, because some situations are still unclear.

Having invited Jesus into my heart, into my words, and into my very character, I will ask these questions again. Speak, or forever hold my peace?

Copyright © 2008, Ben Shaw
All Rights Reserved

Sunday, December 28, 2008

A Useless Update

It has been a relatively slow day here, with a notable lack of calamity, disasters, or blackmail material. Writing, unfortunately, will reflect this. But, I need to write something daily, so here goes.

My little sisters and I managed to pull off a difficult song today in church – O Holy Night as sung by the group “Selah.” This is already my favorite Christmas song, and I was hoping that it would remain such even after we finished singing. Indeed, it is still my favorite. The song went well, save for one error on my part. If people noticed it, they did a good job of not showing it. I was very much aware of it, as were my sisters. Thankfully, they’re patient with me. Overall, it was a rousing success. Unfortunately, it was not recorded. If it were, I would post a link to it. Maybe sometime in the future we’ll get to a studio and cut a track. We have the resources available, just probably not the time or necessary interest. We’re not that hung up on ourselves.

Also of interest, I began the process of restoring Molinara (my motorcycle) to her former resplendence. I once described her as a mudslung horror, and I think that title would fit now, too. I haven’t cleaned the bike since leaving California. That was well over 3000 miles ago. I’ve been since rained on, driven some awful roads, and scratched even more paint. Splatters of tar and other unidentifiable road grime have been thoroughly baked to the engine block.

For the moment, this is a purely aesthetic endeavor, but even horses feel better when they’re clean and showy. Maybe the bike does, too. At any rate, I removed most of the rear saddlebags and accessories and began waxing and polishing. After a couple hours, nearly all the chrome is beautifully shiny again, and the only parts still needing work are the wheels, spokes, and handlebars. That’s not half bad. This, I fear, was the easy part.

Still remaining are the windshields, the paint (badly scratched in places and simply dirty in others), the tires, the frame, and unfortunately, the engine block. The latter will consume the vast majority of my time. One of the consequences of having a V-Star custom is that a rather small front fender permits all the grit, grease and trash from the road to be propelled directly onto the engine block – where the heat immediately bakes it to the fins. I will attack it with gusto over the next few days, probably consume an entire can of carb & choke cleaner and several hundred q-tips just to peel away the layers of filth. Somewhere beneath is a bike – and a rather attractive one. For the moment, I could ride it proudly, but I would still know in my heart of hearts that there’s much more work to be done. I’ll get to it eventually. This is going to be a lengthy and ongoing process.

When the polishing and cleaning is done, I will probably turn around and do it again. I always get a little more dirt off each time. My thinking is this: if you have a bike, you should ride it. Why else have it? But since a motorcycle is (at least in my case) a luxury vehicle, it would behoove me to take good care of it. You don’t see too many folks riding around in filthy Cadillacs, do you?

Before I set out on this trip, I used to clean the bike ad nauseum and take it for a “test ride,” mostly to show off that I have a shiny bike. Despite the fact I’ve ridden more than 23,000 miles in the past 15 months and only recently returned from a 13,500 mile excursion, I found myself wanting to take it out again. The only reason I did not was because I was running out of light. If the weather is nice tomorrow, I might go for a spin. The itch, apparently, is still very much there. To be honest, this somewhat surprises me. I was never tired of riding, but I WAS tired of being cold, so had expected to park the thing until warmer temperatures set in for good and I had done some maintenance on the thing. Perhaps I may head out sooner than this. We will see.

I guess I’m not done riding…

In other news, there is no news. This week will be spent running errands, doing chores, then hurriedly preparing for my trip out to Oklahoma, which will actually begin on the 31st. That’s Wednesday, and approaching quickly.

This is it, for now.

Copyright © 2008, Ben Shaw
All Rights Reserved