More letting in, more letting go. (Minimalism, post 9.)

I was telling a friend the other day that since I’ve embarked on minimalism, my emotional crisis impulse is to raid my closet to see what else I can get rid of.

The rest of the time, I’m still trying to be conscientious when it comes to purchasing.

There’s purchasing that adds to your things for no reason (want), there’s purchasing that adds to your things for a valid reason (need), and there’s purchasing in order to replace things that need to be replaced.

I have a problem replacing things that need to be replaced (not products I’ve used up – that’s a different kind of replacement), as you may remember from my post about a sweater I wore until it fell apart, and another one about my disintegrating t-shirt from the 80’s.

It was this problem that largely steered me into minimalism. I didn’t feel good being so attached to things that I couldn’t bear to part with them. It’s not healthy to love an article of clothing so much that I wear it to death but continue wearing it because I can’t let it go. You can’t be truly selfless if you’re held back by material attachments. Not to mention, material things shouldn’t matter so much that I go around looking like I rose from the dead wearing what I wore when I was buried.

I recently had to say good-bye to my house slippers and my favorite jacket. It’d become uncomfortable to walk in the slippers with their soles torn up into a lumpy mess. And the jacket? Its day of reckoning was the day I put it on over a bralette and found large flakes of dead jacket all over my collarbones and upper chest when I took it off.

 

Jacket and slippers looking not too bad on the surface.

 

These look okay, right? But get up close at certain angles, and it’s apparent that the jacket’s long gone. Turn the slippers over, and it’s apparent that I’m a crazy person for continuing to wear them.

(Don’t say I didn’t warn you)

 

No comment necessary.

 

Those slippers!! They do look fine when they’re on, went the reasoning of my denial. The top and the insides are still in good condition! They look pretty good! It’s just the soles (only the most important part) that wore away into pieces.

I admit that I entertained the idea of duct tape for the slipper soles.

The slippers were cheap and flimsy, but I wore them year-round for almost two years, regardless of the heat. The fake leather jacket was also cheap and flimsy, and it actual did very well in lasting as long as it did. I bought it at Charlotte Russe in 2008, and I wore it relentlessly for the next 10 years, even in the summer. AZ air conditioning is no joke. You could get frostbite in such conditions.

So I picked up replacement slippers at Ross, and I found, on the Charlotte Russe website, an updated version of the same jacket! It’ll be just as cheap and flimsy, but I know it’ll be good for 10 years.

As for repurchasing things I’d used up: I got off my ass to do that the other night (I’d already filled my cart at The Body Shop, but I’d been sitting on it. It took a mental health mini-crisis to prod me into checking out). What also happened, though, was three lipsticks made their way into the cart that night. I’d been thinking of trying lip colors outside of my comfort zone, but I’d be lying if I said that my obsession with Krysten Ritter’s lips in Jessica Jones had nothing to do with it. Being obsessed with Krysten Ritter’s lips is not a good reason to buy lipsticks, I’m aware.

All in all, I’m pleased with my ongoing efforts to minimize around here. It’s become second-nature to get rid of things. Raiding my closet to purge when I’m upset? I’m happy with that.

 

The pull toward minimalism.

Have you ever looked around at your stuff and wondered, “What if I were to get rid of it all?” I have. Since the beginning of the year, I’ve been seriously thinking about getting rid of everything.

Okay, not everything. Just a lot of things. I’ve actually been lurking around the idea of minimalism for quite a while now… for years, in fact. I’m now realizing that it’s time to do it.

I look around at things I don’t need and will never use, and I’m thinking, why is that stuff still here?

I write a post about a falling-apart article of clothing, and I’m thinking, why am I so attached to it?

Knowing, right, how ridiculous it is. For one thing, as a Buddhist, I’m fully aware that attachment to material things makes no sense at all.

I’d thought about it before, but I really started to feel the pull toward minimalism since that post about the ancient sweater I couldn’t trash. That was back in February. I wrote that post. Then I wrote the KSJO t-shirt post. Then I had to sit and examine my life choices.

I should just get rid of stuff.

Why do I develop emotional/sentimental attachment to things?

One part of my mind says “keep this” as another part says “but why.” It mostly boils down to sentimentality and “I would want this if….” But what I want more, now, is to break away from such attachments.

Three months after the sweater post, I took my first step in the minimalism direction when I overhauled my office to create as empty and blank a space as possible. Now I’m looking around wondering how I can empty the space even more. I’ve discovered that my creative energy has more freedom to flow in the absence of physical distraction.

Now it’s three months post-office-overhaul, and I’m ready for the next step. This is how I know I’m not making an impulsive decision. I tend to make big lifestyle changes slowly, in increments. (Have I ever mentioned that going vegan was a six-year process for me?)

There are degrees of minimalism, and the degree I’m going for isn’t a drastic one. I don’t aspire to a life that can fit into two suitcases, but I do plan to pare things down much as possible. I should add that I’m talking about my personal possessions, not household-type items.

Too, there are categories of things I won’t touch. At this time, anyway, I won’t even consider getting rid of books. I have books in three different rooms, on shelves, in closets, on the floor. There are hundreds of them, and they’re staying right where they are. I won’t violate my book collection with minimalism.

 

Books: exempt from minimalism

 

We’ll see how things progress from here!

On remembrance: atomic bombings and 1,000 paper cranes. (+ Atomic Blonde.)

I know that this title seems all over the place. It’s just that today is August 8, 2017.

Two days ago, it was the 72nd anniversary of the United States’ atomic bombing of Hiroshima. Tomorrow will be the 72nd anniversary of our atomic bombing of Nagasaki. These, as we know, were the first and last nuclear attacks in wartime history.

We’re familiar with the official justification for the attacks: Japan had to be stopped before more lives were lost, American, Japanese, and otherwise. The bombs were dropped, Japan surrendered, and WWII ended.

While debate continues as to the ethics of the atomic bombings, there’s another, less-familiar controversy regarding a possible “hidden agenda” behind the decision to launch the nuclear attacks on Japan. Some historians believe that the bombs were actually dropped in order to intimidate the Soviet Union (thus beginning the Cold War), and that Japan didn’t surrender because of the bombs, themselves; rather, they surrendered because of the post-August 6 Soviet invasion.

This theory has always fascinated me. (War fascinates me, in general, but that’s a topic for another day, perhaps.)

Reflecting on atomic bombs and the Soviets and the Cold War, then, I found it funny that the espionage action film Atomic Blonde, whose plot centers on Soviets and the Cold War (the film’s title quite possibly a nod to the atomic bomb “hidden agenda” theory), dropped in U.S. theaters the weekend before the atomic bomb anniversary weekend.

Even more interesting to me, personally, Atomic Blonde’s release date landed pretty much on the anniversary of the Atomic Bomb memorial service I’d attended at my hometown Buddhist temple 20 years ago. The film’s release date was July 28, 2017, and the memorial service date was July 27, 1997.

Yet another happenstance: I went to see Atomic Blonde the weekend following its release weekend. By sheer coincidence, I saw Atomic Blonde on Sunday, August 6… the 72nd anniversary of the first atomic bomb attack.

Then there’s the fact that nuclear weapons dominate our global concerns these days. We’re looking at atomic bomb anniversaries, atomic bombs in the news, and Atomic Blonde in the theaters.

All of this has had me thinking of Sadako Sasaki and her 1,000 paper cranes.

Sadako was two years old when the first atomic bomb hit Hiroshima, where she lived. 10 years later, she developed leukemia as a result of radiation from the bomb. She started folding paper cranes with an aim to create 1,000 of them, wishing for recovery and for peace in the world. In Japan, it’s said that folding 1,000 paper cranes can make your wish come true.

Sadako remained in the hospital for 14 months, then passed away at the age of 12. One account of her story says that she surpassed her goal of folding 1,000 paper cranes. Another account says that she did not, but her friends and family completed the project for her. Regardless, no superstition was going to undo the devastation of the atomic bomb. Since Sadako’s death, the paper crane has become a universal symbol of world peace as well as a symbol of good luck and longevity.

As explained on the origami resource center’s page,

Sadako’s friends and classmates raised money to build a memorial in honor of Sadako and other atomic bomb victims. The Hiroshima Peace Memorial was completed in 1958 and has a statue of Sadako holding a golden crane. At the base is a plaque that says:

          This is our cry.
         This is our prayer.
         Peace in the world.

 

****

About six months ago, I found my Atomic Bomb memorial service program as I went through some old papers. I’d forgotten that I kept it. I took this pic to share it with you (sizing it large enough to be readable when clicked):

 

Atomic bomb memorial service program, pic taken on Sunday, August 6, 2017 – the 72nd anniversary of the atomic bomb attack on Hiroshima, Japan

 

After I found the program, I put it in this old frame. It sits near my butsudan, where I can see it every day as a reminder and a visual point of meditation on peace in the world.

By the way – to end this on a lighter note – I really enjoyed Atomic Blonde.

All-day anniversary date! (Firing range + samurai armor.)

Wednesday was our wedding anniversary. The sub-title of this post could be: “We’ve been married for 6 years and to celebrate we went out and Did Non-Everyday-Things.” Callaghan took the day off so we could spend it together.

The first exciting thing that happened was the doorbell rang and a minute later Callaghan called out, “It’s a package for you!” as he came into the bedroom where I was getting dressed, and he dropped the package onto the bed and walked out, leaving me to think, “He got me something for our anniversary??” (We’d agreed no cards, no gifts.) So I opened it and found a Black + Decker 16v cordless hand-vac, which I’d been wanting for the longest time, and which I grabbed while running to the other end of the house all like, “Baby!! THANK YOU SO MUCH for the hand vac!! Best surprise anniversary gift ever!!!!!” as I jumped into his arms, to which he replied, “I didn’t order you that.”

Long story short, we found out that my parents ordered it for us for our anniversary, knowing that I had my eye on it. It’s been one of those things that I wanted, but never wanted to spend money on.

Anyway, still. Best anniversary gift ever! Best parents ever! The hand-vac has already changed my life.

The reason we didn’t exchange cards or gifts was that we had an expensive plan for the morning: going to our favorite firing range to rent weapons and practice shooting. Even with Groupon, the whole thing cost us $140.00, and that was only for 40 minutes of shooting. Seriously, how do people afford to do this on a regular basis?! I suppose, for one thing, they own their own firearms. We never will, so we rent them when we want to shoot. Firearm rental is expensive. Ammo at the range is expensive (unlike at Walmart). Hence, the firing range is a special-occasion date activity.

In the afternoon, we went to the Phoenix Art Museum for our second date activity: the “Samurai: Armor from the Ann and Gabriel Barbier-Mueller Collection” exhibition. We’d known that the collection was there, thanks to some of you! We remembered it while finishing up the first season of Fargo not long ago, when we had this conversational exchange:

Me: Oh, look. Good old Lester married a submissive Asian wife.

Callaghan: I thought that was what I got when I got married.

Me: Ha! So what did you get? The English Rose?

Callaghan: No. I got the Samurai.

Then he quickly added, “And it’s perfect!”

And this, my friends, is one thing I appreciate about Callaghan so much. Seven years together, six years married, and the guy is still making me laugh. I have no complaints.

Such as it was that we went to the Phoenix Art Museum to see the Samurai exhibition.

 

“Cultivated Warriors” – (Samurai: Armor from the Ann and Gabriel Barbier-Mueller Collection)

 

 

If you can get to the Phoenix Art Museum before July 16, I highly recommend that you go check out this exhibition! It is spectacular.

The first thing you see when you enter the gallery is a large statue of the Buddha. The sight of the Sakyamuni Buddha entrances me instantaneously, so I had to linger a few minutes before going in… and, of course, take a selfie with the Buddha.

 

With the Sakyamuni Buddha at the Samurai Armor exhibition, Phoenix Art Museum 2017

 

Worth mentioning right now: the strategic play of lighting and shadow fluctuates throughout the gallery, and you’ll see this variation in these pics. Here at the entrance, it’s extremely bright. That white square on the top left of my shirt? That’s a sticker that reads “Samurai” in black letters. The light was so bright, it washed out the lettering completely! (I didn’t even try to bring out the lettering with filters or anything like that; I left these pics as-is.)

You can see the lettering here, though, with just a slight change in distance and angle:

 

Me, Callaghan, the Buddha. Not in that order.

 

Let me tell you, it took a lot of finagling with the phone camera position to get the three of us into this shot!

The reason the Buddha invites visitors into the samurai gallery is that Buddhism and its philosophies and motifs informed the design of the warriors’ armor and weaponry to a great degree; the religion was a part of samurai culture. “Buddhism was widely adopted by most samurai,” says one of the plaques inside the gallery.

Despite this fact and the fact that Buddhist warrior monks developed a deadly martial arts system that engendered all of the martial arts schools in East Asia (many of which are prevalent in the public eye today, as they’re included in an MMA artist’s arsenal), there’s still this myth that all Buddhists are strict pacifists, and that pacifism defines Buddhism. This may be due, in part, to Buddhism having become widely New-Age-ified in the hands of western seekers.

The myth may also come from the fact that Buddhists are not a war-mongering people, in general. There is a difference between being a warrior and being a war-mongerer. Being Buddhist and being a warrior are not mutually exclusive.

And so the Buddha welcomes you into the samurai warrior gallery. The exhibition consists mostly of armor, but you’ll also find weaponry and other objects particular to samurai culture. Truly, everything in this gallery is an exquisite work of art.

[click to enlarge if you wish to read the plaque]

 

Helmet

 

Like this one, many of the helmets and masks were adorned with Buddhist symbols. One plaque explains: “The adornments are influenced by the philosophy of Buddhism, a religion that greatly inspired Japanese warriors.”

Another plaque says of its subject: “The shape of the helmet is reminiscent of the cloth headdress (tokin) worn by Buddhist ascetics and warrior monks (yamabushi) who lived in remote mountain areas.”

Here are a few more pics, to give you more of a taste of the exhibition:

 

War drum

 

Family portrait, haha!

 

Did you know that samurai warriors battled with firearms as well as with bladed weapons and bows and arrows? I didn’t.

 

On samurai weaponry

 

Another plaque explains: “Though archery eventually gave way to the use of firearms in combat, the bow continued to be venerated, and archery remained a martial art that every samurai was expected to master.”

And another: “Shogun Takugawa Leyasu described the sword as the soul of the samurai.”

The exhibition includes chest plates with bullet marks and traces of sword-slashes. (Impressively, the bullets did not pierce the armor.) I didn’t take pics of those, though, for some reason. I did get some of the mounted warriors:

 

Mounted samurai

 

Even their horses sometimes wore elaborate masks!

 

I wouldn’t want to meet this guy coming out of the fog.

 

WHY SO SERIOUS? ~Of course I had to get a selfie with a samurai warrior lurking in the background.

 

Remember: this gorgeous and awe-inspiring exhibition will remain at the Phoenix Art Museum until July 16!

Happy Friday, All.

“Self”-contemplation (or, selflessness in Buddhist thought.)

Lately, I’ve been increasingly wary of the words “self” and “myself.” I finally wondered, “how could I replace those words in my internal and external dialogue?”

I thought, well, it’s not possible to get away from first-person pronouns. “I” and “me” are unavoidable, so why not use those words instead of “self”?

Just as an experiment, I tried for a day to remove “self” in the first-person context. It’s surprisingly hard.

For instance, “I’m doing this for myself” vs. “I’m doing this for me.”

“I don’t know what to do with myself” vs. “I don’t know what to do” or “I don’t know what I’ll do to keep busy.”

Emphasis is placed on the self: “I, myself, have a habit of hitting the snooze button” vs. “I, too, have a habit of hitting the snooze button.”

“I’m getting myself a glass of water” vs. “I’m getting a glass of water.”

The word popped up when I thought of defining who I am: “I feel like myself again” vs. “I feel right again.”

Grammatically speaking, it’s difficult if not impossible to get away from “self.” We need the word in the first-person context in order to communicate. Psychologically speaking, it’s hard to think away from it. So much of our popular conversation revolves around the love, care, improvement, maintenance, scrutiny, reflection, actualization, esteem, and empowerment of the self that the idea of it has become ingrained in how we imagine we should perceive and move through the world. Pseudo-psychologists have been spawned, and they have written books (and made millions): “Self-help” has become a genre. We’re a culture obsessed with our selves. We are self-centered.

Self-importance and self-hood. Is it possible to be an individual without being selfish?

“Love yourself.” “Pamper yourself.” “Be kind to yourself.” “Value yourself.” “Do something nice for yourself.”

The problem is that such commands have the opposite effect of what they’re supposed to achieve. In being encouraged to wonder why we’re not doing these things, we’re being called upon to focus on ourselves relentlessly. Those self-help gurus have made fortunes off of the insecurities they’ve managed to establish in us (so that we’ll buy their books/tapes/retreat admission tickets/etc.).

“If you (insert action), you’ll improve your self-esteem.” Self-esteem! So much focus has been concentrated on self-esteem that we’ve almost stopped looking beyond that, as if self-esteem is the end-all, be-all of our collective existence. Would it be possible to navigate life detached from our esteem of our selves? It seems that the more esteem and concern for esteem we direct onto ourselves, the less we remember to place value elsewhere.

The exercise of replacing “self” in the first-person led me to realize the extent of the importance we’ve allocated to the self: we’re hyper-aware of ourselves, and I, for one, am keenly cognizant of this. I’m socially awkward, which I think is partially because I tend to be self-conscious. Self-consciousness is almost never used with a positive connotation; it almost always refers to an uncomfortable state of being.

Self-consciousness and self-confidence aren’t mutually exclusive, though, fortunately. Self-confidence is critical. We need it to live in society with assurance; we need it to be successful. We even need self-confidence to stay safe. Predators looking for victims watch for indications of an absence of self-confidence.

In art, the self-portrait has been a genre since antiquity, and an important genre, at that. The selfies we take today fall in a sub-category of the self-portrait. Vanity notwithstanding, many of us enjoy documenting and sharing photos we take of ourselves with those who find value in them.

I’ve been revisiting this train of thought not as an armchair psychologist, but as a life-long Buddhist, pondering the subject again following the recent death of my cat. The Buddhist service I did for her prompted me to think back on the Buddhist teachings I’ve learned from the time I started attending Dharma school at seven years old.

Because of the teachings of the Buddha, I grew up knowing that an ideal endeavor in life is to strive for selflessness, but I never made earnest attempts to live in accordance with the principle. Such an endeavor has never seemed more important than now, in this time wherein self-esteem and emphasis on the self has been given highest importance.

We are all out for ourselves. We feel that we have to be in order to survive.

The Buddhist principle of the Middle Path is that “both extremes, self-affirmation and self-denial, are simply forms of self-preoccupation and self-attachment.”

This is what I would like to try to avoid.

Coming back to my exercise: it’s good to be “self-reliant,” I thought, but being “independently capable” is the same thing. I started to see that making an effort to direct my thinking away from terms of self might allow me an unexpected measure of peace. It’s a starting point, at least.

 

 

 

I saw American Sniper. Here are my thoughts.

Somewhere around October-November, we found out about the upcoming film American Sniper. It was set to open on Christmas day. We were looking forward to it, and I liked the idea that two years in a row, the newly released movie we’d see on my December 27 birthday would feature Bradley Cooper.

As it turned out, the movie’s release date got pushed into January, so we didn’t get to see American Sniper on my birthday. Interestingly, though, the holiday movie we did go to see on December 27, Big Eyes, also featured an actor from last year’s birthday movie: Amy Adams! We saw American Hustle (Amy Adams and Bradley Cooper) on my birthday in 2013, and Big Eyes (Amy Adams) on my birthday in 2014.

I like Bradley Cooper. It’s not a crush. I’m not obsessed with him, and I don’t race to the theatre just because he’s in a movie, but I am a fan. I’ve never seen him flounder in a role, and I’ve never seen a film of his I didn’t enjoy or appreciate in some way. Bradley Cooper in a movie usually means that I’m going to like the movie, and this is also true about Amy Adams and a few other actors (Jake Gyllanhaal comes immediately to mind); Callaghan and I are almost always on the same page, which is good. It’s more fun spending money on movie tickets if we strongly suspect that we’ll really like the movie.

So we saw Big Eyes on my birthday, and we enjoyed it, and we continued to anticipate the release of American Sniper. When the day arrived, we went to the theatre with our favorite action-flick movie-watching partner-in-crime, Jason, and I didn’t know what I was walking into. Somehow, I had the idea that the film was about a veteran who was using his lethal military skills for some grand operation in the civilian sector. I didn’t know that I was walking into a war movie. Neither did I know that the story was based on an autobiography/events that happened in the life of a real person.

And I’m glad. I’m glad that I didn’t know it was a war movie, because I generally avoid war movies. Had I known, I would have dropped American Sniper off my to-watch list, and I would have missed out on an incredible movie.

Yes, I know. I’m a Buddhist and a mostly-vegan vegetarian and I’m all about peace and compassion, but I highly appreciated American Sniper. This might seem incongruous, but it’s really not. For one thing, just on the artistic level, I thought it was a brilliant, finely-wrought film. I thought Bradley Cooper gave a tremendous, nuanced performance. I thought Clint Eastwood’s handling of the project was masterful.

Where can I even begin to try to explain my appreciation beyond that?

I guess I should start with the disclaimer that I’m not motivated by politics when it comes to art. I’m a registered Independent, anyway… my political views do tend to lean in a certain direction (if you know me well, you know what direction that is), but there’s a reason why I won’t join a particular party. Also, I generally stay away from the subject of politics on social media sites. What I’m trying to say is that I don’t intend to talk politics here today or any day. I get that it’s hard to avoid politics where this film is concerned, but I’m going to try to avoid the damn politics.

Then I should point out that I’m a combat veteran. I spent six months in Saudi Arabia, Iraq and Kuwait during Operations Desert Shield, Storm and Sabre, from the beginning of December 1990 to almost the end of May 1991. The ground war in January took all of two days, and the whole thing was rather anti-climactic after the airstrikes, but somehow I managed to get embroiled in the only real action American foot soldiers saw pushing through Iraq. I ran Commo (wire, radios) in a segment of a ground ambulance unit, and our convoy was comprised of mostly medics from my Garrison unit in Germany, along with some infantrymen, American National Guardsmen and women, and a few British soldiers. We were ambushed, and it was intense, and I brought that personal history with me going into the movie theatre to see American Sniper, not knowing, as I’d said, that it was going to be a war movie.

Now, about that Buddhist thing, since I know that it’s confusing to many people. I’ve been Buddhist all of my life, and I’ve been a martial/fighting artist for more than half of my life, and no, contrary to the popular opinion of our times, this does not create a contradiction. Buddhism and the fighting arts are not mutually exclusive. If you can understand this, then my admiration of American Sniper shouldn’t seem contradictory, either.

Rather than going into a tedious academic tangent on the principles of eastern philosophy, including the meaning of the yin-yang symbol, I’m asking that you hang with me for a minute here!

Buddhist monks in the Shaolin temple of ancient China were resourceful and inventive. They developed seitan, a popular protein-rich meat substitute made of wheat gluten, so they could avoid eating animals. They also developed Shaolin Kung Fu, a martial art that enabled them to kill with their bare hands and laid the groundwork for basically all eastern martial arts thereafter. What’s more, the full spectrum of the Shaolin martial arts system includes fighting with weapons. The “Buddhist warrior” is actually a thing, and it always has been. I’m not saying that ALL Buddhists are warriors. I’m just saying that warriors in the ranks of Buddhists have existed for ages, at least as long as there have been temples to protect. Long before Bruce Lee, there were the Shaolin Buddhist soldier monks.

Hard to believe that there’s a history of martial arts bad-assery in Buddhism, right?

Enough about me and my background. Returning to American Sniper, I want to talk about the “problem” of the veracity of (every detail of) Chris Kyle’s story. He apparently made some claims in his book that aren’t true. In my opinion, just from my perspective as a literature major, this is normal. Biography/autobiography/memoir/creative non-fiction and, loosely, historical fiction all rely on facts and factual events for the backbone of the stories within, but there’s usually good reason and/or artistic justification for alteration or invention in some places, and authors take this kind of creative liberty all the time.

Take, for example, a staple of children’s literature well-known and loved by most Americans. The Nellie Olson character in Laura Ingalls Wilder’s “Little House” series of books didn’t actually exist… she was an amalgamation of two real-life figures from her childhood. Because Laura Ingalls Wilder also altered the chronology of her family’s travels (reportedly for the sake of simplicity), she took two classmates from two of her schools in two different geographical locations and blended them together to create the one insufferable character we know as “Nellie Olson.” (The real Nellie Olson was one of the two classmates Laura Ingalls Wilder used to create the fictitious one.)

This is a well-documented fact, and yet I’ve never heard anyone say that Laura Ingalls Wilder’s stories are meaningless because she “made up” the character or “lied” about the trajectory of her family’s pioneering path, nor have I heard of anyone calling her out on any of the other half-truths, embellishments or omissions that resulted for artistic purposes. I never heard anyone say that because of all this, Laura Ingalls Wilder is not to be trusted or believed, and that the attention paid to her stories is undeserved. I never heard anyone say that the worth of other art based on the books she co-wrote about her life – namely, the world-famous Little House on the Prairie television series – was invalidated by her “lies.” I never heard anyone complain that the T.V. show was “mendacious” because Laura Ingalls Wilder changed some things, omitted things, and flat-out made other stuff up.

We know that she did these things, but we still accept her work as autobiographical. That which wasn’t real didn’t cancel out all that was real. Her story is still her story, and Chris Kyle’s story is still Chris Kyle’s story, and just because Laura Ingalls Wilder’s tone was demure and so many people dig stories about pioneer life more than they dig stories about soldiering life doesn’t mean that by majority opinion, we can have a double standard. If we’re going to call Chris Kyle a liar, then we’re going to have to call Laura Ingalls Wilder a liar for the exact same reasons, and we don’t want to do that, now, do we?

And while we’re on the subject, let’s think for a moment of how Laura Ingalls Wilder “glorified” and “romanticized” how her Pa decided to drag the family into Indian Territory and knowingly illegally squat on the Native Americans’ land, and how Laura Ingalls Wilder plainly recounted her parents’ racist attitudes and sentiments regarding the “savages” (sound familiar?) – have you ever heard anyone lambasting her for this dubious aspect of their “courageous” pioneer life? Neither have I. Needless to say, the storylines in the television series’ episodes conveniently omit any mention or reference to this part of the Ingalls’ “adventures.” Most everyone still loves the show.

But people are sure enjoying harping on Clint Eastwood and Bradley Cooper for “glorifying” and “romanticizing” the darker sides of Chris Kyle and his story.

Finally, I want to say that it’s interesting how the people shouting the loudest about how Chris Kyle was a lying psychopath (and no hero at all) are the ones who never spent a day in his or any other soldier’s boots. Now, I didn’t know Chris Kyle. I didn’t know him before, during or after his service, nor am I a psychiatrist. For all I know, he could have been a psychopath or a sociopath or whatever other -path you want to call him… but I don’t care. I don’t care if Chris Kyle was the kind of guy who’d help an old lady cross the street, or the kind of guy who’d push an old lady off a cliff. Because what I do know is that combat military training and circumstances change you in ways that civilians can’t even begin to fathom. What you were before is rendered nearly irrelevant. Even emerging from regular old Army basic training (Chris Kyle underwent Navy S.E.A.L. training, which is much more intense), you’re different than you were before you went in.

In basic training, you’re broken down from the inside out, with the whole point being to re-build you into something you probably weren’t before you went in: a killing machine that can be set into action when the circumstances call for it. The mental and physical conditioning you undergo in order to serve in combat is complete. I’m talking about the average person here. Now imagine that instead of being an average person, you were already an expert shot accustomed to taking lives (as a hunter)… and imagine, too, that your military occupational specialty is killing.

Someone’s got to do it, guys. The military is an establishment in which there’s a need for many roles, just like in civilian society, and while all soldiers are required to be conditioned in the basics, everyone has to choose an occupational specialty. Some soldiers are cooks. Others are band musicians. Others work in supply. There are the tankers, the ammo soldiers, the administration office-working soldiers, the morgue soldiers and the medics and the mechanics and the military cops and the JAG (legal) corps and the signal corps, the soldiers responsible for ensuring communications in the field (what I did – my 31K occupational title was “Combat Signaler.”) And so on, and so forth… and then you have the soldiers whose specialty is killing. These are the infantry, the “grunts.”

Regardless of your occupational specialty, though, all soldiers function the same way in combat zones, and again, to reiterate, this is what basic training is for. When thrown into a combat situation, the conditioning deep inside you surfaces, enabling you to automatically act according to the situation, and I’m sorry, but combat situations don’t usually involve making butter, choosing fabric for dresses, or embroidering. Pa Ingalls is not going to bust out his fiddle at the end of the day and make everyone laugh merrily as they sing along to his folksy songs.

When I was 18, I went to basic training and came out different than I was before, because that is what basic training is designed to do. Not only are you different, but you’re also no longer your own person. You become government property, calibrated to respond and operate on a situational basis. The minute you raise your hand and take that oath, the Constitution you’re charged to protect no longer even applies to you. You opt out of those rights in order to protect them. It’s the Unified Code of Military Justice (UCMJ) for you!

A day or two before Christmas 1990, we were out there in the vast, cold and empty Saudi Arabian desert when we were told that Sadam Hussein had threatened an attack as a “Christmas present” for the Americans lying in wait, meaning, us. We went into high alert for an indefinite period of time. I remember my 22nd birthday very well. I spent the entire day in a foxhole in the biting cold, suited up in MOPP 4 (head to toe chemical protection gear) with a full bandolier of ammo strapped around my chest and my M-16 at the ready, and again, I came out different than I was before, because that’s what happens when you spend hours on end with every cell and nerve of your being waiting to either kill or get killed. Just being in that situation day after day changes you. Even if “nothing happens,” you can’t ever be the same again.

A few weeks later, the ground war started, and we switched gear from alert to action. We convoyed out of Saudi Arabia to follow the front line through Iraq, destination Kuwait. We were a ground ambulance convoy in our Cut-V’s and Hum-V’s, and we saw and dealt with everything you’d expect to encounter on a battlefield. Then we were ambushed. There were Iraqi snipers. There were detonating landmines. There were casualties. Afterward, there were smoke grenades and medevac helicopters. I’m not going to go into the details of what I did and saw, but you can bet that again, I was a different person by the end of it.

Now, take my modest little combat experience and quadruple it and give it another hefty boost for increased severity. Chris Kyle couldn’t possibly have ended up being the same person he’d been before any of his four tours of combat duty, whatever that may have been. He killed people, as we were all prepared to do, as Navy S.E.A.L.S. were expected to do, and I would venture to guess that he saved many more people than he killed. Whether I “agreed” with the Iraq War or not, I’m grateful to Chris Kyle for his service, and for the service of all men and women in uniform in all the branches of the Armed Forces, regardless of the conflict or the reason for it or behind it, or the duration or severity of it, or the number of times they deployed, or my opinion of it or your opinion of it or anyone’s opinion of it, or anything else.

I’d like to think that if I never lived the experience of being broken down and built back up to human war-machine specs, if I never set foot in a combat zone, if I never mentally prepared to suffer and die under chemical attack or by gunfire or other ordnance, if I never swallowed 12 mysterious pills a day “in case of chemical attack”… if I never lived a day of my life serving my country… I would recognize that I’m not in a position to judge Chris Kyle.

Like him or not, Chris Kyle was a hero. As far as I’m concerned, everyone who voluntarily raises their hand and swears away their own constitutional rights in order to protect yours is a hero, whatever else they may be, and whether they go to war or not. To try to posthumously shame Chris Kyle for being the lying asshole he maybe was is to miss the point of American Sniper. Deriding Eastwood and Cooper for taking part in “glorifying” anything is also an exercise in missing the point.

Aside from all of this, what’s really important here, of course, is that we found American Sniper to be a great piece of cinematic art in and of itself. Clint Eastwood and Bradley Cooper did a damn fine job, along with everyone else who put their energies into the making of the film. I’m saying this, and I don’t even like war movies!

So, American Sniper? We recommend it. It’s not easy to watch, and I wouldn’t necessarily call it “enjoyable,” but it’s an amazing film.

On that (hopefully cheerier) note, Happy Friday, All!

(Here are some photos I took in the war):

 

The first Hum-V ambulances....

The first Hum-V ambulances….

 

Random tank in Iraq

Random tank in Iraq

 

After the ambush, we continued on without stopping to sleep. This is what Kuwait looked like as we approached it.

After the ambush, we continued on without stopping to sleep. This is what Kuwait looked like as we approached it.

 

As we moved through Kuwait, children came running out from nowhere to greet us, happy and excited

As we moved through Kuwait, children came running out from nowhere to greet us, happy and excited

 

After the ground war in January 1991, this was mostly my view until we left in May.

After the ground war in January 1991, this was mostly my view until we left in May.

 

Thanks for scanning them, Callaghan!

Thanksgiving.

T minus 24 hours to road trip to California!

I was thinking the other day that not having human kids means that I’ll never have to feel like the Grinch who stole Thanksgiving when my kid comes home from school brimming over with warm and fuzzy stories about the “history” of “the first Thanksgiving” and I find myself unable to keep from explaining the truth behind the myth. If schools could just limit Thanksgiving holiday festivities to cute finger turkey drawings, then fine, but somehow, I don’t see them omitting the fables of the “Pilgrims and the Indians” being BFFs on “the first Thanksgiving” anytime soon.

That bit of cynicism aside, one thing that’s remained true about Thanksgiving over time is its focus on expressing gratitude for a bountiful harvest, which has broadened to include giving thanks for everything that we have, including our good health and each other. This is the aspect of the holiday that appeals to me the most – its focus on family.

Thanksgiving is this week Thursday, and we’re going to be spending it with my family. When I lived in France, I missed the comfortable proximity to my family more on Thanksgiving than at any other time. You always hear people saying, we should give thanks and express gratitude for our families every day, not just on Thanksgiving, and I agree with this, but still… Thanksgiving.

And I’m feeling so grateful for my family… the family that chose me, the one that I’ve chosen and the one that I inherited just by being alive.

We all have family, even if we think we don’t. If your circumstances are such that your actual family members are absent in the world, if you feel isolated and friendless, as long as there are people in the world, you have family.

In Hawaii, you’ll find this concept expressed openly and naturally by the locals, as the family mentality is a part of the local culture. If you’re walking along the beach and a child is playing in your path, it’s likely that the adult sitting nearby will call to the child, with firm affection, “Come over here, Bobby… let Auntie pass.” And you’ll look over at the parent to find him smiling and nodding at you with respect. Auntie. Think of it! A total stranger will see you coming and say to his child, let Auntie pass. (Yes, this happened to me.)

You are family. We’re all family. Humankind is a human family, and I believe this to be true: When there’s injustice in the world, we have to remember that we’re all brothers and sisters, and we have to allow this to give us strength. Being united gives us strength. Our interconnectedness is an absolute, even in our moments of craving our solitude, even while counting our enemies. To me, Thanksgiving is a time to remember this and to feel our bond and connection with others. Being human also means that we can lose patience and hold grudges, but on Thanksgiving, I want to be mindful of our oneness and feel grateful for what that means. We walk the same earth and breathe the same air. We can help each other and commiserate and make each other laugh and offer comfort and support as easily as we can do harm.

 

Reflecting lights... candle flames on a dark morning.

Reflecting lights… candle flames on a dark morning.

 

Happy Thanksgiving week, All.