Thursday, June 29, 2006

The War in Me

I dream of standing on a curb, clad in ACUs, with my M-16, surrounded by my fellow soldiers. In my dream, we're waiting for a bus to come take us to the airfield, from which we will deploy to the deserts of Iraq. The mood is quiet and anxious, and I feel a pit forming in the bottom of my stomach.

After a time, I wake up, lying in bed next to my wife. I look at the clock and see it's after midnight. It's now the end of June, and I realize that in less than three months I will be on a plane, jounced by turbulence and anxiety, speeding at 600 miles an hour away from everything I have ever known and loved. With every passing second, my spouse will be farther away. No daily words of encouragement to help me weather life's stresses; no weekends to help me decompress and nurture my non-soldier self. I will be sequestered for a year with people whom even now I still barely know, sleeping on a cot, lulled to sleep by the sounds of exploding mortars and the staccato whump of helicopter blades. I find myself wondering what the desert will smell like, and how I'll feel the first time I experience the detonation of a roadside bomb. I wonder if I'll even know; perhaps the shock wave of expanding gases and shrapnel will crush my body before I even hear the concussion. I'm not afraid to die, but I am afraid of what that death might mean. I'm afraid sometimes that I have thrown my life away, discarded any chance of a happy future with Anne. I'm afraid of leaving the Chaplain's car to pull up in front of my apartment, a cursed symbol in any driveway. I'm afraid sometimes that, by joining up, I have sinned against the undeserved gift that is my marriage.

But I also think to myself that, like it or not, I am a soldier. I am a warrior now, and I cannot afford to shirk the oath I took, if for no other reason than for the soldiers alongside whom I must serve. Right now, I am lying in bed next to a wife who loves me, with time yet to spare, and so I press my body up against hers, wrapping an arm around her and savoring the scent of her skin and hair. She whimpers softly, and presses back against me. She digs her face sleepily into the pillow, and mumbles a drowsy "I love you." I kiss her cheek. I am lucky to have a partner such as Anne.

Still. Three months.

Sometimes it feels like a death sentence.

Wednesday, June 28, 2006

Dying Hallucination of Lewis Kowalczyk, Theoretical Mathematician and Coma Patient

i see a man on a mangy horse he says to me that
so i ask him if that means that the universe goes for 75 cents at a yard sale
and I realize he is right god needs to redo her stitches
how can any dynamic system reflect reality when my mother
was a seamstress and not a knitter

Tuesday, June 27, 2006

A Day for Celebration

Over the last few days, I received a message from an old friend. This friend--my namesake--and I have not spoken in nearly four years, and up until now I had not expected us to ever speak again. There was too much bad blood between us.

This person, it turns out, has been reading my work. For starters, I cannot apologize enough for subjecting her to my prosaic tripe, but more importantly, it pleases me to say that we have, at long last, re-established communications civilly. Old grudges have been forgotten, and sins of which I had never completely forgiven myself have been absolved. The circle has closed, and the sorrows and guilts of many years have at last been washed away. It pleases me that she and I can meet again as friends.

So to this person I say: Thank you. I hope that we will remain in touch, and I thank you for taking the chance to contact me. It is my sincere hope that your goodwill be not wasted between us. Thank you again for reaching out, and thank you for your blessings.

You know who you are.

True Conversation

I'm sitting down on the couch during my lunch break. I've just had two fillings done this morning, and as a result I still can't feel one side of my face. I check my uniform for stray droplets of melted cheese.

"You know," I say to my wife, "eating Hot Pockets with half your mouth is kind of like--"

"Eating spaghetti with Down syndrome?"

"Uh. yeah." I snicker, though I feel bad for doing so. "What do you mean?"

"Well," she says, "no matter what happens, you still end up with shit on your shirt and looking like a dishface."

Three minutes subside, during which I descend into a fit of hysterical giggling. Wiping my eyes, I look up at last, and stare dumbfounded at my spouse.

"What," she says. "It's true."

"I know," I respond, "which is why this exchange is going into my journal."

"God. Please don't."

"Perfect title too: 'True Conversation.' Why not?"

"Because then all those nice ladies who love your blog so much are going to think I'm some kind of heinous cunt, and start circling like vultures."

"No they won't."

"Ohhh, YES they will. Just watch. They're going to be convinced you're in dire need of rescue."

"I thought it was funny."

"Yes, but they don't know that."

We're both going to hell.

Monday, June 26, 2006

The Stones

My memories of you stand in granite on silent shores. Rapa Nui statues, they whisper your name with a silence that transcends locution; renders moot response. I will never know the sculptors, nor understand what they felt.

Who built these ancient monuments to you? Certainly not I. That civilization has fallen, and there is no one left to tell the world how it ended. I would do better to ponder the tides, to do battle with the currents and never look again upon these ruins. Better to forget, and free myself from doubt or blame.

And yet the stones are ever watchful. I cannot escape their gaze.

Friday, June 23, 2006

A Thousand Small Nirvanas

I see the Dharma
In curling cigarette smoke
Like calligraphy.

Impermanent wisps
Like fog on the Marquette shores
Impart lasting truths.

Through seas and deserts
A thousand small Nirvanas
Follow everywhere.

Thursday, June 22, 2006

Pascal Lost

In the final moments of the faithful,
The stars will hang against
The black canvas of The Infinite,
And there form messages
In alien tongues
Whose meanings will
Escape them.

The Universe, they will realize,
Is not as they had believed,
And so they will not understand
What confronts them.
Their cosmic dawn will
Illuminate only madness
And terror.

Tuesday, June 20, 2006

Why I Feel Badly For Conservatives

Several years ago, before I had joined the Army, my future wife and I were strolling around downtown when we came upon a scene now familiar to many residents of Marquette, Michigan. In front of the Post Office downtown, a group of maybe a dozen people were gathered, standing in the snow. Most of them were elderly women, and they were holding signs that said things like "Support Our Troops- No Iraq War," and "HONK if you oppose WAR." We passed the group on the way to a favorite bagel shop of ours, but after some debate, Anne and I decided to stop over and pay the protesters a little visit.

Admittedly, we must have made an imposing pair. Anne and I are both fond of combat boots and black leather jackets, and with my spiky hair and rockstar sideburns I must have looked something like a knife-wielding thug. The first protester we approached, a petite, mousy woman in her sixties, visibly grew uncomfortable as we approached. Upon reaching her, however, our struts and scowls faded, and I addressed the woman with a friendly smile.

"Hi there. Saw you guys standing out here, and I was just wondering if we could get some information."

She warmed up to us instantly. She explained that she was a librarian, and a member of the Marquette City Council, and that she was standing out here on this Sunday afternoon trying to get signatures for a petition. She explained it was for a city-wide motion to condemn the approaching occupation of Iraq. She asked if we'd like to sign, and we agreed enthusiastically, after which we continued to ask the woman about ways to get involved with this effort within the community.

As one can imagine, Washingon Street on that day was a din of honking and shouts of support. However, during our discussion, we were interrupted by a particularly loud horn. Turning to face the distraction, we saw a Buick driving by, out of which leaned a passenger, by all looks a fratboy, who shouted at us.

"If you don't like it here, then get the fuck out!"

"FUCK you!" Anne and I both dropped our conversation and stuck out our fists, flashing the Bird. We clutched our defiance cocked sideways, like two Saginaw gang-bangers brandishing nines, and as we did so the car drove off, continuing to shout insults. Turning back to our new friend, we apologized. She had blanched at our sudden angry display, but smiled sheepishly. Her eyes twinkled in a way that told me she admired our conviction.

Tell me that that little old lady hates America, and I'll tell you where you can stick it.

As I've mentioned before, I lean strongly left on many issues. I'm a proud liberal, and I'm not ashamed to say it. I've put a great deal of thought into examining my beliefs, and at the end of the day I believe that rational discourse, tolerance, and cooperation are the keys to shaping a better future for our country. Now, this doesn't mean I'm necessarily a Democrat. I vote by conscience, not by party. If this means voting Democrat, then that's okay. Considering the current political climate, that seems to be the way of things right now. But the point is, I live my life by a strong set of personal values; values which I have carefully considered and which I believe are essential to being a decent person in today's society. Thing is, the older I get, the more I realize that the values I hold are just plain antithetical to the agendas of those currently in power. As a result, I find that these days I just generally feel badly for conservatives.

Now, I can understand that, on paper, many of the views central to the conservative worldview are noble ones. Fiscal responsibility, personal responsibility, greater individual liberty; none of these are bad things, by any means. But I find more and more that in today's society, the traditional definition of conservative has evolved into something much, much more unpleasant than that, and indeed evolved into a sort of radical Nationalist ideology that is doing FAR more harm to America than good. Ambrose Bierce once described conservatives as "[statesmen] enamored of existing evils, as opposed to [liberals, who want] to replace them with new ones."
Smart fellow. And I agree with Bierce, and indeed with many conservatives, that not all change is progress. But I also agree with Thomas Jefferson, who famously said that "[g]ood government is that which most effectively secures the rights of the people." And here's where I begin to have a problem with the conservative worldview.

Let me tell you what I think when I hear the word "conservative." I think of ordinary people, good people with jobs and families and needs, who amid the pressure of their daily lives don't have much time to really consider the issues that truly affect them. These are people who will, when approached reasonably, usually agree with progressive values. But progress usually means change to outmoded institutions--institutions upon which people have framed their lives and worldviews. And change of the kind that needs to happen in this country is scary. I understand that. But in trying only to scrape by in a world they barely understand, many conservatives unwittingly enable the institutions whose mechanisms would only continue to do them harm; institutions whose agents are not concerned for the greater good. They cling to old ways and old thinking, without really thinking about the people such thinking really hurts. I've come to believe that most conservatives are really just uninformed future moderates or liberals, while the committed few that remain are simply misers and bigots. And unfortunately, in any movement, it's the diehards--the misers and bigots--whose shouts are the loudest, and when such individuals speak up, it is the common individual who naturally follows and ultimately loses out.

I believe that the principles for which I stand are ironclad. I believe there is no stance I hold which a conservative can effectively argue down. This is because, above all, I BELIEVE IN THE IMPROVEMENT OF THE HUMAN CONDITION. And I believe in a way that is separate entirely from my faith and my preconceived assumptions, and I only adhere to an idea as long as I believe it holds continued merit. That is to say, I consider myself an ETHICAL, rather than a MORAL, person. I base my values upon that which will benefit the greatest number, while simulataneously harming the fewest (See Jeremy Bentham). I believe that people and values change, especially in today's society, where information assaults us on a daily basis, so quickly that even the most poorly-read man cannot help but learn.

Modern conservative ideas--opposition to gay marriage, opposition to public funding for services like health and education, opposition to redefining social gender roles--are, I believe, born out of simple ignorance. And that's fine. People can't be faulted if they simply don't know. We can show them. But in today's society, in what I believe is literally a Golden Age of Information, with knowledge like fruit hanging ripe and heavy from every tree, I believe that some ignorance is willful. I believe that there are some, so dependent on existing institutions, that any threat to those insitutions threatens an existential crisis. These people can't handle change, and so they will fight to the death to protect institutions, even if those institutions are hurting them in the long run.

Given the time, I could write an entire dissertation on why gay marriage would be good for society. There are entire books on why labor unions are essential to the Free-Market economy. A quick Google search could provide a wealth of reasons why drug TREATMENT is always better than drug ENFORCEMENT, and why despite dramatic advances in Civil Rights, women and minorities in our society are still viewed as second-class citizens. I believe that any government, in order to fairly represent diverse citizens, MUST BE SECULAR, establishing laws that can effectively both govern and secure liberty for all, not just the privileged few. It is not the place of religious institutions to legislate morality. Laws are made, and then faith can expand upon those laws in private life. Just like in the military. First-line NCOS cannot enforce regulations in such a way as to be more liberal than the orders of the officers that drafted them. They can, however, define those regulations more strictly. So it must be with Church and State.

I'm not a Democrat. I'm not a Republican. I am a human being, motivated by compassion for my fellows. And because of that, I am a proud liberal. I believe that many, if not all, liberal stances are based on ethical (or moral if you must) imperatives. I believe that we are obligated as kind and decent humans being to believe this way. I believe that knowledge is life, and ignorance is death. I believe that we must constantly question ourselves and our values, and ask ourselves if what we believe in truly represents the good of all, even those with whom we disagree. I believe that information is the key to personal growth, even though fear of change is normal. I believe that anyone who clings blindly to existing systems is simply uninformed, or narrow-minded and afraid.

And THAT is why I feel badly for conservatives.

Monday, June 19, 2006

Pain Is Beauty

I'm sitting in our guest bedroom this weekend, on the bed. My wife is sitting behind me, with elements of a home wax kit strewn all around her.



"Sorry. Okay, one, two three..."



"I know. Ok, ready? One two..."



That's right. Anne has talked me into letting her wax my back. I'm part Sicilian by ancestry, so excessive body hair runs in the family. Normally, I'm proud of it. Feels macho. But since we're on our way out to a German bath house this afternoon, my wife has finally convinced me it would be good to at least remove the large swaths of dark fur that cover my upper back, between the shoulder blades. She's begged and cajoled me, shamed and teased me, even offered sexual favors in compensation. But in a place where there is a high possibility that we will both be sunbathing nude, my insecurities have at last won the battle. So here I am.

Once, for a Halloween party, Anne convinced me to dress in drag. We shopped for an outfit, and Anne spent at least an hour working on my makeup and nails. The tights constricted my package, the knee-high platform gogo boots were a pain to walk in, and the bra holding my water-balloon breasts tugged painfully at my chest hair. I learned quickly a whole new level of respect for women and the suffering they go through. Even so, I could have dealt with all that.

But dude, this waxing shit has to go.


"OW! Sonofa...BITCH!"

"Pain beauty, hun, pain is beauty. Remember that."

I'm pretty sure she's enjoying this.

Thursday, June 15, 2006

A Final Word on Haditha

I was just reading a fellow blogger, and unfortunately I've found the author's views to be pretty representative of military reactions to the killings in Haditha/Ishaqi: Blame the media, blame the Left, etc. etc. I've noted a prevalence of this twisted view that blaming any soldier for wrongdoing in this case is a direct attack against all in the military, and indeed against American values, and it makes me furious.

So for those who might ever read this, I'm going to say one more thing about the killings in Haditha, and for those in the military, it would behoove you to listen up, and listen well.

We are soldiers. Regardless of how we are put to use, we are supposed to be the elite among American citizens. America's Finest, remember? We're supposed to represent something. We're supposed to stand up for the weak, and police the strong. We're not perfect, but we ARE expected to make respectable moral judgements. And when we forget that, we not only disgrace ourselves, but our units and our country. And trust me, our country doesn't really need anymore help in that department.

From Day One, we are trained to work as a team--support each other, police each other, even CARRY each other if necessary. We are supposed to be family, and we are, as the drill sergeants say, "Only as strong as our weakest soldier." Like it or not, despite whatever you may feel in the heat of combat, murdering civilians--even civilians who may conspire to kill you--is the act of a WEAK human being, of a person unable to control their baser emotional impulses.

I didn't kill the civilians in Haditha. Neither did you, probably. But in the wake of these atrocious crimes, it is clear that we have failed to pay heed to our training. At least, failed with regard to anything except how to cause harm.

And in the military, where one fails, ALL fail. Just like in Basic.

Mornings Like This

It's hot and slightly breezy this morning, and the humidity is casting a golden haze over the eastern sky. The air smells hot and sweet, like aspiration. Every breeze that wafts carries on it the cool breaths of a million trees exhaling.

Walking down my street to work, I take a deep breath. I love mornings like this. I always tell my wife that I could never be happy anywhere without trees. Arizona, for example, will never happen. And this is exactly why. I know mornings like this well. Half a lifetime ago this week, I'd have been breezing through my last day of school, bursting out into the late morning sun a free man. I'd have been staring down the barrel of three whole months of blessed solitude. At the end of fifth grade, we'd have taken a little field trip into town, to the baseball fields at Gallup Park. We'd have brought picnic lunches, and we'd have camped out at the bases of hemlock, telling jokes and working up the courage to talk to crushes. We'd have gone home, me to a gloriously empty house (I was a latchkey kid), and after a quick sandwich or bowl of Chef Boyardee, I'd have been right back out the door again, "on walkabout," as my father used to say. Sometimes I'd cover a good twelve miles in a single day.

The best part was always the mornings. Waking up slow, with the whisper of the ceiling fan, to sunlight pouring through my window. There were so many trees on my street growing up that the boughs of the old oaks and cottonwoods used to touch from opposite sides, creating a natural echo chamber that used to make the cacophony of birdsong sound like a virtual rainforest. Mornings on Lake Huron were always warm and still, and before the afternoon storms rolled in, the sound of waves on the shoreline was never more than a glass of water spilled on velvet carpet. There were days when I woke up hours before the world, just to watch her sleep. I never understood people who didn't care for mornings. It's the only time of day, in my opinion, when one can catch the true face of life.

It's funny: I think of mornings like this, and I don't think of "mornings," as a concept. I think of mornings in the place I came from. I think of mornings in Port Austin. I think of lazing around in my bedroom with the windows open, listening to Sting or Tori. I think of long days spent sitting in our screened-in porch, staring through binoculars at the songbirds as they landed on my mother's bird-feeders. I think of these things, and I remember them all so clearly, memories bundled up in the subtle bouquet of morning air. And when I breathe in here, I know that the air here doesn't quite smell the same. It can't smell the same, and it never will. But the scent is close enough. And on mornings like this, when I wake up and walk to P.T. I hear the birds singing, and smell the sweetness of lilac and green grass, I approach things with a clearer head, and in these rare moments I feel okay.

Wednesday, June 14, 2006

Today's Deep Thought

Fuck writer's block.

I've got three entries backed up on draft, and each one is garbage. Stillborn thoughts, each bound for the medical waste dumpster.

I've always viewed the creative process as one of birth: The idea is conceived, it gestates, and then when the time is right, it is given form and pushed, sometimes with excruciating effort and pain, out into the world, into the harsh daylight of the page. None, and I mean none, can rush this process. Proof that the writer does not own the words, but rather is owned by them. Indeed, like any man, enslaved to them, like any other biological function. And when no words will come, the feeling is painful, ectopic. Only the page will provide release. Only the pen will determine if the ensuing idea is born, or simply hemmorrhages and kills or cripples the author.

I say it again.

FUCK writer's block.

Tuesday, June 13, 2006


I'm in the shower this morning after P.T. My wife is standing naked in front of the bathroom sink, plucking her eyebrows. We've been discussing the film "Munich," which we watched last night, and we're busy comparing our reactions.

I'm rinsing the soap out of my chest hair. "I wanna be Jewish," I tell Anne.

She laughs. "Why's that?"

I shrug. "Well, I know that the Jewish people have been fucked in the ass by history, but still, I envy them on some level. There's a sense of community there, a sense of family."

"You think so?"

I wet my hair and apply shampoo. "Yeah. I think it's the case in almost every minority community. The black community, the gay community, the Hispanic community. There's a bond there, you know? A common ground. I don't think I've ever had that. I envy it."

"Perhaps." A pause. "But you don't think you're part of a community?"

"Not really."

"Not even as a soldier?"


"But you're a gamer. That's definitely a minority group." I can hear Anne smirking from across the shower curtain.

"That's not the same."

"How do you figure?"

"Well, gaming's a hobby, really, it's not a heritage. There's not the same kind of shared history there, no legacy of hardship or suffering."

"So you think a group has to suffer to be called a community."

I pause. "Well, not when you put it like that." I start rinsing my hair. "I dunno. Gamers are a diverse group, that's all. A new group. It's not like we wandered the desert for forty years."

"I'd say there's plenty of hardship though. Look how hard gamers have to work to get laid." Again, that audible smirk. I pause. Didn't think of it that way. I shrug.

"Huh. Maybe. Suppose that's as good a form of hardship as any."

"Sex is the great equalizer."

"Indeed." I turn the water off, stepping out and reaching for my towel. As I dry off my shoulders, I come up behind Anne, and kiss her ear. She looks back at me through the mirror and smiles.

Monday, June 12, 2006

Cognitive Dissonance Redux

There are times when Buddhist in me rails against the soldier. My faith is constantly at odds with my occupation. I believe, not in Good or Evil, but rather Suffering and Compassion, and as someone who pursues and seeks to attain greater understanding of the Dharma, I am obligated by spiritual mandate to help alleviate the Suffering of others.

But all I see around me is Suffering. Soldiers who hate their jobs, grunts whose lives and selves are subservient to an agenda. The soldiers suffer, and so their families at home suffer because of them. Suffering begets suffering. How I can continue to do my job without falling victim to the endless circle of bitterness that this job creates? Isn't that the question of Haditha? Wasn't that the question of My Lai?

At the enlisted level, it's easy to feel abandoned by one's leadership. The shit, as they say, always rolls downhill. How are we supposed to serve and die for an agenda whose proponents are not interested in our welfare? Why MUST "the grunts always get screwed?" To see the true cruelty and ignorance of men is to live on the bottom rung. Is a yellow ribbon magnet on someone's bumper supposed to alleviate my doubt?

Does anyone really care about us? We are young, we are poor, we are disposable. To think that anyone gives a damn about our Suffering, our own fears and doubts, seems foolish on some days. But what is the reason to fight then? Make no mistake, the draft is still in place. But now the draft cards have pictures of dead presidents on them.

We're all just Hellfighters now. Sure, we're heroes, sure, we're liberators, but when it comes down to it, we're still just part of the underclass.

Friday, June 09, 2006

Jack's Broken Heart

"Am I awake?
The morning star that brings me here
Sees everything between Pluto and God.
All is hell-bent."
--Kenna, Hell Bent

Rewind four years, to a quiet harbor town on the shores of Lake Huron. I'm 19 years old, and I've just completed my sophomore year of college at Northern. I've been planning not to return there, as I've made plans to transfer schools, to a small community college located in southeastern Missouri. The reason for the move has been, as is so often the case, a young woman. Her name is Maria, and she is two years my junior.

Those plans have recently collapsed. Maria and I have been "involved" for about a year and a half, though I won't go so far as to call what we had a "relationship." Ours was an affair of secretive phone calls and lies to my family and friends. I fell in love with her, without having ever seen her face, and this ashamed me. It's hard to admit that sort of thing to people you know.

I'm in the kitchen of my childhood home, washing dishes. The collapse of things with Maria occurred barely two days before, and the fight which led to it was both loud and brutal. Screams, shouts and accusations, tears. The past few days have been some of the worst of my life. I still haven't spoken to my mother.

I'm busy rinsing when, after three days secluded in her bedroom, my mother comes into the kitchen and, without a word, comes over to stand next to me. I don't acknowledge her. She draws a hitched breath as if to speak, but instead simply places a tenative hand on my shoulder. I jerk away from her, picking up clean dishes and slamming them into the dishrack with a force that I'm amazed doesn't break them.

She draws back. "Milo," she interjects.

I look up from my chore, glaring. My teeth are clenched so hard that my head hurts, and in a calm but forced voice, I finally respond to her.

"Get away from me."

Her eyes well up with tears, and she turns to leave.

An hour later, I walk a block down the street, to an antiques shop where my mother has been working during the summers. The guy working the counter, a thirtysomething fellow named Doug, recognizes me immediately and smiles.

"Hey man," he says. "What's up?"

"Hey." The word feels heavy, and seems to drop out of my mouth onto the floor like a lead weight. I walk over, and place my hands on top of the glass counter.

"Look, um... that necklace I bought the other day. I know that I don't have the receipt or anything, but you're the one that sold it to me, and..."

I'm trembling. I take a deep breath to steady myself.

"And, I was... well, I was just wondering if I could just please return it. Can I do that?"

Doug's smile fades. He looks at me, perplexed, and after a moment nods. "Sure, man. No problem." He opens up the till, and I produce from my clenched fist a simple silver-and-copper beaded necklace. I slide it to him across the counter, and as his hand moves to take it, he asks:

"How much did you pay again?"

"Thirteen thirty-five."

"'Kay." He counts the bills and changes, and hands them to me. I take them from him with a shaking hand. "Thanks."

"No problem." He's looking right at me, crestfallen, though I don't believe it has to do with the necklace. He's giving me that look that guys sometimes give to one another. He knows without anything being said, and nothing else needs to be said. His eyes tell me wordlessly how sorry he is. I don't even say goodbye, I just turn and head out the wooden screen door. It squeaks and bangs flatly behind me, and as I round the corner past the beverage stop, I feel my eyes grow hot, and my cheeks become wet. I rub a hand at them, and even though my head still hurts, I clench my jaw all the harder, squeezing my eyes shut just to keep control.

A month passes. My wisdom teeth come out, and a fire destroys three buildings downtown. All that remains of Sweetie's, Cap'n's Quarters, and Joe's Pizzeria are a gutted black hole lined with charred wood and bricks. With my father's grudging help, I manage to get myself enrolled back at Northern, and schedule my classes. The upshot is that I get to return to a college where the female-to-male concentration is nearly 4-to-1, and so for a time I'm content to party, drink, smoke weed, and fool around with as many freshman girls as I can handle. It's during this period that I meet my future wife, Anne, a second-year Nursing major.

I like Anne. Our personalities click. But though outwardly I come off as gregarious and witty, I find myself becoming depressed by my lifestyle. I break contact with Anne for weeks at a time. I pick up smoking, and quickly become addicted to the tune of two packs a day. I become an insomniac, sleeping five hours for every forty-eight. My drinking increases, and every week I come home with yet another girl in my bed. Twice Anne interrupts me at my room, and on several occasions I make arrangements to hang out with her, which I later break. I disappear for days at a time, walking all night in the pouring October rainstorms, my leather jacket glistening wet in the headlights and streetlamps of downtown Marquette. When Anne asks me about where I've been, I don't answer. When she berates me furiously for spurning her for other girls, I simply furrow my brow in shame. I know I have no intention of quitting this behavior, and she knows it too. I tell her that what I want and what she wants are mutually exclusive, and we drift apart. She starts seeing other guys.

I cut classes, and I party all night. I continue to see and seduce girls I know, though amazingly my G.P.A. picks up. At this point, I'm moving into the course-required component of my education, and since my major is in English Writing, I do remarkably well. During my insomniac phases, I spend dozens of hours in front of the computer, with a cup of cheap gas-station coffee on one side of me, and a pack of Camel Turkish Royals at another. I drink, and fuck, and chain-smoke, and write, all so I won't have to sleep. When I do sleep, I dream of Maria, hearing her voice and imagining her with the new guy she's got, Andy. Her laughter melts into moans, and her whispers of affection become shouts of dirty talk, screaming for a guy whose name is not my own.

All this, over something that never really happened. Like the old tagline for
"A.I." said, my love for her was real, but "we" were not.

Months pass. Anne and I still hang out, and when we do, the chemistry is still strong. We hang out on the steps of the Peter White Library and chat for hours with take-out from the New York Deli.

"This," I say to her, "is what I consider to be a date. No fancy attempts to impress, no awkward conversation, just two people enjoying each others' company."

We laugh at each other's jokes, and share in each other's love for the outdoors. I like her, but I don't want a relationship with her. I don't want a relationship with anyone. I still back out on dates, and take other girls back to my room. When we're alone, I sometimes ask her to stay the night at my place, and we fall asleep, fully dressed, in each other's arms. She's adamant about withholding sex for the right partner, and I respect her wishes. Our clothes stay on.

Anne keeps a blog. She writes about me on occasion, referring to me as Jack, after the central character in the film version of Fight Club. She rants about my stupidities and all my small cruelties to her, ranting about in ways that fill me with guilt yet all the same I keep reading. Some evenings, I wake up after three hours' sleep, to find small notes sent to me by Anne over MSN Messenger. Sometimes I ignore her. Sometimes I write back.

One day, while hanging out in the dorm room of a mutual friend, she attempts to show me affection. I all but ignore her. After a while, she leaves without a word, and my buddy Michael, my former roommate, snorts as we bury ourselves in a fierce game of Halo.

"What," I say. I don't look at him. My eyes are too busy scanning the screen for our friend Dustin.

"Dude" he says, "that girl is totally into you."

"Whatever." I shrug. I empty a pistol clip into Michael's avatar, shouting in triumph before Dustin's sniper round takes me out from halfway across Blood Gulch. My jubilation is suddenly gone. The word karma flashes through my head.

"Fuck," I say, to no one in particular.

Later that night, I go back to my room. I spend an hour on the phone with Maria--again--and then find another set of message windows open on my computer. One of them is Anne. Her tone, even over the screen, is vitriolic, and she proceeds to castigate me for all the ways in which I make her feel invisible. I may be self-absorbed, but I'm not inhuman. We spend several minutes hurling angry words at each other through the network. She says a few things which, even in my detached and drunken state, strike a nerve. My anger disappears, replaced by shame. Seeking to make amends, I ask her to come by my room. She complies, several minutes later, and for the next hour we pace back and forth across my room, arguing.

She accuses me of playing her. I can't deny this, though in truth I never meant to. I accuse her of wanting more than I could give. I accuse her of crowding me. She asks me why I cut myself off all the time. She asks me why I always shut her out. She tells me:

"Christ, I look at you, and it's all red and black. You're like this barely contained tornado. But you're held together by clothes."

I fall silent for a moment. I rub at my temples. Looking up again, I tell her that, regardless of what she thinks, that she doesn't WANT a relationship with me. I tell her that all I do is hurt people--my friends, my family, my lovers. To look at myself, I'm a freak, a monster with a pretty face. I'm down to less than two hours a night of sleep, and the visions of Maria are starting to come to me in the daytime.

I think back to the argument I just had with Maria. We had talked awkwardly for a bit, and then shortly afterward we got to rehashing all the mistakes and lies we had used to hurt each other. I got angry. She got angry. Her voice had raised on the phone, and she started lacing into me with hideous insults. I had tried to calm her down, but her temper was flaring and so was mine. She had railed against my insecurities, my inability to move on, about how much she enjoyed the sex with her new boyfriend, some mook with more brains in his dick than in his head. She was using him for one thing, and I could see it. Her yelling had turned to screaming. The insults were soon flying a mile a minute, a salvo that started to turn my vision red.

I had interrupted her. "Maria."

She didn't stop.


She'd kept going, her voice crossing the border into shrill.


She fell silent. My temper was close to boiling. I suddenly realized I could hear two sets of breathing on the phone. It was her boyfriend. Something in me broke, like a stopped-up gear. But instead of crushing the embedded object, the drive-train snapped, breaking down the whole machine and leaving the apparatus useless. My anger drained away, replaced by exhaustion and hurt.

"Maria, I'm not doing this anymore."

"No, you don't. You don't get to just say what you want and leave. I--"

"Maria, I'm tired. I'm tired of feeling this way. Don't you get it? You've won. You left me in the dust, and you've got your new guy now, and I'm out of your life, okay? So please, just go and fuck your new guy, and leave me to hurt. I'm bowing out. I'm giving you what you want. I'm done."

"Goddamn you, I want--"

"Goodbye, Maria." At this point, I hung up the phone. It rang again five seconds later. I didn't answer.

The memories of that exchange cloud my vision. I sit down on the bed, sighing. For reasons I still don't understand, I suddenly tell Anne about the argument. She listens. I end up talking for an hour, talking about everything that happened with Maria, how it began, how I hid it from my family and friends, all the drama, all the bullshit. I tell her about slaving away all summer so I could go and be with her, and I tell her about the fight that finally brought it all down in flames. I tell her about the three-way-fight on the phone between me, Maria, and my mother, and about how my father nearly kicked me out of the house for my behavior on the same day that Maria broke up with me. I tell her how I was to blame for all of it, and how nobody who loved me could ever feel that way for long.

I tell her my secrets, and I tell her my sins, and I wait for her to look at me for who I really was. I wait for her to understand, for her expression to change, for her to leave, disgusted. She doesn't. She just looks at me and sighs. It's okay, she tells me.

All I had wanted was to love her, I tell Anne. All I had wanted was to make it work, make it happen, make it so that it was more than just some pathetic Internet fling. Sure, I might have been imperfect, and sure I might have been needy and insecure. Sure, I may have tricked myself into wanting something I couldn't have. But I loved her, all the same. I had loved Maria, and now she longer loved me. And I had made it so that now not even my family loved me either.

I stop. I clench my jaw again, and my whole body starts to tremble. I can feel the dam starting to break, and I close my eyes and look away, trying to hold the cracks together with my bare hands. My eyes blur up, and my nose starts to run. I'm falling apart.

She takes a step toward me. I'm leaning against the foot of the bed, arms folded.

"You are so beautiful," she says.

I look up. "What?" I shake my head. The cracks are growing bigger, and my mouth falls open, working soundlessly. My cheeks feel wet again.

She comes over to me, taking my hands in hers. She whispers.

"You are so perfect, and you have no idea."

I try to pull away. I keep telling myself don't do this, don't do this. I try to resist.

"You don't understand."

"No," she says, "I do. I do understand. And it's okay. I love you. Come here."

She hugs me, holding my face against her neck, sitting down on my bed. The beauty of giving up is knowing for certain that it's pointless to keep fighting; It lies in knowing that you can just allow yourself to surrender to those waves and drown. The dam breaks, and suddenly after four months I am lost to The Flood. I fall to my knees, head in her lap, and begin to sob uncontrollably. I am bawling, for the first time in who knows how long, and I don't care, for the waves have claimed me, and they are warm. They are bearing me out to sea, and they whisper to me that I'm ok, that it's all right, that they love me.

"I love you too," I tell them.

"No," they say. "You don't." Anne holds me like that for an hour, and during that time I don't stop crying once. I've never cried that much. I fall asleep in her arms, and when I wake up, she's gone. I find a note slipped under my doorway, and when I read it, I find a poem in pencil, from Anne. Paraphrasing Palahniuk, one of my favorite authors, it contains the line:

I am Jack's Broken Heart.

Thursday, June 08, 2006

Short Fiction: "Letter to Shirley Potter, September 1998"


I heard about your husband. I'm real sorry. Ed was a good guy, and we're all gonna miss him a lot. Sorry couldn't make it to the funeral, but they got me up here in Marquette to work on my ticker.

First day of bear season, too. That's gotta be rough. Where were they at? Tahquamenon? Sturgeon River Gorge? I hear the hunting up there's gonna be good this season. Too bad something like this had to happen. Ed was still a young guy too-- I mean, he'd only just turned 55 hadn't he? I know you always used to ride his ass (pardon my Finglish?) about his health, and for what it's worth, I know he listened. I swear to ya, Shirl, the man turned 50 and all of a sudden he was too good for my wife's turkey stew, haha. Always up at the ass-crack of dawn for a run--even at bear camp--couldn't even stop by the Country Kitchen without him naggin' me about smoking, or about the gravy on my biscuits. "Marty, I'm tellin' ya, that shit's gonna kill you one day." Funny how life works out.

Any way, Shirl, for what it's worth, both you and your husband are in my prayers, and take it from me, I know that wherever Ed is now, I know he's in a better place. God bless you both.

Anyway, how are you doing? How are the kids? Heard Mindy's getting married next fall--anyone I know? Last I talked to Ed, he told me Tim's still working down in Charlevoix. Hear there's a great market for carpentry down there these days, what with all the summer people and all. Hell, I should have gotten into that racket--woulda beaten the hell outa 30 years in the mine. Oh well, what have I got to complain about, hey? I got a good pension, and they're payin' for my heart surgery. Good thing too. VA's useless for this sorta thing. Shoulda got hit by shrapnel my first tour. Maybe they'd give a damn about me now. Oh well. What the Lord wills and all, I guess.

Things are pretty good on my end--I've been up here at Marquette General the last week. Some Indian guy's takin' care of me. Not like Soo Tribe, I mean like some guy with an accent whose name I can't pronounce. Where'd all the American doctors go, I wonder. Huh well. Guess we'll never know.

Anyway, the doc said I have a "dissecting aortic anurysm (sp?)." Hurt like hell, and the doc told me that means that I had like a bubble in the wall of one of my blood vessels. Honestly, I didn't really get much of it, between the accent and all the medical talk, but he told me I'd need to have my chest cracked open. So that's what they did a coupla days ago. Medicine these days, I tell you. Just popped me open and looked under the hood like my damned Chevy truck. Apparently they just cut away a part of my tissue and sewed it up with a patch of fiber. Doc called it a graft--I always thought that was just when they took skin from your butt cheek or whatnot when you got burned real bad. Saw that happen to a coupla guys, over the years. Remember Jimmy Shigwadja? Guy from Ishpeming? Guy's got a bald patch on his calf from where his sister lit his pantleg on fire as a kid. Haha.

Anyway, I got these stitches now, running up and down my chest. Can't see 'em, though--they got gauze over the whole thing. Still hurts to breathe. Hard to believe they just cracked me open and fixed me up like that. Reminds me of field-dressing a deer, only in this case I'm not summer-sausage now.

Funny story, the docs told me that my heart actually stopped on the operating table. Started bleeding during surgery, apparently. They said I was clinically dead for a full minute. Brought me back with a machine. You know, they always say that when you die, you see a white light if you go through you see all your loved ones waiting for you on the other side. Sad to say, I don't remember a damn thing like that. Guess they knocked me out too good.

Anyway, I'm doing good here, but all this writing's making me a little tired. Sorry about the stationery, it's what the nurse gave me. The docs say I should be out in about a week, but they want me to take it easy. Hell with that, I got a deer blind I still gotta set up before Opening Day. I might have missed my bear, but damned if I'm gonna miss out on my chance to get a good buck. I should be back in Negaunee in about a week, and who knows? Maybe if you wanted, I could swing by Gwinn. It'd be nice to see you again, maybe spend a little time with you. I know we haven't been able too much these last few years. Anyway, love ya Shirl. God bless.


Marty Ilmonen

P.S. Sorry again about Ed.

Tuesday, June 06, 2006


Over the last several days, I've watched programming on the government-run American Forces Network, a series of TV channels produced by and for American servicemen serving abroad.

A distinguishing characteristic of these channels is the relative absence of commercial advertisement, in favor of military-themed "public service announcements." Many of these PSAs promote messages such as tolerance, professionalism, devotion to family, and where to access various services provided free by the military to soldiers. For the most part, I find these sorts of ads to have a positive influence, even if the production values and ads themselves are a little shoddy.

From time to time, however, I find myself watching a news story or ad that seems to somehow reek obviously of spin. That is to say, I can tell that what I'm being shown is clearly propaganda, and when these incidents occur--usually about twice a week--I can't help but be left with a bad taste in my mouth. In particular, this bad taste has been lingering over a series of announcements I've recently viewed, produced by the United States Army - Europe Corps of Chaplains.

For those who don't know what a chaplain is, I'll explain. The Armed Services view soldier morale as being a key component of mission readiness, and part of that morale, leaders understand, is spiritual. To that end, the Army commissions ordained clergymen as uniformed military officers--chaplains--to serve with Army units, providing ministry and counseling services to soldiers in time of need. As expected, most chaplains are Christian, but I myself have seen examples of Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist, and Wiccan officers of the Chaplaincy. Though chaplains themselves may be ordained in a specific denomination, they are obligated by their creed to provide ministry services to ALL soldiers, regardless of faith, and attempts to accomodate the diverse religions practiced in the military are pursued to the fullest extent. The Army, by law, is prohibited from promoting any one religion as being superior to another, and to that degree, I see the Corps of Chaplains as providing a valuable and important service to soldiers.


Over the past few days, I've seen a series of TV spots promoting the chaplaincy to soldiers as a source of support during times of stress. Harmless enough, to be sure. But the nature of the ads has given me cause for thought. These ads, viewed by soldiers only in Europe, contain messages as follow:

"I would love to help. Just ask. GOD."

"Looking for a fresh start? I can help you wipe your slate clean. GOD."

"Got a lot on your plate? I can help you carry some of the burden. GOD."

This has gotten me thinking. Now, I'm a deeply spiritual person owing to my experiences, and I'll admit, I've even paid a visit to the local Chaplain myself. But the first and only time I went to see the Chaplain was early into Basic Training. When I did, I found that mostly the Chaplain's response to my problem was to feed me a series of simple platitudes, intended more to get me back in step with the Army's program than to ease any serious long-term sense of angst. It occurs to me that, while the Army Chaplain Corps cannot promote one religion over any other, clergymen must, I think, hold a specific personal worldview in order to accept the idea of becoming a military chaplain. As many clergymen shun the use of violence, this naturally weeds out all but a specific minority.

Right now, many say that American culture is engaged in a war of political and religious ideals. This isn't to say that America is at war with radical Islam, as some would maintain. Rather, I think American culture is presently hindered by a deep divide over what American culture is supposed to represent. Some in our culture believe that government should operate independently of faith, while others believe that any government of the people should represent the faith of that people. As the majority of Americans today are still Christian, many feel that this should, by logical extension, be a Christian nation. Though I vehemently disagree with this argument, I can understand the reasoning. For people of such a faith, the laws of God must necessarily trump the laws of man, and if government operates independently of church doctrine, some could argue that government is acting in direct violation of Divine mandate. Thus any hotbed issue of the right--women's rights, gay rights, separation of Church and State, criticism of American foreign policy--becomes a de facto criticism of God. I suspect strongly that any clergyperson who enters the chaplaincy must then believe that American military policy moves in step with "God's Plan." Put another way, one must believe that our ideals and aims as Americans fall in line with what God wishes, and therefore take precedence.

I find this idea dangerous. It concerns me. DOES the Divine support a national heritage? CAN It provide endorsement of a specific human leader? Would a supposedly merciful and just God place preference upon a single group of human beings; or place Its endorsement on the agendas of ONE political party? Would such a God endorse our foreign-policy actions over the past half-century?

No. No, I don't believe so.

Friday, June 02, 2006


Track eight on Peter Gabriel's 1986 album, So, is titled "We Do What We're Told (Milgram's 37)." It's a brief piece, primarily instrumental, that references the 1963 experiments of American psychologist Stanley Milgram. It's a chilling piece, drawing heavily from bands like Pink Floyd, and gives disturbing musical life to the natural conformist tendencies latent within human nature.

I've been watching the news lately, primarily coverage of last year's alleged massacre of Iraqi civilians by Marines in Haditha, and thinking of this song. I admit: as a soldier, this incident, along with similar incidents perpetrated by military personnel, strikes extremely close to home. I am a soldier. I am like these young men. We are soldiers. From Day One of Basic, we are conditioned to respect and follow the Core Values of our service. We are trained to adhere to a so-called "higher moral standard," and for this we are honored and respected as heroes.

But there is a conflict in our programming. As soldiers, we are expected to stand up and dedicate our lives to the defense of a set of principles--principles which, according to our superiors, are unique characteristics which make our country great above all others. I'll admit, such a message rings in my ears with the sinister echo of Nationalism. But on top of these ideas, we as soldiers are then expected to embark on long journeys abroad, where we will be exposed to, and expected to perpetrate, acts of cruelty and murder. Without a doubt, such acts carry a dramatic physical and psychological toll on the human mind and body, and such acts can only ever truly be justified in the name of some greater good. The veterans of WWII understood this. They fought not just for the American way of life, but for all those who stood to lose something at the hands of Axis oppression. No war is ever noble, but theirs were actions which truly served the good of all.

But what happens when the ideas for which we are expected to kill do not hold such a clear mandate? What happens when the horrors we are expected to face are not in the name of collective good, but rather only serve the interests of an elite few? What, then, happens to our ethics as soldiers? When we start to feel that our situations are hopeless--that we are doomed to die on foreign soil, away from our loved ones, for what may be nothing--human minds and values become corrupted. If one asks any Vietnam veteran, I'm sure that they will agree. Human minds and bodies are affected by combat, and when that combat is against an enemy whose true nature and motivations we fail--indeed, are encouraged NOT--to understand, I think we as human beings lose something. On that level, I can understand the rage and outright hatred those Marines must have felt after the roadside bomb attack which killed one of their own. But I cannot abide their response to it.

Worse than their actions, however, has been the response of the American media and viewing public. While many construe the alleged massacre as a new "My Lai," still others criticize those who speak out against it as traitorous or opposed to American interests. Worse yet, some are outright apathetic. It's like these people see the news, read the reports, and then go back to watching "American Idol." What reasonable human being can react this way? Are we so blinded to the world by our own nationalist propaganda? Are we like those German houswives, hearing stories passed down from Auschwitz or Treblinka, willfully oblivious to the horrors represented by those churning smokestacks? If such is true, I am utterly horrified of my fellow human beings and their failure to question authority.

But what, then, does this say of my own service? I was not drafted. I made the choice, freely, to enter the Armed Forces during a war whose pretenses I did not believe were just. In doing so, I feel that I bear some responsibility for the actions of my Administration. In signing up, however benificent my intentions, I have willingly enabled the actions of those above me to enforce foreign policy decisions whose effects will cripple us for years. Worse yet, I imagine these Marines, whose own grief and rage led them to exact a terrible vengeance upon Iraqi civilians, and to my own horror, I cannot guarantee that I would not do the same in their boots.

Would I kill in the name of a war in which I don't believe? Will I? My duty tells me "yes," if only to protect my fellow soldiers and myself. If it gets me back into the arms of my wife, I will fire my M-16 until the heat fuses bolt and barrel. If my life and safety requires that I comply in command-sponsored murder, then a murderer shall I be. I am not proud of this. I am not a hero for this. I am a young man, with a wife and dreams yet unfulfilled. But to my command chain, I am equipment. I am cannon fodder. I am a pawn, an asset whose life means less than a political agenda. To paraphrase Palahniuk, I am the middle child of history. There is no nobility in what I do. There is only fear, and desire, and duty. I am honor-bound to protect my fellow soldiers. I am honor-bound to serve a noble testament to my profession. But I am also bound to my own desire for my life to have meant something, and I am bound to my wife, to make sure that her support for my decision was not a mistake.

I still believe in my country. I am still a patriot. But I am doubtful about what our nation is fast becoming; about the way that our ideals are being twisted and corrupted, and I am worried that we will never learn from the mistakes of Iraq, any more than we learned from those of Vietnam. I am worried that, one day, history teachers will show footage of American soldiers marching, just as today they show images of Hitler's Wehrmacht goose-stepping through the streets of the Reich. I am worried that my only legacy will be that of enabling a machine of corruption and terror. I am worried that it may be too late to be redeemed for my mistakes.

I am worried that, in the words of Daniel Ellsberg, "We weren't just on the wrong side."

I'm worried that maybe we ARE the wrong side.