Thursday, March 09, 2006

On Vampires, Zombies and Snake Oil Salesmen

Well, I'll make it official...I miss it. I've been back three weeks and long to return. The rounds of kith and kin have been made; Mother visited, cat petted, plants watered and daughter followed through the mall with credit card in my hand.

Life for a wide circle of friends and relatives continued in my absence with a vengance. Plates were kept full. I can say with confidence they've endured far more of the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune than I did out in the goo. Life here was far stickier. There are ongoing messy divorces, uncertain job prospects, diseases ranging from lymphoma to Alzheimers and bipolar disorder, injuries from car accidents, several unexpected deaths and subsequent funerals to contend with along with all the attendant trivialities and irritations that flesh is heir to. It didn't help that my nephew and I were in Iraq. I'm a firm believer that the greatest dangerous we face are damage to our psyches, and based on that I've been far safer than anyone I know these past 5 months.

One of my favorite books is A Garlic Testament written by Stanley Crawford. Crawford writes with Thoreau-like lucidity about the life he and his wife share on a small New Mexico garlic farm. He muses in one of my favorite passages about the "vampire" comments his patrons often make as they rifle through the crates of pungent garlic stacked on the tailgate of his pickup truck. Almost to a person they quip in some form or another that he must have no trouble with vampires. Crawford recognizes that the comments, though meant to be funny, are about his customer's assumption that he leads an idylic rural life relatively free of the joy sucking realities of their suburban nightmares. To the garlic buyers he jovially banters back, "No vampires here.", but he assures his readers that he has his own set of problems threatening to drain the life out of him. Life in Iraq was a very dangerous place....physically, but there weren't any vampires. They were all busy it seems back home.

I've spent the last five months carefully observing people...Marines and Iraqis. Its an ingrained vocational habit. Now, back home, I'm growing intensely aware, by it's absence, of the life force, the elan vitale, that I was accustomed to experiencing everyday there in faces, body language and voices. Here, in the suburbia I grew up in, it seems like everyone has a cell phone stuck in an ear. Bluetooths, cordless ear devices for hands-off use, are everywhere; if you didn't know what they were you'd think there was an epidemic of folks talking to themselves. Forgive me, but something is missing from people's eyes, from their voices and carriage. They're not zombies yet, but neither are they fully alive. I recognize this observation is as much about my transition to being "back" as it is about the well worn rhetorical references on the numbing properties of modern life. The WWI generation innocently sang "how you going to keep them down on the farm after they've seen Parie". Gregory Peck starred in a great post-WWII flick, The Man in the Grey Flannel Suit, which beautifully explored this topic, the veteran's return to the vagaries of everyday life. The movie The Deer Hunter, in the shadow of Vietnam, explored this theme's darker side. No doubt movies and books will follow in trace of this current war and carry on a literary tradition extending back to Homer's Odyssey.

The other thing I find myself contemplating is our "culture of hype". Over the past couple weeks I've found myself astride those deliberately uncomfortable mall benches waiting for my daughter to exit an Abercrombie and Fitch and convoy over to The Gap, or worse, Victoria's Secret. I've re-established intimacy with my television's remote and thereby reacquainted myself with all the major marketing campaigns underway aimed at America's purchasing psyche. I can't decide which one I find more offensive, the music blaring Abercrombie and Fitch stores selling $100 tattered blue jeans, or the "bucking chicken" Burger King commercials. Bucking chickens, come on now. But far and away the greatest bit of All-American snake oil salesmanship has to be the marketing of a one Bode Miller on the cover of Time magazine's January 23rd issue. How many products are there in that cover shot? Surely at least half a dozen marketing directors got bonuses as a result. And that unshaven heroic otherworldly look....Wow! Even we Marines are only allowed to look that cool in battle, but he gets to look that way all the time. Yes, that's jealousy you hear in my voice. Man, why did they even bother to have the Olympic competitions this guy was slated to be in, Time already declared him winner. Forget Abu Ghraib, secret presidential wire-taps and the UAE port deal, I want to know why this guy didn't win anything. Apparently an elite team of Playboy bunnies were sent in to sabotage him, so I'd start the investigation with Hugh Heffner or the marketing gurus of several brands of alcoholic beverages. Even Time had the honesty to print a tiny article about his demise, it was buried in the back of a subsequent issue no where near any advertising pages. Fictional hype always looks better on the cover than the truth. Fortunately, at least according to several googled articles, he won't forfeit most of his marketing deals....whew, there is a God.

Leave will be over next week and I'll be back in the studio. Standing on soap boxes and dissecting popular culture is just a fun little diversion set aside for vacations. Andy Rooney is safe.


Beth* A. said...

"Here there be...Vampires"

Good to hear that you've been able to touch base with lots of friends and family, M D Fay. Surreal though, somewhat?? Maybe because it all comes barreling at YOU at once, the various illnesses and hardships, whereas the people at their epicenters got to process them (more or less) individually over a period of months.
Could be what's missing this side of the pond is a sense of purpose; the conviction that what one's doing - really matters. Hourly. Daily. In a 'big picture' kind of way. And when it's a purpose shared, like you deployed Marines have... well, I expect that feeling just grows (grew) exponentially. Small wonder you might miss that. The blessing is, you know what it feels like.

"Got...(not Milk)Garlic?"

Beth* A. said...

"Whew, there is a God." - LOL!

No ill will toward Bode M., but I'm really glad that a person extolling the 'virtues' of partying a ton and minimal practicing didn't make it to the medals ceremony and get to say "See? It worked." He should enjoy skiing however he likes it (mostly), just not as a rep. of the U.S. Olympians.
"Fictional hype always looks better on the cover than the truth." - a dismaying thought. And we deserve what we get if that's true.

Morley Safer paints, but not Mr. Rooney. So, YOUR MOS is safe from him. ;-) I think you got the better end of the deal. After all, you CAN write.

Suz said...

Enjoy reading your blog. Keep it up. And best of luck over there. I'm praying for all our troops over there.

Joseph said...

Please get ahold of a copy of Stephen Wright's The Amalgamation Polka.

Read it.

Be well.

Samantha West said...

You know my dear man, when I first decided to change the main characters in my novel to Marines from soldiers I began an incredible journey of enlightenment. As I read the history of the Marine Corps I started to look at everything differently. For several months I could no longer watch TV as I found it shallow and insignificant. I could no longer get excited because Brian, my former fiance, closed the deal of the century, and in fact I didn't marry him because my perception of his appreciation for life changed. Maybe it's partly my age, maybe it's because of my study of the Marines, maybe it's both, but I know that just reading about war has changed me forever. Your pictures and your words contributed to this change; you have infected me with the desire to immerse myself in the sea of elan vitale. My God, you're a powerful person!


Will said...

You are certainly talented. Great site, and keep up the good work.


K T Cat said...

Personally, I'm happy to hear the cat was petted. It's only right, you know.

All the best,

dave s said...

hey, Mike, great to see you have completed another campaign. looking forward to seeing you at our high school reunion. i still can see my best friend in 1st grade in your social and political commentary. keep the faith

whit said...

Welcome back to the real world. It makes you wonder what we come to doesn't it? So shallow, burdened with BS nonsense, materialism, nihilism.

I know how you feel.

CJ said...

Great to see a post from you again! Loved your observations about the 'realness' of those at war vs our 'zombie' culture here. So true. Hope you will keep writing!

Outlaw 13 said...

I can identify with your situation. When I got back a year ago, I was at first just happy to be back in the land of the big PX with all its attendant accessories. Then as time progressed I became more and more annoyed with the shallow self centered people that were more concerned with getting their next Starbucks latte than anything that might be occurring in the next county let alone across the globe.

Hang in there!
CW4 Mc
US Army

yankeemom said...

Good to see your post ~
I can't even imagine what a difference it would coming here from there. I'm with Samantha - having a daughter enlisting and learning more than I thought possible about the military and following this war as closely as possible has made it a bit difficult to do that nonconsequential small talk thing for long. Your artwork made it even more personal and I thank you for that.
Welcome home!

Anonymous said...

Welcome home!

Zombie culture? I cannot help but .think that we're being Oprahfreyed

Thanks for keeping it real.

Anonymous said...

Great read!.
It was fascinating to read your view of our world. I have to agree with several here. It is hard to have these day to day silly conversations with the so called "real world" when so much is going on. Our LCpl is also completing his leave time at home and it is almost time to go back to his "real world"
We think of you often and the time he spent in Iraq with you.
I am thankful for answered prayers and that you have all made it home safe.
My prayers for those fine Marines who gave their all.
May we always remember them and never take their sacrifice for granted.
Through your beautiful work, my world has been changed forever.
Thank you.
Bailey Colorado

Bag Blog said...

It is amazing how people can complicate things - muck it up. There is a Bible verse that says, "live a simple life and work with your hands". I like that. May you have that kind of peace in your life.

GunnNutt said...

I like your "soapboxes" and hope that you'll take a mini vacation here and there to climb back on them.

Welcome Home!

Anonymous said...

Sir -

I just wanted to say hello. Your art was more of an inspiration than you were ever given credit for. Glad to have served with you, and welcome home.

Cpl Ruiz 0351
2/1 Fox Company
(2nd Platoon)

EdoRiver said...

Well, a nice infectious read. A little heavy on the Bode, but hey, that's part of home.
1) I think the sense of purpose is what draws people to the military. Pretty simple, "Protect the Country", right? Next combine this simple sense of purpose with war. Combine a mental sense of purpose with the gut's desire for survival. What more could you ask for? Well, you know what I mean. You already made a choice so here is the "dinner" you asked for. Is it what you thought you were getting? Of course not. But at least its interesting.
2) I think of all the comments, excluding the ones with a simple "welcome back", Beth a.first comment makes the best points. It comes at you all at once. But you know what, everyone adjusts. even the doctor in ER adjusts, or leaves. However your support structure is a litte fancier than the ones of a few of the Iraqi (civilian, I hope) blogs I read. Seems like they have the same issues you raise, plus the other stuff.
3) Don't try to read too much into my comments either way. I enjoy your blogs to the extent they are thought provoking. It is interesting to be able to compare a US soldier's perspective with people in the civilian pop. and others on the outside, such as I am. We couldn't do this in Vietnam.

EdoRiver said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Laurie said...

Welcome home. My moment this week of 'how insignificant is this' was watching the Today Show yesterday. They had on that rich gossip columnist from NY, and her two little dogs. Apparently she has written a book about how the dogs gave her a purpose after her husband died. Which is all fine and wonderful, but hearing about her doggie play dates, and spending $900 each to have the dog's teeth cleaned the other day was not something I really wanted to hear about while getting ready to trek off to my very middle class job. And thinking about the fact that this woman's whole career has been to dig up dirt on people and tell the whole world about it. Okay, I could go on and on about this, but I'll stop ranting now. I think I need to make a personal blog for this kind of stuff that isn't really appropriate for my troop support blog... LOL!

proud fan said...

THANK YOU SO VERY MUCH for your service. God Bless.

John Nowlin said...

March 17. You are obviously into "thinking and philosphizing" Good! How much do you think your philosophical bent was influenced by your battlefield experience?

Maggie45 said...

Well, not only do you draw divinely, and take the most incredible photographs, but you have a positively wonderful gift with words also. I think I've said this before. (smile)

I surely hope that you will continue with this blog, as I need my regular M D Fay fixes. You articulate a lot of my thoughts and feelings. I haven't had my television hooked up from just a little while after 9/11. At first it was because I couldn't afford the cable bill, and now it's because I can't afford all the stress it causes, that I didn't even realize until I stopped watching.

Buck Pennington said...

You have the talent and the experiences to write your generation's equivalent of The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit or The Deer Hunter, Mr. Fay. Perhaps you should consider it.

Welcome home. And thanks again for all you've done.