Saturday, April 11, 2009

After Further Consideration

This is not so much an independent post as it is an addendum to last week’s “We Needn’t a Parade,” in which I strove to separate the politics and public opinion of a war from the character and service of the individual veteran. Though it was seen regularly and brutally during the Vietnam War, and thankfully has greatly diminished since then, there are still a number of returning veterans who are inundated with political opinions, personal attacks, and a broad array of discourteous treatment. Yet in considering the matter further, there may be more at play than strong political opinions and a gross lack of manners. While these attitudes may fuel some of the negativity, perhaps other factors are influencing their behavior.

There have been times in my life when I have been fairly insecure, and being around somebody who is supposedly a peer (in age and perhaps economic standing), but clearly far smarter than me has caused one of three things to transpire. I may (rarely) concede their knowledge on a subject and try to learn something from them. This would be the smartest thing to do. More commonly, however, I will either “come up” to their level and attempt to hold an intelligent conversation, or simply question or naysay the subject of their expertise. This is clearly rude, unnecessary, and an overt indication of my own immaturity, but I have done it nevertheless. Though I should be thoroughly used to people smarter than me by now, I don’t particularly relish the feeling. It’s humbling. Thus, I try to either feel smarter or make them feel stupider. It is a proactive (and wrong) means by which to boost my own self-esteem. I am not advocating or attempting to excuse my behavior. It is out of line.

But more than intimidation in the presence of superior intellect, I have this problem in the face of superior character. I am quite uncomfortable around those that have demonstrated (or I can simply tell) have higher character than I. It is intimidating, awkward, and I will take measures to ease my discomfort. Pride prevents me from either leaving (since it too closely resembles flight) or acknowledging that I am in the presence of someone deserving of respect. Once again, I strike back in my own insecurity. When moderately “threatened,” I simply talk about my own experiences to present a subtle case for my own noteworthy character. These efforts fail abysmally, however, as they politely listen and say little. I may then move to a more direct attack, where I make every effort to berate their character in the hopes of somehow elevating my own.

Logically, this is flawed, since good argument at best involves a very modest rebuttal for the “other guy’s” argument, and then much greater attention devoted to reinforcing my own position. Negating his character does NOTHING to advance my own. Similarly, it is morally wrong, since it indicates a dissatisfaction with self, an intimidation with others, and a general insecurity with my own character and perhaps even existence. I would be better served to address that, NOT attempt bring others down to below my own character.

Curiously, I have even found myself doing this a few times with veterans whose service and valor far exceeded mine. I have, in this way, ignored the brotherhood of which we are all members. My insecurity is so overwhelmingly powerful around men and women of good character that I cast courtesy, honor, and respect to the wind and just try to get ahead. In truth, it’s dishonoring – to myself and to them.

If I am capable of doing this, and I am supposedly among the same honored ranks as other veterans, then I am certain it can come from civilians who find the character of a warrior to be unsettling. What they do not understand, they either flee from or attack. What they fear, too, they will attack. It makes them feel better. Could it be possible that much of the negativity that veterans receive upon their return home is more caused by the discomfort of people being in the presence of a selfless hero, a warrior, and a patriot than by differing political opinions? I would submit a resounding yes to this. None of us like feeling little, or lesser, and we certainly no not relish rendering any respect to those whose character far exceeds our own. When in the light, darkness has the choice to either retreat further into the shadows or directly attack the light. We so often choose the latter.

I believe the correct action (for me and others) to take when in the presence of superior character is to yield to them, to extend the honor he or she deserves, and step aside in admiration. This attitude towards veterans actually is itself a demonstration of higher character. What is so beautiful, though, is this: these are the warriors who think of OTHERS above themselves. These are men and women who took an oath to defend the rights and safety of strangers. They will not step through s or over us. They will courteously step around us with a smile. It is their character, and it is far greater than ours. If only we could summon the appropriately humble attitude, the welcome home for veterans would be truly magnificent. No Vietnam veteran would be able to recount the number of times he was spit upon. No grieving family would endure a ring of protestors at their son or daughter’s military funeral. No veteran would wonder why his country appears to hate him so passionately. And no citizen would fear those who purchased this country with sweat, sacrifice, and blood. There would only be universal gratitude; from the hero for the warm welcome, and from the citizen for their honorable service.

Copyright © 2009, Ben Shaw
All Rights Reserved

Friday, April 10, 2009

Good People

Though it may be viewed by some as simply warm and fuzzy and lacking in substance, there are a few people and organizations that I wish to raise awareness to for the reason they have personally helped me or others. If nothing else, I am hopeful that their mention further encourages those already involved in these efforts, invites others to join them, and increases support for a universally appealing cause – that of troop support and returned veterans.

There are a few people have impacted me directly, powerfully, and to this day continue to enrich my life immensely. Foremost among them is XXXX.

While she will probably get mad at me for posting this (oh well), I want to make everybody aware of a great personal friend, confidant and tireless laborer for the cause of troop support and veteran advocacy.

XXXX first started writing to me while I was on my first tour in 2004-5. She and her non-profit ensured each member of my platoon received extensive supplies, and even individual Christmas packages. Like most of us, I forgot about all this when I got home in 2005.

During my second tour (2005-6), I remember vaguely writing to a lady that kept up with us, sent us piles of things we couldn't obtain through our own supply lines, and inundated us with encouraging letters, packages, and notes from home. I may have only written back one thank you letter, if that.

During my third tour (2007), I received an e-mail from a lady who announced, to my astonishment, that she'd been writing to me during all my tours, and even provided copies of my old letters to prove it. Somewhat taken aback, I e-mailed and thanked her for her loyal support, her tenacity in the face of my forgetfulness, and her ongoing dedication to me and others as we scattered hither and yon over the years. She has been a friend ever since.

Her organization, a grassroots campaign founded outside XXXX for the sole purpose of troop support, collaborates with local businesses, schools, and even the local government to ensure the men and woman overseas are well stocked and encouraged. Furthermore, they have even arranged very elaborate and touching welcome-home parties for a number of local servicemembers. At the moment, XXXX and XXXX (who has two sons in Iraq right now) co-chair this non-profit, local pastor XXXX serves as their secretary and XXXX is treasurer. The organization’s motto is fitting, and they live by it. XXXX is frequently swamped with speaking engagements in schools and other venues, securing sponsorship from local businesses, and coordinating mass mailings of packages to various units and individuals through the middle east. Having been the recipient of some of their supplies, I can say they are thorough, thoughtful, and designed to boost morale, sugar levels, and overall creature comfort for the men and women in uniform.

After extensive correspondence and lots of packages and letters over the years, I had the opportunity to meet XXXX and her family when I returned in mid-2007. They made the mistake of feeding me, listened to me talking late into night, and she has since endured me unloading about veterans issues, relationship problems, trials, travels, failures and great successes. I have been delighted to watch her organization grow in size, clout, and service to the troops, and heartened to know that the woman who firmly stands behind their efforts is an incredible patriot, a loving mother, wife, and daughter of a military hero herself (Battle of the Bulge, WWII). She is family to me, really, and a second mother to not only me, but many others. On Mothers' Day, I'll call her and tell her this. Here is a link to their brochure: (since removed)

And XXXX is just one of many.

Another two are Jody Nelson and her daughter April, who cleverly shipped me an indestructible coffeemaker and bulk quantities of coffee, cups, and hot chocolate to ease our misery in the cold, wet Iraqi winter. During that tour I did some clever negotiating and wound up with a power converter in my humvee and the coffee maker mounted right next to the radio. Despite horrific road conditions and repeatedly dumping entire pots of coffee into my lap, the coffeemaker and even the glass pot itself continued to serve us flawlessly. During one particularly long operation while working with US and Iraqi special forces, I would serve coffee daily to over 40 men. We all owe Jody and April immensely for this.

During my final tour, Jody graced me with perhaps my most memorable gift yet: several disposable pans of brownies she had carefully baked, wrapped, and somehow managed to ship unscathed. This was the only gift I have ever received that I rarely shared. Everybody knew better than to ask. They were MY brownies. I can’t thank her enough for this.

Upon reading my recent remarks about how the troops would like cookies, a good friend immediately set to baking, and soon will be sending off dozens of morale-boosting cookies to my friends overseas. I have not obtained her permission to list her name as of yet, but she deserves recognition all the same. Cookies work miracles on guys stuck in the desert. Trust me. You can never have enough of them.

There are organizations and businesses also rallied to help the men and women overseas.

Since at this time I have not asked for her permission to print her name and organization, I can only state that I have a friend high up in a publishing company who, upon learning recently of my deployed friends, did some legwork and quickly shipped well over fifty brand new books, heaps of magazines, and playing cards to them and their units. If I can secure permission to post her name and company, I will make the appropriate amendments immediately. I am deeply indebted to her and her corporation for their caring contributions to my friends, and also to the hundreds of other stateside troops that they have visited, supplied, and cheered up over the past several months. In fact, May finds them hosting an event for the wounded warriors at Walter Reid medical center. This, too, is worthy of note. So thank you, friend, and I hope to put a name in here soon (if you allow it).

*Update: my friend has permitted me to list the company that has so graciously provided these materials: Galaxy Press

A relatively new online non-profit has also stepped in to help disabled veterans as much as they are able. When the founders of started their organization, it was designed to help alleviate whatever material and financial burdens wounded veterans were experiencing to permit them to focus more of their time and energy to their own recoveries. Now, after major media coverage and a great deal of additional publicity within the military, government and private sector, is a nationally-known, all-volunteer non-profit dedicated to posting disabled veterans’ needs online and alerting the donors that wish dearly to help meet those needs. Donors can provide physical items, donate to a monetary need, or even handle a need in full with the click of a few buttons on their computers.

I recently began working for as a writer, which afforded me the privilege of speaking directly with a number of these assisted veterans and their families. It has been a tremendously encouraging and simultaneously heartbreaking experience to listen to these veterans, in various stages of recovery, state how much they were helped, how things often still aren’t going superbly, but they want other veterans to see THEIR needs met before they request further assistance. Even in the midst of their greatest hardships, coupled with bills, family situations, rehabilitation and varying degrees of disability, they remain dedicated to their brothers and sisters in arms. I am honored to have made their acquaintance, and look forward to future conversations with them. Should anybody be uncertain how to help disabled veterans, I would personally recommend visiting the website and considering donating to the real, individual, and personal needs of the men and women listed therein. After speaking to a number of them, they are grateful, honored, and now freed to devote more energy to their recoveries.

I have overlooked others, no doubt, and this is unintentional, but the aforementioned are those that most immediately come to mind as good men and women, great friends, and great supporters of the men and women serving this country. They are often unsung heroes, since the attention falls to veterans themselves, not to those that supported them. Well, I remember them, and know quite well how much they helped me, inspired me, and emboldened me to do more for my friends and comrades.

What is most noteworthy, however, is what their actions and efforts indicate. They are not guilt-driven or obligatory, but rooted in genuine compassion and unwavering support for those who defend this country. Their message, if it was put to words, would be this:

“We don’t know you, but we may know somebody that does. Regardless, we are praying for you, we stand behind you, and desire your safe return. And when that time comes, we will be here, we will greet you as patriots, heroes, and victors, and we will not forget.”

Nor, then, shall we forget you.

Copyright © 2009, Ben Shaw
All Rights Reserved

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Furry Syphilis In A Bag

When I stepped into Biology 101 for the first time more than twelve years ago, I did as I always did…ran to the back and staked my claim on the most innocuous, hidden seat I could find (and one that gave me easy access to the door if I had to escape). I think about these things. I routinely selected the back, at any rate, because I can’t in good conscience sleep in the front rows. It’s too obvious, I’d fall out of desk chair (I knew a guy who did this), and I really wanted a wall to lean against. And of course, I hate having people stare at me from behind. I’d much rather stare at them.

Before long an upper middle-aged man strolled in, hunched over, pushing an entire two-shelved cart full of papers, bags, doodads, and perhaps a great deal of trash. It was hard to tell. Maybe the top shelf was for important things and the bottom shelf was for garbage. Either way, it didn’t look organized. I caught myself wondering if the cart held object lessons for the entire school year. He certainly had enough crap stacked on it.

Mr. Sellers wrote his name on the board, looked around at his lot of disinterested, tired, young students (save for a few), and began quietly. We were forced to shut up just to hear him. With a jovial voice more befitting a doting grandfather than a biology professor, he spoke: “My name is Mister Sellers, and this is Biology 101. Is anybody here in the wrong class?” Nobody answered, but a couple grabbed their papers and made a quick departure. I caught a half smile on his face. We spent the next half hour learning what biology was – the study of living things.

Unless one possesses a natural curiosity about the world around them, plants and animals, biology can be brutal. Learning the nomenclature of a cell can be dreadful, or the metabolic processes of the kidneys can induce depression, or at least the strong desire to drop a course and change one’s major to something easier, like interdisciplinary studies. But Mr. Sellers’ teaching style was unique. We never learned facts. We learned stories.

We learned that the water molecule looks like Mickey Mouse ears, and a generation of Disney kids suddenly made a connection with science they would never forget. A few even referred to it as the Mickey Mouse molecule before catching themselves, hoping nobody had noticed, and correcting with the more accurate, H2O

One common story character, Missy Red Pumps, always over-dressed (or under-dressed, depending on your perspective), would frequently find herself in situations where she was forced to consider her own physiology and why certain atoms bonded and others did not. Invariably, her friends Muffy and Buffy would join her on misadventures into the stomach to look at its mucus lining or into the woods to study the morphology of hardwoods. And also invariably, her pumps would be the wrong footwear. If memory serves me correctly, she used them at least once to fend off some recalcitrant biflagellated alga attacking her and her hapless friends. Perhaps in those situations, at least, she was perfectly attired.

More entertaining than this was the grief the front row of class received. In addition to the stress of having to stay awake and the annoyance of people behind you sneezing onto your neck, Mr. Sellers subjected them to a plethora a brown paper bags with unknown items in them. He'd rummage on the cart, clutch a bag tightly, and insist, "Mr. Sellers isn't going to hurt you." The front row invariably withered.

“This one is a virus, but it's not dangerous. I’ve made sure of that.” The girl directly in front of him looked like she wanted to hide under a table.

“Is it alive still?” somebody would ask.

“Nope… well, let’s see.” He’d peer into his bag, look puzzled, and respond, “it doesn’t appear to be.” People were hesitant to stick their hands inside, but that was what he routinely asked.

And over the course of two semesters, those poor front row students, who never could find it in their hearts to change seats (or the rest of us flat out refused to move), crammed their hands into dozens of bags, pulled out all manners of dead insects, vegetation, toys, candy, chewing gum, or whatever odd bit of nature some former student had recently brought to Mr. Sellers. He collected such things.

When I first noticed a bioluminescent fungus, the first person I showed my sample to was Mr. Sellers. Over the years, as I and all three of my sisters have attended his course, we would find little natural knickknacks and give them to him. Christmas one year (for he is now a family friend) found us sending him furry, stuffed STDs that somebody with a horrible sense of humor had elected to market. If I had to guess, students now are subjected to a random handful of stuffed syphilis. We are pleased to have made that contribution.

One class, while passing the gigantic molecule consisting of a baseball-sized mess of glued BBs to a classmate, I managed to drop it and it exploded on impact. We spend the next ten minutes discussing nuclear fission. I’m hopeful another student savvy with a glue gun and BBs has since made him a replacement. That was the source of MOST of his object lessons: students.

For more than just a better understanding of the world in which we live, Mr. Sellers’ natural fascination and curiosity with biology has rubbed off on us. We’re more observant now, we see strange little things that we remember from class, and a few of us will always remember the dead bugs, twigs, and candy that he employed to startle the poor front row people. I didn’t sleep, because I was interested. ( And because the older guy next to me, always sick and always sucking on a fireball, would sneeze constantly, cuss, and blow fireball odor onto me.)

Even more, my entire family has gained a close friendship with a man who shares our curiosity about life, and nature, and bugs and plants and exploring earth. Years after stressing out over how to earn extra project points for class (and settling on making a dish for the Great Vegetarian Feast or pressing flowers and leaves), we simply enjoy his company. When I graduated and transferred to another university, Mr. Sellers’ would write me monthly and send me quarters for laundry. He did the same for my older sister, my younger sisters, and at least two other friends.

During my time overseas in the Marine Corps, through ALL THREE tours, Mr. Sellers was my most loyal correspondent, keeping me apprised of his students, his yard projects, his grandchildren, and the new house his son was building next door. Seven years later, I know how his “grounds” look, and I’ve never even been to his house. But weekly in Iraq, I learned how the redbuds were coming along, and how many new bushes were planted, and what flowers were blooming, and which had just been tragically picked by his grandchildren. Just as much as he offered his passion for nature to his students, he offered his friendship and candor to my family. Multiple times each year, in fact, he gathers students, sends them to our house, and we lead them on a nature walk around the property to earn some extra project points.

“Has Mr. Sellers ever done this walk?” Their feet start hurting after an hour.


“Well he should,” they’d grumble. If they came overdressed, we’d lead them through the mud. If they had fun, we’d stay out for hours. And the next time Mr. Sellers and his awesome (and patient) wife come over for dinner, we swap stories about which student said what about him, or he tells us what they said about us.

It’s been a few months since I stopped by the college to see him, and I really ought to. After knocking on a door always covered with dead bugs and various twigs and feathers and artwork, he’d swing it wide, invite me into the only seat in the office, and there, amid stacks of books, heaps of papers, and carts full of strange little pieces of nature given him by similarly enthusiastic students, we catch up, laugh about things, and eat candy from the class cart, a full ten years after completing (and acing) his class. In the same measured, quiet voice he uses in class, he’d tell me the latest about a student’s and antics and break into giggling as he recounts the student that asked in all sincerity if trees have feelings.

And my sisters still visit him, too. We didn’t just learn biology from him, we made a friend. I just hope he’s dutifully horrifying people with the furry, friendly, stuffed syphilis, because he’s weird like that, and so are we, too. Maybe I’ll swing by tomorrow and say hello. I have a 2-inch shark’s tooth for him, and during our last nature walk we found some beaver teeth. I’m sure he’d like those.

Copyright © 2009, Ben Shaw
All Rights Reserved

Drowning? Try Hot Air

I have a number of friends who are, for a number of reasons are swamped in work, school, family responsibilities, or some combination thereof. Many would like to simply get away. Perhaps they can for a few minutes. While the below appeals more to the young, they do not exclude the young at heart, the adventuresome, or those that enjoy a good story. They are all light and appealing, however shallow, short and inconsequential. They’re air, you see. Hot air.

-If you long for sun, sand and solitude, read #1.
-If you ache for the stillness of winter without and a fire within (and are preferably a girl), read #2.
-If you’re single and wouldn’t mind some encouragement, read #3.
-If you crave good company, read #4.
-If you’re really, really bored and have nothing better to do with your time, read them all.

#1. You're in the Bahamas, sipping a chilled beer or fruity drink (ordered only for the cool little umbrella), and reclining on the west side of the tiny island. The palm fronds overhead rustle every few minutes, but it’s quickly lost in the gentle white-capping of the surf. The atoll and reef reduce otherwise pounding waves to the calm shores of a large lake.
It's evening, but you’re still wearing your shades, as the setting sun dips into the ocean and doubles its brilliance. It's beautiful, but still early in the evening. When it dims a bit, you'll drop your shades, set down your drink, and wade into the surf for photographs. It's breathtaking. You'll also back into the palm trees up the beach a few paces and take a few shots through the fronds. It’s amazing this happens every day like this.

It's still warm, and the breeze is remarkably dry, steady, they'll light the fires soon and you'll all circle the flames and continue sitting, bare toes in the sand, and discuss what will be done tomorrow: nothing. You'll stay up late talking, and you'll sleep late and get up to a light brunch and read the paper on the deck. There's nowhere pressing to be right now. This is a vacation. There aren't appointments. It’s your hiatus.

That book that's laid untouched beside your bed for six months - you'll finish it tomorrow, and start another. The paper's crossword puzzle is also enticing. Coffee will be nice, with lots of cream and sugar. And not too hot. The sun is warming. The coffee needn't. You set your cup on the corner of the paper to keep it from fluttering as your work the crossword.

It's not forever, but only a few days. Yet they were needed. Other responsibilities will await when you get back. But for now... kick up your feet. Relax. These are your days, and you're only young once.

#2. It's snowing outside, on top of the two feet already on the ground. But it’s warm in the cabin. The wood is stacked high, the fireplace is roaring, and a profusion of animal fur rugs keep your bare toes warm. The floors are wood plank, the walls of log, and the loft a half-open upper story that capitalizes on the late night heat from the fire and the delicate touch of woodsmoke always moving through the rafters.

It's Montana, it's late fall, and the elk have started running. They’re rutting, actually, and you caught a glimpse of a medium-sized herd earlier that evening as they began their slow descent from the high country into the plains for the winter. They're huge, lumbering, and potentially dangerous, but gorgeous from afar. They move silently through the snow.

In fact, elk was also what each of you ate for dinner, and the rest hangs high in the barn to keep it from the grizzlies. Aside from the fire and a few low-key chats, it is quiet. The snow muffles everything. As you step out and watch it heavily bury the last step on the front porch, you prepare for an evening inside, pleasant conversations, and a couple glasses of wine while you stare into the fire. There is no electricity, but oil lamps, ambient light from the fire, and subdued laughter. It's all quieter when it's snowing. It’s peaceful.

Tomorrow you're hiking in snowshoes, but it's okay, because it's more of a stroll, and you're just heading to the ridge to get a view into the valley where the elk where be. The sunset will be tremendous from up there. And so would the sunrise be, if you get up that early. But better a good breakfast than a good sunrise. The sun will always be there. Eggs Benedict, bacon, and toast may not be. That first cup of coffee is amazing, especially when accompanied by a book of your own choosing, and a friend's large friendly dog resting her head in your lap. Tonight, sleep will come quickly.

There are no distractions, because a crackling fireplace isn't a racket, it's a lullaby. And the goose down blanket is a comfortable embrace, improved all the more by the fact his arms are around you and you're both on the couch. Friends are there to keep you all in check. It's just nice, and he's even warmer than the comforter. And he’ll cook breakfast in the morning; or at least try, which is commendable. Does he even need a name right now? No.

An uninterrupted nine hours later, you slowly drift awake. It's still acceptable. The other couches are similarly occupied. You’re the first up, so you gently lift his arms off of you and tiptoe to the fire to rustle the coals and throw on a log to hold back the chill slowly creeping through the windows.

It’s serenely quiet, and rested as you are, the coffee will still be nice. The sort of savory, roasted taste you always experience when you percolated over a fire. It isn’t necessarily better, but it’s memorable, and certainly suited to the occasion. Not sweet and over crowded with additives, but savory. The percolator lid lightly tings as you hang the pot on the fire, and the others stirring a bit, but they quiet quickly. You have time for you. And God. And it’s better that way. It’s effortlessly given because you’re rested, and you learn something.

Looking out the window with an amen, you SEE His amen: "see? I'm the best artist here. You like it? Stick around. I'll do it again sometime soon."

It’s time to wake the others; you've had your date. Now it’s time for your day, and everybody in it. There are views to see, and the arctic chill on your nose as you begin your hike to the ridge. Keep the camera warm, because this will be a perfect photograph, and you want to remember it. You already will, but this sweetens it.

Others are with you, and HE is with you, and you will all reminisce about this timelessly. It was yesterday. It was forever ago. It was good, and you’ll all remember, and dream about it. And for the moment, you’ll live it. You’ll write your story this evening, with each breath. And in the evening, his arms will be there again under the goose down comforter.

#3. “________ loves me, and I love _________! ________’s the ONE!” (Pardon my poor attempt at humor)

#4. When you drove away, you had no idea your destination. In fact, you’d mouthed the words, “I don’t know where I’m going, but I hope it’s nice when I get there.” But more than this, you’re starting to enjoy the journey itself. The terminus is decreasing in importance. Fixating on it causes you to forget the drive, and there’s much to see out here. It’s been years since you last left the coast, and an inundation of flip flops, sun dresses and warm air grows wearisome, as would Eden itself in time. Somewhere else would be nice, with something different to see.

Inland seemed like a good direction, and it propels you quickly from city racket and chaos to slow, narrow roads lined with fences and fields. Old barbed wire and derelict posts make better art than you realized. They’re all different. Mailboxes, too. You pass one a good ten feet off the ground. As you slow to stare at it, you can barely make out the faded, hand-painted lettering on the sides: “Air Mail.” It’s refreshing, and not loaded with innuendo, and simple. It’s just funny.

Endless miles of fields and patchworks of fences give way to hills, and sharper curves in the road, and old oaks leaning wearily into the ditches. Houses and other buildings are now limited to occasional crossroads. Small boxes with low roofs and sagging porches and old gas pumps in front of the town’s one station. In one small town, Belle's diner beckons to you. You forgot to eat that morning.

It is amazing that a profusion of grease and butter and gravy doesn’t kill all who eat here, but most of them are farmers and they labor long hours and burn it off quickly. You will too, today. They claim to have the best burger in town (though they’re the ONLY restaurant in town, that you can observe). Best or not, it’s delicious. So are the fries. And the Coke somehow always tasted better in a bottle.

Fighting the urge for a nap, you get back on the road. There’s still more to see, and more curves to navigate, and in the distance, something you long forgot your state had: mountains. The highest peaks still have snow. You’ll go there, and you’ll hike, and stop, and admire the view, and meet a nice couple from Minnesota who talk funny and who have been traveling since their last son left for college two years ago. They drove 90,000 miles last year, and this year will be about the same.

As you hike down the mountain with them, they invite you to dinner, which they promise won’t taste like it was cooked in an RV, and they prove it by serving the best Calamari Genovese you’ve ever tasted. They’re both 2nd generation Italian immigrants and their mothers taught them well. It’s all the more humorous with their Minnesota accents.

You’re welcome to stay the night, but there’s still more to see. It’s warm out now. You’ll drive some distance and admire the stars and see a few meteorites, and pull over to sleep on the back seat. There is MUCH more to see, a million miles to travel, and many interesting strangers to meet. And you’ve just set out.

Copyright © 2009, Ben Shaw
All Rights Reserved

Monday, April 6, 2009

Sweet Sleep

There is one aspect of veteran readjustment that never seems to get the attention it deserves, perhaps because it lies buried around other issues and isn’t as glaringly obvious. The issue is sleep. Many vets have a hard time with it, for a variety of reasons I will explain below. For some it is just a nuisance, for others completely crippling, but for most it exists somewhere along the continuum of tolerable to frustrating to downright limiting. I have spoken with many about it, experience it myself, and read about a number of other cases along the way.

Aside from what I have been told, I can only share my own difficulties with it, which while perhaps more revealing and personal than I find terribly comfortable, maybe help raise awareness to the issue. I find it troubling, and I’m far from the only one. On the new Facebook-style forum exclusively for Afghanistan and Iraqi vets (, I recently discovered a post from a young woman who lamented she couldn’t sleep well, didn’t know what else to do about it, and it continues to transform every day into an exercise in self-discipline – devoted solely to fighting her own physiology. She was asking for help, yet all people could really offer was empathy. Another discussion forum was, “I go from 0-100 with my anger sometimes.” I can relate to both with ease. Here is my story:

For whatever the reason(s), I have not slept well in years. Despite ruminating on it extensively, I can determine neither a particular event that sparked this, nor even a set block of time wherein it began to become an identifiable problem. What I CAN state (as accusatory as it may sound) is that it has significantly worsened since joining the Marines, serving in the Marines, and then leaving the Marines in 2007. I am unsure if it is conditioning gone awry, stress, PTSD, or some strange aggregate of factors all uniting to make me perpetually tired and miserable. Regardless, it’s there, and it has some serious repercussions.

While every person is conditioned for different quantity of sleep, the general standard is that we need at least 7.5 hours a night. Some need much more, and a few can go for years with no more than six a night. I USED to need 7.5 to feel rested, but now not even nine can give me that. Aside from the slow, cumulative immunosuppression that will invariably make me sick, there are other results of this disorder (if I could use the term here). Foremost, I am ALWAYS tired, and I hate it. I never wake up rested; ever. In fact, I have likened getting out of bed to peeling old roadkill off asphalt. There is nothing fun, eager, or graceful about it. It is a man armed with a shovel attacking a smear of fur and stink on the road. I feel like the smear on the road, and my mind is the persistent man with the shovel. Neither party enjoys its part, and each resents the other.

Constantly being exhausted leaves my brain muddled, my cognitive abilities limited, every thought more difficult than it should be, and sentences challenging to assemble. Writing, needless to say, is often a monumental effort. Some mornings I slur my speech for a time before every motor function decides to join me in waking. I can’t think, and really don’t even want to anyway. More than this though, I am routinely cranky. While a little may be permissible in the morning, it is not permissible all day, especially when it crescendos to the intensity that I have experienced. Every little detail, every minor irritation that may cause the average person to roll his or her eyes will instead send me into a rage.

Worse yet, I can see it coming. “I’m grumpy today and I’m going to be awful.” Aware as I may be, I still can’t stop it. It comes anyway, I say or do something regrettable, and then frequently turn the anger on myself for being angry (which I realize makes no sense). The anger is irrational, destructive, and not just quick to appear and pass. It lingers. Clear, intellectual thought is further hampered, and I retreat to privacy to get at least a moderate grasp on things. As this sleeplessness continues, so also do the frequencies of my isolation. I’m trying to avoid both blowing up and being rude to others. Neither is productive. But isolation is poisonous to the spirit of a vet. We need to be around people. We need that normalcy and constant indoctrination into “normal society.” Above all else, I need to prevent the Marine infantry sergeant from coming out. Few have seen him, and I want to keep it that way. We’re a supremely effective combat force for a reason. It has to do with anger. Yet it has no place outside of a combat zone.

For many veterans (including the one with whom I spoke today), their reasons for being unable to sleep are directly related to traumatic incidents. They have nightmares about things they’ve experienced, and frequently jolt awake, preventing the natural and essential entry into REM (rapid eye movement) sleep. While I do have strange dreams that very often involve violence, I am not troubled by nightmares, but just frequent lurches from sleep. “Ga!” I’m instantly awake. “What’s that noise?! I’m supposed to be somewhere! I have a mission to run! A meeting to be in! A formation to attend!” Well, obviously I don’t, quickly discover this, and then fall back asleep again. But the damage is already done. I have been deprived of a full-length sleep cycle so essential to feeling rested.

Other veterans have a hard time waking up, and one recently thanked me for calling at 10AM and waking him up. “I’d sleep all day if you hadn’t called.” Another told me last week that all he wants to do is sleep and never wake up. I’d like to sleep and wake up feeling rested for once, and I don’t know how to make it happen.

Sure, it could be circadian rhythms, but some experimentation with that has resulted in me simply slipping into a routine, waking up at one time consistently, and still feeling miserably tired all the same. As usual, I just get up anyway. Exhaustion always competes with total self-shaming for sleeping away the day. I just can’t do it, as much as I’d like to try it (and I have in the past). I feel too much like I’ve completely pissed away a day.

Lord knows the cause isn’t pressing responsibilities, since I have few, if any. Very rarely must I get up and race out the door to be somewhere. Nor does anything prevent me taking a nap in the afternoon. Regardless, I still can’t sleep, naps only make me more tired, and I get more and more unpleasant to be around. In fact, yesterday’s blog post (“We Mannered Few”) is the product of one irrational outburst that actually drove me out of a coffee shop and onto the curb to yell at somebody on the phone. It limits my ability to be in public, since I’m constantly guarded against the next irrational outburst. In truth, all I want to do is sleep, and not hate myself for being either rude or sleeping away the day. After a time, I just try to avoid sleeping altogether. I try to delay the inevitable misery of waking.

Go to a doctor? Why bother? All they’ll do is prescribe me pills. I don’t want pills. “I’m not screwed up. THAT guy is.” (Remember how stubborn veterans are). Besides, making the admission of a sleep disorder comes dangerously close to an admission of some sort of psychological dysfunction. I’m not sure if I’m ready to do that. I just want some non-medicated, non-induced, undisturbed sleep. This is all that MANY of us want.

Like my friend Jake, who keeps envisioning an IED that went off on him in Anbar province. And Cody, who had his brains rattled badly when the car bomber blew up on them. Or Randy, who can’t even remember how many times he was concussed. Or John, who can’t forget the stink of burning flesh. And Nikko, who can’t forget the war and how it changed him. Or Paul, whose closest comrade committed suicide. And Jeff, who years later still wonders if he did enough. Or my close friend Tate who can’t forgive himself and still feels a coward.

We’d think more clearly. We wouldn’t be knots of unbridled anger simply looking for a hapless recipient. We wouldn’t hate every breath of life in the mornings. It might transform us into completely different people. We might be nice again. We might be truly alive again. We might have hope.

Copyright © 2009, Ben Shaw
All Rights Reserved

We Mannered Few

As near as I can tell, there are three types of people in the United States: people who are offensive, people who are offended but too reserved to do anything about it, and a very small group that will actually hold people accountable. I am annoyed with the first two parties – though for different reasons. They are both failing the third party, each other, and society as a whole. They foster apathy, timidity, and create a breeding ground for a culture with no manners. I find it unacceptable.

If a parent has unruly children, it clearly represents particular parenting failures that have been allowed to continue unabated for too long. “I will do what I want,” reasons the child, “because mom won’t ever really punish me.” Children are smarter than we often give them credit. Whatever happened to disciplining the child that has a screaming fit in a grocery store? Buy them something to shut them up? That’s rewarding their behavior, which B.F. Skinner defines as operant conditioning. You’ve just trained your spawn to be hellions until you reward their miscreance with a treat. Rats learn this way. Be smarter than the rat.

If you are in a movie we all paid to see, but have a loud voice, try to bear that in mind when you’re telling your friend about your day and not even paying attention. Some of us can’t hear very well. Neither do we like having to strain to hear lines over the discourteous person nearby that doesn’t understand what it’s like to be polite in public. And for heaven’s sake, if somebody asks you to be a little quieter, don’t be insulted. Nor should you spend the remainder of the movie loudly shushing your friends because you still don’t understand that you’re loud and annoying. Ask an honest person if you’re irritating and disruptive. You may be surprised with the answer.

If you are accustomed to weaving a tapestry of profanity into your speech, give a moment’s pause to consider if everybody else around you is speaking similarly. If they are not, perhaps you should consider checking your speech. Slow down a bit, think about what you’re about to say, and prove, please, that you are more articulate than a seventeen year old inmate at a juvenile detention facility. I did not grow up hearing certain words, and I do not wish to hear them in public. I have expectations from people. If I was in prison, they would be lower. But, I am not in prison and nor are you. Act like it.

Consider that there are people around you representing multiple generations; old, young, married, single, parents and grandparents. How would you feel if they spoke like you do around your children? It would probably bother you. If it did not, then you are a parent that has failed Child Rearing 101. You’ve indoctrinated your offspring to accept, welcome, purvey, and even celebrate filth. You should strive for the opposite. Teach a child appropriate behavior and then let that child determine later on if he or she wishes to adhere to it. DO NOT teach your child profanity and assume that everybody talks like this. If you were aware other people existed on this earth besides yourself, you’d quickly discover that they don’t speak in such a manner.

If you feel yourself so important that you can’t even say hello or thank you to the clerk who rings you up as you continue to talk on the phone, I will openly encourage that clerk to overcharge you by hundreds of dollars. You’re too important to notice. Maybe you’re also rich. If they get away with it, I will also laugh openly and directly at you (and ask for a cut from the clerk).

Then there is the second type: the timorous. If you are offended by certain things, you are left with two options. You may either retreat from public altogether, or you may speak up. Both, at times, are reasonable. Some of us are supersensitive. More likely, however, people are super rude. So speak up, grow some confidence, and truly demonstrate that your convictions are deep-seated and purposeful. Tell people what manners look like by showing them. What are you afraid of? Humiliation? It’s the rude people that should be ashamed, and it’s your duty to tell them.

I am weary of being quiet. I am weary of being unable to hear the movie or have a casual conversation over dinner in a nice restaurant. I am bothered that the children around me and the nice grandmothers are expected to tolerate your mouth. I am weary of being told to just ignore it or go away. No, I am a paying customer, a tax-paying pedestrian, an adult, generally polite, and wish for my children and the strangers around me to be free from the burden of tolerating you. Others will join me, and you will have to learn, however belatedly, that manners are still the norm. Polite people: convince me you truly stand by your convictions. Speak up. And rude people, shut up, or we will shut you up. And we will be justified in doing so.

Copyright © 2009, Ben Shaw
All Rights Reserved

Sunday, April 5, 2009

My Future Cardboard Estate

I was recently asked the very curious question of where I thought I’d be in ten years. After a moment’s thought, I responded that I expected to be homeless. Given the look on the inquirer’s face, I gather that this was not the anticipated answer. Lacking any forethought, I made little attempt to redeem myself and quickly changed the subject. But since then, I’ve thought about it a bit, and I still mostly like my answer.

I imagine I was supposed to say that I would be resting on my laurels, enjoying routine opulence, and perhaps wealthy and famous. While none of these are necessarily ignoble ambitions, they are all self-serving, and may be had with total disregard to the other people in my life. The truth is, if I’m going to be homeless, I also intend to be content with it. Of far greater significance and longevity is with whom I spend my days and with whom I rest my homeless head at night. The issue of where is mostly irrelevant.

But the term homeless is an abstract idea, as the late comedian George Carlin frequently noted. What these people lack isn’t a home, but a house. And I agree. A home can be anywhere one feels comfortable; a house is simply the structure in which one frequently resides. Are tents not houses? What about yurts, or caves, or cardboard boxes? If I am comfortable with where I am and who I am with, then I am not homeless, but merely houseless. I suppose I will amend my ten-year prediction to houseless, not homeless.

In the Leonard Cohen’s now-famous song, “The Partisan,” a particularly powerful stanza reads, “I have changed my name so often; I have lost my wife and children, but I have many friends. And some of them are with me.” While the song pertains to the French resistance during World War II, the statement remains universally applicable: things have not gone as planned, I have lost much that is important to me, but I find great comfort in WHO remains with me still. It is optimism in the face of terrible and tragic hardship. I don’t anticipate such trials, but I do anticipate things not going as planned, and learning to find joy in my circumstances regardless.

I am unable to predict the future, and it would be an utter waste of time to even bother to try. But I am eager to see who I will meet and who will be with me on whatever crazy adventure I should find. Strange things happen in my life, and I’m learning to be okay with it. I’m not particularly concerned with where I sleep, because there are plenty of people silly enough to give me shelter for a few nights. If they food and water me, it could be many nights. I’m more excited about the people.

I may never get my Tuscan house overlooking the Mediterranean Sea, or my cabin on a ranch in northwest Colorado, but those are still good dreams. I’d rather know the people. I can’t truly enjoy an adventure if I’m the only one who experienced it. There can be no mutual reminiscence, no shared jokes, sunsets, exotic meals or chance encounters with interesting people. It will amount to little besides fodder for further writing. I want to meet the people; maybe even the pretty girl in my dreams with the long hair and dark eyes. She’s out there somewhere, and so are many other friends.

If I’m homeless (or houseless), there has to be an interesting reason for it, and I imagine it will be quite an adventure that got me there. So, whether I am huddled inside a rain-soaked box, trying to find the driest corner of a yurt, or listening to road noise under my bridge, I will always have pen and paper, and I will be furiously jotting down what undoubtedly is a fascinating story. My friends with me will be in there, too. In fact, they will actually MAKE the story, which won’t be mine, but ours.

Copyright © 2009, Ben Shaw
All Rights Reserved