Saturday, April 29, 2006

Elegy for Gibarian

In that blazing corona,
Where in binary orbit hangs
The searing, silent essence
Of an alien Nirvana,
I find both peace and utter terror
Wrapped in charged-particle clouds
That swirl like a thousand
Lavender scarves.

Yet even when the gravity wells
Flex and yawn, and the
Plasma oceans flare to coral,
I will stare upon those endless
Humming waves, and know
That we have both been
Irreversibly changed,
Though how exactly, none will ever know.

--Milo David Freeman, 03/28/2006.

Friday, April 28, 2006

Blessed Among Men.

My wife sits in the big armchair, tooling around on our laptop. I'm leaning against the kitchen counter, smoking a pipe and taking sporadic pulls from a bottle of Leinenkugel. The windows are cracked a bit, letting in the sweet spring breeze I've come to associate with nights in the Rheinland. It's about an hour before the time we typically go to bed, and so our conversation is quiet, reflective, and meandering. We converse as she checks responses to a thread she posted on one of her forums.

"So," I tell her. "Wal-Mart and the guys from Sesame Street are putting together a video, right?"

Anne glances up at me from the computer.

"Yeah?" Back in college, like many local students, she worked at our area Wal-Mart.

I nod, chewing on the pipe stem and dragging sweet smoke. "Yep. For kids whose parents are in the military, deployed. Supposed to help 'em deal with separation."

"Very cool." She buries herself back in the screen, her fingers rattling over the keyboard like the staccato patter of gunfire.

I shrug, taking another pull of my beer. "Read about it today on this blog I check out, The Rude Pundit. Guy's take on it was pretty funny."

"What do you mean?"

I laugh. "He was going all Vietnam about it. Video's supposed to star Elmo and his father, so the guy was all talking about what happens when Elmodaddy comes home with PTSD."

Anne's eyes shoot up from the screen, staring at me in bemused shock. "What? That's horrible."

"I know, right? Guy's talking about Elmodaddy coming home from a twice stop-lossed tour in Iraq, like with a brain injury from an IED. Government didn't provide him with the proper armor."

Anne shakes her head. "That's so not cool."

"Oh no," I continue, "it gets worse. Like, you've got Elmo sitting on his dad's lap, and his dad has no idea who he is--"

"You're horrible--"

"And of course, he can't work with his injuries. So he starts drinking--"


"--And the flashbacks--"


"And Elmo grows to be all antiwar activist--"

"Milo!" She snaps shut the laptop and scowls at me. I freeze in my narrative, taken aback.


"I don't like when you talk like that."

"Talk like what? It was a joke. I mean, sure, the humor's a little dark, but--"

"I don't care," she cuts in, "can you please stop it?"

I pause, slowly realizing I've crossed a line. "Um, okay?" Still scowling at me, Anne sighs and reopens the laptop screen.

"'S'okay. " She says this, of course, but her tone suggests just the opposite. After a moment, I speak again.

"You're still really worried about me going downrange, aren't you?"

Still staring into the computer screen, her scowl cracks a bit, and her eyes turn up at me sorrowfully. She chews on her bottom lip. "Yeah."

"You're not worried about me dying." She shakes her head.

"You're worried about when I come back... "

I trail off without finishing. Anne glances down at her hands, and nods. She whimpers, and her bottom lip trembles. The full magnitude of my words finally hits me, and all of a sudden I want to hang my head in shame.

"Hey," I whisper. I walk over to her, and kneel down, leaning over the arm of the chair. I stroke her hair, kissing her forehead.

"Hey," I say again. "I'm sorry. I didn't realize..."

She sniffles a bit. "It's okay." Her eyes are wet.

"I'm sorry. I didn't mean anything by it. I love you." I brush her cheek. Her voice cracks a bit, and she mumbles, "I love you too." She looks at me, and the worry I see in her face wracks me with guilt.

"Hey. Come here." I wrap my arms around her, leaning forward and rocking her. "Look. It's okay. I promise you that nothing like that's going to happen, all right?"

She looks up at me. She sniffles again, and wipes her eyes. "You sure?"

"Of course." I kiss her forehead. "Look. Honey. I want you to listen to me. You're a strong woman, okay? I married you because you're strong. I love you, and I promise you that no matter what happens, I'm not gonna let us become like those other couples. I'm not gonna do that to you."

She doesn't say anything. She stares down at her hands again, seeming to collapse into herself. "I'm sorry."

"No. Don't be. I'm sorry, but I thank you, and I promise you I'm not gonna come back from downrange like Hauser." Hauser, or Texican as we call him, is an old mutual friend from the States, a young vet with bad memories of fighting in Afghanistan.

She shakes her head. "Hauser's one thing. Hauser's like an open book."

"What do you mean?"

"I talk to Hauser, and whenever he gets like that, it's easy for him. You know, sex, booze. Drugs. All the usual external stuff. But I still don't have you pegged."

I grin. "We've been together over three years, and you still don't have me figured out?"

"Not really."

"Why's that?"

"I dunno." A pause, and then:

"You're a lot more complex. You keep things in. You keep your baggage in.

"Part of it, you've got this system of behaviors, kind of difficult to read, that I think holds over from when you were a kid. You know, dealing with shit at school. Dealing with shit at home.

"I don't want to call it an inferiority complex, but still, I do think it has something to do with inferiority, and with your perception of yourself as inferior."

She's right, of course. She almost always is. I've always been a bit on the prideful side; always been emotionally volatile. I have a bad habit of fighting the current when I should perhaps be letting myself drift. I sigh, and kiss her forehead again.

"You're right," I say. "You're right, and I'm sorry. But I love you, and you have nothing to worry about."


"Really." I brush a blonde strand out of her face.

"Honey, I want you to know that I love you very, very much. You are a positive force in my life, and as long as I live I promise I'll do whatever it takes to be a good partner. You deserve that much. I'm not going to come back any different, okay?"

"You promise?"

"I promise." Glancing down, I spy a raised nipple under her tanktop. I tickle it slightly with my index finger. She shrieks, and pulls away.

"Honey," she says, laughing.

"Honey, I love you, but we can NOT have this discussion while you're tweaking my nipple. "

I throw my hands up in repentance. "I know, I know. I'm sorry. It was there. I had to. Forgive me."

"Whatever buster. Knock it off."

"Okay. I'm sorry. Friends?"


"Good enough." I move back to rest on my heels. It's getting late, and my contact lenses are starting to irritate me.

"You know I was serious, right?"

She nods. "I do."

"Okay. Just wanted to be sure."

"You sure we'll be okay?"

"As long as you're patient with me," I say, "and as long as I keep writing, I'll be fine."

"Okay." She smiles at this, and hugs me quietly. I draw in the smell of her hair. I sigh, and stare at our reflection in the window, and realize I am truly blessed among men.

Thursday, April 27, 2006

"Before you point your finger..."

Several years ago, my wife and I attended a performance of "The Vagina Monologues" on our local university campus. I enjoyed it immensely. I thought it was well-written, well-acted, and just an all-around important piece of theater.

As I've said before, both my wife and I consider ourselves staunch feminists. We have helped campaign for women's rights issues, and frequently contact our congressional representatives regarding such issues that crop up. I believe in equal rights for all people, regardless of race, gender, or sexual orientation, and ideally I long to see a society where all people can live free from fear of prejudice or inequality. I think that this is a noble goal, and one that all citizens should strive for.

However, when I attended the performance, I noticed several very disturbing trends practiced among my peers. Specifically, I noted on several occasions instances of behavior that seemed prejudicial toward my presence there, and indeed my status as white, heterosexual male. I frequently received scathing looks, and overheard whispered comments such as "What's HE doing here?" At the time, I was very offended by this, and to certain degree I still am.

Unfortunately, I've also noticed similar behaviors elsewhere. For example, there was a local coffeehouse in my town, of which I was a frequent patron. This coffeehouse was located near campus, and was a hotbed of progressive counterculture. Murals of Elizabeth Cady Stanton and George Orwell adorned the walls, and the bookshelves featured titles from such distinguished authors as Abbey Hoffman and Noam Chomsky. It was the meeting place of the local Campus Green Party, of whose ranks I was a proud member, and I fondly recall spending many a Sunday afternoon, lingering over a copy of Desmond Morris' "The Naked Ape," and enjoying a tall cup of fair-trade Colombian. All in all, it was a great place, and I was sad to see it close down several years ago. I still miss it.

But I have to admit, I absolutely hated the reactions of some of the other patrons to my presence there. At the time, I sported a shaven head and chinbeard, and was known to dress in jeans, combat boots, and a beaten-up black leather jacket. My features have always been slim and angular, and so I suppose that my attire imparted me with a look of lean aggressiveness. All the same, however, I quickly became accustomed to scorning glances from dreadlocked fellow patrons, one of whom actually had the gall to criticize my manner of dress one day while attempting to order a cup of coffee.

During my years as a proud progressive, I've noticed a tendency among people whose causes I support to criticize me for not being sufficiently liberated from the mainstream. I'm heterosexual. I'm white. I'm male. I eat meat. I enjoy viewing pornography now and then. I even went so far as to join the military. You should have seen the looks I received after Basic, when I came back sporting a harsh military fade. And because of all this, for all the action I've devoted to supporting various causes, I still get treated, as one friend jokingly put it, "[l]ike some evil emissary of the Patriarchy." I hate it. I can't fucking stand it.

Most recently, I patronized a blog on feminist issues, known as I Blame the Patriarchy. I've patronized many such similar blogs recently, among them Feministe and Echidne of the Snakes, both of which are truly excellent. I find these latter to be first-class sources of feminist debate and discussions of women's rights news. But upon my visit to IBTP, I contributed my thoughts to a debate on the effects of pornography upon the performance of the male brain. As a porn-viewing male, I thought that such a contribution was apropos. My post was polite, considered, and in my opinion very reasonable, if slightly "Devil's Advocate." Almost immediately, however, I was openly insulted and derided for mounting what they believed to be a "defense of pornography." I was told that, as a man, I could only be a feminist out of purely sexual motivations, and that I and my ideas "weren't worth" considering. I tried to appeal for a more serious discussion, free of personal attacks, but all attempts at reasonable discourse soon went out the window, as even I lost my patience and temper. In the words of a gay friend of mine, I was jumped on for being "too white, too straight, and too male" for my opinions to really matter.

It occurs to me now that such bigotry on the part of any group, struggling to be heard, is inappropriate. So when I have to endure ad hominem attacks just because I happen to be a member of the majority demographic in America, I get angry. I didn't ask to be born white. I didn't ask to be born straight. I didn't ask to be born with a Y chromosome. But I'm happy to be who I am, and I'm happy with who I am as a human being, NOT because I was born into a world of majority entitlement.

What entitlement? I grew up in a household that couldn't afford health or day care, put myself through college on student loans, and spent the better part of my twentieth year homeless. In my life, I've seen that inequality and poverty affect ALL people, of ALL different backgrounds, and that the only way for us to grow as a society is to work together.

I believe in gender equality.

I believe in gay rights.

I believe that pre-emptive war is NOT a means of enforcing policy.

I believe in equal opportunity.

I believe in helping disadvantaged minorities improve their quality of life.

I believe in separation of church and state.

I believe in affordable health care.

I believe in the essential goodness of ALL people, whatever their flaws or beliefs, and their rights to be able to live, think, and love as they choose, without fear of violence or discrimination.

Say what you will about my beliefs, or my arguments. But don't EVER denigrate what I have to say on the basis of where I come from, or what I look like, or whom I fuck. Bigotry is bigotry, no matter who projects it, or for what reason. If you can't respect the views of other human beings, then you can't demand your views be respected in kind. You're only making things worse.

To quote a lyric from Tool:

If I'm the fucking Man, then you're the fucking Man as well.

So you can point that fucking finger up your ass.

Tuesday, April 25, 2006

Jesus Loves Me, This I Know...

I just watched a video made by a fifteen-year-old girl in Alabama, Ava Lowery. Apparently, there are some 70 of these on her site, Peace Takes Courage, and for these she has received death threats--been told she should be murdered, raped while her corpse rots in the sun. Cowards are actually saying these things; threatening a fifteen-year-old girl.

I have never--not EVER, not ONCE--cried after watching any movie or video. But I openly wept after watching this. I showed it to my wife, then retreated into the kitchen, grabbed a cigarette and my beer, and sobbed as quietly as I could without alerting her. I cried watching it the first time, and if you're any kind of decent human being, you will too--soldier or not.

If you're reading this, drop what you're doing and go. Now. Watch the video--all of it. And pass it along to your friends.

May God forgive us.

Saturday, April 22, 2006

All Bonds Are Tentative

At an Army airfield not far from where I live, the local Enlisted Soldier's Club hosts a karaoke competition on Friday Nights. Admittedly, in a country as renowned for its nightlife as Germany, many soldiers prefer to seek out richer diversions, but still others prove to be no match for the combination of alcohol and access to a microphone.

If nothing else, it's cheap entertainment, and so when my wife told me last night that she wanted to go, I shrugged and went along. For once, I played the Designated Driver, as too often on past occasions has my spouse had to be the one to shepherd me stumbling home, full of 100-proof bravado. We arrived after a twenty-minute drive to our destination, and after signing Ann up for the contest, we ordered a few drinks and had a seat in the smoking section.

Allow me to state, first off, that this club sucks. Shitty hip-hop blasts from speakers so poorly mastered that the music seems to emanate from behind some invisible styrofoam wall. Multicolored neon lighting laces the walls, flickering so badly it should be a posted epilepsy hazard. The conversation is loud and difficult to follow, and the "smoking section" is actually sealed in by a square glass enclosure, leaving one to feel somewhat like a zoo exhibit, the last of some rare and endangered species on display for those not addicted to nicotine.

"To your left, a herd of North American Chain-Smokers. These once-ubiquitous creatures are now extinct in the wild." I never really thought of Big Tobacco as a conservation industry, but there you have it.

Lackluster atmospherics notwithstanding, we decided to make the most of it. We ended up running into a co-worker of mine--Burke--also accompanied by his wife, and together we sat and drank and chatted about work and took turns getting up to butcher popular songs. I courteously abstained, both from the alcohol and the assaulting of strangers' ear canals. I did quickly notice, however, that the club was packed not just with off-duty Americans, but also with uniformed German soldiers, weaving merrily and kibitzing arm-in-arm with the Americans in a stilted cacophony of mixed English and Deutsch. I found myself gazing at the Germans' uniforms, noting the dappled greens and shades of rust, the fatigues themselves cut in a vaguely antique design reminiscent of American uniforms circa Vietnam.

After some time, while my wife was busy singing up front in a duet with Burke, one of the Germans took up a position at our table several barstools away. I glanced over at him, quietly smoking my latest cigarette, and after several minutes, he looked up from fumbling with his pockets. Holding a long, thin cigarillo, he leaned over and shouted to me, in heavily accented English.

"You have fire?"

I looked up. "Feuer? Ja." I produced a red Bic and used it to light him up. He pulled away, drawing in a thick lungful of sweet smoke, and exhaled, nodding in thanks and salutations. I leaned over to him in shouted.

"What's your name?"

He looked vaguely confused for a moment. "My name?"

I nodded, gesturing with my free hand. "Ja," I said again, "was ist Ihre namme?" He was wearing a velcro name tape, digital grey and probably borrowed from a drunken American. "Lenny," I heard him say.

That didn't sound right. I shook my head and leaned in closer. "I'm sorry?"

"Renny." Closer.


"Nein," he said more slowly, "Re-ne."

Rene. I nodded at last in understanding. French, but I didn't think much of it. I extended my hand to him. "Milo," I told him. "It's nice to meet you." He grasped it in a firm handshake. I scooted my barstool over, and we struck up a conversation.

Rene's English wasn't the best I've heard, but since most Germans speak better English than the average American, I didn't really fault him for it. Between his English and my German, we were able to have a successful conversation. We talked about our roots--I was from Michigan, and he was from Koln, or Cologne, a city with a strong mix of both German and French heritage, which of course explained his name. Like me, Rene was a former Reservist, now serving his country on active-duty. He was in town for combat exercises, and as we talked he pointed out and introduced me to several of his fellow soldiers, including his platoon sergeant and lieutenant. I bought him another beer, and introduced him to my wife. She joined us back at the table, and together we had a long conversation. After an hour or two, we exchanged phone numbers, and agreed to meet up the next day, perhaps to give him a tour of the city if he got a break from training. We shook on it, and at last my wife and I bid our new friend farewell, getting up with some effort and making our way out the door.

Later, driving home, I was struck by the strangeness of my exchange with Rene. We got along well, linguistic barriers aside, and all things considered I'd be happy to split a pitcher with Rene again. He was a good guy, and probably a good soldier. I'd have been glad to serve with him.

Sixty years ago, however, I might have said differently. Back then, our grandparents were intent on killing as many of each other as possible. Back then, my fellow soldiers would have called Rene a "Jerry" or a "Kraut," and had we met, we'd have been too busy shooting at each other to even think about splitting that pitcher. Worse yet, our attempts to kill each other would have been utterly impersonal, faceless, masked by officer-friendly jargon such as "objectives" or "resistance."

To be certain, without that last great War, Rene and I would never have met in the first place. Now, we trade drinks and stories of our home countries and experiences in the military. We do this as Allies. But if tomorrow, my nation and his were to have some sort of falling-out, we'd just go right back to killing each other, causes once again placed above human contact. In the military, I realized, the only soldier you can trust is one with the same flag on his shoulder.

Friendship is meaningless in the face of politics.

Friday, April 21, 2006

Soldier of the Dharma, Part II: Compassion

It is said that upon the gates of early Buddhist temples, an inscription could sometimes be found. It read:

"Those who enter are welcomed. Those who leave are not pursued."

The Lake Superior Zendo is located in Marquette, a scenic college town in Michigan's Upper Peninsula, on the shores of Lake Superior. It's an unassuming beige two-story home on Longyear Street, technically in a poor area of the city, but well-maintained and shaded by tall willows and red pines. It is owned and maintained by Tesshin Paul Lehmberg, an English professor at Marquette's Northern Michigan University, and Ichiryu John Moran, a professional care provider. Both men are ordained Zen Buddhist monks, and Lehmberg has been ordained as a lay Zen priest.

The Zendo is located not far from the NMU campus, and sports a large, sparsely furnished front porch. Most of the parking is in the back, and the house is usually deserted, for what little activity goes on there occurs in the very early mornings and late evenings. The interior is similarly spartan, with an immaculate kitchen and a small space for coats and shoes near the back entry. Footwear is strictly prohibited within the Zendo.

Upon entering the Zendo, one notices the strong smell of sandalwood incense--an important part of the daily rituals which occur there. A sense of hush pervades the space, not so much a hollow silence as a sense that all ambient noise has been mysteriously dampened. The place never holds more than four occupants or guests, and those who do enter are usually university students, meeting with the monks for small classes on zazen, or sitting meditation. Conduct within the Zendo is governed by a simple but strict code of ritual etiquette, a holdover from the Zen monasteries of Japan.

The sitting room is closed off by black curtains, and deep-pile beige carpet pushes up against one's feet. Lighting is either by candle or recessed fixture, and is appropriately low-key. At the far end of the room, in front of the large bay window, sits a small wooden table, which serves as a makeshift altar. On it sit a pair of small potted bamboo plants, two tall candles, a bowl of incense as well as rice, and a tall mahogany statuette of the Buddha--The Awakenened One--lovingly crafted in the slender and ornate style traditional to northern India. Black sitting cushions, zabufons, sit on matching padded mats, facing the walls. Each school of Buddhism--Theravada, Mahayana, Mantranaya, Nichiren, and Zen--identifies itself by different colors of robe and banner. Zen Buddhist monks wear black, admiring its simplicity.

Morning ceremonies are held on weekdays at 0600. They typically last an hour, and are virtually empty save for the attending monk, usually Ichiryu. One gets the impression that Ichiryu often performs these ceremonies alone, and that the extended weekend meditations are often conducted only by Tesshin and Ichiryu together.

Some find that sad, but I find it beautiful.

These two men, quiet and reflective, perform the daily rituals of their faith in virtual silence, and perform them without regard to whether anyone will attend, and barely acknowledging even when people DO attend. Their practice is like a force of nature--quiet, single-minded, and utterly unconcerned with the distractions of human affairs. It occurs like the waves of Lake Superior; like the rivers that weave through the Hiawatha Forests. All visitors are welcomed, but treated as clouds casting shadow over the mountainside--Like all things, utterly temporary. Those who enter are welcomed; those who leave are not pursued.

How can that be anything other than beautiful?

I still remember those Marquette mornings, bitter before sunrise, when I would wake at 0500 just to make it to the Zendo before six. I remember the hush of waiting to enter from the foyer, how I exchanged bows with the attending monk and joined him in bowing to the Buddha. In Buddhism, one never truly bows to the Buddha. Rather, one bows to the divine Buddha nature that lies dormant within all things, and within all people. I still remember the chime of the singing bowl, that rich single note in F as the monks signaled the cue to begin zazen. I remember the counting of breaths, the straining agony that comes from maintaining zazen over the course of forty minutes, and remember the draining of attachment, the clearing of mind that signaled the ascent into samadhi, until even the pain and numbness could not touch me.

At the end of the forty minutes--120 breaths--I remember the bowl, and the droning chants from the Heart Sutra.

"Avalokiteshvara, when practicing deeply the prajnaparamita, perceived that all five skandhas are Empty, and thus was released from all Suffering and distress..."

I found such power in those words, those teachings about the temporary nature of existence, but I found even more in the silence that preceded that prayer. I remember, too, the silence that inevitably followed, when at last I would have to abandon samadhi, and give my final bows to the monks. I remember my joints aching as I uncurled from my mat, and I remember with stunning clarity the new richness in every sensory input. There is nothing that I can write here to describe the sensation of stepping out, forty minutes later, into the Lake Superior sunrise, and feeling in a thousand ways transformed.

To every fire-and-brimstone preacher, every individual who might look at me with skepticism or scorn, and ask why I pay tribute to false teachings, I say this: I have seen a facet of God whose beauty you will never know. I've seen the world with new eyes; seen every tree and leaf and cloud with a clarity which I never believed attainable. I have seen the way in which all things fade and die, and in spite of all that, seen that much more beauty in the world, for all of its ephemera. I have felt God, and heard Its whispers in my ear, and Its message was this: silence. Silence, pure and empty; a symphony for and of life which continues on, within and without us.

For all your talk about Sin and Grace, I have seen the true worth of such things, and I tell you, they mean nothing, will be nothing long after we and our time have gone. That which you call God, I call the Dharma, and Its message is one whose true beauty and depth I can never truly hope to transmit.

Thursday, April 20, 2006

Soldier Of The Dharma, Part I: Suffering

"Snow on pine branches
Melts and runs away with spring.
Truth is evergeen."

--S. M.

I was raised Catholic, but on my dogtags I'm listed as Buddhist.

I know what you must be thinking, but trust me, it's not really as strange as it sounds. I've always been an intensely spiritual person. I was raised in a strong Catholic family, and though it's been years since last I took Mass, to this day I respect the solemnity and quiet grace of those childhood Sunday rituals.

I went to several churches and Bible schools as a child, but nothing in my youth affected me more than staring at the old Irish and Polish women sitting up front, clutching their rosaries, silently mouthing the words to each and every sacred litany. By comparison, Sunday mornings at church with my Protestant friends seemed to amount to little more than "Grape Juice and Graham Crackers With Jesus." It's discomforting to think that organized religion ropes today's children in with snack food. No, from an early age, my impression of spirituality was one of devotion, introspection, and silent contemplation of the Divine. These days, I tend to think that that idea has been lost.

I was a fairly inquisitive kid, the sort in whom spirituality often takes deep root. I was also very bright for my age; by 8 years old I'd taken to reading the works of physicist Stephen Hawking. Like many boys that age, I had an intense fascination with dinosaurs, but unlike most boys, this fasination led me to an almost fanatical study of the natural sciences. Paleontology, Archaeology, Biology, Geology; by the time I was 10, I'd read an entire set of 1974 World Book Encyclopedias, cover to cover.

Of course, in the hands of a ten-year-old, such natural curiosity tends to spell the death of blind faith. So it was with me. As I grew older, I continued to attend church off and on, but aside from a few brief "revivals," I came to view the ceremony and piety of Mass somehow lacking. Time and time again, I read through the Bible, but the answers I found within those pages didn't match the questions that I was asking. It wasn't that I stopped believing in God, by any means. Rather, the view of God that I found in the Bible came to seem strangely narrow and short-sighted. In high-school, I asked my mother how God could be anything other than flawed or limited, when His Word--said to be transmitted in its entirety--was communicated by flawed human hands, and its teachings interpreted by limited human minds. She couldn't respond, but instead tried to direct me to the local priest. I wasn't having it. I started attending Mass less often, and by the time I had graduated, I had more or less abandoned my Christian faith.

As I began to slowly shed the spiritual vestments of my upbringing, I sought to fill the vacuum with a philosophy that might more easily align with the world I saw around me. I studied a number of different religions, each as hollow as the last.

Evangelical Christianity? Too creepy and apocalyptic.

Islam? No mosques in my area. I doubt that God has the time to condemn me for eating a pork chop.

Judaism? See Islam. Besides, it's so hard to find a nice Jewish girl these days. Ask my old roommate.

Paganism? Too heavy on the religious symbols, plus male practicioners are kind of a minority. The ones I knew tended to carry heavy emotional baggage.

Scientology? Don't think so. L. Ron Hubbard couldn't write science-fiction worth using as toilet paper, and I'm not going to let a writer that crappy dictate how I live.

Atheism? Too trendy. All style, no substance. I doubted that Nietschze really got laid that often.

As one can imagine, after a while I started to get depressed. Faith and the intellectual mind tend to make for uneasy bedfellows. Along the line though, starting at around the age of 15, I started examining various shades of Eastern philosophy, and as I moved into college, I found myself slowly coming to embrace Buddhism.

I had always found Buddhist thought compelling, for several reasons. For one thing, rather than drawing its teaching from a MORAL code--which dictates that the basic good is laid out by a Divine authority (see Augustine, Aquinas, Kant)--many Buddhist sects, I discovered, drew their teachings from ETHICAL mandates. That is to say, they focused on a greater good centered around basic human kindness and social dynamics. Buddhist philosophy assumes that people don't need to be bribed or threatened in order to behave themselves. Score one point.

Moving on into my studies, I came to notice that Good and Evil--two flawed concepts deeply woven into our cultural perspective--were virtually ignored in Buddhist philosophy. In Buddhist thought, good and evil are value judgements. Instead, human extremes are weighed in terms of Suffering, Attachment, and Compassion. Everyone suffers, everything dies, and everyone struggles in vain to hold onto that which inevitably fades from memory. The only way to escape Suffering is to simply let go of those things, and show all living things the same level of Compassion that they equally deserve in this Life. As for details like Reincarnation and Karma, those are concepts whose importance varies wildly from one Buddhist school to another, an idea I'll get into here shortly. But I digress.

I spent a few years researching Buddhism, off and on, but for all the ways that it appealed to my particular worldview, I found that for a long time I could never fully embrace it. For one thing, I worried that people might see me as being flaky or "New Age;" never mind the fact that Buddhism is fully five-hundred years older than Christianity. For another, it was hard for me to find a place to begin studying. Buddhism, particularly Japanese Zen Buddhism, is a philosophy which really depends on the relationship between teacher and student. Buddhist philosophy teaches its followers to achieve the same level of spiritual attainment as the original Buddha, Siddhartha Gauthama, a Hindu prince-turned-wandering-ascetic born in the kingdom of Sakya, in what is now modern-day Nepal. Without someone to guide my initial steps, it would have been nearly impossible to even find my place on the path, let alone walk it to the very end.

And then I came to the Lake Superior Zendo.

To be continued...

Tuesday, April 18, 2006


" the highest form of patriotism." --Thomas Jefferson

I was idling about on my computer this morning, when I came across something that absolutely turned my stomach.

At UC Santa Cruz recently, a group of students protested military recruiters on their campus. They sent a press release to, among other places, the website of conservative pundit Michelle Malkin. The aforementioned press release contained the names and contact information of students involved, and in Ms. Malkin's case, the information was published directly onto the front page of her website. A slew of vitriolic hate mail and death threats ensued, directed toward these students, and the results are enough to make my skin crawl.

I am not merely angry over this turn of events. I am livid. To think that these people are the ones I swore to defend, even serve with, fills me with disgust and rage. Malkin has displayed a level of pettiness and cruelty toward her critics that is absolutely inappropriate for someone in such a position within the media establishment. Furthermore, anyone who claims to have served in the military, yet has the GALL to harass and threaten mere students, has completely forgotten their military bearing. Their actions fly completely against the core values of their respective branches, and these people should be absolutely ashamed of themselves. I hope that anyone involved in such atrocious behavior is found and prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law.

Allow me to explain myself. I am, above all things, a loyal and devoted soldier. I love my country, and I love the Army. I believe that enlisting is one of the most important things that we as citizens can do. But I also feel that we are patriotically obligated to object in the public forum to those policies which we feel contradict our American values. Peaceful assembly for the redress of grievances is both a right and a civic duty, and while I do not disagree with military recruiters traveling to college campuses, I do respect those students who had the courage to stand up and voice their feelings.

I understand that our country is deeply divided on American foreign policy. I also understand that, for someone who has made the sacrifice and served our nation, hearing public criticism of the military can arouse powerful feelings of resentment. But taking a civil matter and turning it into a personal one is a shameful and undignified response, especially when death threats are involved. This is not the way that Americans are supposed to behave.

I am deeply disappointed in Ms. Malkin for her irresponsible actions--she should have known better. I refuse to resort to partisan personal sniping, but hiding behind the fact that the release contained personal information shows a contemptible lack of judgement on her part. If she has any respect for her readers and critics, she will admit wrongdoing in this matter and let it go.

I am no "wingnut." I am no "moonbat." I am both a soldier and a proud American citizen, but I was also raised to respect the right of ALL Americans to speak their views. This kind of hideous manipulation of public sentiment for personal gain is disgusting, regardless of on which side of the fence it occurs. Shame on you, Ms. Malkin, and shame on those of you who forgot your bearing. I am ashamed to call you my brothers.

Tuesday, April 04, 2006

Feminism In The Military

( Hat tip to Jill at Feministe )

I consider myself a feminist in the classic sense: I believe in equal rights for women, as well as equal pay and the freedom to determine one's own sexual choices. I also support women's equality in the military, and support the idea of allowing women the choice to enter combat for their country.

At the unit level, I also believe that women serve an important function: namely, that they provide a stabilizing influence in the enlisted ranks, and that any unit without a representative cross-section of females in its makeup is one that compromises its own unit readiness. I admit, I have no facts or figures to support my claims. I have only raw observations and experience. That being said, I've noticed that for all the noteworthy advances in Women's Rights in the military, "feminism" as a concept seems to barely exist in the military. In some cases, it's even stifled. I consider this a problem, and am concerned on behalf of the many female soldiers I've been lucky enough to serve with.

I serve in an Engineer unit listed as "combat support." That is to say, we are a unit likely to experience hostile fire in future deployments, though not likely to be deployed in a forward offensive role. As such, women are permitted to serve in our unit, and perform all the same duties as men. However, in my time with this unit, I've also observed a climate of self-imposed insularity enforced by my fellow males. It's a phenomenon that seems to be hardly unique to the Army, but if one were to examine my platoon in particular, one might find some disturbing trends.

It starts off with composition: out of nearly fifty individuals, only one is female. She's a single mother, and since the last deployment she has been relegated to a position in our Headquarters section (read: desk job). There have been more, but in the past six months, while new women have transferred into the unit, each has been shuffled off to the next platoon. Meanwhile, the atmosphere within the platoon is jocular and competitive. Misogynistic jokes and homoerotic roughhousing permeate the air, leading inevitably to assaults and drinking offenses off-duty, as well as safety violations and potentially fatal accidents while on-duty.

I didn't think much of it, until last November, while attending a neighbor's Thanksgiving dinner. I ended up conversing with another soldier in my section, Colton, a young husband and father approximately my age. We picked at our mashed potatoes and smoked cigarettes in back of the kitchen, discussing events at work.

"So," I remember him saying, "we're getting, like, 20 new people, 'tween now and February." He pushed away his paper plate, sticking another Marlboro between his lips.

"Yeah?"I looked up, abandoning my own efforts to finish. He nodded, and hunching down over his lighter, took a drag and exhaled.

"Yeah," he went on. "Least five females, didn't count males. Prolly wearing ACU's."

It's at this point that I went to light up for myself. "Think any'll come to First?"

He shrugged. "Prolly not."

This came as perplexing to me, both his mention of the females and his response. "Why do you say that?"

He shook his head, frowning and blowing out another plume of smoke. "Why do you think? How many females we got in our platoon?"

"Ramos and West. Why?"

Colton fixed me with a wry look of scorn. He glanced back toward the living room, then turned again to me. He whispered.

"Look, dude, First doesn't want 'em. All they do is slow us down. Bring our PT scores down, make us fuckin' look bad."

I took a drag, shrugging him off. "How do you figure? Ramos got like a 290 on her last PT test."

"Yeah, and she's what? Forty?"

"Thirty-six," I corrected him. "And she only did 15 fewer push-ups than I did." I exhaled. One of the local wives walked through with dirty silverware. "Don't care who you are, man, at thirty-six? That makes you a stud."

Colton spent a few minutes staring out the window, dragging on his smoke. He shook his head.

"But come on, dude, you know it's not just that. She's always out flappin' on somethin'. Always mouthin' off to the NCOs, talkin' about how SHE'S gonna run things when SHE's sergeant'--"

"Yeah," I cut in, "so she needs to learn to shut the fuck up. Her and about a dozen other guys in our platoon. So what? Doesn't have anything to do with the fact she's a chick."

He gave a derisive grin. "You're tellin' me we're gonna be out on site when the mortars start coming in and she's not gonna get someone killed?"

I shrugged, flicking ash off my cigarette. "Dunno. But I think she deserves the chance to prove herself." I took another drag, and a long pause ensued. As I exhaled and fanned the steadily thickening haze, I looked back up at Colton.

"So you're saying that First isn't letting any new females into the platoons," I said. It wasn't a question.

"That's what I heard Sgt. Jennings say."

"To who? That's fuckin' illegal."

"He was talkin' about it up in the office. Long as he's acting platoon sergeant, I think."

"That's discrimination. That's IG shit right there. Someone calls that in, people'll lose rank."

Colton looked at me squarely.

"Like you're gonna call it in?"

I stuck my smoke back in my mouth. He had a point. I had already played the whistleblower card that month with the Sergeant Keyes thing. Too much civic awareness tends to be bad career-wise for a soldier. This from an unit whose NCOs once supposedly threatened punishment for witnesses in a rape investigation.

"Well, someone has to." I glanced out the window again. "Hopefully our new platoon sergeant will come in soon."

Colton nodded. "Hopefully. I'm startin' to hate gettin' up every morning."

"Yeah." I paused. "Look, all I'm saying is, I think women are a good thing for the platoon. Think about it. They're smarter, they're better at personal relations, they have a higher pain tolerance, they can lose more blood without passing out. They eat less. Hell, they're smaller. Think about that the next time you're crammed in back of a five-ton with somebody's weapon up your ass."

He nodded, raised his eyebrows. "Got a point."

I nodded back. "See? Plus, man, with girls around, guys aren't playing grabass when they should be watching their backs. Gimme a study on women and workplace safety, and I'll bet the number of accidents go down." Our cigarettes had become smoldering stubs at that point.

Colton went silent, staring into the dying cherry at the end of his fingertips. He ashed it out in his potatoes, then got up to throw away his plate.

"Maybe," he said, brushing past me.

Good things have happened for women in the Army. They now pilot attack helicopters, and annual sexual harassment courses have become a mandatory part of Army training. But the truth is, it's still almost expected of male soldiers to be misogynistic. Now, rather than discriminate against female soldiers openly, the norm is to silently exclude them from the fold. To make matters worse, women are still only expected to perform to a gender-normed standard of physical training, one which doesn't condition them effectively and puts them at higher risk of fitness injuries.

Good things have happened for women's rights in the Army, to be certain. But as long as we're continuing to use the word "female" as a disqualifier in front of the word "soldier," there can never be expected to be a real sense of equality for women in the service.

Because that's what feminism is supposed to be about, in my opinion: equality for everyone, simple and unvarnished. And on that front, there is still a very long way to go.