Saturday, March 28, 2009

Fellow Asses

In Korea in December 1950, US Marines, wholly overwhelmed by Chinese troops pushing south, faced a bleak situation at best. With a brutal winter upon them, surrounded and cut off by the enemy, their leaders still maintained the bullheaded, confident attitude so commonly attributed to US troops as a whole. Amid this disaster, Major General Oliver P. Smith is purported to have declared, “Retreat; hell! We’re just attacking in another direction.” They still had a fight in them, the circumstances be damned. As another example, the famous Chesty Puller is cited as observing, “We’re surrounded. That simplifies the problem!” They were fighters, as were and are still the current US fighting forces. They all possess a fierce stubbornness.

And it keeps us alive. Circumstances can be awful, but so long as there’s ammunition or bayonets, there is still an enemy to defeat and a battle to win. The men and women of our fighting forces are perhaps the most tenacious and hardheaded in the world. As warriors, this alone elevates them into superiority, and keeps them fighting and optimistic in the most potentially hopeless situations. We were trained to be this way, and it works.

The trouble is, this fierce independence extends well beyond the realms of combat service and even military service itself. Ask any VA general practitioner. It is probably universally agreed that vets are the most difficult, disagreeable, and noncompliant patients a doctor can have. “Oh, I’m okay. I’ll make do. This is nothing. There are other guys much worse off than me.” The stubbornness is more than irritating; it’s selfless.

I have found this to be consistently the case when speaking with veterans suffering with some service-related injury or another. This past week I listened to a veteran awaiting surgeries to both ankles and knees tell me that SHE is fortunate and there are lot of guys in need of more help than she. She didn’t really need help. The guys without limbs did. “I have legs, and they don’t,” she told me. Another vet, after enduring multiple traumatic brain injuries (TBIs), was extremely sympathetic to his comrades that are struggling with more holistic and complicated injuries. “They need more help than me. I’m doing absolutely great.” A third, severely behind on bills and riding the edge of bankruptcy told me, “there are others that need help more than us. Make sure they’re cared for first. We’ll be okay.”

These situations illustrate a powerful and persistent independence, but also identify a problem. Disabled veterans, an already-difficult community, are extremely reluctant to accept help from others. They help each other – even in the midst of their own injuries and recoveries, and then they help themselves. Asking assistance from others isn’t something they are trained to do. They’re proud, they’re resilient, and they just make do with what they have. Few people in need are more reluctant to accept help, which many friends, loved ones, and concerned strangers find frustrating. “How do you help people that don’t want to be helped?” is one question I’ve fielded. To be honest, I’m really not sure.

Some of the greatest success stories of disabled veterans recovering from or at least learning to work around their disabilities are those that have committed their fullest concentration not to warding off people that may potentially help them, but to their own recovery. It is precisely the same irritating stubbornness that, when devoted to their recovery, gives those vets with what appears to be a hopeless limitation the drive, gumption, and persistence to improve their condition. The hard part is getting them to invest their energy positively instead of keeping at bay anybody that wishes to help them.

For one specific example of how military resolve can be put to good use, I recently met a serviceman who suffered a number of traumatic brain injuries in Iraq. After some time confined to a wheelchair, he figured he'd try out skiing to help with the rehabilitation process. Four months later, he's ranked fifth nationally in his class.

In the future, I will not be offering to help any veterans, because it will be, at best, poorly received. But I will offer myself as a constant, as a friend, and somebody who will continue to pester about them how they’re doing, inquire how everything is progressing. If they’re having a great day when I call, I will be pleased to hear it and that’ll be the end of it. If they’re having a bad day, I will attempt to offer some words of encouragement (if any are suitable), and again, that’ll be the end of it. My contact with them, if constant, indicates that my concern for them is not driven by some sort of self-guilt or subject to undulating emotions. I’m just there regardless, as a confidante, supporter and friend. Once that has been established, I don’t need to ask how I can help them, they will simply tell me. I’m there; they know how to get a hold of me, and if they need something, they will call me. Offering my help, however, is the quickest way to lose an opportunity to truly do so. Disabled veterans don’t need help; they need somebody who will care about their wellbeing regardless of their success or failure. Like most anybody else, they simply need friends. I specifically intend to be the friend who can be just as stubborn an ass as they.

Copyright © 2009, Ben Shaw
All Rights Reserved

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Seeing Too Far

I have a number of friends in school at the moment, enduring the last five weeks of classes, exams, studying, senior projects, with the expectation that soon they will be graduated and moving on to either graduate school, the work force, or sometimes a much-needed break. “I’m almost there,” is the common statement. “Five more weeks to go” or “just one more year now.” And then the stress, the hectic and demanding schedule will be over and they can relax a bit.

Many others, though not in school, find themselves in similar situations. Even I am uncertain if my writing efforts will prove to be a monumental flop or a potential success and career. I cannot predict what the future holds. One friend is waiting for a new job to start. Another is waiting for the economy to pick up so he can stop worrying about losing his job or working absurdly long hours and not daring make a complaint. “This can’t last forever,” “I’ll know soon,” or my favorite: “as soon as I have some more money saved” are expressions I hear often and frequently use myself. Regardless of our transience or our commitment to a determined plan, we are all waiting, in a holding pattern, and extremely eager for one thing to end and another to begin. The expense is that we overlook now. It is probably best described as being overly forward-thinking. We fixate so much on the future that we completely neglect the present.

My dream of a Tuscan home overlooking the Mediterranean, however glorious and inclusive of others, will very likely never come to fruition. Nor will my “bucket list” quest to visit all seven continents at least once. They are terribly grandiose, ambitious, and require money and time I may not have.

What every one of my statements, and the statements of other distill to is this brief conversation:

“Are you happy?”

“No, but I’m sure I will be soon.”

We are blatantly ignoring the fact that we should find some contentment in the present. We are also presuming that we shall not be happy until certain milestones are reached and passed. Life isn’t milestones, though; it’s a journey. There may be no definitive landmarks at all – or at least not until we look back and can actually recognize that at some distant point we finally “got” something or achieved something. Milestones will be few. It would be behoove us to learn to enjoy some of the present.

My concern is that if I continue like this – constantly looking over the present and towards the future, I will spend my life presuming realized dreams and some degree of satisfaction are right around the corner. That’s anticipatory, however, and there’s no peace in it. Besides, what guarantee do I have that the achievement of some milestone is going to somehow make me suddenly content? That’s awfully presumptuous.

So, though my free time may be scant at present and I’m very much looking forward to whatever this summer offers, I will seek to find some enjoyment in what I do today. I will relish the 45 minute dance lesson and simply take some satisfaction in the fact I’m leading a bit now, not just struggling to avoid my partner’s feet. I will enjoy the coffee shop here, and not focus on how nice it will be when I have my own, quieter place. I will listen with interest as a man behind me explains what’s in coffee to his young daughter – in Spanish. I will wonder with curiosity where the lady nearly bellowing at the doorway is from. It sounds eastern European. I will enjoy my coffee and the Bellamy Brothers emanating softly from the speakers. I will strike up a conversation with somebody, and not get annoyed when the soccer mom a few tables over lets both her little children use the coffee shop as jungle gym. I will hand her a napkin when the child runs by covered in chocolate cake. When the woman outside the window walks by again speaking sharply to the little movie ticket in her hand, I will wonder why it’s so important, not chalk her up as crazy and yearn for a quieter, saner, clime.

Robert Frost didn’t wax poetically about visiting the place less visited-by. Instead, he wrote about taking the road less traveled-by. It was a road. Not a place, a milestone, or an event. Contentment isn’t at the end of the semester, or the year, or a new job or marriage. Other stresses and conflicts will simply replace the ones we’ve put behind us. Life isn’t down the road somewhere, barely visible; it is here, and now, and I don’t want to miss it. Tomorrow will bring its own worries.

Copyright © 2009, Ben Shaw
All Rights Reserved

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

My Tuscany

In the Diane Lane movie, “Under A Tuscan Sun,” Lane plays a middle-aged writer who comes home one day to find her husband in bed with a much younger woman. Her marriage in ruins and life in shambles, she sells the house, cashes in all her chips, packs a box of books and her laptop, and heads to Tuscany, Italy on a vacation. As the bus winds along a rural road in wine country, she spots an old, regal house for sale, stops to take a look, and in the end elects to buy it on a whim and never go home. It certainly was better than the “down and out” apartment she was renting where she went to sleep each night listening to her neighbor cry and wail because his wife had left him.

It was a bold leap of faith, and on her first night in her new house, the roof leaked, the windows broke open and blew in debris, and lightning struck the trees and icebox outside. Lane’s character spent the night hunkered in bed simply trying to stay dry. She was already regretting her decision. “What have I done?” she wondered, bewildered. She assumed she’d made a mistake.

But in the morning, the sun was up, the air was clear, and before long she had enlisted the help of some workers to not only repair the storm damage, but improve the interior and grounds to her liking. For all its faults and age and inconveniences, the home showed promise. It was beautiful, and would be even more so when the work was done.

Lane’s character had purchased the property in the hopes that it would be the change of pace that helped her bury deep wounds, start anew, and provide a refreshing, exotic environment where she could write in peace, muddle through learning Italian, and potentially meet many of the interesting locals. It was ambitious, but she was willing to take the risk. Her greatest dream, despite the infancy of the decision and the wounds from her recent collapsed marriage, was to have her wedding there, to raise a family there, and to feed a crowd there. It wouldn’t be a house by any means, but a home, a busy one, a living one, and the center of a poetic and love-filled life. She dreamed beautifully.

At the risk of spoiling the film (which will still be worth watching if one has the chance), Lane’s character meets with disaster in almost every aspect of her dreams. There is a man, but it doesn’t work out and she’s left just as devastated as she was when her marriage ended (she caught this man cheating, too). The great big family, thus, never comes, and nor is there anybody to cook for, either. It would seem the entire gamble was a mistake, and now she’s stuck with a large, leaky Tuscan house in varying states of disrepair. The house, really, represented her demeanor: hope was there, but buried deeply. Hidden beneath crumbling walls and unpredictable plumbing, and perhaps irrevocably buried.

But hope returned in a strange and unexpected way. Her friend came to live with her from America, bringing her newborn infant. She came to stay. The three workers renovating her home, accompanied by her friend, filled the table quickly for the crowd she hoped to one day feed. And in time, one of the workers fell in love and married a local girl, in Lane’s home. Despite that nothing went as planned, she was truly living her wish.

The lessons from this story are innumerable, but I derive two very quickly. First, dreams will be had, but few, if any, will come to fruition as anticipated. But they will be similarly good, and they will exceed expectations. We simply need to have the vision for it, and the flexibility that life requires of us. Dreams will come, but not as we planned. We just have to be watchful.

Second, Lane’s character learned that all her dreams, while certainly good ones, were about herself, for herself, and ultimately were to make HER happy. This doesn’t diminish them, per se, but does show their limitation. Dreams with and for other people are far deeper, naturally carry a heavy weight in difficulties, but also a deeper satisfaction in their manifestation. These are lessons I want to remember.

I, too, have dreams, and some not too dissimilar to Lane’s character’s dreams. But even now, I want them to include others. I also want that Tuscan house, but mine will be L-shaped, split level and overlook the southern Mediterranean. The roof will be terra cotta. And I hope it is one day filled with people and I will even learn to cook for them – dining in the patio in late September, windows still open, patio doors thrown wide and the sea breeze lifting the curtains constantly. We’ll have a blessing and we’ll eat, and we’ll all do dishes together, and watch the sun set towards Gibraltar and wander off to bed with the windows still open and the wind still rustling the drapes. It’s not really my dream, but our dream. I don’t know who these people are, whose plates I will be filling, or even when such a house will be built, so for now they’re only dreams. But, I’m inviting other people into them. Perhaps soon we’ll realize them together.

Copyright © 2009, Ben Shaw
All Rights Reserved

Monday, March 23, 2009

Thanks Are In Order

Of late, with my brain going a million different directions and some days incredibly bleak for a new subject on which to write, I have relied heavily on suggestions, questions, and conversations I have had with friends. Their assistance, direct or otherwise, has proved invaluable. Were it not for their curiosity, their probing (and at times uncomfortable) inquiries, and their patience, I would have been high and dry a number of times.

I have often lamented in private that while I can write and it will come out decently, I can edit and improve a document that would otherwise appear mediocre, and I can work on the web page and make it look halfway professional, I cannot do all three with any degree of success. The quality always suffers. But into the midst of this struggle have stepped a number of volunteers who, though they have real lives and responsibilities that far exceed mine, have taken time from their days to assist me. What was once seemed an insurmountable task is becoming manageable, solely because of their enthusiastic help.

One friend has helped edit the information I have posted on my website and its various secondary pages, viciously attacking superlatives, run-on sentences, verbosity, and unprofessional writing. I needed it. I have taken most of this friend's suggestions and walked away with a better web page. Heaven knows my writing needs work.

Another friend has been meticulously poring through all the documents I have already posted on the page, sorting the wheat from the chaff, and helping me improve on material I have arrogantly assumed to be beyond reproach. This is a painful task for me, and I am thankful for the help with it. Nothing makes me want to quit writing more than reading my own material. It's exhausting. But this friend has graciously helped, and e-mailed me file after file of edited text that I will soon be incorporating. Without this help, what is already posted would see no improvement at all - though it certainly needs it.

A third friend serves as a willing sounding board and has offered to examine every blog post before it even hits the blog; turning garbage into something halfway readable, offering suggestions, and often teasing out of me a stronger thesis statement. If I had not received this assistance, many posts would lack the power they now have (hopefully). I appreciate this friend's willingness to wait often until the wee hours of the morning to read through something that is in grave need of repair.

Without their collective help, which is completely unprecedented, I would overwhelmed with literally 1,000 pages of poorly-written, hastily-published nonsense that lacked any significant meat.

A fourth friend arranged an opportunity to connect my passion with people who truly want to understand, and in so doing may have thrown wide open a number of other doors I have been struggling to enter for quite some time.

And there are others along the way, who have held me accountable, expected more from me, and patiently suggested how I might better present ideas. I have lost count of the times they have assisted me, said just the right words, or asked just the right questions.

For getting me started in this, I have three great friends and confidants to thank, and I will name them here, because they deserve the recognition.

To Sarah, for reminding me that somebody is curious, that somebody cares, and that for as long as I present something that's worthwhile, there will be an audience there to warmly receive it, just as she and many others have warmly received hundreds of other veterans. She keeps me chipping away at issues I have yet to fully understand and articulate, and asks me good questions.

To Uncle Caesar for encouraging me to write, and asking why one thing worked and another did not, for being the "wise man I know" whose words I often cite. For enthusiastically reading whatever drivel I write and invariably writing something nice about it. His nudging has propelled me from avid e-mailer to daily writer, something I never anticipated would happen. He, too, asks good questions.

To Ray, for telling me to just write, write, write, for encouraging me when I didn't want to and seeing promise where few others observed it. For sparking conversations that would later appear almost verbatim online, rudely not accredited to him. For reminding me to invite God with me, and seeing hope, not indecision and failure. He is a hortator.

These three, above all else, have helped me move from wandering motorcyclist and daily blogger to a writer who may actually be writing professionally, overseas, and pursuing a dream they envisioned before I had even discovered it. They are my muses and my foundation. Without them, I'd still be in the desert.

There are others, already too numerous to thank individually, but they, too, deserve credit and thanks, and I offer it now, probably the first time of many. Were it not, however, for the seven mentioned above, the past 9 months of writing would have amounted to little, and my dreams would remain intangible indefinitely. To all of you: thank you. Keep pressuring me, because I still need it. The best, you keep insisting, is yet to come.

Copyright © 2009, Ben Shaw
All Rights Reserved

From Hell's Foundry

While many veterans will firmly declare that war is hell and their involvement in it was little better, they will usually be quick to remark that this was also the best time in their lives. We were far from home and men died. We missed our families, but we were surrounded by brothers. We hated what we did, but we did it anyway and remain proud of our service. We had purpose, and calling; and each mission, though we acknowledged it or not, was an exercise in patriotism, self sacrifice, and an abandonment of our dreams for the sake of something greater. Life, simplified at times and complicated at others, made sense in its own way. We remember it and miss it and hate it and thank God we’re not there still, but pray we again feel similar grandness in our purpose. We were alive there, hovering on the brink of potential death.

It is difficult to articulate how a bond fostered so totally in tragedy can be so powerful, so lasting, and so memorable. Even now, years later, I’m still not sure I understand it. It does a disservice to simply say, “them were the good old days,”when in all fairness they often were not. They were awful. But they were also great. Perhaps this distinction is important to make: the action was awful, as was the distance and the loneliness and the gnawing fear that we may never see home again. BUT, there, surrounded by men we simultaneously loved and loathed, we made hell home and thrived there. We hated the action, but we loved the company.

It was recently pointed out to me that it is unhealthy to dwell in tragedy indefinitely. It is fairly easy for a veteran to exist in a place of victimhood, woundedness and grief. After all, grief was certainly a large component of our young lives. We saw things no men should see, endured tragedies no man can stomach easily, and we always carry that with us. But veterans don’t dwell there perpetually. They have hope; they have love, they have dreams, and they certainly have each other.

The fact is this: that grief and tragedy must necessarily receive a nod of acknowledgment. Bonds fostered in the best of times are truly good memories. Everyone recalls with pleasure and a distant smile the memory of great day and a great adventure. But such things can be remembered alone and to a fault. Unshared memories are inherently selfish. Those birthed in tragedy are more than memories, however. They are ghastly experiences, and they are wounds. They require companions for healing. They are the basis for the brotherhood.

Men who train together will be close – that is when they’re not squabbling with each other. Men who fight together are brothers, and will always cease their own arguments for unwavering devotion to a single cause: destruction of the enemy. The man who sweats with me is my friend, but the man who bleeds with me; he is my brother. It is an unbreakable bond – and makes for the strangest of bedfellows.

That brotherhood, now forged in the survival of evil, has more levels than can be reasonably explained. It is a strange character that can see the humor in a firefight or the peace in standing guard in a tower at sunset, miserable in the heat, bitten by insects, dehydrated and lonely. Family and home are far, but brothers are close – and they’re there when you need them. That nod towards tragedy is the recognition of the horror that cemented an otherwise disjointed platoon of misfits into the brotherhood. It is the foundation of things. Forgetting the tragedy means forgetting the source of the brotherhood.

But is it not right to perpetuate it, to generate misery for that which is already passed and done, to grieve for those already gone. We still note their absence, and feel it ever stronger on Veterans’ Day, Memorial Day, Independence Day, at the very hour on the anniversary of each individual death. We remember vividly. Only some of this is appropriate to convey to others. We are their memory, their living memorial. And it is our duty to live life to the fullest in their stead.

Why, then, do we even repeat the horror? Why do we remind many who do not wish to see how ugly things were? Because while they will never understand in full, we must still tell them about it. We saw the underbelly of life and survived it. We saw what we want no others to see. We saw it for them. At best, telling our stories will only bring the listener a little closer to truth: that humankind can be, at times, purely evil. We are not blind to it, and while we desire that no others see it, we find it imperative that its existence be acknowledged. We did not fight to purchase the citizenry’s ignorance of evil; we fought so they would only view it from afar and in total safety. Man does not appreciate peace until he understands the brutality of war. We are purposed to tell the stories of such things.

Should they choose not to cover their ears or turn away, they will then hear truth. They will hear of horror and the brotherhood that took root in its midst. They will grieve with us for those we lost. They will share our anger and a righteous indignation over the oppression of the innocent. They will laugh at our antics and see firsthand a union that death only strengthens. They will smile with us, rage with us, reflect on great and tragic battles with us, and they will understand, at least in part. This is a gift where the recipient must know the cost. They will appreciate what they will never be called to shoulder. And they will be with us and hear us and know us. They will BE us, except they did not bleed with us. Nevertheless, we offer them a seat at our table and full membership in our brotherhood. It was all for them, anyway.

Life isn’t sweet, for there is much tragedy. But it is savory. We have stories that prove it, and a brotherhood to preserve it.

Copyright © 2009, Ben Shaw
All Rights Reserved

Nos Baiuli

There are a few men who, at war, having breathed the reek of death, which at times they inflicted and at other times they observed befall the innocent; having lost brethren on foreign soil for the sake of millions never met; having grasped heavy swords and wielded them in duty and steadfast service to their country, disavowing hope and expecting a quick demise; acting fearlessly and fearfully, and seeing hell that others may never even view it from afar, return forever changed and irrevocably unable to recreate what they once were. “Part of me died over there,” said one. It was innocence. Yet it wasn’t enjoyed until it was lost; a sacrifice that prevents a reintegration into everything they so nobly fought to uphold. They occupy the fringe of society.

Any border town perched between a peaceful nation and a violent neighbor will be filled with the strangest of characters and outcasts. The same applies to the borders of society. There are hardened criminals evading the law and relishing a quick retreat to the safety of outright crime. They gave up their place in society. There are also law enforcement who struggle vainly to keep the violence localized and in check. They fight from within society, and it’s wearisome. A few citizens try to navigate the inconvenience of perpetual suspicion or danger, yet most move further from the border at the nearest opportunity. One other quiet group exists: the Keepers. They are there of their own accord.

It is their curse to be on that border, but it also their honor. It is their passion, really. Love of a society they cannot fully enjoy, but only peer in the windows and yearn to someday enter. Yet that is secondary to the call and their purpose for occupying that border. Somebody needed to do it, and they volunteered.

They don’t like it there, but there is nowhere else for them. Any relocation into society sends them quickly packing for the border once again. Nobody understands them. Nobody particularly wants them, and their attitude is more morbid than most can tolerate. They are feared, if nothing else for whatever latent skills they possess – exhibited or not. Their place, though they may wish it, is within society, but they will find no comfort there. Having grasped the sword once, they will forever carry it – and wield it. Yet their actions are strictly for those within the borders. They were there once and didn’t appreciate it, and now, relegated to the perimeter, they sadly turn their back on their greatest love to face instead whatever comes at them from without.

They are self-destructive, usually, because there’s little entertainment on the border and they don’t expect to live long anyway. Their habits won’t kill them; their calling will. The habits permit a temporary escape back towards the society they miss. The alert warrior is replaced with stumbling fool who, but for a moment, finds companionship among the revelers, but awakens once again the warrior – and still on the border.

The Latin word baiulus is defined as, “porter, pall-bearer, carrier of a burden; steward;” and indeed this title is befitting. These Keepers are baiuli: porters of the burden of loneliness and self-banishment. Pall-bearers of their deceased, but not-yet-interred innocence. They will carry that gently until the rest of them dies. Their stewardship is to their country.

Every day on this frontier solidifies the conviction that there is no other place for them. Every well-handled incident is further proof that this is where they belong. Every tragedy serves as a reminder that they’d rather be anywhere but there. But duty holds them there, for there is certainly no benefit to self, only great satisfaction in having answered the call, however difficult it proved to be. There is no defeat but to retreat, and that is never an option. They will fall where they stand, because they stand where they are meant to be.

But for these few it is miserably lonely. Life is abbreviated, steeped in loss with little gain, and devotion to the cause prevents much pursuit of other dreams. What they do is so others can dream. Before them lies fear, oppression, bondage and destruction. To their backs, though never fully experienced, rests freedom, peace, and safety. Also to their backs is home and country – yet they will never go there. They wait quietly, weary and at times haggard; swords sheathed but hands on the hilts, watching outward for sight of the next aggressor. They are expecting him soon but ready for him now. While they will never be home, it is worth their lives to preserve it. They loved it, and they still love all those who dwell there. Only a profound love can keep them where they are. Dream for them, for they cannot.

Nos Baiuli.

Copyright © 2009, Ben Shaw
All Rights Reserved