Category Archives: Freewrite

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One cigarette

I wake up in hell. My back hurts. My back always hurts since I came here. Something happened in Kuwait when I was dragging equipment through the sand in a windstorm. A ripping in the muscles I think. Now the endless hurt. Groaning, I rise from the bed, pull on a pair of shorts and a t-shirt. I grab the pack off the night stand. Cheap Iraqi cigarettes. I find it ironic that I am pulling little streams of smoky death into my lungs daily that are marked with the brand name Miami.

This trailer park I live in is a very different world from Miami. Nothing I’ve seen in Iraq resembles Miami. Here I sit, pulling on my cigarette named Miami. All I can think about is the nature of death. In the months I’ve been here, I’ve seen it fall from the sky at random. The realization that there is no god becomes stronger with every moment I spend in this place.

I take a drag and ponder it. The idea of a just and loving god is ridiculous to me. The idea of any intercessory supernatural force is asinine. Here I am, in the middle of a war, trying to make sense of the universe. Fatalistically pondering the blue sky above and the waves of heat radiating off the paving blocks under my feet. The world around me is peaceful for the moment. I am keenly aware of how deceptive the moment is.

We are fragile. I am surrounded by chaos and a city in which slow, murderous retribution is playing out on a daily basis. Murder squads roam the streets at night. Men in trucks position themselves as close as they can to where I live and lob mortars into the neighborhood, hoping to kill. They don’t know I exist, but they hate me nonetheless. If they could take a drill to my head and make me suffer, they would. Every day I am exposed to the savage effects of the worst behavior that humanity can dream up. Rape. Torture. Outright murder. Most of it is being done in the name of god. The cigarette’s vapors fill my lungs. I relish the calm, this sanctuary of reflection under a sun we all share, and upon whose light we depend for continued survival. I think about how humans used to worship that sun and call it a god. There have been many gods in the history of this species. As far as I can tell, every one was invented to fulfill a desire to be more important than the inventor actually is or was.

This planet is a backwater in the universe. The universe is a cold, uncaring place.

All the good and bad things that happen on Sol are either cause by natural phenomena or humans. There is no supernatural force manipulating anything. Miami is only a fleeting state of mind, and I am not important.

They taught me about Jesus, who came to die for my sins, and in whom I have no faith. Legends say Jesus was hung on a cross at 33. My cross is this place, a cigarette named Miami, and the uncertainty I feel about this war that surrounds me. I can never come back from here. I will never be the same. It is already harder to laugh. Harder to talk. Harder to care about what happens next. I am numb, but the cigarette that is my cross reminds me I am still human. It is making the fingers I hold it with warm. The cigarette is almost done serving the purpose it was made for while I am still pondering whether I was made for any purpose at all.

I stub it out on the paving blocks, blow out the last cloud of smoke, and suck in another breath of Baghdad. I wonder if there is any growth I can find in existing today. Surely, there must be. My back hurts. It always hurts now. One cigarette is never enough. Life is a series of addictions.

I think about how, at some point, somewhere nearby, someone else must have been caught up in a narrative opposite mine. One that felt like heaven. I hope to myself they can hold on.


A memory for Raya.

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Make America great again

The world isn’t ending no matter how you voted. Trump is going to be the next President. Barring acts of god or other forces beyond our collective control.

MAGA

By the way, America was never great.

It has had moments of self-awareness, and little flashes of excellence, but America can’t be made great again, because it never has been great.

Pick any moment in the history of this country, from the start up until the present, and you will find stains on the pages.

Think we were great because of the founders? Half of them were slave owners. Black people were worth 3/5ths of a white person during that time and they could be bought and sold. Not great. The founders took the land they built this country on from people who already lived on it. We call them native Americans today, and early Americans abuse the ancestors of today’s native Americans horribly.

Maybe you think we were great when we saved Europe from Hitler during World War II. You’d be wrong, because while we were busy doing that admittedly righteous thing, we were still segregated at home. We built concentration camps for Japanese-Americans because of paranoia. Not so great.

But America defeated communism you say? That’s what makes us great! Not so much. One could argue that communism isn’t such a bad concept, but I won’t go there. I’ll just remind you that   we fought a lot of dirty wars to do what we did to bring down the Berlin wall in the late 80’s. Take a moment to research how many dirty wars the CIA has funded only to cast aside the fighters it recruited for political convenience. Google the Hmong, or Iran Contra, or just “the worst things the CIA has done.” American government has a long history of installing and funding atrocious, despotic governments and making friends with bad people. Remember Saddam Hussein? He was once a great friend to America. Before he became a great enemy to our great country that has never really been great for any sustained period of time.

Maybe you think America was great more recently. Let’s say you think it was great after slavery and segregation and all the secretly funded dirty wars. We finally made some progress on human rights and immediately started massive spying programs that break our laws. The NSA collects data on all Americans and possibly all the world for all I know. I know for certain that our so-called great nation is spying on world leaders and governments while keeping many secrets of its own from us. That doesn’t seem so great to me.

America was never great. It only has the potential to be great in the future. That’s the real challenge of a Trump presidency. Admitting that the starting point of his entire campaign is a lie. I don’t think he’s up to the challenge. I’ll be watching and commenting the whole way, as he attempts to make America something is has never been. Again.

Next time someone tells you we’re going to make America great again, I hope you’ll call them on it. We can make America great for the first time, but we need to start from an honest place to do so.

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Aftermath

“People aren’t supposed to look back. I’m certainly not going to do it anymore.” ― Kurt Vonnegut, Slaughterhouse-Five

Ten years, nearly, since I came back from my first experience of war. I’ve learned a lot since then. About the lies society breeds into us.

About flags and nation-states. I hope I’ve learned a bit about honor and what it means to live meaningfully.

I won’t discuss my worst memories of war, although they still trouble me at times. Mostly I want to discuss the utter banality of modern evil. On the eve of a decade back in relative peace, a state I don’t really know what I’ve done to deserve, I mostly wonder about the people I left behind. The ones trapped in Baghdad. I wonder how many of them are alive. How many of them are sane. How many of them have been broken beyond repair.

It is, I think, our nature as human beings to live in the moment. We try to survive as best we can. When opportunities allow for it we thrive. Sometimes the thriving leads to dancing and parties. I’m all for that.

One of my most poignant memories of war is that of a moment when we were gathered to go out into the place we called the red zone, which was almost all of the country. The irony of living in a space designated the green zone has never escaped me. The irony of my existence there was amplified by the fact that everyone who hated what we represented, our flags, and our imperfect ideals, and the way we saw god. Those people had our coordinates dialed in. The so-called green zone was a shooting gallery where death consisted of a moment of awareness and then shattering. The missiles and rockets came in like random horsemen of the apocalypse riding on the wings of death. They lobbed the hate when they could. Every time they could.

I’m sure someone was tracking the inbound hatred on a screen. It wasn’t me. In such an environment, one must, of necessity, become numb. In some human environments, one can use blending as a survival technique. In the green zone surrounded by the red zone that was not the case. We went about our business and blindly hoped that the airborne anger wouldn’t choose us on any given day. It never directly chose me. I watched them land a few times, these explosive daggers made of death. I felt them in my core, ran from them, thought about their nature, and from some numb place inside, I feared them. But I had my distractions. Enough so that unlike one fellow soldier, I didn’t wake up on any given morning and simply refuse to get out of bed.

I put on my uniform, strapped on my battle rattle, met the day.

Surrounded by concrete t-walls and well meaning bureaucrats with guns, most of us, I think, believed we were making the world a better place. A freer place. Looking back, that seems naive.

My first war was predicated on manufactured facts that weren’t. Iraq’s involvement in fostering terrorism against the United States was marginal at best when we invaded the country. That is not to say that I regret my service. I did nothing I am ashamed of in my first war. I hope that it has made me more thoughtful. I hope that it has made me more compassionate. I hope that war has grown my empathy for all the human beings I will encounter today and tomorrow for all long as I shall live.

One memory, one that I want to revisit with you in this moment, is that of a noisy, dusty morning at the edge of the green zone. Preparing to dance with death and chance, we did all the things required of Americans saving the world from terror in 2006. We checked our combat loads. We coordinated our communications. We made sure that our maps were up to date and that our vehicles were fully fueled and in proper running order.

It was a scene of professional chaos full of barked orders, frenetic activity and people living on the edge of war’s numb reality. The memory of the kid sitting with his back against a t-wall calmly reading Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five stays with me and it always will. I had experienced a close call with a mortar two days prior. We briefly made eye contact. He went back to reading his novel.

I remember. Now I share the memory with you.

There is always an aftermath. I’ll always wonder what the kid I saw that day thought of Vonnegut. That kid saved me from something. I’m not quite sure what.

“It was a movie about American bombers in World War II and the gallant men who flew them. Seen backwards by Billy, the story went like this: American planes, full of holes and wounded men and corpses took off backwards from an airfield in England. Over France, a few German fighter planes flew at them backwards, sucked bullets and shell fragments from some of the planes and crewmen. They did the same for wrecked American bombers on the ground, and those planes flew up backwards to join the formation.

The formation flew backwards over a German city that was in flames. The bombers opened their bomb bay doors, exerted a miraculous magnetism which shrunk the fires, gathered them into cylindrical steel containers , and lifted the containers into the bellies of the planes. The containers were stored neatly in racks. The Germans below had miraculous devices of their own, which were long steel tubes. They used them to suck more fragments from the crewmen and planes. But there were still a few wounded Americans though and some of the bombers were in bad repair. Over France though, German fighters came up again, made everything and everybody as good as new.

When the bombers got back to their base, the steel cylinders were taken from the racks and shipped back to the United States of America, where factories were operating night and day, dismantling the cylinders, separating the dangerous contents into minerals. Touchingly, it was mainly women who did this work. The minerals were then shipped to specialists in remote areas. It was their business to put them into the ground, to hide them cleverly, so they would never hurt anybody ever again.”   ― Kurt Vonnegut, Slaughterhouse-Five

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Duality

Colonel: Marine, what is that button on your body armor? Joker: A peace symbol, sir. Colonel: Where’d you get it? Joker: I don’t remember, sir. Colonel: What is that you’ve got written on your helmet? Joker: “Born to kill”, sir. Colonel: You write “born to kill” on your helmet, and you wear a peace button. What’s that supposed to be, some kind of sick joke? Joker: No, sir. Colonel: What is it supposed to mean? Joker: I don’t know, sir. Colonel: You don’t know very much, do you? Joker: No, sir. Colonel: You better get your head and your ass wired together, or I will take a giant shit on you! Joker: Yes, sir. Colonel: Now answer my question or you’ll be standing tall before the man! Joker: I think I was trying to suggest something about the duality of man, sir. Colonel: The what? Joker: The duality of man. The Jungian thing, sir. Colonel: Whose side are you on, son? Joker: Our side, sir. Colonel: Don’t you love your country? Joker: Yes, sir. Colonel: Then how ’bout getting with the program? Why don’t you jump on the team and come on in for the big win? Joker: Yes, sir. Colonel: Son, all I’ve ever asked of my Marines is for them to obey my orders as they would the word of God. We are here to help the Vietnamese, because inside every gook there is an American trying to get out. It’s a hard-ball world, son. We’ve gotta try to keep our heads until this peace craze blows over! Joker: [salutes] Aye-aye, sir. — Full Metal Jacket, Stanley Kubrick

We are all dualities, and madness is always closer than we think it is. Brains are chemical soup, and the recipe has to be just right for us to blend into the tribe and play our part correctly. Jung, the Swiss psychiatrist who came up with the concept of the ‘duality of man’ was himself beset by mental illness. The duality concept is simple, unless you don’t want it to be, and lots of you who read this won’t. But simple needs complex so I understand if you want duality to be the other side of the coin. I’m going to argue for the simple side.

Good needs evil. In this reality if I do something good, someone else somewhere else has to do something equally evil to keep the universe in balance. We are individuals, but we are also all part of this duality. I am not all good, or all bad. I am not all man, and you, if you happen to identify as female, are not all woman. Each of us, whether we like it or not, has some characteristics of both sexes. There is no purely asexual or androgynous human being.

This is a yin.yang thing. Making people think about the idea that they aren’t all one way makes them uncomfortable. In the movie, Joker is a pacifist with a gun. He’s not all killer, but some of him is. Another part of him wants to be peaceful. He is at war in Vietnam, but he is also at war within himself. When I was in the Marine Corps, many years ago, I watched Full Metal Jacket over and over and thought about duality. I was raised by pacifists, so I need to join the Corps. I did the same job as Joker. I was a combat correspondent. The movie was release in 1987 and I joined the Corps in 1991. We are creatures of our time and place, and we are more than one thing.

It’s how a loving mother can also be a wanton slut, how a priest can also be a pedophile. Murderers can be kind. Dictators can be benevolent. The world is full of people who are more than one thing and also people who are in different moments, opposite things. I understand how that can be confusing when we are constantly being asked to make quick judgment calls, when people demand that we label others and wear the labels they have given us.

My advice to you is to quietly let them know you refuse to wear that which they want you to wear. Tell them you are a duality. Tell them you are just trying to wrap your mind around that fact and are therefore much too busy to be bothered at the moment. Tell them it is hard enough balancing out what you are without all their white noise. If that’s not enough, thank them for teaching you what sort of person you don’t want to become. It’s OK to make mistakes, and you get to choose the balance you want for yourself. Unless you’re so off kilter the rest of us decide you need to be kept in a cage for our safety and yours. We’re all evolving at the same time. At different rates. You are fortunate enough to have been born into a time and place where the sum of all that is known is growing exponentially. This leads to opportunities for massive empathy. And also endless cynicism. It’s your choice to make.

You’ll be remembered as a saint or sinner, but most likely you’ll be somewhere in between the two extremes. Remember duality as you walk the paths life shows you.

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What kind of character are you?

“Throw out everything you believe in.” It’s the kind of thing I’m likely to whisper to you in the dark. Assuming we’re ever in the dark together. However we got there, know that I’m an antihero.

antihero noun  an·ti·he·ro  \ˈan-tē-ˌhē-(ˌ)rō, ˈan-ˌtī-, -ˌhir-(ˌ)ō\ : a main character in a book, play, movie, etc., who does not have the usual good qualities that are expected in a hero

I’d fail miserably as a hero. My heart beats right the hell out of my chest when I’m faced with direct danger. My stoic’s poker face is good at hiding that fact. But I’m not running towards the bullets. I’m shooting back from behind solid cover, hopefully with vastly superior technology. Or, more likely, running away so the heroes can go in and get killed eliminating the threat.

You can only extract wisdom from a traumatic situation if it doesn’t kill you or fuck you up so bad you can’t function normally in society after the situation ends.

Speaking of which.

When I was about six years old, I observed a group of neighborhood kids holding down an unlucky child, for reasons I’ll never know. They forced his mouth open and made him eat donkey shit out of a Kentucky Fried Chicken bucket. He was screaming and crying. But it was five on one, so he was going to eat that pie. Chalk it up to cruelty. Imagine he violated one of the group’s mores. Maybe he stole another one of the group’s prize possessions.

I could have intervened. I had my bow and arrows that day. I was part of an untouchable caste. A white kid in Haiti. There would have been only minor repercussions if I had attacked.

I know, because I tried it once, on a different day, with a different group of kids. I got scolded by the yard boy, and he didn’t tell my parents I shot a kid in the leg with an arrow. He even got the arrow back for me. A hero doesn’t shoot a kid in the leg with an arrow and then not remember why he did it as an adult.

It’s weird. What I remember.

I remember making a vow to fight to the death before I let someone hold me down and force me to eat donkey shit. You’d have to bash me unconscious before that would be a possibility.

I like the idea of justice, but it seems to be a shifting target. One person’s idea of justice is another person’s abomination.

When I was working as a contractor in Afghanistan we drove around every day in our armor trucks pretending to be brave, and every now and then proving that maybe some of us were. But most of us were just bored. Which is why some of the idiots I worked with found it fun to see how many locals they could knock off bicycles using the side mirrors of our vehicles.

It was easy to get away with shit like that. Chaos in the streets of Kabul is an understatement. I didn’t like it when it happened, but I remembered that I was the kid who shot someone with an arrow and still couldn’t be sure why. Except people change.

I like the idea of justice, even if I’m not always sure what it is supposed to be shaped like. With all that malleability, and the fact that I’m not a hero, I usually watch quietly. Usually.

When my buddy decided he was going to play the mirror game, and knocked an old man right off the side of the road and into a bus, I told him if he ever did it again I was reporting him up the chain of command.

Then I told him if we ever got stuck in the middle of a riot because of his recklessness, I was going to put the first bullet in his head.

He didn’t do it again. And I wasn’t a hero.

He just pissed me off because a) the old man wasn’t doing anything to him and b) he put my life in danger. Afghanistan is a motherfucking volatile place and I had no plans to die there because someone wanted to bip people in the back with their mirrors just to see if they could get away with it.

Antihereos:

  • Neither 100% good nor 100% evil
  • Fated to cause grief to individuals, the community, or oneself
  • Do not need to die at close of the story, resolution is often uncertain
  • Can act as a vigilante, even against oneself
  • Act according to their own set of rules and values
  • May have tragedy in their life
  • May have a tragic personal flaw
  • Lack true identity or are disillusioned with life
  • This does not define them as a villain
  • Their actions are often merely reactions to events
  • Usually not motivated to act for or against anyone
  • They fight present circumstances, not fate

Sounds like a person I am.

One day, I’ll tell you about the time I played with fire. Or the trigger pulling game.