Saturday, March 21, 2009

Divesting Fear

I have written this three times now, yet none are really to my satisfaction. But, in the advent of time, and for lack of a better way to say things at the moment, this will have to suffice. I apologize for its low quality.

Almost every time somebody sees my motorcycle and we end up chatting about it, he or she looks distant for a moment, and returns with, “I really want to have a motorcycle some day.” Naturally, I encourage them to go for it. Take riding classes; see if you like it. “Oh no, I’m too scared I’ll tip it over. I might wreck or something.” As quickly as they were excited about it, they dismiss it as too dangerous, too risky, and a greater investment of time and energy than they are willing to make. It was a dream, but they squelched it on account of its danger and impracticality. There are many other examples.

I know a number of people who will never leave the country because they’re afraid of being in a situation surrounded by non-English speakers where they don’t know what to do. “What if I get lost?” they insist. A few won’t venture outside of cell phone range. “What if something happens and I need to call 911?” Others presume a relationship will end quickly and poorly, so never open their hearts to the opportunity. They accept superficiality over the clear risks of deep honesty. For a number, their fears manifest instead as zealotry regarding less-than-critical matters: avidly locking a deadbolt the moment a door is closed, drinking water from glass bottles instead of plastic because the plastic might leech a few chemicals into the water, drinking diet sodas because they fear an instant and irreversible case of diabetes with a non-diet soda. The list goes on and on, but the gist is that though we may not know it, we radically adjust our lives, daily activities, and even our dreams to accommodate our fears. The results are tragic.

Due in no small part to the efforts of our founding fathers and the continued sacrifices of our youth to the cause of freedom, the United States remains a relatively safe place to live and a ground fertile with opportunity. Few, however, seem to pursue it. Sadly, the absence of REAL fear (like that of oppression, persecution, wrongful imprisonment, etc) permits us to fixate on minutiae in an attempt to prolong our short lives – if only for a few moments. I would ask if it is worth the effort.

Living a safe life does, in all fairness, increase the likelihood of it being a long one. Yet those who avoid risks out of fear will reflect on a long, yet bland existence. A large part of a rewarding life is looking back with a sense of accomplishment in having tried. Whether or not the attempt amounted to much is almost immaterial. There is merit in trying. Those that never try will carry to their graves a gnawing regret for never pursuing any of the dreams of their youth. “It’s too dangerous,” they say, and extinguish their adventuresome sprit to follow a safer path. But a safer path is, for the most part, boring.

And in the end, none of us can cheat death. Perhaps by safe living we can wring a few more moments out of life, but they will be unrewarding, since our efforts were intended more for self preservation and the extension of life itself than living an adventure and ENJOYING whatever life we are given.

We have a terrible fascination with control, really, and go to great lengths to ensure it. Yet it remains a fa├žade. There are incredible risks to almost everything we do. Every time we hop in a car we’re putting our lives in the hands of hundreds of other drivers who may be busy applying makeup, text messaging, or perhaps drunk or even asleep. We cannot control them at all, yet feel somehow safe in our little airbag-lined, four-wheeled boxes. We ignore the fact that tens of thousands die on the roads each year. 2006 claimed the lives of more than 43,000 Americans. But we feel safe, buckle our seatbelts, and head out anyway. We are never particularly safe.

Even now, there are things of which I am fearful, yet they are often the very things I wish most intensely to pursue. I am left with a decision. I may take either the safe route and regret to my dying day never having tried, or I may venture out, take the risk, and find either success or failure. Trouble is, I don’t know until I try. Many are content to dismiss the notion altogether, but I don’t want to. I want to dive in.

I don’t wish to trivialize life to the constant avoidance of things that frighten us. Eleanor Roosevelt said that we should do one thing each day that scares us, and perhaps she is right; I am saying that we should not permit our lives to be dictated by terror of the unknown. Personally, I am more fearful of having regrets for a life I never lived. Many of those who never smoked will still get cancer, after all, and those that never drank may still be run over by a drunk driver. We mitigate risks, certainly, but then we must take a few of them.

I make no profession of great boldness. In fact, it took me a full 29 years to work up the nerve to learn how to dance, and I still undoubtedly look like a fool. But, I’m pleased that I have tried. Many will not. I may still get plowed over by a semi when I’m on my motorcycle, but I’ve enjoyed the time I’ve spent on it. I didn’t particularly enjoy having a passport stolen in Mexico City and having to get some emergency paperwork from the US embassy, but I still had a great time while I was down there. Things are going to happen. Sometimes they won’t be fun.

But which is a stronger sensation? Fear of things, failure, defeat, so simply waving the flag of surrender before the battle has even begun? Or trying, having a few successes and a few failures, yet learning a lot from each? I will choose the latter. It may kill me yet, but better that than never leave the comfort of my secure, self-imposed prison.

We will all end up in a coffin at the bottom of a hole. Nobody averts it. If I choose, I can dig my grave, carefully even the sides and groom it to perfection. Yet when I’m done, and thoroughly exhausted with my meticulous efforts, I’ll just sit down in it and die of nothing. Perish the thought. Instead, I’m going to dance around that grave gleefully, and sometime, on a day I do not know, I will fall in and that’ll be end of it. And I am confident of one thing: my tombstone will not say, “He was afraid to try.”

Having a fairly secure country, none of us know real fear. In its absence, we have created little things to occupy us. They give us something to avoid. We feel empowered by our careful decision-making and avoidance of danger. We take marginal self satisfaction in cheating an early death, yet it still comes to us all.

Don Quixote, considered a fool by all his peers, left his castle to fight windmills wearing a soup tureen for a helmet and carrying a stick for a sword. We laugh at his foolishness, wonder at his application of nobility to the most mundane of experiences, yet we do so from the safety of our castles. We watch from the windows. But when we are old, where will we find our deepest content? Accomplishments? Only a few amount to much. Knowledge? But used to what end? Money? We can’t take it with us. These all crumble to dust, since they speak so little about our character. We may derive great pleasure in the relationships we have had, but even they require a bravery only few possess. Will we have stories? Not if we invested our time skirting things that challenged us. Our deepest satisfaction will be our willingness to leave the castle. If we try, we may indeed fail, but we will have the contentment of having tried. Better this than spend the last years of our lives wondering if we could have done something. We don’t know until we try.

But in truth, failure is not defeat. It is merely the potential outcome of trying. And I much prefer it to “he was afraid to try.” For I remain much more fearful of regret than the temporary discomfort of not knowing or controlling the future. Boldness in no way guarantees success. It only provides the satisfaction of knowing that we tried. I’ll take it, however. It’s better than being petrified by fear.

So go ahead. Buy that motorcycle. Try that relationship. Pursue a passion or follow a dream. None of us truly knows if there’s water in the pool, but I’m jumping in anyway. I’m just wearing a helmet as I dive.

Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth;

Then took the other, as just as fair,
And having perhaps the better claim,
Because it was grassy and wanted wear;
Though as for that the passing there
Had worn them really about the same,

And both that morning equally lay
In leaves no step had trodden black.
Oh, I kept the first for another day!
Yet knowing how way leads on to way,
I doubted if I should ever come back.

I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I--
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.

-Robert Frost, The Road Not Taken

Copyright © 2009, Ben Shaw
All Rights Reserved

Coming Soon

Coming soon: "Divesting Fear"

Copyright © 2009, Ben Shaw
All Rights Reserved

Thursday, March 19, 2009

A Statement of Purpose

With the possibility of my actually returning overseas as an embed journalist becoming increasingly probable, I have recently fielded a number of good questions about it that, in all fairness, deserve an answer. Mainly, people are incredulous that, after three tours of varying degrees of danger, chaos, and stress, I want to go BACK over there, and this time not even carrying a gun. Or they inquire why I can’t write about the troops from the safety (and relative ease) of the United States. There are, after all, FAR more veterans here than overseas. While my immediate answer is a very inarticulate, “because I can,” these queries do warrant a more thorough answer. Not only do they merit a more complete response, but these are also matters that I, too, need to understand for myself.

In Normal McClean’s novella, “A River Runs Through It,” he concludes the story with the following paragraph:

“Eventually, all things merge into one, and a river runs through it. The river was cut by the world's great flood and runs over rocks from the basement of time. On some of the rocks are timeless raindrops. Under the rocks are the words, and some of the words are theirs. I am haunted by waters.”

And the movies ends as the camera pans away from an old man who having years ago outlived his wife and children, still returns to the stirring waters of a Montana river to fly fish, reflect on his life, and remember the time he spent as a boy and young man – fishing with his father and brother. Neither his brother nor his father lived terribly happy lives, and his brother died tragically well before his time – bludgeoned to death with a pistol in an alley beside a bar. For Norman McClean, the waters are a painful reminder to his brother’s absence, but also to some of his most memorable experiences as a boy and young man.

To me, the desert is just the same: a haunting reminder to not only the most exciting and adventurous days of my life, but also the most profoundly tragic, where friends’ lives were quickly snuffed out and units expected to carry on unaffected by their absence. I was changed there. It brings back good memories, and a full assortment of unpleasant ones. In some ways, it is a reopening of an only poorly-healed wound. But, just as McClean was drawn to the very thing that deeply pained him, so also am I. The desert calls to me strongly – and powerfully so.

This sentiment is nothing new, however. The Vietnam War saw a number of US troops similarly drawn back to the jungle. A few moved there, many married Vietnamese women, and a number simply fell in love with the culture, the art, and the simple way of living. Granted, a number still find it odious to this day, but a large group found it alluring.

I don’t profess a great love of Iraqi Arab culture, and nor do I have any intention of returning to Iraq to find an Iraqi wife, but I do find the country interesting. Just as Vietnamese culture is dramatically different from ours, so also is Iraqi Arab culture. Each have a few enticing aspects – the architecture, an agrarian lifestyle (along the Euphrates and Tigris), and a remarkable amount of greenery that is the product of generations of careful irrigation, cultivation, and an ingenious canal system. Portions of some aqueducts are still remaining from Roman times. The entire country is steeped in history, archaeology, and a culture irrevocably intertwined with Islam since the mid-600s. Some of the cities in Iraq are even mentioned in the Bible. The place is old, beautiful in its own way, and exotic. I also like the desert heat.

But these are all personal reasons that don’t hold much weight for returning to an undeniably unstable and dangerous country. More than a fascination of Iraq, I have a fondness for the Americans currently serving over there.

“Once a Marine, always a Marine,“ as the expression goes, and there’s some truth to that. It wasn’t just a job or a brief stint in the service. More than that, it was the total adoption of a lifestyle, a sub-culture, and an ideology that persists long after my few short years of enlistment. I’m not officially a Marine, but I still think like one, and probably will forever. And I get along with other branches, too, aside from the obligatory needling about their military branch versus mine. While infantry Marines may be my brothers like no other group, the military as whole is my family – and I want to follow them.

More specifically, I am drawn to the men and women of the armed forces. Now that my own service is behind me, I see more clearly the sacrifice that the military requires of the individual and his or her family. I see the nobility in the conviction that one’s own life is completely secondary not only to the lives of one’s comrades, but also to the successful completion of the mission. There are few overt exhibitions of such character in this world, yet among these warriors, it is common – if not universal. I relish the notion of being in their company. I admire them, I admire their service, their sacrifice, and their dedication. Though many are too young to fully understand the true depth of their commitment and service, it is there nevertheless, and perhaps all the more pure because they don’t take the time to ponder it. It’s just what they do. It is Christ-like.

In addition to being simply drawn to the desert and to the military, I have further purpose for my return (should it even happen). Though I did not intend it when I began writing, and while certainly only a portion of my writing pertains to the issue, I find myself increasingly devoted to bridging the gap between military and civilian. As it stands, the two poorly understand each other, with civilians grasping little of the minutiae of a deployment, combat zones, and the high-paced, high-stress lifestyle of the United States Armed Forces. My intent is to explain it to them as best I can. This is best done by simply telling the servicemembers’ or veterans’ stories. I could do this in the states, I suppose, but memories fade with time. If I want to be able to write about life in a combat zone, I need to be in one, and interview people in it also.

But this is not purposed to simply satisfy a civilian curiosity about the military. Such a pursuit would be pandering to an audience with no higher calling. This is not the case. Above all else, I wish for military and combat life to be better understood for this reason: so that the men and women in Iraq and Afghanistan return to a welcoming, understanding, and receptive country that is readied to open its arms to them. The more the country understands these men and women, the more able they are to accept them. High substance abuse, suicides and unemployment in the veteran community prove that there is a pronounced disconnect with veterans that extends well beyond their time in the military. I want this to change, for the sake of the vets, for my own sake, and for the healing it will bring to this nation. Veterans need the nation’s help, yet the nation must know how best to do that. Perhaps telling their stories will narrow the divide between the two groups.

While these may be decidedly lofty goals, I must start somewhere. I do not consider it defeat if only a few people read what I write, because it’s better than none at all. If I can somehow help to improve a single veteran’s return to the states, then my time will have been well spent.

I have no particular desire to relive “the glory days.” My time as a Marine, while memorable, is now relegated to just that – a memory. This is not a last ditch effort to sidle up to the military and feel like I am among their ranks again. I was at one time, and remember it fondly, but I am no longer. It is drawing, but it’s over. My war, or at least my small role in it, has ended. Now I am concerned with those that are still fighting it, lest I forget, and lest we as a nation forget the hundreds of thousands that will come home changed, shaken, grieved, or simply adrift. THEY are my pursuit, not entertaining myself with a grand adventure. Adventures are nice, but they often need redemption.

There are undeniable risks to this, yes, and I will not claim to be comfortable with the idea of being in a harrowing situation with no weapon with which to defend myself or those around me (my uniformed family). In fact, I imagine I will abhor the feeling of total helplessness. But my discomfort is secondary to the mission of improving the welcome these men and women receive upon return to the United States. I don’t want to get blown up over there, yet nor did anybody else. Knowing the risks, they willingly have done their duty – and at times paid dearly for it. They have my deepest admiration and the utmost of my support. And I want to know them better. I want to more thoroughly understand the huge-hearted, yet fierce warriors who give so much, ask so little, and will spend a lifetime awkwardly reliving a few short moments that changed them forever. We all know the desert, and like me, it haunts them.

Copyright © 2009, Ben Shaw
All Rights Reserved

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

A Matter of Import

*Update: Since this blog post was published, the proposal in question has since been completely withdrawn by the White House. Smart move. It caused an uproar.

Yesterday, leaders from various top veterans agencies met with President Obama over the matter of 3rd party billing – a White House proposal that will require private insurance companies to pay for medical treatment that is the direct cause of service connected (military related) injuries or disabilities. As is, a veteran that visits a VA medical facility will only receive free healthcare for issues directly related to service injury/disability. Everything else is fairly billed to that person’s private insurer (should they have one). But the greatest expenses – those pertaining to the service injury, are fully covered by the VA healthcare system, alleviating the veteran and their private insurer of a potentially staggering expense. But there are now drastic changes proposed to this. Simplified, the President of the United States is suggesting that the country who called, trained, armed, and sent its servicemen overseas in the interest of national defense will no longer bear the responsibility of their healthcare for any injuries or disabilities they sustained while in service to their country.

The President’s proposal is intended to not only reduce the VA operating budget, which is growing rapidly as Iraq and Afghanistan veterans return to the states, but also because, “it’s time that insurers start paying their fair share.” How charging a private insurance company for health care related to military service is considered its fair share is beyond me. As Paul Rieckhoff, leader of Iraq & Afghanistan Veterans of America bluntly put it, “the insurance companies didn’t send me to war, the US government did.” I would submit that charging a private insurer for a military service-related health issue is the US government doing LESS than their fair share, and attempting to pawn off the national responsibility on private insurance companies.

Occupationally speaking, this measure has grave repercussions. Veterans, a group which already has an unemployment rate 10% higher than the national average, will be less hirable by private businesses. Neither the employer nor their insurance providers could manage the high health costs often associated with service connected injuries. The veterans, in effect, become unemployable, since their hiring represents a far greater expense than profit. And now, even less able to find employment, these veterans become more dependent on the VA healthcare system. But furthermore, the expectation of failure in a job search discourages some of these veterans from even LOOKING for jobs. They will reach the sad conclusion that they are permanently different and less attractive as potential employees (despite millions of dollars of training and years of leadership experience). So much for reintegration.

Any veteran who has sustained some sort of serious service-connected injury that requires expensive, regular medical care will be less hireable – were it not for the VA providing both the veteran and the potential employer full assurance that this medical issue would be covered and addressed in full without financial burden to either employer or employee. An otherwise very uneven playing field has been leveled completely with the best interest of the veteran in mind. But this new measure would shatter this completely.

And in reality, the best estimates are that this entire measure would only save Veterans Affairs $540 million, a drop in the bucket compared to the VA’s new operating budget of $55 billion. But I must also ask why the most universally agreed-upon area of national budget allocation – support of veterans – is being asked to tighten its belt when the federal government is handing out BILLIONS elsewhere.

It has not been my practice to share my political views on this blog, since I think for the most part they’re irrelevant. My writing is pro-military and pro-troop, a position which is bipartisan, mostly supported regardless of political affiliation, and generally considered to be the moral obligation of the citizenry towards those men and women who have voluntarily sworn to defend them. Yet now, I am delving into politics in an area where the potential decisions of a national leader will drastically alter the services and opportunities available to the countless thousands of veterans who rely on the VA for expensive, service-connected medical care.

What concerns me most about this White House proposal is twofold. First, the direct statement that, “it’s time that insurers start paying their fair share,” suggests that the government does not consider the ongoing care of veterans to be a moral obligation, but an area of spending where corners can be cut and the responsibility passed off to others. Never mind that the nation is still fighting a two-front war against various non-state aggressors. The VA budget is going to CONTINUE to increase. We are at war.

Secondly, if ongoing care of veterans is not the moral obligation of the federal government that sent them to war, then whose is it? At the very least, it is disrespectful to the military as a whole, and outright insulting to the individual who, in service to his nation, lost various limbs and now comes home to find that he must ask an employer pay whatever medical expenses he incurs. It is discriminatory. I fear these recent statements indicate just what the highest echelon of leadership in this nation truly feels about veterans: that they and we are a financial inconvenience.

If a country is unwilling to pay the undeniably high cost of war, then that country should be more hesitant to commit her troops to conflict. It is unconscionable to renege on national obligation to ones servicemembers before such duties have ended. The servicemember shoulders great personal risk and self-sacrifice with the comfort that medical expenses are covered, a family is provide for, and that the veteran will not return home to battle a lifetime of exorbitant medical expenses should an injury be sustained. Yet now the White House is seeking to remove that assurance. Of all the areas to trim the budget, this isn’t the place for it. Many veterans are describing this as not just inappropriate, but an outright betrayal; and I agree with them. It is an unexpected sideswipe from the White House itself, and works quickly to silence whatever thank you’s we may have heard from the citizens of this country. For, if the democratically elected leaders of this nation show us no support, we question if our countrymen offer it either. If this continues, the nation will be hard pressed to find men and women who will answer the call.

I doubt that this measure will pass Congress, but the crystal clear message has already echoed deep into the hearts of millions of veterans: “the nation you swore to defend does not care.”

We are a budget constraint.

Read more about this new White House proposal from:

CNN, Fox News, PRNewswire-USNewswire

Copyright © 2009, Ben Shaw
All Rights Reserved

Just Go

(Written in January, 2008. A more current post is forthcoming. Thank you for your patience.)


I can stroll down a sidewalk, through a store, or sit in a restaurant, and I can see defeat. I can read it on the faces of the men around me.

I see successful businessmen, wallets stuffed with money, wondering what it’d be like to simply walk away from it all and live in a cave.

I see affluent men, surrounded by a cadre of assistants, associates, and admirers, wondering what it’s like to have one good friend.

I see other men, heads usually lowered, staring at the ground, trudging like surrendered troops to a prison railcar. They never amounted to much, they know, and they will die soon – nobody will remember.

I see others, loud men, making others laugh, engaging friends, attracting attention – merely because it helps paint over the fact that they feel empty.

I see husbands and fathers waking up and going to work because that’s what men always do. They go to work. And then they come home, go to sleep, and rise just to do it again.

I see men devoting every act to attracting women because it makes them feel alive, but still realizing that to love but one takes more humility than they can muster.

I see men turned inside of themselves, having raised the flag of surrender to the nagging fear that they have failed, that they exist to make money to live in a house which they will leave every morning to go to work to pay for. Hollow, numb, alone. They have interred their hearts in shallow graves, accepting as a matter of course little more than continual disappointment.

Men gave up.

We walk about with a continual feeling of death, every dream unrealized, every adventure cast aside as silly boyhood imagination, and the evil one applauds his success. He cast doubt and it took root.

Men are fearful. We are afraid that we will not earn the title man. We search an eternity for something that breathes life into our hearts, but are interminably disappointed with the outcome.

We forget who made us men.

We smothered the righteous anger and a strong sense of justice, because it was startlingly violent and it scared us. But we are made in the image of God.

We chose to stop daydreaming about adventure, because that’s not what adults do these days. But we are made in the image of God.

In His image, we are men.

No amount of highly masculine activities will confirm in our hearts that we are truly men.

It is not carrying a gun, for when we don’t carry it we feel powerless. And eventually, even while carrying it, it will occur to us that we hide behind it, and that we feel but briefly authoritative when we brandish it.

It is not wearing a uniform, because that is simply an outward show of pomp, shiny bits of metal that supposedly indicate achievement. And without that uniform, we are indistinguishable from everybody else. It was as temporal as a peacock’s tail feathers.

It is not great eloquence, because when we are alone with those we truly care about, we have nothing to say. Speaking great words permits us to not show our empty hearts.

It is not beautiful storytelling, because we hide behind our own characters. They are whatever our imagination chooses them to be, but we cannot control a single person in reality, and hardly even ourselves.

It is not a badge, because without it we soon feel as though we have no authority. It masks the pervasive hunch that nobody listens to us.

It is not carving out a living in a cabin deep in the woods, because we are alone at night, and it is miserable.

It is not money, because we are unhappy with what we buy and grow bored of it.

It is not helping others, because that only temporarily diverts our attention to how much we desperately need to be helped ourselves.

It IS resting in God – in whose image we are made. And He redeems us into men.

So keep dreaming, because we are made in the image of God.

Find peace in nature, but don’t forget the Creator who spoke it into existence.
Speak up for what is right, because God did it.
Stop pausing to see if others will approve, and instead press forward.

Just go. And take God with you.

Manhood isn’t typing budget reports, but nor is it hunting moose deep in the wilderness. It is not starting a fire with flint and steel, and it is not taking good photographs. It is not fine craftsmanship, and it is not physical strength. It is not finding a beautiful wife, and it is not fashioning moccasins from animal hides.

It IS resting in God, in whose image we are made.

And so long as we continue to draw breath, there is still an adventure to be lived. Just go, and take God with you.

Not every dream will be lived, and most will fall far short of expectation, but better to try and fail, than to question having never tried at all. Better to dream and hope than accept continual disappointment.

Life is an adventure and we are men, because we are made in the image of God.

Live, hope, dream, love, speak, and remain silent – and do so dangerously. For you are made in the image of God.

He spoke and they killed Him, yes; but it is better to die but one death boldly, than to cower daily in fear of it, to live in the perpetual state of dying, to shut down one dream at a time, until we have nothing left but our body, which will pass away to dust quite soon.

Live. Just Go. And take God with you.

Copyright © 2009, Ben Shaw
All Rights Reserved

Monday, March 16, 2009

News Appearance

For a relatively innocuous piece in the local news about the 6th year anniversary of the Iraq war (for which I was interviewed) see below:

Video Presentation

Written Article

For the blog post which serves as an addendum to this news article, click here.

Copyright © 2009, Ben Shaw
All Rights Reserved

Pink Nightgowns & Potato Guns

Several years ago I was invited to participate in a summer fishing trip that would be new for me, but an annual tradition for most of the other parties involved. Relishing the idea of a couple days on the river, some undoubtedly good conversation, and eating well around the fire as we camped, I quickly agreed.

Virginia is graced with a number of slow-moving rivers that, barring a few harrowing sections, are fantastic for a lazy float in a canoe or johnboat, and only moderate paddling. Most of them are teeming with fish at various times of the year, and offer a fantastic view, a peaceful downstream float, and plenty of sand bars and islands for camping. This trip would be perfect.

When I was invited on these trips, however, I was not apprised of was the high propensity for disaster. Things routinely went wrong, and they invariably took place along the loneliest stretches of river, far from cell phones and other people, forcing all involved to think quickly. Yet now, after years of doing these floats, I still remember them fondly, even the disasters, and would jump at the opportunity to go again, should it arise. After a time, you just expect things to go wrong and laugh about it.

From the get go, we’ve never been out the door quickly enough, so the earliest we’ve ever put into the water has been well after noon. Somebody has always forgotten something, a life jacket can’t be found, or the friend who loaned his paddles or canoe can’t remember where he put everything. Canoes that haven’t been touched in months have to be nervously approached where they sit behind sheds and quickly flipped over with the expectation that we’ll have to run. Bees like canoes. Spiders do, too, but they don’t fly out and chase us around the yard as we shriek and remember how much we hate running. We’ll spend most of the first day out stomping on the spiders that crawl out from unseen nooks throughout the boat. For some reason, they’re always black widows.

Canoes have to be lashed to cars that aren’t designed to hold boats, and eventually a slow convoy of vehicles with odd hats is driven to the river (after repeated stops for healthy delicacies like potted meat, cheap beer, and Italian sausage). We’re wearing odd hats, too – a bunch of pasty white guys unaccustomed to hours of direct sunlight, trying desperately to avoid a hideous burn on the water. One guy always wears shorts, forgets to put on sun block, and gets badly burned anyway. This happens every time. I usually lose something and get sand in my shoes. Somebody else always catches more fish, and disasters occur with without fail.

One year a johnboat, somehow magically springing a catastrophic leak not a quarter mile from the shore, deposited its passengers and a profusion of coolers, rods, tackle, and other supplies into the water. What floated was courteously picked up by other fishers, in between gales of laughter. A few favorite rods and tackle, however, are still at the bottom of the river. The boat’s still down there, too. Quick thinking, some frantic rearrangement, and the float continued with one less boat, cramped passengers, and bows dangerously low in the water. Sleeping bags are heavy when they’re wet.

Many think of fishing and camping trips as a relaxing break from the fast pace of life and its dependency on technology, and a return to simple living and simple food. But I always eat better at camp than I do at home. We don’t hack it at all; we bring cast iron cookware, gourmet food, and there always seems to be at least one buddy that can cook better than I ever have. Curiously, I have never eaten fish. Ever. We always throw those back. They’re dirty or something. Pretty as the rivers may be around here, a glut of sewage plants spewing sludge into the water has left things less than safe to eat. What astounds me is that through one section of river, there are sewage plants in some places, interspersed with water treatment plants that PULL OUT this water a few miles down, and invariably a few more sewage plants downstream. They alternate – quite close to each other. I actually try to stay out of the water.

But we have fun. While we sat around the fire on the night of my first trip, one of the other guys turns to me and says, “Ben, since it’s your first time out with us, you get the wear the pink nightgown.”


“Yeah. It’s the tradition. Last year Frankie had to wear it.”

Some guffawing later and I learn it’s a joke. It was also that year that some very drunk and celebratory businessmen on the far side of our camp island lobbed vegetables at us well into the night with potato guns. I hurled back beer bottles I found hastily buried in the sand around our camp.

Another year, conversation somehow turned to the best way to “frog gig.” Some insisted that the purist used only the “frog giggin’ stick.” This was quickly countered with an assertion that it could also be done with a pistol. The demonstration of both methods commenced then and there, by flashlight, on the banks of an otherwise peaceful river. I was not involved in this particular debate, and only observed from afar.

During another float, one rather observant member of our party spotted a blowup doll hung in the brush overhanging the water and felt the need to bring it with him for the remainder of the trip – as a clearly-displayed passenger. Perhaps thankfully, nobody took any pictures.

Without fail, I always learn something on these excursions. There’s a guy who knows how to fish with a whole worm and not lose it in the rapids. I’ve tried repeatedly to imitate the technique, but have thus far never figured it out. I want to master it because he catches more fish than anybody else. There’s a guy who knows a good bit about knives, and always has some sharpening ideas or perhaps a new model I might check out.

I learn how not to flip the canoe when we broadside the rocks in the middle of the rapids. We’ve taken on water, but I haven’t sunk yet. That was the OTHER boat. Not my problem, but certainly my entertainment. I’ve learned how to cook breaded, boneless chicken breasts in peanut oil and what to do when the gas stove explodes and starts blowing flame all over the place. The answer: save the food and don’t spill the beer.

I’ve learned the best way to carry my gear and how to avoid drenched, dehydrated, burned or drunk. It’s easy; drink water and wear a waterproof burka. More importantly, I’ve learned who NOT to take in my boat with me. But above all else, I’ve learned there are a bunch of intelligent, fun-loving guys just looking for a few comrades to escape the rat race with them, be dumb, get filthy, eat greasy food, and remember just how much we like air conditioners. We’re always looking for new people to join our merry practitioners of stupid. Not only do we need people to wear the pink nightgown, but we also want young folks. We’re in constant need of somebody to flip our canoes for us and run in terror. We’re getting too old for that part.

Copyright © 2009, Ben Shaw
All Rights Reserved

Sunday, March 15, 2009

Don't Hold the Applause

You’re not dead yet [name omitted], but I want you to hear your eulogy. I don’t want to wait until you’re no longer around to hear it yourself, when we’re all standing around with reddened eyes and wishing we’d told you these things sooner. I don’t see the point. Kind words about you do no good when spoken to others, besides perhaps preserving your reputation. But that, I believe, speaks very highly for itself. Instead, I will tell you my thoughts directly. Maybe you’ll find them encouraging. That, at least, is my hope.

You often consider yourself a failure because you didn’t do one thing or another, but we are never the sum of our accomplishments – or our experiences, for that matter. We are the sum of our relationships.

You are disappointed with the decisions you made in your youth and how they restricted you to a path you grew quickly to vehemently dislike. You could have been more, you say; you could have done more, yet ended up doing little. But you’ve done a great deal for me and many others.

You are painfully aware of the mistakes you made in your career, and how they continue to hurt you, and prevented you move on to greater things. But you made the best of your lot and circumstances, and labored tirelessly at tasks you hated because you have a great ethic, a superb understanding of obligation, and because you did not accept defeat. Nor do any of us view you as defeated, for you are not. Hindered, yes; but defeated; never.

You begrudge the fact that you didn’t travel more, but such experiences are often little more than self-entertainment, notches in our belts, and fun things we’ve always wanted to do. Had you traveled every day of your life, you’d never have satisfied your curiosity. People try, yes, yet they’re often miserable in it. Nobody travels with them. Staying where you have, you’ve explored so much more: relationships.

You are ashamed with some aspects of your life, concealing peccadilloes, and hoping they aren’t used against you – proving for all to see that you are, in fact an abysmal flop. But there is no shame, for multiple reasons. God still loves you, and so do we. Furthermore, we have less-than-appealing aspects to our character, too. I don’t remember the mistakes with nearly the clarity that I remember the example you set, the manner in which your words aligned with your actions, and how the vast majority of what you did was honorable. On the scales by which we are all judged, you have been found worthy, and you have my deepest admiration.

You believe that, having not provided more, you will forever be remembered for your inadequacy. But the provision was more than sufficient. Many are thankful, myself included.

You are concerned that you’ve left no lasting impression. That every cause and purpose for which you labored will fade to total obscurity. You fear nobody will remember, but we do. And truly thousands, though they may not know it, reap the benefits of your efforts. What you pursued and what you fought for, you did so with passion. Would that we all possessed such dedication.

But we are never the sum of our accomplishments OR our failures. They, quite quickly, will be forgotten. Few wish their headstones to be adorned with their successes in the business world, how much money they made, or how famous they may have been. Ingenuity has its merit, but in death its honor rings hollow. We wish for a greater, more lasting memory. One clearly exists: the lives and people we have impacted. More specifically, the people we loved.

Did you make mistakes? Yes; we all do. Could you have done some things better? Yes, but so could every man. Are there personal disappointments? Absolutely; I endure a number of my own. But now answer this: did you love somebody? YES, and many. Myself included. By all standards therefore, before God and man alike, you have done well. This is what I will remember.

Copyright © 2009, Ben Shaw
All Rights Reserved