Sunday, March 26, 2006

Stranger in a Strange Land

Back in the 60s there was an interesting word that was used regularly, but at the end of the day failed to make it into the progressive lexicon of subsequent decades. The word was grok, as in "to grok something", or "I grok what you're saying". Grok was a word coined by the author Robert Heinlein for his book Stranger in a Strange Land. The main character of this seminal bit of science fiction, Michael Smith, is an earthling who's returned to Earth after having been raised by Martians following the death of his human parents, the first visitors to Mars-think of him as Tarzan, but this time raised by ethereal beings of the most advanced intelligence rather than apes. He returns to Earth with a grab bag of highly evolved skills. For instance, by simply kissing a woman he triggers orgasmic paroxysms that would make Don Juan seem no more skilled than a 14 year old boy with a mouth full of braces on a first date. His greatest apptitude lies in his ability to "grok". A character in the book describes it thusly, "'Grok' means to understand so thoroughly that the observer becomes a part of the observed - to merge, blend, intermarry, lose identity in group experience. It means almost everything that we mean by religion, philosophy, and science - and it means as little to us (because we are from Earth) as color means to a blind man." Smith goes as far as to say that even were he falling to a horrible death from a skyscraper he would continue to grok the whole experience up to and including the instant of body shattering corporeal destruction. I worked very hard as an impressionable teenager to develop my groking skills hoping collateral side effects, especially those relative to kissing, would appear. Sadly they did not, but I did develop a penchant for taking it all in. Which, when I was married, did not always make for pleasant long distant car trips. Unlike many of my fellow males I will ask for directions, however I think my ex found soaking up the scenery was at the expense of paying less attention to her...something which ultimately did not sit well.

So, here I am back stateside groking America, feeling a little like a stranger in a strange land. This past week the actor Richard Belzer, from a bully-pulpit provided by HBO and Bill Maher, condescendingly disparaged the very same young Americans into whose able hands I placed my own life and limb into day after day in Iraq and Afghanistan. I'm going to do my dardnest to tell the real story of these kids, but I find it a tad discourageing knowing that our culture has more of an appetite for the Belzers and Joel Steins (author of the LA Times "Warriors and Wusses" article) running rampant across the airways and printed pages of America. In fact, let me apologize for calling them "kids", they're highly competent 18 and 19 year old adults, something as rare in the malls and coffee shops here as life on Mars. Perhaps there in lies the rub, maybe it's just beyond a certain segment of our society, the one dependent on adolescent tastes and buying habits, that anyone under the age of 35 is capable of adulthood, let alone 18 and 19 year olds. There's two wonderful books, Millennials Rising by Neil Howe and William Strauss and Hard America, Soft America by Michael Barone, that do a super job of talking about this rising Best Generation Ever that I heartedly recommend. (See links) In the mean time I'm homesick for my little bungalow in a cozy neighborhood at Camp Fallujah, Hard America.

Tomorrow will mark my official return to the studio. This past week, after checking in off of leave the 17th, was devoted to a variety of administrative tasks. Because of my promotion to warrant officer and new responsiblities there are schools, conferences and training I needed to schedule and lock on for the next year. I also spent hours reviewing my sketchbooks, journal entries, several thousand combat photographs, audio recordings and videos. This is the intial phase of the alchemy that will hopefully result in some good paintings and watercolors.

One last thing, for those of you interested, I'm writing for the New York Times TimesSelect subscription website. The Times invited four milbloggers to contribute our thoughts and experiences about Iraq. I find it very interesting, especially in light of the recent criticism of the MSM, that they would go out of their way to identify and invite us to their forum. From what I can tell they couldn't find a voice negative about the war. This is based on the assumption that if they could have found one they certainly would have used them.

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.