Wednesday, May 31, 2006

The Triad, Part III: Bringing us out of The Hole

Around the time I finally began to climb out of "the hole," I had a conversation with a friend of my wife. This gentleman was a veteran of Afghanistan, an elite combat controller with the United States Air Force. He'd been discharged after suffering injuries in the line of duty, and after talking with him for a while, I began thinking about my life and feeling discontent with the way things were going for me.

Things had been improving. I had two jobs, and was busy apartment hunting with a friend. I was slowly starting to pull things together in my life, but still things for me seemed dim. Most of my friends were still enrolled in college, working toward degrees. I, however, was too busy working dead-end jobs in customer-service and sales to really worry about my future, and I found myself envying this young man. He was my age, and was busy working toward a Bachelor's in Pre-Law. He'd already done some things with his life, and regardless of how they had worked out, he seemed to know something about himself that I did not. I found myself envying him, along with all of my friends in the local National Guard or Reserve. I found myself envying my father, having served his country in the Navy. I found myself envying my grandfather, who had served in WWII as a Marine. Later, talking with Anne, I expressed a concern that I was nearly twenty-one years old, no degree, and already feeling that my life was going nowhere. I found myself jealous of my friends in the service. Half-joking, half-challenging, my then-fiancee told me to go and talk to a recruiter.

I don't think she actually expected me to do it.

A month later, I shipped off for Army Basic Training, at Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri. I had talked it over with Anne, having decided to join the Army Reserve, and we had agreed that, even just by serving for a weekend a month, the sense of pride and educational opportunities I might be afforded would be far better for my sense of self-worth and long term future than anything I might have been doing at the time. Make no mistake: I did not join the Army because I was poor. I am not a mercenary. I did not join for money. What I DID join for was a change of pace, a chance for something new, and a chance to make something stronger of myself.
The real reason I was able to climb out of the hole, ultimately, is because of Anne. She fed me, cared for me, helped me look for resources to get me back on my feet, and it is because of her help that, after Basic, we were able to come back to an apartment in the city I loved, Marquette. With her help, I secured a good job as a computer salesman at a prominent Midwestern retail outlet. And with her love and support, I found the compassion to sustain my morale through all the hard times, both through homelessness and Basic, even through the decision to switch to Active-Duty. I survived my bout with poverty because I had someone like Anne to love me.

Money does not solve poverty in America. Love--love for yourself, love for your goals, and the love of people around you--these things solve poverty. I learned some hard truths about poverty in America, and the chiefest is that there is NO love, NO compassion from the employer, the loan officer, the car-dealer, the bank teller. If one truly wants to get out of poverty, one must, as they say in basketball, have the LOVE. That passion, that drive, is essential to maintaining the will to continue. And it cannot stop with the stabilization of one's bank account. Because no matter what happens, there is always someone poorer than you.

Last week, a friend from college dropped me a line. He was taking a graduation trip through Europe, and wanted to know where I was at. We made arrangements, and he stayed with us through the weekend in Germany. We talked and traveled and caught up on old times, and now, years after we first met each other, tried to make sense of those first wild days of our independence.

During a tour of the Frankfurt suburb in which I reside, my friend and I were accosted by a ragged-looking gypsy in jeans and a tattered flannel shirt. He was accompanied by a woman who appeared to be his wife, and together in broken German they asked me for a cigarette. I gladly indulged, but neither had lighters, or indeed anything other than the clothes on their backs. After a few moments of awkward conversation, the woman spoke up. She told me, in German, that they didn't know this area, and were wondering if I knew a cheap place to stay. I looked at her. Her eyes were sunken, and tinged with shame. Her teeth were brown, and she had an ugly scab on the bridge of her nose.

I hesitated for a moment--my German is conversational, but not fluent. I glanced up the street of the marketplace in which we stood, trying to get my bearings. After a moment, the couple cast each other an awkward glance, and the man, turning to us, asked nervously, if perhaps we had a bit of money--small change, kleine geld. Aaron had nothing, and I had no change myself. At the same time, I knew full well that no amount of change they could beg from strangers would cover the cost of a decent meal or a roof over the head. I took a moment to consider, and then decided. I produced my wallet, and took out a bill for 20 Euro, which I handed to the man. He looked up at me, in shock. He attempted to offer it back to me.

"Zwanzig," he asked. "Are you sure?"

I looked him the eyes, waving off the money. "It's fine," I told him. At this the man's eyes welled up with tears, and he and his wife each embraced me in a firm hug. They each thanked me profusely, smiling, and shook both my and Aaron's hands in gratitude. I grinned, and asked the man his name--Romano, he told me. His wife's name was Maria. I smiled and introduced myself. I pointed up the street to a local inn, about two kilometers from where we were standing. They thanked me again, and after confirming my directions, turned to go. They waved at us, smiling, and called out "Tschuss," the German equivalent of "cheers!"

After a few moments, walking into the wine shop where my wife had sent me on an errand, I turned to Aaron, who looked at me, perplexed. I sighed.

"I can't do it, man," I told him. "I can't just walk past people like that. I mean, sure they might not spend it the way I'd like, but I've been there, and you learn to read people. Those two needed it." Aaron considered this, and nodded. I don't know if he understood the meaning of my gesture. But I know this: giving them that 20 Euro was as important to me as it was to them.

It is only compassion which will bring us out of The Hole.

Thursday, May 25, 2006

The Triad, Part II: A Tank of Gas, A Pack of Smokes, and Thou

This is the Triad of American living: house, job, car. To prosper in modern America, you need these three things. If you lose one, you will shortly lose the others. If you lack even one, the other two will be impossible to acquire.

Imagine hanging up your phone and realizing that you suddenly have nothing. You have no job, no money, nowhere to go and no way to get there.

When I hung up my phone, there was still a six-pack of Heineken sitting in the fridge. I also had a half-pack of cigarettes. I went to the refrigerator and grabbed a beer, after which I grabbed my smokes and went outside to sit on my porch. It was a bright, cool day in September. There was a stiff breeze blowing in from the Yellow Dog Plain, and on the branches of cedar and tamarack the afternoon light seemed alkaline. I opened my beer, took out a smoke, lit up, and exhaled, sighing. I closed my eyes as the taste of the smoke mixed with my beer.

"Well, shit," I remember saying.

What else can one really say in such a situation. I thought about calling my parents. I thought about moving back home--would it be so bad? No, I told myself. You can't. I have a great relationship with my family, but they only recently became landowners. Even today, they struggle to keep up on their mortgage. To have returned back home would have been to returned to an area where my employment options were virtually nil. I couldn't afford to move back home, and they couldn't afford me. I struck that option almost immediately.

I moved in with a friend. I crashed at her place, on a futon pad in the middle of a bare hardwood floor. I struggled to get my car fixed. I struggled to get my identity back. I failed. In times of hardship, we often fall back on faith. So it was with me. I shaved my head. I ate a bowl of ramen a day. I meditated. I practiced katas. I became an ascetic.

After a time, though, the burdens became too great, even for me. I called a friend, and begged him to drive me down to Escanaba. I just need some time away, I told him. I need to fall back and regroup. I need to be with Anne. Take me down and spend the weekend with us, I coaxed him. We'll cook you dinner, can't argue with free food, right? My friend acquiesced, though I suppose more out of pity than for the sake of my wife's bear steak.

I went to Escanaba. Fortune smiled here. A friend knew of a call-center job--they always needed people--and my fiancee put me in touch with a social services group. They got me a dingy apartment--rent-free--for which all I had to do in exchange was attend weekly life-skills meetings with a caseworker. A few days later, I went back to my friend Emma's in Marquette, with whom I'd been staying. I picked up my few possessions--I was packed in under 15 minutes, even with the futon roll--and was back in Esky later that day. My job was across the street from Anne, and my place just ten minutes away, in Gladstone. After nearly a month of destitution, progress was made. I at least had a chance to start climbing out of the hole.

Things were still hard, though. My hours at the call-center were variable--some weeks I took home $400, other weeks $50. I still couldn't buy my own groceries. I lived for months off of care packages from the local St. Vincent de Paul. I learned to make two weeks' worth of food last for a month. I made meals out of peanut butter. I got occasional meals from Anne. But I still smoked, scrounging my apartment for change enough to buy a cheap bag of rolling tobacco, and I wasted away to less than 120 pounds. My teeth grew loose in my head, and I developed a fungal rash over my upper-body that I couldn't afford to treat. My cheeks and eyes grew sunken. I developed nasty dandruff. I began to look like an AIDS patient.

At times, I grew desperate. I struggled to find a second job, but as my appearance deteriorated, and with no car, my searches often came up fruitless. My fiancee did my laundry for me. I was transferred to another temporary apartment in Escanaba proper. To cope with stress, I resumed using marijuana heavily--Anne lived in a community-college dorm, and free or cheap weed was always readily available. Because I smoked, I couldn't apply for jobs even at Wal-Mart. They, like many other employers, required drug-tests.

This continued for nine months. I began depending on Anne almost exclusively, and attempted to save up enough money for a cheap car. I made friends, and attempted to curb my smoking habit. I began looking at other jobs, and finally scored an interview with a local shoe-store. I cleaned myself up, and listed my caseworker, Ginger, as one of my references. I begged her to not tell the store-owner I was homeless. I unpacked and cleaned my only suit--black vintage pinstripe, and bought from the Salvation Army for $10. I landed the interview, and began working as a salesman at Tradehome Shoes. My financial prospects, while still meager, brightened a bit. It looked like I would be able to afford an apartment by summer. I got together with a friend of mine, and together we conspired to live as roommates.

Things would have continued to improve as they were, if not for a pesky identity crisis I'd been having.

To be continued...

Tuesday, May 23, 2006

The Triad of American Living, Part I

Several years ago, while I was still a student, I went with Anne to join her father and his friends on a hunting trip just north of L'Anse, Michigan, not far from the Sturgeon River Gorge. We weren't married yet, and admittedly, I was reticent about spending any amount of time with my future father-in-law and his male buddies where generous supplies of alcohol and ammunition were involved. But of course, I went, figuring it would be a good experience.

We took my old car. At the time, I drove a 1989 Ford Tempo. It was a beater, but it had survived a considerable amount of abuse, and it was what I had. We had a good time up north, but of course, a young couple needs its alone time, and after a day or two, my then-fiancee and I decided to take the car out one evening for a drive through the areas' curving and remote dirt roads. The entirety of Upper Michigan is well-forested, and with ample cover and miles of road we figured we'd have no trouble finding a quiet spot to park and "take in the view" so to speak.

Not two miles out from camp, we were run off the road by a speeding Dodge Intrepid. It was getting dark out, and I swerved to avoid the oncoming vehicle. In doing so, I drove the car off the shoulder, and down a ten-foot embankment. The brush was dense, and the angle of the embankment steep. We were stuck. I cursed loudly for several minutes, and after arguing with Anne briefly I stomped back off toward the camp to get help.

Fortune seemed to smile--as Fate would have had it, my father-in-law's buddy A.C. was coming up on our position with his truck. After stopping to talk with A.C. for a few, he agreed to come to our car and help tow it back onto the road. We affixed a length of nylon rope to the truck's towbar, and attached the other end to my car's rear axle.

This proved to be a spectacularly bad idea. My car was over twenty years old, and much of the chassis proved to be little more than ferrous-oxide molecules holding hands. The rope snapped my rear axle, mangling the tie-rods in the process, and while we were successful in getting the car back to camp, we did so cruising in at a wobbly and nerve-wracking five miles per hour.

I ended up hitching a ride back home with my brother-in-law the next day. My fiancee went back to school in Escanaba, and I returned to my home on the old Sawyer Air Force base near Marquette. Money was tight in those days, and without a car, I would have trouble getting to my job as a prep cook in a local kitchen. Of course, my weekly hours of late had dropped to nearly zero, so in hindsight it didn't much matter.

Just how MUCH it didn't matter, however, only became apparent to me several days later. My job let me go due to overhiring, and though they offered me a job part-time running deliveries, without an insured vehicle I couldn't have accepted if I had wanted to. On top of this, my roommates--old friends from grade school--informed me that they were moving out, on account of not being able to afford rent. I shared a house with three people, and between the four of us, rent for each was only about $120/month, so you can imagine how broke we truly were as college students. Not an hour after this, I contacted my university's billing office in order to clear up a snag with my financial-aid paperwork. I was informed that, because the University had never sent me a copy of my Income Verification Request, the University had never been able to approve my aid-package. This paperwork, I should note, is supposedly sent to students' families at random, but in reality is targeted exclusively at students from low-income backgrounds. So I suddenly owed the school $2200 for off-campus semester tuition. I had no choice--I had to disenroll, before the fees piled up. In a final twist of irony, I had my wallet stolen, leaving me with no bank cards or identification of any kind, without which I could not access the remaining funds I had stored up in my checking account-- a little more than $200.

All of these events occurred in a little less than 48 hours. In less than three days, I went from a functioning, employed, upwardly-mobile young member of society to carless, jobless, homeless, and unable to finish my Bachelor's degree. On a mild day in late September 2003, I officially ceased to exist within the system. Milo Freeman still existed; he had bank records and outstanding debts, but I no longer had any way to prove I was him.

I vanished from society's radar.

November On The Superior Shore

Like the love of any northern woman,
Yours can be a grudging passion,
Though nothing if not cleansing.

Monday, May 22, 2006

Give Me My Wings

"From my rotting body, flowers will grow. And I am in them. And that is eternity."

--Edvard Munch

"Give me my wings." --Tool

When I die, long down the road from here, I want to be cremated. I want to be burned. No sterile years for me in the ground; no embalming so even the worms will not touch me. No. I want to trade my oxygen for carbon, bleeding into the air in a final release, a final bequeathing of my raw materials.

Spare me the gray dust of former being; spare me the tears and mourning. Remember me, and remember what I show you now. Better that my memories go on after me, than my memory itself. Go to the breakwall at sunset, and scatter me to the winds. Let me drift upon the harbor. Let me mix with the sand and clay and wind and black earth. Let me be free.

And when you do this, remember: Every Lake Huron twilight, every summer storm, every Port Austin breeze tinged with lilac belongs to me now, and I to it, forever.

Thursday, May 18, 2006

His Name is Milo Freeman

"Only in death do we have names. Only in death are we no longer part of the effort. Only in death are we no longer part of Project Mayhem." --Chuck Palahniuk

Several evenings ago, my wife and I were relaxing at home, cleaning up after dinner. I was working on a beer as we conversed about my latest entry.

"So," I said to her after a while. "I think I've come to a decision on something." I moved over to the living-room window, pulling it open to light up a cigarette.


I nodded, taking a pull off my beer.

"Yeah. I think I've decided that, when I die, I don't want a military funeral."

My wife looked up, clearly caught by surprise. "Really?"

I nodded, pursing my lips. "Yeah."

She cocked her head. "Why not?"

I didn't respond right away. I lit up and took a drag, taking care to blow my smoke out the open window. I sighed, and shook my head.

"I dunno. I just think that, if something happens to me, I don't want my legacy limited to the war I died in. That's all. I don't want to be remembered just as Specialist Freeman."

She nodded. She bit her lip and narrowed her eyes, thinking, before looking up and issuing her response.

"You don't want all those rituals? The twenty-one-gun salute? The flag on the coffin? All those rituals that might give comfort to your family?" She gives me a wry smile, tinged with a hint of sadness.

I shook my head. "I dunno." A pause. "I mean, I wouldn't mind a military funeral or memorial. It's just... I guess I want to be remembered for the human being that I was. Not the job I that I did."

She nods and shrugs. "I can see that. It's only right that that you should die as Milo David Freeman. Not just Specialist Freeman. I can handle that, I guess."

"Yeah." I take another drink of my beer. "I dunno. If you really think that the military funeral might make things easier for my family, then I say do it. But don't let me be remembered that way. I wasn't always a soldier. That would only be like two years of my life. Give them something to remember me for who I was."

"Okay." She sits down at the couch, looking at me.

"Does that include even if you die when you're 65,70? Or just if something happens to you downrange?"

I turn to the windowsill, mashing out my cigarette. "I don't know," I finally tell her. "I'll get back to you."

At twenty-three years old, it's insane that I should even have to be thinking about things like this. But they prey on my mind lately. I may be young, but for years now I've just felt so old; older than I have any right to feel. If you feel like that, I wonder, can the end really be that far away?

If I die, then I want to go to the end with my own true name--not just a rank or serial number. If I die as a soldier, I fear that my true human dignity--my identity, my life--will simply be lost on the ones I loved. And I don't want that. I want the whole person to be in their memories. I want them to remember how I felt, what I said, what I saw and believed. Once I die, my duty to my country has ended. Once I die, I cease being a soldier. I want to go to my end as a Man.

To paraphrase the film Fight Club, "In death, a soldier has a name. His name is Milo Freeman."

His name is Milo Freeman.

My name is Milo Freeman.

Tuesday, May 16, 2006

Rejecting the Program

I am a Buddhist. My worldview recognizes only three extremes: Impermanence, Suffering and Compassion. I seek to better the lives of others. I seek a greater understanding of human existence. I seek wisdom. I seek love. I seek peace.

I am a soldier. I serve with pride. I work to uphold the values and worldview of my culture. I fight when I am told to fight. I go where I am told to go. I am loyal. I am well-trained. I am unquestioning.

I am a man. I am 23 years old, and have a wife, whom I love very much. I come from a town of only 700 people, where Lake Huron covers three points of the compass, and where at sunset the air reeks of lilac and cool water. I am introspective. I am creative. I am happiest when alone with my thoughts.

I'm a fan of Tool and Tori Amos. I like strong coffee and bagels with too much cream cheese. I love good jazz music, and late-night arguments about politics over Guinness. I love the feel of worn leather sandals. I love old books, and I could live on Rushdie or Hemingway alone. I have a weakness for opinionated, articulate women. I love the warm, windy afternoons before a summer storm. I hate shaving, and I hate having to cut my hair short.

I smoke too much. I can be vain. I can be prideful and bad-tempered. I can be quick with vicious insults. I cuss like a sailor, sometimes in mixed company. I can be emotionally volatile. I can get pretentious about my intellect. I get uncomfortable in large groups of people. I can be sensitive about my perceived masculinity.

I'm far from perfect, but I can look in the mirror and say with complete honesty that I like who I am. More importantly, I know who I am, and I'm not afraid of it. At twenty-three years old, that's an impressive achievement, I think. I've learned more about myself in 23 years that some people will learn by 63. And one thing I've learned is this: part of knowing oneself is being honest with oneself.

I'm glad to have joined the Army. I'm proud to serve my country, and serve in the tradition of my ancestors. But lately I've been suffering from a severe case of cognitive dissonance. I look at a lot of my fellow soldiers, and see an attitude that makes me uncomfortable. It's a casual crudeness; a cynical fatalism so deeply ingrained that it kills the self-reflective spirit. The world doesn't happen FOR them; it happens TO them. For them, it's not merely that hardship and suffering are ways of life; rather, it's that there's nothing else. They don't look to the future past their next beer or one-night stand. I like them, and I like working with them. But I don't fit in with them.

I am a loyal soldier, but I admit that there are times when my choice of career contradicts my values. I believe that war is sometimes a necessary function of human affairs, but I don't believe in war as a tool for advancing an agenda. I don't like the way that the military mindset dulls one's sense of compassion toward other human beings. I don't like feeling that I am viewed more as a piece of equipment than as a human being. I don't like turning on the TV and feeling like the AFN public-service ads are there to pacify me and engender compliance. I don't like being made to feel, if I die tomorrow, that my legacy will be that of the war I served during, rather than that of the human being that I was. And I especially don't like having my service invoked to quell dissent against government-sanctioned "conventional wisdom."

I am not a machine. I am not an unfeeling pawn. I am not a hero, nor am I a coward. I am not an idiot, and I am definitely NOT a propaganda tool.

I don't like that my profession propagates suffering in the name of meaningless media-friendly buzzwords. I don't like that I am encouraged to view my enemies as less than human. I don't like that I am encouraged not to think, not to be happy. I don't like feeling that my life is worth less than some officer's next promotion. I like it even less that my death might mean less than Bush's legacy. And most of all, I HATE--seethingly, teeth-grindingly hate--that said political agenda means more to my leadership than the potential suffering of my wife and yet-to-be-conceived child should something happen to me.

I've learned some great things about myself from the military. I've learned about pride, honor, and personal stregnth. I've learned about teamwork, and about trusting other people. But I've also learned that I am not, at heart, a career soldier. I don't have the personality, nor the patience for bullshit. I will continue to serve with pride, and gain knowledge from my time here. But some part of me will continue to be skeptical of the motives of my leadership, and of the government which sends me to do its dirty work.

The person that I am is dangerously out of sync with the persona that the Army wants me to cultivate. I don't know how to fix that or, for that matter, if I even want to.

But it makes me unhappy.

Friday, May 12, 2006

Short Fiction: "Flashes in the East"

From an early age, Wilhelm Gruber had gotten used to the roar of jet engines above his home. On the playground at school, he could often look up, and see lacy contrails slicing the sky in elaborate cuneiform. Often, he'd spend several minutes staring, stiff-necked and squinting, wondering which, if any, of the trails had been left there by his father.

Wil Gruber was an average boy, by all standards: unruly brown hair, pale skin, green eyes; neither particularly handsome nor unattractive. He was a little on the small side, for his age, but his quiet nature hid a powerful temper. Doled out in rare but effective measures, this usually ensured that he and his few friends were left alone. His teachers complained about his wandering attention, but in a few subjects--mainly reading and social studies--the boy demonstrated an eager, even hungry, mind. His mother often included small notes of encouragement in his lunches, which he read, and later pocketed. When Crafts rolled around in the afternoon, he quietly dedicated each papier-mache sculpture or construction-paper heart to her, as well as to his father.

If there was one thing for which the boy never truly lacked, it was love.

The boy's father was a lanky man, handsome, and the clear template for his son's distinctive nose and eyes. He was something of a mystery. He never failed to lavish the fullest attention on his son, but the nature of his job kept him out for long portions of the day. On many days, training sorties managed to keep the boy's father away until long after night had fallen. That said, the man was a loving father, and while he didn't talk much about his work or past, the boy knew that his father was an important man--an officer in his country's legendary Air Force.

On occasion, the boy's father brought his son gifts, in the form of small die-cast airplanes. Typically, these were fighter jets from around the world. As a gift for his seventh birthday, his father had given him a metal replica, larger than the others, of a sleek fighter commonly seen on the airfield near which he lived. The man had leaned over him, candles still quietly smoldering on the lemon birthday cake, brandishing the unwrapped gift.

"This one is special, Wil. It's what I fly. Do you like it?"

The boy had smiled and nodded enthusiastically.

"One day," his father had said, "maybe you'll fly in something like this. "

Wil had only stared in wonder, at the gleaming earth-toned paint scheme; at the wing racks which held their own tiny plastic missiles. Later, the boy would look upon that moment as one of the happiest days of his childhood. It was the first birthday party he could remember where both his parents had been in attendance. Wil loved both of his parents very much, and among the other children he knew, Wil was aware that he had been truly blessed.

Wil's father was fond of watching the national news. On the days--usually weekends--when his father was home, Wil spent many a late afternoon sitting next to him on the sofa, watching the television. He regarded the hairsprayed anchors as they spoke in crisp northern accents; watched the video clips from events occurring elsewhere in the country. To be truthful, the boy never really understood much of what was being reported, and in fact, hated watching the news. But the news was what Wil's father liked, and because of that, Wil was willing to endure an hour or so of boredom every day. If Wil asked a question, his father was usually happy to lean over and explain what the people were talking about. Wil liked the personal time. Unlike the teachers at school, Wil's father never doubted his boy's intelligence.

On many occasions, Wil saw stories that talked about other countries. Wil heard about events going on across the ocean, and watched many stories about his country's neighbor to the east. Once, his father said, two republics had been part of a single greater superpower. However, a few years before Wil had been born, a couple of old men had gotten into arguments, and the larger nation had split apart. This, according to his father, was why, every year, the city held its famous parade. It was in celebration of the country's independence. Their country, for which Wil's father served as a fighter pilot, had made up one half of the former state, while their neighbors to the east made up the other half.

Wil remembered the parades well. They were grandiose affairs, where young women walked in traditional dress, tossing flower petals and candy ahead of rumbling tanks and spit-polished infantry regiments. In the background, meanwhile, military bands blared somber nationalist anthems. As a toddler, Wil had loved such things, saluting while his father had held him up over the densely-packed crowds. At that age, Wil had known and cared little about the arguments of dusty old men, but if dusty old men arguing meant more parades, then dusty old men were a thing that Wil could agree with.

Sometimes at school, Wil heard the other children talking about the country across the eastern border. Some, like his friend Leo, had family who still lived in the East, while others, like the lanky troublemaker Max, bitterly hated anything having to do with it. Max never said why he hated the East, but nevertheless many a schoolyard fight started over Max's liberal use of a hate-filled epithet. Personally, Wil thought it was all rather foolish. To look at his classmates, Wil would never have been able to guess on his own which students still had Eastern ties, and which did not. For that matter, he guessed, most of his classmates wouldn't have been able to either. Still, the matter confused Wil greatly, and one day in his eighth winter, the boy decided to ask his father about the matter, one Sunday evening over dinner.

"Dad," he asked, "are we from the East?"

Wil's mother and father looked at each other uncomfortably. They set down their forks and wiped their mouths. Wil's mother stood up, gathering plates, while his father, meanwhile, leaned back, clearing his throat.

"Uh, no. Why do you ask?"

Wil stared down at his leeks. He looked up. "Somebody asked me about it at school."

Wil's father pursed his lips and nodded. He sat forward, elbows on the table.

"Was it that Sieboldt boy? Max?"

The boy nodded.

"No. No we're not. But being from the East doesn't make a person bad. You understand that, don't you?"

"I guess."

"All right."

A pause, and then Wil spoke up again.

"Do we know anybody from the East?"

"You probably don't. You're too young. But yes. I used to fly with a few people from the East. They were good people. Some of them were even my friends." The boy's father stood up to grab an ashtray from the coffee table, before sitting back down and pulling out a cigarette.

As his father lit up, Wil said: "There was a war, wasn't there?"

His father's face clouded. He exhaled his first drag with a deep sigh.



For a moment, Wil's father said nothing. He tapped ash from the tip of his cigarette, and took another puff before speaking again.

"The old men," he said, "the ones that argued? The ones I told you about? Well...they were our bosses. They told us what to do. And once, long before your mother and I were married, they got into a few disagreements."

"What happened?"

"Well, see, a lot of people in those day had different ideas. They had different ideas about the way a country's supposed to run; about what kinds of religion people are supposed to practice. Most of the time, people ignored these things. But after your mother and I were born, things started to change.

"After a long time of plenty, our country became very poor. Politicians started looking out more for themselves, and not for their people. After a few years of it, people started blaming each other. People started getting killed. Politicians, even regular people turned up dead in the streets, with their hands tied up. Some people got in their cars, went to start them, and the cars exploded."

A pause. "People did a lot of very bad things to each other."

"Did you do any bad things?"

Out in the kitchen, Wil's mother was loading the dishwasher.

"I did what I was told to do," his father said.

"When they told me I had to go, I went. I fought. I made sure people were safe, and tried to stop the people that were doing bad things. But there are still probably people who think I DID bad things anyway."

"Why's that?"

"Well," he responded, "back then, I hadn't been in the Air Force very long--I was still just a lieutenant--and I didn't like the way people in the old country started treating some of us. Things in our country used to be good, and after things got rough, some people in power started trying to tell us that we couldn't do certain things. They tried to say there were certain places we couldn't go; certain things we couldn't do, and they even tried to arrest us for the things we said. People got arrested in the middle of the night. Most, we never saw again."

"So people started fighting."


"What did you do?"

"Well, a few of the old men--good men--decided that should have a new country. Sort of start over. These men happened to control a lot of the military, and since I was a soldier, I did what they told me. I fought so we could have a country of our own."

"So you started flying to bomb the people in the East."

"Not right away. Back then, we shared everything--trucks, planes--and since everyone needed equipment to fight with, we had to do a lot of fighting just to try and keep some of it. Most of the bombings happened on the ground. I spent most of the war leading ground troops, and by the time I finally did get back into a plane, the fighting was already over. We'd already made a new country."

"Did you kill people?" Wil bit his lip.

Wil's father looked at him evenly. The boy thought he had made his father angry. Instead, his shoulders sagged, and Josef Gruber stared down at his hands. The cigarette had nearly burnt out.


"Were they people you knew?"

"Sometimes," he said. "People I knew. Friends of your mother and I. From school. Some with families."

"If they were your friends, why did you kill them?"


He leaned over to tousle his son's hair. There was no joy in the gesture.

"Your mother and I wanted to have a family, too."

A month or so later, Wil was playing outside, when yet another fight broke out near the swings, between Max and a dark-haired boy whose name Wil did not know. A small crowd of children quickly gathered, with some shouting encouragement while others pushed through to intervene. Like any good child, Wil ran quickly over to investigate, and it wasn't long before the hulking recess lady barged over, bellowing for everyone to get out of her way. The gaggle of onlookers parted like water.

As Wil struggled to see over the crowd, he saw that it was actually Max pinned on the ground, with blood leaking from his nose and lip. He had snow and woodchips matted in his blond hair, and over him knelt the other boy, slightly shorter but stockier. His knuckles were raw, and his eyes burned with a murderous rage. The recess lady, a gray-haired bull in poorly-fitted khaki pants, demanded:

"Max! Aaron! Get up! GET UP! What the hell is wrong with you two?"

"He started it," shouted Aaron. "He was talking about my sister! He said she was a dirty--"

"Liar!" Max struggled to his feet. "He's lying! I didn't say anything! I just--"

"Quiet! Both of you!" The recess lady wasn't having it. "Max Sieboldt, I've told you a dozen times--"

"He called her a dirty rag-wearing cunt!" Aaron glared at Max.


"No I didn't!" Max's blue eyes bled contempt.

"He's just mad because I heard that Eastern girls let horses--"

Aaron tore away from the recess lady's grasp, barreling into Max with a grunt of renewed outrage. The scuffle started again, and once again the other kids shouted and moved in closer. The recess lady grabbed both boys and hoisted them to their feet. They twisted, protesting with indignant shouts of "ow" and "hey!"

"Shut up," bellowed the woman. "Just SHUT. UP. All of you!

"Max, Aaron, you can explain this little incident to the headmaster. The rest of you little brats should know better."

The other children stared at their feet.

"Go on," she yelled. "GO! Or you can all join them as well!"

Dejected, the crowd drifted apart, and Wil watched as the two boys were marched roughly back toward the building. Wil hadn't heard any of what Max had said, but knew enough to bet that Aaron had been telling the truth.

Several days later, Wil's teacher informed the class that there was going to be a special exercise conducted. The teacher said it was like a fire drill, but different. Over the course of an hour, the teacher showed the pupils how, when a special siren sounded off, the kids were all to file out of their rooms, in order, and crawl on their hands and knees against the walls in the hallway. Doing this, the teacher told them, the children would be led into the cafeteria, where each child would be instructed to huddle together, under the long tables where students normally ate lunch. Like the other children in his grade, Wil did quietly as he was told. Watching the older students, however he observed the way most of them treated it as a joke; the way they laughed and punched each other on the shoulders. One boy leaned over and yelled "Boom!" into a girl's ear, at which point she cried out and began slapping him about the head. He laughed, and his friends laughed with him. Wil watched all this, and felt unease.

Later that day, Wil came home to find his parents huddled together in front of the television. He dropped his book bag and removed his shoes. Coming into the living room, the boy heard the man on television saying something about a "breakdown of diplomacy" and about an order for military forces to assemble at the country's eastern borders. What that meant, Wil didn't know, but he knew that he and his family lived near an airbase within fifty kilometers of their national boundaries.

"What's going on," Wil asked.

His parents looked up from the television, jumping as though startled. His mother's eyes were red, and met his own as though searching. Her mouth worked up and down, soundlessly, and she glanced repeatedly back at the television without answering. Over her shoulder, Wil's father held her hand, caressing the small of her back. His jaw was set, and a look of quiet discomfort played out on his features.

"Go play outside," he said. His tone was quiet but firm, and Wil didn't like it.

The next several weeks at the Gruber household were quiet and uncomfortable. Meals were eaten in silence. Wil's mother spent a great deal of time out in her garden, while his father stared for hours at the television, chain-smoking and tersely flipping channels anytime a newscast came on. At night, Wil laid awake and listened to the circling jets, while in the living room, his parents hurled muffled shouts and accusations . Sometimes, he thought he heard his mother crying.

Wil's father began working late more often. School continued, but Wil started noticing empty seats crop up in his class. At recess, Max snickered, gleefully taunting Leo and Aaron, telling them they'd be deported soon. The class saw visits from local police constables and fire marshals, who smiled and gave canned speeches about the importance of fire safety, or about how to report suspicious people. Over and over, the kids heard "duck and cover" or "tell your parents right away." After a while, it got so bad that Wil found himself praying for a math assignment. Around him, other boys doodled pictures of explosions, and heroic-looking soldiers. Their notebooks and desks became propaganda.

Spring came, and the days grew sunnier. In the beginning of April, a convoy of military vehicles arrived in town. They were Army units--medical and supply equipment, as well as a slew of covered trucks, carrying squads of young soldiers. The soldiers started making small patrols through town, nervously fondling their rifles and smoking cheap cigarettes in the town square. On one of the days when he was home, Wil's father informed him that many of the soldiers were simply passing through on their way east. He said they were staying in empty barracks. Many soldiers, he noted, had to sleep on floors for lack of cots. Wil absorbed this news without a word.

By later that month, the classroom at Wil's school had shrunken by half. Several of the teachers had "taken leave" as well, so several classes of different age groups were consolidated. Wil found himself surrounded by boys and girls as old as thirteen. Some intimidated boys like Max into silence, while others in many ways acted worse. The lesson plans became haphazard, and on several occasions Wil caught his teacher, a petite blonde in her late twenties, standing outside smoking cheap cigarettes. At home, Wil's father disappeared for a week, not bothering to inform his son about the reasons for going, or for how long he might be gone. In his parent's bedroom closet, the place where his father's uniforms usually hung went empty, no longer even holding a pair of boots.

The school ran several more emergency drills, and on several occasions class was canceled, with the official reason being "teacher in-service training." Wil stayed home on these days, helping his mother with chores and playing with the dog, Eva. On Saturdays, he accompanied his mother into town, when she did her shopping at the outdoor farmers' markets. He helped her pick out onions and carrots, and watched as she haggled with a fat man over the price for 20 eggs. He tossed coinage into the hat of a juggler. On one occasion as they walked through town, Wil's mother complained about the markets of late.

"The prices these days are outrageous," she said. "Many of the farmers I buy from aren't even showing up anymore.

"Why not?"

Wil's mother simply stared ahead, glancing through opaque lenses at the sun. She never responded.

One Friday morning in late April, Wil's mother informed him that his father would be coming home for two weeks. Predictably, the news filled Wil with joy. He greeted his father at the door that same evening, springing up from his asparagus just as soon as he heard the second car pull in the driveway. His father smiled and held him close, spinning as he had done when Wil was only a toddler. Greetings between his parents were awkward, but they appeared genuine, and later that evening Wil caught them stealing ardent kisses in the kitchen.

Sneaking to the bathroom after bedtime for a drink, Wil heard a mild scuffle coming from his parents' room. He caught whispers and muffled laughter, and pretended not to hear.

For the next week, Wil's father was home when he left for school, and waiting there still when he came home. His father's manner was quiet but loving, and during this period Wil came to believe that maybe things were finally returning to normal. The beginning of May was a national holiday, and so on the first of the month, Wil slept in and then joined his father on a drive into town. His mother, he was told, went to visit his grandparents. Wil wondered why he and his father hadn't been invited along.

The city that day was chaos. Performance artists competed for coinage and applause. Live bands and art festivals clogged old-town squares. Wil and his father stopped at a local kebap stand, picking up a yogurt drink and a beer, after which they found an open street bench where they could sit with their oversized sandwiches. The day was bright, and surprisingly hot. Father fumbled for the bottle opener on his knife, while Wil picked a slice of mayonnaise-drenched onion off his shirt. His father smiled, taking a pull of his beer.

"Your mother," he said at last, mumbling around pita bread. "Says you've been helping out around the house."

"I guess." Wil grinned. He struggled with the cap of his yogurt drink, until his father finally offered to open it.

"Says you even helped her do her shopping."

"I picked out our lambsteaks."

"Really." Wil's father laughed, mayonnaise on the corner of his mouth. "You mean the ones that your mother's been saving for that big dinner she's been wanting to cook?"

"You're not supposed to know that!"

"Too bad I guess." His father nudged him. "But your mother doesn't need to know that, does she?"

He wrinkled an eyebrow. "I don't know..."

"Oh come on. I won't tell if you don't."

Wil sighed, complete with eyeroll. "I guess." His father seemed satisfied.

"Good enough," he said, triumphant. "Then I guess someone can afford to have an ice cream cone a little later, hm?"

Wil's eyes brightened. "Really?"

"Sure," his father said. "Why not?"

"The Rafaello stuff?"

"Whatever you want," he replied. He stuck out his hand.


Wil shook on it. "Deal."

For a short time afterward, the pair said nothing. They worked messily on their sandwiches, and Wil's father worked on draining his beer. Wil noticed the way that the condensation glistened on the dark green bottle; noticed the way that his father seemed to savor each taste. Wil couldn't relate; he'd tried a bit once. He didn't care for it.

After a while, Wil's father spoke up again.

"So after this week, if I'm going to have to go away again for a while."

Wil stopped eating. He looked up at his father. He'd suspected that this was what his father had brought him here to tell him.

"For how long?"

His father shrugged.

"I don't know. But I'm sure you've heard how things are going. My squadron needs me."

"But why?" Wil felt betrayed. "Can't you tell them no?"

"I wish I could. You've seen the news. The old men are arguing again." He hadn't, in fact, and he couldn't recall any recent parades, either.

Wil sat down his sandwich. He clenched his jaw, and fought back bitter tears of disappointment.

"I don't want you to go."


"It's not fair."

"I know." Wil's father set down his own sandwich, scooting closer.

"I know you don't want me to. I don't even want to. Your mother and I have been fighting over this for months. But my squadron needs me, just for a little while."

"You told me you were getting out soon. You lied."

Wil's father recoiled a bit as though slapped. His face aged ten years from guilt.

"I did say that, didn't I?" He shook his head.

"I shouldn't have. That was before everything else. None of this was supposed to happen. I never meant to..."

He trailed off.

"Look. Will. I'm sorry."

Wil saw the look of shame in his father's face, but he didn't care. He was angry, and feeling sorry for himself. He started to cry, and his father hugged him. His father kissed the top of his head.

"Listen" said his father. "We're going to be fine. I just have to take care of some things with the squadron. Just until the old men stop arguing, which I'm sure will be any day. A lot of countries are getting involved in this. I just have some things to do."

Wil looked up, sniffling. "Like what?"

His father stared across the courtyard. A troupe of drummers were busy banging away on an assortment of trash cans. On the rooftops, pairs of bored soldiers paced nervously.

"It's called standby," he told him. "If things were to ever get really bad, they'd need to get planes in the air as fast as possible. So we go on standby. When you're on standby, you just go to work, suit up, get in your plane and wait. Just wait. That's all."


"Really. You just do that for a few hours, and then the next guy comes on to relieve you. And everybody takes turns."

"You can come home though, right?"

He shrugged. "Normally. But the squadron needs pilots, and now's not a really good time. So for the time being, I'm going to be staying on-base, with one of the other officers. You'll be taking a trip with your mother." Wil's father reached around, grabbing a napkin from next to his beer.

"Here. Blow." Wil complied.

"You'll call us, right?"

His father nodded with absolute seriousness. "As often as I can."

"You promise?"

"Promise. Now come here." The man grabbed his son in a headlock, messing up the boy's hair and rubbing knuckles hard across his scalp. Wil laughed and twisted away.

"So when do you leave?"

"Tomorrow night. Your mother better deliver on those lambsteaks."


"Sorry." He glanced over. The boy's kebap was still unfinished.

"You ready to go?"

"Yeah." The boy stood up, yawning. "I'm full." He lifted his shirt up, showing his distended belly.

"Full, huh? All right. Saves me the cost of an ice cream cone."

Wil nudged him. "Aww. No fair!"

His father smirked.

"That's what I thought. Just make sure you don't tell your mother."

They tossed their garbage into a nearby trashbasket, and turned to walk back to the car.

The following day came and went, with Wil's mother cooking a massive farewell dinner. Wil and his parents ate with a few neighbors--also military--and together they laughed, talked, and eventually pushed away from the table, satiated. Dishes were gathered. Goodbye kisses were exchanged. Wil's father departed early the next morning, and Wil's mother woke him so that together they could see him out the door.

The exchange was brief. Wil's father was already standing by the door, looking crisp in his blue dress uniform. His bags were already at his feet. Wil's parent's kissed and hugged; his father whispered something, smiling, into his wife's ear. She responded with tears, and a sudden burst of laughter. They kissed again, gently, and then Wil's father leaned down to embrace his son. "

"Do what your mother tells you," he said smiling.

Sleepily, Wil nodded. He grabbed his father again. This went on for approximately five minutes, until at last his father grabbed up his bags and, to many cries of farewell, he closed the door behind him, disappearing.

Later that night, Wil crawled into his mother's bed, clutching the stuffed dog he hadn't held since he was six. He fell asleep there, listening to his mother's suppressed sobs.

The following morning, Wil came to understand why so many kids had been disappearing from school. He was woken early, and told to pack a few changes of clothes. They were going to stay for a while at his grandparents, he heard his mother say. He wasn't told why. His mother said he could bring a few toys, so he chose to pack his stuffed dog and his father's toy jet plane.

An hour and a half later, they were gone, driving out on the winding country roads that led out of the city. They didn't take their usual highway route. The old farm owned by Wil's grandparents sat on a curving stretch of dirt road, in a valley three hours west of the city. Its remoteness from any towns or highways was a break from the bustle of the rapidly arming city. Wil and his mother arrived to a joyous welcome, with plenty of warm embraces between Wil, his mother, and her parents. The boy also quickly discovered they weren't alone. Two of his aunts' families had also come to stay, bringing with them their own children. There were five between them; two boys and three girls. Wil knew all save for the youngest, a toddler of no more than two. Wil learned that her name was Sonja. The afternoon ended with a large dinner, after which the children chased each other across the yard until dusk.

Wil's loneliness ebbed within days. He was now freed from the pressures of school, and had an assortment of playmates available on a constant basis. Wil bonded with his cousin Heinrich, who was close to his own age, and together the two of them rode bikes, and explored the woods out behind the family farm. Playtime was interrupted only by brief chores and meals, and continued on until twilight, when the sky turned dusky orange and the fields began to flicker with the cool blue starlight of fireflies. The only ones who didn't seem to be having any fun were the adults. To be certain, their manner at meals was jovial enough, and they were always affectionate to their children. But Wil watched them; saw the way they clustered inside, around the living-room coffee table. Sometimes they argued loud enough that Wil could hear them the front yard.

Once, while getting a glass of water from the kitchen, Wil heard the adults, whispering out in the dining room.

"Look," said Uncle Albrecht, "All I'm saying is, we're in a bad place. Sure, we're well back of the fighting, but what are we going to do if the Eastern forces break through?"

"We don't know that they will," countered Wil's grandmother.

"You want to leave that to chance? Look, I know a guy from university. I say the word, and he can put us in touch with suppliers. It's not much, I know, but at least we'd have something to fall back on; something we could use to defend ourselves."

"No!" Wil's mother cut in. "I took my son out of the city because I didn't want him involved in this. We're not hurting anyone here. There's no reason for them to bother us. Arming ourselves will only bring trouble."

"But Anja," said Aunt Linde, "You think they're not going to try to quarter troops here? With all the land our parents have? We have to be able to stand up to them."

"How are six carbines, a shotgun, and a rusty shovel supposed to stop trained infantry?"

"We don't have to fight them directly. There are connections." This from Anja's father.

"A lot of people in this area were in the Resistance, back during the first War. It might take some time, but I'm sure all the old networks are all still in place."

"But what about our children?!" Anja all but leapt from her seat.

Albrecht looked at her sadly.

"What about Josef?"

Anja leaned over the table; slapped him.

"God damn you, Albrecht. Don't you use him against me in this. Do you even remember what they used to do to people? Ask Mother. Ask her how they lined up and shot entire families.

"My son is not even nine years old--Linde, Helena, Albrecht, some of your kids are even younger. We can't do what we did back then. What we need to be doing is leaving the country, while we still can."

Aunt Helena shook her head. "With what money?"

"The pawn shops still run."

Her mother cut in, gentle but firm.


Wil's mother paused, still standing over the table. The boy had placed his glass back in the sink, and was now standing in the kitchen doorway. His mother sucked on her bottom lip, breathing deep as if to calm herself. In a quiet, steely voice, she finally said:

"Wil. Go outside and play."

He stared, not moving.


He ran. Later that evening, the mountain horizons to the east grew dark, and as night came on there could be seen flashes like summer lightning. Pinpricks of light snaked heavenward, and muffled thumps shook the ground. On the porch, Wil's younger cousin Andrea pointed out the lights, exclaiming:


"They're not fireworks."

This from Sebastian, Andrea's older brother and the eldest cousin at 14. He stood, and turned to go inside. Apparently, Wil's cousin had heard things too. He only wished that he himself could hear more. Not for the first time, Wil found himself missing his father's laughter.

A week passed, and the flashes of light grew closer. Now they came from the north as well as the east. Nobody left, but the house still saw a number of visitors. Some were neighbors, like the elderly couple across the road. Others were businessmen from nearby towns. On several occasions, Wil saw young men and women, possibly students, engaged with the adults out in the living room. Their faces were eager, but they could never truly hide their anxieties. Nobody could these days. And then, one Sunday afternoon following brunch, the power went out.

Televisions and dishwashers all went unexpectedly silent. Digital clocks went black. Conversations between the adults trailed off. After a few confused moments, Wil saw his mother turn to Uncle Albrecht.

"What happened?"

"I don't know." He called out into the living room. "Helena, check the phone." Albrecht's wife rushed to grab the cordless. She peered in from the bedroom hallway.

"Line's dead."

Wil's mother and uncle both looked at each other, jaws tensing.

Albrecht: "I'll run across the road."

The words had barely escaped his lips when a sound like two quick explosions shook the house. The ground vibrated, and on the side of the house facing the road all the windows shattered. Wil heard baby Sonja start wailing. The house became a frenzy of movement; checks to see if anyone had been hurt. The only damage was to the windows, and one vase, which had fallen off the the upright piano and broken. Several picture frames had also fallen flat.

Anja Gruber turned to her son, told him "stay inside," and followed Albrecht in running to the door. Wil slipped out behind them, standing out on the porch while the two ran up the driveway.

The old couple from across the road was already coming to meet them, their hunched frames moving with slow but obvious urgency. The two groups met halfway, and Wil slowly approached the quartet. He looked up. He heard jet engines; silent just a moment before, but now clearly fading. The four were talking; the elderly couple appeared unharmed but were clearly shaken. The old woman was talking with Anja.

"They've even lost power in the city. I heard it over the radio. They say the central line's been broken through."

Slava's mother and uncle exchanged glances.

"Josef," said Anja. "Oh God."

"What's happening," asked Wil.

The grown-ups turned to look at him. "Get inside," barked Uncle Albrecht.

"No!" Wil stomped his feet. "Tell me! I want to know NOW!"

"Wil, listen to your uncle--"

There was a metallic shriek, and then the ground shook again. The concussion was marked by a brief shadow overhead, and as Wil looked skyward, he at last saw the source of the noise. A pair of swept-wing attack aircraft, no more than a hundred meters up, were bearing west at speeds well above supersonic. Wil didn't recognize the paint schemes, but even as the planes shrank into the west, he thought he could still identify the bristling armaments they bore. Each aircraft carried a full loadout across a half-dozen underwing munitions racks. If those planes were heading west, Wil reasoned, and his father was still stationed on the line back east, then that meant--

He didn't have time to finish the thought. From the west, an eerie wail split the sky. It started low, and then grew slowly louder; a steady, panic-inducing harmonic. Wil had heard that the nearest town hosted several large garrisons of reserve troops, as well as surface-to-air missile batteries. The wail began to vibrate in Wil's teeth, making his head hurt. He felt afraid. The old couple, who had already lived through this sort of thing, recognized the sound immediately. They craned their necks to the west, scanning.

"Air raid sirens," said the woman. She turned to Albrecht.

"Our house, sir, it has a basement. We built it, for during the last War. If you'd need to, sir, your little ones. They can go..."

"Thank you." Uncle Albrecht glanced over his shoulder. Linde and his wife were running out to meet them. Their daughter Sonja was now red-faced; she was still screaming.

Anja spoke up. "Albrecht."

He turned. Shock was starting to set in. "Yes?"

"I have to go into the city. You know that. They'll need me. I'm taking the truck. Keep Wil safe."

"Good luck," he said to Anja. He called back across the road.

"Helena! Get everyone across the road! Inside. Find something to hide under. Wil, you too. Go inside. Do it!"

"But my Dad!" Wil cried. He grabbed his mother's shoulder. "Mom, where is he? Is he gonna be okay?"

Wil didn't have time to hear an answer. He found himself lifted bodily; shoved roughly forward by Aunt Helena, in the direction of the house across the road. The old neighbor followed suit, frantic to save her husband. In the west, more explosions shook the ground, and black smoke was now rising up over the mountains. The air-raid sirens mixed with gunfire, but suddenly as the noise escalated, Wil looked back at his mother. He found that he could no longer hear anything at all. Everything seemed slow, as though underwater.

Pushed toward the neighbor's house, toward the basement surrounded by other screaming children, Wil found himself thinking about what his father used to say about the old men arguing.

When the old men argue, he wondered, do they cuss and spit like the kids at school? Do they push, do they shove, do they kick and pull each others' hair?

Another explosion rumbled in the west. Wil found himself shoved underneath a washbasin. Hunched with his knees drawn up, Wil momentarily found himself back at school. More jets roared overhead.

Do they fight the same as we do, he asked himself? Do they go to the headmaster's office?

The sirens continued their wail outside. Sonja added her cries to theirs.

No, it suddenly occurred to Wil.


He didn't suppose they did.

Wednesday, May 10, 2006


"Between Frames"

In September light as bright
And bleached as bone,
A gull's wings, passing overhead,
Provide a shade too brief
For human eyes or human minds
To notice.

There, lost between frames
Our own human perception
Forever blinds us
To all of the Eternal moments
We miss.
-- Milo David Freeman. 02/06

The weather in Germany over the past week has been sunny and a little hot, with no clouds and an abundance of pollen everywhere. Late yesterday, the sky grew purple with afternoon haze, and tall thunderheads started piling up in the north. By about five in the afternoon, thunder rumbled across the Rheinland, and at last we were blessed with the first shower of the season.

The rain was warm and gentle, enhancing as it does the ambient scents that always seem to float on the air. I caught a strong whiff of ozone, mixed with sweet lilac, and found myself thinking of home. It's been so long since I felt a breeze that felt the same, smelled late evening air the same as that which I grew up with on the shores of Lake Huron. For a few moments, I felt refreshed, Enlightened. Some small part of me awoke which has lain dormant for more days than I can remember. It awoke in me the memory of something beyond all the events of the last few years--before the Army, before my marriage, before Germany. It's like forgetting who you are for many years, until one summer day, with a slow dawning, you look up and you suddenly remember.

And I realized: one day, years from now, there will be no more Specialist Freeman, or even Sergeant Freeman. There will be no more Freeman, all boots and beret and closely-cropped military hair. There will be no more morning PT. No more monthly counseling statements. There will be no more field problems, or anxieties over deployment. There will be no Freeman, only Milo; scruffy, unshaven and grinning, with a hard tan and calloused feet from all the long miles walked alone in sandals. There will be no more fear, no more hardcore posturing. There will only be myself, and my wife, and hopefully a child, and together we will be happy.

One day, many years from now, I will return home, to a summer as quietly erotic as those of my adolescence. There I will walk, blissfully alone, my only companion the humid mornings of June, and maybe the gentle waves of Huron. I will walk, and I will sit, and I will gaze out over the pier and embrace the Huron moments that I had forgotten for so many years. I will remember and enjoy again the quiet moments where Divinity truly hides, and I will know that never again will there have to be Suffering in my life, or in the lives of those I love; only Compassion.

There exists in me a dichotomy, between Specialist Freeman and simply Milo. I love what I do, but the man who steps into my boots every morning is not the same man who steps out. There is no time, no place for beauty in the life I inhabit. I am not content to live the same life as many of my comrades. I am more than just a soldier. I am a man. And I want more.

I want to see the water again; I want to experience the life that we all miss slipping in between the frames. I want to experience Nirvana again as that series of moments; brief eternities spent in laughter with old friends, or in solitary contemplation. I want samadhi. I want, one day, to be able to hang up the uniform, to cast off this shell of rank and file, and go back again to just being Milo.

There is an entire side to the world that, after being experienced, makes the rest of life seem hollow and empty.

Monday, May 08, 2006

Black Zone

The doors are all open, and the windows
Of the city are caked with dust,
So much so that they appear to be
A frosted yellow-grey. A sickly color,
Like the enamel of a dead woman's teeth.
Everything reeks of mold and mothballs.

Here lies urbanity, left to the weeds
And the wolves, and the browsing deer
That even now birth braying horrors;
Dying things with extra legs or heads,
Or born blind, left to die stumbling in the streets.
It is said that they can sense
Earthquakes. So why not this?

One should think there'd be something,
Anything, some kind of warning.
Maybe in the way that the grass
All tastes like metal, or leaves a tingling,
A numbness inside your mouth.
But they don't realize, and nobody tells them,
And so here Dereliction, the final lasting
Song of men, plays endlessly on summer winds,
Like violins played reverse on tape loop.
Familiar and yet horrifyingly wrong.
And because nobody hears it,
Nobody ever presses stop.
The same song, playing over and over
Again. For the next nine centuries.

In this place, there hangs a Death
More still, more perfect, more enduring
Than anyone will ever know.
It lies in an empty sarcophagus, forever sealed,
And in the corpses of memories
Which lay strewn in all directions.
It lies in homes, in schools, in empty playgrounds,
And in orthodox shrines, tucked away still
In the abandoned closets of all those
Long-gone peasant babushkas.

Dead memories, dead dreams,
Dead lives everywhere.
And all of it, dead in a way
That not even the flies will touch.

--Milo David Freeman, 05/08/2006

Blessed Is The Groove

I live in a small suburb of Frankfurt, Germany, about two hours east of the French border. It's a beautiful area, with lush gardens and tree-lined old-town market streets. Though home to nearly 100,000 inhabitants, my town lacks the sprawl of similar cities in the United States, and instead of miles of parking lots and shopping malls, humanity here chooses to pack itself into a dense, progressive mini-metropolis, with hundreds of restaurants, produce shops, and outdoor cafes located within easy walking distance of the central commercial district.

Weekends here, as in many German towns, are truly a wonder. Every Saturday, the city square hosts a local farmers' market, with merchants pitching tents on every street corner and open space available. These markets are a shopper's dream; a place where 12 roses can be bought for 5 Euro, and where rare cheeses and fresh game meats can be purchased at prices which would put any American grocery owner to shame. Not to be outdone, many of the city's local artists and performers also turn out in force, and as a result weekends in this German town are home to a thrilling overload of culture to delight virtually any traveler.

Many of the performers are regulars: a mime frequently stakes out a spot on the corner of the local Galeria. Around the corner from City Hall, a one-man band belts out classic tunes from Dylan, Guthrie (both Guthries, actually) and Clapton, stomping and singing away on a device that looks like a tragic marching-band accident, but actually does the old masters a surprising amount of justice. Near a local pharmacy, or Apotheke, a scrawny, grizzled Turk in his forties sits against a wall and plays sad gypsy music on a beat-up violin. He smiles wearily, and gives a gracious nod whenever people toss coins into his upturned hat. I walk by men like this, and wonder if such income ever really pays for any meaningful expenses, or if they simply do it for deeper reasons.

I played trombone briefly as a kid, but abandoned it in high-school after I discovered marching drumline. I've been an avid percussionist ever since. While I'm comfortable enough on any set of working drums, my true passion lies in the exotic instruments of other cultures: Latin congas or gourds, African djimbous, or tablas from the traditional music of India. My real skill lies with the furious improvisations of tribal rhythm, and I love the way those rhythms seem to tap naturally into both the spiritual and sexual impulses central to human nature. Drummers call this phenomen The Groove, and as I once wrote in a poem from my early days at college, "the Groove is eternal."

I received an old pair of bongos from a friend as a gift last Christmas, and during moments of boredom I've often put those bongos to good use. As the German spring has become more temperate, and lush greenery returned to the Rheinland, I've accompanied my wife on her weekend jaunts down to the Marktplatz, and watched the street performers ply their trades. Lately, I've joked with Anne that I should stake out a corner some weekend and just spend the afternoon communing with The Groove. She, of course, thought that was a fabulous idea. So this weekend, I finally went through with it.

This past Saturday, I got up early, threw my bongos and tuning key into my backpack, and joined my wife in taking a little walk downtown. The marketplace was, predictably, a mob of human traffic. We stopped and had brunch at a favorite local hangout, a trendy but inexpensive restaurant named for two famous native sons, and after maybe an hour of pleasant conversations over strong German coffee, we paid our waiter and went our separate ways--she to the farmer's market, and myself to a nearby rock pool, set into the middle of a crowded cobblestone street. I bought a bottle of tonic water--the only bottled water people drink here in Europe--before settling down, and went to set up my spot. I placed the bottle upright in my wife's rumpled cowboy hat, a few paces away, and after sitting down to tune my drumheads for a few minutes, I cast my gaze skyward, relaxed my mind, and quietly allowed The Groove to overtake me.

I loved it--I can't explain how much I've missed drumming for drumming's sake, and the local kids loved me. Mothers with children stopped briefly to watch, pointing me out to their toddlers. Families and elderly couples gathered around me, dancing and bobbing their heads with my beat, while a few children--some as young as three-- waddled up to my hat to deposit a few Euro coins. At one point, I was even loudly catcalled by a gaggle of passing Turkish girls, all sans hijab. In thickly-accented German, one asked me if I was married. I smiled and nodded, feigning heartbreak, which elicited shy laughter from the rest of her group. I wasn't there for very long--my wife came to sweep me up at the end of her shopping--but for what little time I was there, I found myself legitimately sad to leave. Communing with The Groove, like any period of extended meditation, is a thing which transcends both Time and Self, and when the time finally comes when one must return to the world of regular life, only the basest of people would find themselves not reluctant to do so. I resolved to return the following weekend, and no longer hindered by self-conscious nerves, that resolution is a promise to myself which I eagerly look forward to fulfilling.

The street musicians do what they do for the money they can earn. But it's also more than that. There is something, I realized, something I'd forgotten, in simply abandoning self-consciousness in that public place, and totally giving yourself to the things, the crafts that you love. There, in the crowded marketplace, even the most haggard of gypsy violinists can feel like a god, and how can I not respect that? Rising above the limitations of men--above the limitations of Self--is only one of the glorious side-effects that results from taking time to celebrate life within the Groove.

Friday, May 05, 2006

The Zion Street Allegory, or "How NOT to Resolve A Property Dispute"

My best friend and college roommate, Michael, was a philosophy student of Jewish ancestry. He was semi-political, and also a strong progressive, as well as a master of philosophical debate. He once argued, in reference to former Nixon speechwriter Ben Stein, that "[n]o good Jew should ever be a Republican." His argument was actually pretty solid. I credit my friend with teaching me nearly everything I know about debate, philosophy, and modern politics, and it is partly because of him that today I call myself a proud progressive.

Being political, Michael and I spent a great deal of time watching the news. In particular, whenever one of the major networks played a story regarding the situation in Israel, Michael insisted we watch, and so during the 2001-2002 fall semester, I caught a lot of coverage regarding the Palestinian Second Intifida. Owing his to Hebrew heritage, and the suffering his people have endured over the years, I can only imagine how painful it must have been for him to have to see so much death and suffering visited upon his countrymen. I empathized deeply with him, and like Michael, I too came to have a passionate interest in the Middle Eastern peace process.

Admittedly, the story of the Holocaust is one which, for me, strikes painfully close to home. When I was young, my mother, a third-generation descendant of Austrian immigrants, emerged in tears from a screening of the Spielberg film "Schindler's List." Blonde and blue-eyed, my mother had been absolutely distraught, wracked with guilt by the idea that our ancestors could have been responsible for so much death. I didn't blame her. As a child, I had once owned a boys' tank-top, a hand-me-down from a maternal aunt, which bore as a logo the image of an old WWII fighter plane, the Messerschmitt Me-262. Later, I had learned that this aircraft was an experimental jet fighter designed for the Nazi Luftwaffe. Initially proud of that shirt out of my boyhood fascination with fighter planes, I emerged from watching "Schindler's List" disgusted, ashamed that--even in childhood ignorance--I had chosen to adorn myself with a symbol of Nazi atrocities.

I am a soldier, but I am also a devout Buddhist. My philosophical mandate requires me to seek the eradication of Suffering wherever I encounter it. It is partly because of this that I chose to join the military--to serve as a voice of peace and justice in a climate of jingoistic hate-spewing rhetoric. However, as with the current administration which abuses and exploits my profession for its own interests, Michael and I spent a lot of time discussing Israeli foreign policy, and to my surprise neither of us supported the then-constant warmongering of Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon. I found this odd. In the modern political climate, there are many who would conflate disagreement with Israeli policy with outright Anti-Semitism, a charge that Michael, being Jewish, thankfully assured me was ridiculous.

I am of the passionate conviction that all people deserve the right to live in peace, free from fear, discrimination, or persecution. I support the right of Israel to exist, and the right of the Jewish people to never again face the kinds of horrors inflicted upon them during the 1940's. However, having followed coverage of the peace process ever since the assassination of Israeli prime minister Yitzhak Rabin, I must also admit that I have qualms about Israel's role in that peace process. I have often watched CNN or read the newspaper, and thought to myself that, were I Netanyahu or Peres or Sharon--now Olmert--I might have responded to Palestinian violence very, very differently.

Having read over texts on Israeli history, I know well that the early days of the modern Hebrew state were marked by blood and violence. The hotly-disputed effects of the Arab-Israeli War are still felt today throughout that region, and to be certain, the gunpoint evictions of an estimated 700,000 Palestinian Arabs from their homes in modern Israel has no doubt created a festering sore spot in the collective memory of the Arab world. Though I fully support the right of the Israeli nation to exist, I have to admit that I feel such actions in the establishment of that nation, carried out with the tacit support of the United States government, amount to unsound foreign policy.

Allow me to explain. Israel represents the efforts of the Western world to give back to an oppressed people their ancestral homeland. However, to do that, we had to alienate a slew of people already living there. Because of that, Israel now exists in a perpetual state of high alert, surrounded by a retinue of nations whose people hate them passionately. For many, Israel represents an example of Western interference in the affairs of other cultures, and as much as I support Israel, I can't deny them that perspective. Furthermore, the militaristic approach of Israeli leaders to foreign relations, which I believe eschews the more effective diplomatic route, only serves to further alienate a host of countries whose tolerance they desperately require to go on existing.

The peace process can be explained as an allegory: Israel represents the owner of a given property--in this case, the Biblical lands of Judea and Canaan. They have the deed, and said deed dates back thousands of years. After some time, the neighborhood in which Israel lives starts getting run-down; becomes a haven for both crime and gang violence. Israel is forced to move. After many years of hardship and moving from place to place, however, the young descendants of the original owner--themselves hardened by the years of brutality they faced elsewhere in the world--decide to return to their old neighborhood and take back the old family home--the original Hebrew title deed, or Covenant, was never actually dissolved. They evict the current owners at gunpoint. Now, viewed in this light, I think we can all agree that there are better ways to resolve a property dispute. But it gets worse. The return of Israel to "the block" has caused consternation and resentment among the locals, and a formerly peaceful, if low-income, neighborhood once again becomes plagued with low-level gang violence, this time between the residents and the former owners of the property. Furthermore, Israel has not only kicked people out of a property that was, depending on the interpretation of local zoning, subject to dual ownership, but now they're rattling around that home, without even so much as taking off their shoes, and proceeding to raid the fridge.

Things take a turn for the worse when Israel starts hiring thugs from outside neighborhoods--The United Kingdom and France--and starts using them to help annex parts of other people's yards (see The Suez Crisis). Now, I don't care who you are (in this case, Egypt), if some jackass starts trying to put up a picket-fence through the middle of your fucking garage, you're going to be upset. You're going to want to take matters into your own hands. Such pre-emptive annexations continue on for years, even in spite of the intervention of local law enforcement, and as a result of the Israel family's actions, the local neighborhood begins to become bigoted and xenophobic toward the intruders--or indeed, toward anyone even RELATED to the Israel family. Radicalism springs up, and vigilantism toward the outsiders escalates to unprecedented levels. Eventually, Rabin, a respected leader of the Israel family attempting to quell the violence, is gunned down in cold blood, thus steeling the Israeli family against any desire to make peace with the locals.

Things finally come to a head with a police crackdown on violence in the area. Both sides of the dispute raise legitimate grievances. The Israel family wants the right to live peacefully in a home that they already owned to begin with, and the locals all want the Israel family to stop intimidating them and bringing chaos to the neighborhood. Eventually, a city councilperson--The United States-- with deep ties in the local city government speaks out on behalf of the Israel family. As a minority, she argues, persecution of the Israel family by local residents is a move against diversity, and brings a stain of bigotry to the city that must not be tolerated. Great argument, right? All of us nod our heads in civic-minded agreement. But there's just one problem: entities within the councilwoman's office are openly funding the Israel family with weapons and intelligence on enemy gang activity, and it is revealed that the American councilwoman has a vested interest in local real-estate--right-wing Christian evangelism. Her agenda, it is said, is to privately initiate a full-scale gang-war in the disputed neighborhood, thus causing property prices in the area to drop to rock-bottom. At this point, the councilwoman's interests can step in and buy out as much property as possible, which, now rid of the pesky locals--Muslims, Jews, gays, pagans and atheists--they are free to renovate and turn into a trendy hotspot for the city's upper-middle class professionals.

As relates to this story, I feel for the Israel family. I do. But in my opinion, the family should have done some things very differently. They should have taken their case to civil court, where an equitable solution could have been devised within the confines of the judicial construct. Sure, the locals might have resented them for a while, but by simply doing all they could to live as good neighbors, the Israel family could have worked to bring a positive influence to the block. Who knows, property prices might have gone up, and the entire region could have benefited from an unprecedented phase of urban renewal. But instead, the Israel family resorted to violence, intimidation, and militaristic saber-rattling, which continues to this very day. And worst of all, they allowed themselves to be duped by a corrupt local official--our government--who was only pretending to support their interests while selfishly manipulating them for her own benefit. To her, the Israel family was just a disposable means to a personal end, and ultimately the Israel family lost out along with everyone else.

Except it's not too late. Sharon got the ball rolling by initiating the pullout from the West Bank. Finally, there may be a chance for the neighborhood to start letting its wounds heal, thus bringing about a new era of peace and cooperation. But elements in the Israeli family, spurred on by our corrupt American councilwoman, are busy stoking the flames of hatred and violence, refusing to recognize the newly-elected Hamas government and now making boastful threats toward yet another neighborhood outside the conflict, one with deep family ties to the dispute still raging on Zion Street: The Islamic Republic of Iran. And if Iran is provoked to action in this conflict, the violence may well spread and consume the entire city, giving the Pat Robertsons and Jerry Falwells and G.W. Bushes of this world the apocalyptic Rapture they so desperately crave.

I'm a soldier. I'm damned proud to be a soldier. I took an oath to obey the orders of those above me, and to defend the U.S. Constitution against all enemies both foreign and domestic. And I will gladly die upholding that oath. But I also have a wife, whom I love very much. I'm 23 years old. I'm trying to conceive a child. I'm still trying to earn my Bachelor's Degree.

And if I'm going to be drawn into a war--one which, with the threat of nuclear action, could very easily kill untold millions--protecting the very people whose misbehavior requires our continued presence in the Middle East, then I'd like to be informed now.

Thursday, May 04, 2006

Media and the Decline Of The Beer-Swilling Liberal

"Keep you doped with religion and sex and TV
And you think you're so clever and classless and free.
But you're still fucking peasants as far as I can see.
A Working-Class Hero is something to be.
A Working-Class Hero is something to be."

--John Lennon

I was cruising the blogs this morning, checking out what people had to say on the Red side of the fence, and saw a site titled YoungRepublican4NY. The young man running the site, whom I'm sure is very nice and whom I am not here to criticize, had a post up about the popular liberal hobby of bashing the well-known conservative cable outlet FOX News.

As I wrote to this young gentleman, I'm a proud lefty, and I understand the desire to rip on FOX. I admit, I do it myself sometimes. But this got me thinking about the state of modern news institutions in America, and I'd like to share some thoughts with the five or so readers who actually visit my site. Please, bear with me.

I come from a small Catholic family in rural Michigan. My Navy-vet father was a factory machinist most of his life, as well as bartender and school-bus driver. He's a gun owner who supports tighter gun control, and while he is by social standing blue-collar American, he is by intellect white-collar academic. My father is not an across-the-board liberal, any more than he is an across-the-board social conservative. However, the real reason I so respect my father is this: My father thinks for himself on everything. Though a much harsher disciplinarian than my mother growing up, my father was the one I went to with serious questions, the reason being that my father always gave me responses that were slow, considered, and arrived at in a rational way. I didn't really become actively involved in local politics until I hit college, but when I did, even though my political views began to shift strongly left, I still remembered the example of my father's approach to politics, and that was one of careful consideration and debate. It is this example that I think back to now, when considering the question of modern journalism in America.

As I've mentioned before, I'm a U.S. soldier stationed in Germany. As a soldier in Post Housing, I receive access to snippets of the three major cable news networks from the States: FOX News, CNN U.S., and MSNBC. In addition, my German cable TV package also grants me access to both BBC News and CNN International. I've been here in Germany since about last July, and since I've been here I've had ample opportunity to catch news from all five outlets I receive.

Now, when it comes to hating on FOX News-style yellow journalism, I am the polysyllabic Original Gangsta. I roll up in this bitch bringing the MAD blue-state. Watching "The O'Reilly Factor" is pretty much a guaranteed trip to the E.R. for high blood pressure. "Hannity and Colmes" gets me spitting potato-chip crumbs at the T.V. like some kind of street-preaching lunatic. When I say that FOX makes me want to bring a checklist and red pen to the couch, tallying up straw-man arguments and loaded questions, you best reckanize. But since I've been in the active-duty Army, I've come to realize that modern American journalism in general is every bit as guilty of ideological pandering as Rupert Murdoch's propaganda machine (Incidentally, did you realize that Murdoch has had a significant financial interest in Chinese television media? Sounds like his propagandizing runs both sides of the fence.). And that be some straight-up political science I be dropping to rock your mind. So raise up OFF these nuts. DNC Repra-ZENT, mothafucka.


Precisely. Word. Where was I?

Anyway, as I was saying, I have a number of problems with American cable news in general. First off, modern news in America has been tarnished since the 1994 Republican Revolution. I started really noticing it as a kid, when during the first Clinton administration, I saw constant attempts by conservative commentators to attack the President based on charges that increasingly turned out to be spurious. When the Lewinsky scandal came out in the wash, I saw countless surveys that supported the President in public opinion, but all the same I kept witnessing pundits trotting out the same, tired, recycled talking points in favor of impeachment. It felt like a broken record, driven by ratings and conservative agendas. The whole affair was, to me, a tasteless example of power-hungry Republican political maneuvering, and while at this time I still considered myself a Republican, this really marked the beginning of my defection to the American Left.

Things got so much worse after 9/11. By this time, I was a long-haired, bearded hippie in my sophomore year of college, and FOX News was really starting to take off in the ratings. As FOX exploded in popularity, I witnessed a dramatic backward slide in the level of public discourse. Even in my philosophy classes, I heard media talking points being regurgitated thoughtlessly, as though said talking points were legitimate arguments in any kind of political discussion. I watched all but a few committed students bleat out their support of the coming war in Iraq, and looking back it makes me feel guilty that I didn't get more involved. As a result of the dumbing down of American journalism, I, in the words of Allen Ginsberg, saw the greatest minds of my generation rot. Dissent against traditional authority became unpatriotic, and anyone who spoke out against Bush's idiot policies was written off as "emboldening the terrorists." And all through this, the stances taken by pundits on FOX News became even more right-wing. Things finally came to a head when an aunt of my fiancee caught me watching CNN, and told me I should be watching FOX News. When I asked her why, she looked at me with a straight face and stated proudly that it was the only news network that was really "fair and balanced." I had to roll my eyes and leave the room, disgusted.

Making matters worse, it wasn't even just FOX News that was guilty of this pandering. As talking heads ranted more and more about "liberal media bias," the other two members of the Big Three started shifting their stances to the right as well, in a desperate attempt to maintain credibility with Joe NASCAR. Serious issues began receiving less coverage, right up until the present day, where now I can't even turn on MSNBC without seeing yet another fluff piece about someone's life-saving dog or yet another missing white girl.

Think about that now: when a four-year-old black girl is found beheaded off the side of a major highway in America, the public hears nothing and, if they do, barely react. But the moment we hear about another Jennifer Wilbanks or Natalee Holloway, we're collectively up in arms, desperately looking for some poor brown guy to lynch, regardless of guilt. When Kobe gets accused of rape by a white girl, we're dying to lock him up, but when a 27-year-old student at NC State accuses members of the Duke lacrosse team of a brutal crime, we hear our media slamming her reputation and race, all the while obsessing over the fact that, to pay for her education, this young woman works as an exotic dancer, a choice many young women in college are forced to make these days.

I didn't manage to find an aloe to salve my media burns until I relocated to central Germany, where for the first time I managed to receive the International version of CNN. It soothed my injuries almost immediately. On CNN International, which covers news stories from North America, Europe, the Middle East, and Asia, there are no real talking-head shoutfests. There are no human-interest fluff pieces--just serious news and debates revolving around topical issues with global impact. I receive news about the riots in France; I hear about power struggles within the growing European Union. I hear about both sides of the story in the war-torn deserts of Iraq, and I witness coverage regarding population disparities between men and women in China. I even see commercials for Iraqi cell-phone providers. Sure, the headlines can be a little dry, and I know that people in America get tired of "all the bad news out there these days." But damn it, these are important issues which affect us all, and if I hadn't been stationed outside the Continental U.S., I'd still be hearing more about last night's "American Idol" than about efforts to save lives ruined by the earthquakes in Pakistan.

FOX News is yellow journalism at its worst, I can admit that. But if you don't believe that the other networks are desperately playing catch-up with Bill O'Reilly, you're completely fooling yourself. You really want serious news? Go check out Reuters Online. Go check out BBC News. Go check out Alternet. Hell, go check out C-SPAN if that's what you're limited to. At least then you'll be getting informed on the inner workings of American politics. But if you're willing to just let the modern ratings-hungry media continue pouring jingoistic poison into your ear, then don't be surprised when, on your next European vacation, you venture outside of your hotel and the locals all look at you like a loud-mouthed, flag-waving idiot.

Back in the days of our grandparents, news outlets reported the issues, and let the American public argue it all out--in their living rooms, at the water cooler, at the local tavern, or even with the kids at the dinner table. Journalists like Murrow and Cronkite and Bernstein delivered our news, even if it was controversial, and trusted the American public to make its own decisions. Unlike now, they did real reporting, and we did real deciding. And look what it got us--the end of McCarthy. Desegregation. Women's Lib. The end of military operations in Vietnam. The downfall of Nixon. Doesn't anyone else miss that sense of civic involvement in American Democracy?

If I'd been a member of my grandfather's generation, I'd be sitting right now, as Kevin Smith said, in some dive bar with my union buddies, bitching about how good we used to have it under Kennedy. Contrary to how the modern pundits might portray me, I am not some effete, soy-latte-sipping, Birkenstock-wearing academic. Well, I AM an academic, but so are a lot of people. Nevertheless, I am also a beer-swilling, meat-and-potatoes, pro-union, pro-choice, hippie-loving liberal. And guess what? I happen to be a spit-shined, combat-ready member of America's Finest. And I'm here to say that unless people start getting off their asses and demanding news that genuinely affects them, beyond carping about prices at the pump, the media's just going to keep feeding us the same shit to keep our eyes on the little glowing screen, and off what's really happening in the world around us.

A Beer-Swilling Liberal is something to be.