Thursday, December 22, 2011

Like I Mean It

I know a non-Catholic who has been exposed to the Catholic faith pretty heavily for years, but who still has no interest in becoming a Catholic. When asked why he answers, “Because Catholic worship is so boring. It looks like there is no feeling, they are just going through the motions.”

The typical response to this would be an explanation of the liturgy, and how worship is an action of faith and will, feelings are secondary and accidental. This would be a true response, but let’s take a look at it from another angle for a second. Truth be told, most of the times when I go to Sunday Mass, if I pay attention to the people around me it doesn’t often look as if they are especially interested in what they are doing. Hardly anyone sings, the responses are mumbled, someone is picking his fingernails over there, someone else is playing peek-a-boo with the toddler in the seat in front of her. Before and after Mass the church often sounds like a meeting hall, to the irritation of those who have the desire to pray, but lack the focus to ignore the noise. Then, when I look at myself (because, after all, what am I doing watching everyone else) I find I am doing all of those things (except playing peek-a-boo.)

Granted that I am not a charismatic, and don’t very much value emotional thrills, yet still I can’t help but think that if we stopped and thought, really thought what we were doing, it ought to make a difference in how we act at Mass. I should be worshipping like I mean it. That difference ought to be noticeable. I think of the worship of cloistered nuns or even the discipline of Buddhist monks. I doubt anyone watching Zen monks meditating (which is not even worship) would be inclined to doubt the sincerity, whatever their thoughts about the theology of it.

But then, this is really only a part of the question. If you are a person that God Himself invites to His table, if you are the person who has received Jesus in the Eucharist, that really ought to mean something for the rest of your life. And yet so many of us act as if we were just killing time at Mass, and only really come alive outside the church. Instead it should be the other way around. The protestant who comes to Mass might not recognize the depth and passion of a beautiful liturgy, and almost certainly will not recognize the Sacramental reality that takes place regardless of how beautiful or how sloppy the liturgy is. It is quite fair for them to complain about a “Lack of feeling” at Mass, but the witness of the rest of our lives should be an answer to them. Worship does not end when we leave church. The hidden interior joy we receive at Mass (sometimes whether we know it or not) should slowly bubble its way to the surface over the course of the day and the week, until it overflows in a good life, lived with excellence and fun and style. We should live every day as if Jesus came that we might have life and have it abundantly.

Because as it turns out, He did.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Christmas Hawaiian Pizza

This weekend I am visiting my cousins who live in Virginia, on my way north to NY for Christmas. Now, I always make pizza for them when I visit. I really love making pizza, but I seldom make it anymore. I never make it for myself. It is a lot of work, even though I enjoy it, and it just doesn’t make sense to me to go through all that trouble without someone to share it with. I’d just as soon order out, even though it is nothing like the same quality.

At any rate, on Saturday morning I went to 0830 Mass, and I was still thinking about what kind of pizza I was going to make. I wanted to do something new and adventurous that I had never tried before. One of my cousins had suggested Hawaiian pizza, but I’ve never really liked the Hawaiian pizzas I have tried from dominos and Papa Johns. I knew I was going to make a veggie-sausage stir fry pizza, and a deep dish, and I was thinking I wanted to redo a bruschetta pizza I had made once before, but for the fourth pizza I still had no ideas.

Then out of the heavens came an inspiration from the patron saint of pizza. There was a beam of light, and choral soprano chords going on, and it hit me: Christmas Hawaiian pizza! There was skepticism when I explained the idea, but it was an inspiration and I was not to be deterred. As it turned out I was vindicated by the results. The pizza was delicious, voted awesome by all partakers. It was probably Grandpa who gave me the idea. And now I am going to share it all with you, gratis.

First I made the dough. It was just a typical unspiced pizza dough, except that I added a couple of teaspoons of honey with the yeast as an activator, and I put in a little extra yeast. The result was a fluffy, smooth, gorgeous dough that I half spread before letting it rise so that when it rose it covered almost half the pan, lessening the work I needed to do to spread the dough. The magic in this pizza was mostly in the toppings.

After spreading the dough I topped it with a generous layer of red sauce. I used cheese flavored spaghetti sauce, not pizza sauce. I think spaghetti sauce has a better texture to it than most off the shelf pizza sauces. On top of that I sprinkled almost a whole can of pineapple tidbits (I actually did not sprinkle them personally. A friend of mine did the sprinkling.) After that I added the ham. I bought a slice of boneless ham, ready to eat, cured in salt. About half of it went into the deep dish pizza, but the other half I prepped for this Christmas Hawaiian pizza. I diced it up really small, less than quarter inch cubes, and put it in a small bowl. On top of it I poured a generous spoonful of cinnamon, and about the same amount of powdered cloves, and then a few ounces of warmed honey. I stirred them all up together until the ham was thoroughly coated and then spread that on the pizza. After that a generous layer of mozzarella and baked at 475 for twenty minutes.

Bon Appetit.

Friday, December 16, 2011

Shadow Flower

You dwell so much in shadow; at times it seems
As if there is no hope, no peace, no strength.
And days and nights grind on in weary length,
Grueling days, and nights of restless dreams.
For rent and gas, utilities and counseling fees,
You last from one hard-earned check to the next,
No friends close by, not even a friendly text,
Living on Zoloft and lonely mac & cheese.

But in God’s eyes your soul is so much more,
A flower unseen that blooms in shadows dim
Seen only by Him and those who see like Him.
Instead of petals bright, your scent is your allure.
Flower of the King, sought out by scent alone
Hidden deep in shade, but healing balm
For those who seek you out. A quiet calm
Is growing in your heart right now unknown.

And through all time and space your heart is one
With all who suffer: future, present, past;
From the first tear ever shed, until the last,
With all who have endured the ache and done
What was required of them, again and again.
The dogged strength that falls back in the pit
And stubbornly from the mud, refuses to quit,
This silent solidarity of hidden pain.

You shadow flowers. Flowers of greasy smears
Of tiny fingers on dirty window glass
Looking out on fields of human trash
Too ignorant to see the need for tears.
Wretches toiling in the bowels of diamond pits,
Drop short-lived flowers of sweat, which bloom in dust
And are trampled underfoot. Flowers of rust
And soot and ash, in haunted chimneys at Auschwitz.

Each flower is precious. All are saved and drawn
Together into crimson teardrop flowers
On Gethsemane’s hallowed ground, the darkest hours
Of all the shadow children. He has gone
Where none of us can go, to be with you.
But in mystery most subtle, He also calls
You sufferers to join Him, as He breaks the walls
And cries, “Behold, all things I make anew.”

Sunday, December 11, 2011

The Greatness of a Lady

“She had that great femininity which demanded of her lover what her lover demanded of himself.”

I read this sentence last week in Charles Williams’ “The Figure of Beatrice,” and have been savoring it ever since. He wrote it of Dante’s oft-commented-on beloved, as she appears in the “Divine Comedy”, of which, I confess, I have read only the Inferno, and that only in high school. Despite my limited acquaintance with the heroine of which he spoke, or perhaps because of it, this sentence spoke to me. It called to me, and I swear verily resonated in my chest, like a basso profundo echo of a high, clear note heard afar off. It seemed to me that there, all in a sentence, was a beautiful expression of the heart of femininity at its highest, at least as it appears to me. It seems to be a reversal of the curse of Genesis 3:16, specifically where it says, “You shall desire after your husband, but he shall rule over you.”

I saw the movie, “Ladder 49” once, a long time ago. I liked it. It made me want to be a firefighter, even though I had been in the army for several years. The character of the firefighter played by Joaquin Phoenix was one that I could relate to. He lived to go into burning buildings and rescue people, and it was this quality of courage and reckless compassion that attracted his wife to him in the first half of the movie. By the second half of the movie she was tired of it, to the point that she wanted him to quit the Fire Department. More interesting still, I was watching the movie in the company of other soldiers, most of whom were married and they all said the same thing, “That’s how it is. When you first meet them they think it’s the most awesome thing in the world that you’re a soldier, but then once you’re married they hate it, and they are always scheming to keep you at home.”

A soldier I know, who graduated the course with me, joined up to go Special Forces with his wife’s blessing. As he got further into the course, though, and she realized what it really meant she began to be less and less thrilled with it. Now she hates it, and it is a continual source of tension between them. She hates it and resists it, so much so that I’ve heard her cut him down in public, telling him he’s not smart enough to make it as a medic, or she wouldn’t trust him if she were injured.

I listen, and I hear what she is saying. All of these women face the same trial, namely that their men are not wholly theirs. Each one has a mission that he feels is his, and he is committed to it even at the risk of his life. She, for her part, is worried sick that one day she’ll get that knock on the door and then she will be all alone with the children. Women tend to commit so completely. They want to belong completely to one man and one family, and even a hint that it might all come to an end is truly terrifying. I listen well enough to hear that fear, and I give it a good deal of weight. It is just as real and just as valid as the man’s need to fight fire, or deploy overseas, or whatever great thing he feels he must do.

But today we celebrated the Feast of the Immaculate Conception, one of the great Marian Holy Days of the Catholic Church, and I thought about this in connection with Mary. As Adam ruined betrayed and ruined masculinity by his weakness in the garden, so Eve betrayed and sabotaged femininity. Jesus came to restore the whole human race by obeying where Adam had disobeyed, but He chose to act through a human woman, and in so doing He allowed Mary to be the first and best example of redeemed femininity. Two episodes in particular came to my mind as pivotal moments in this redemption. First, obviously, the annunciation was the pivotal moment of human cooperation with Divine salvation. Mary blindly said her fiat, her “May it be” to the Will of God, without knowing what it would entail. This was the undoing of Eve’s disobedience, a choice made in the dark. Neither Eve nor Mary knew what was at stake. The issue was simply trust. Eve did not, Mary did.

But the second pivotal episode was both a little more obscure, and to my mind a little more relevant to the Charles Williams quote that started this whole train of thought. It comes from John 2:4-5. At the wedding feast at Cana Jesus says to His Mother, “Woman, why do you involve me? My hour has not yet come.” She does not reply to Him directly, or if she does it is not recorded. Instead she simply tells the servants, “Do whatever He tells you.”

Nothing in John’s gospel is arbitrary or aside. He does not do character development. Every word and saying is full of meaning, significant on many levels and this is no exception, but I find it more mysterious than most of his writing. I have heard a lot of different interpretations of it, most concerned with showing that Jesus was not really being disrespectful to His mother. A few of the Catholic ones use it as an example of how powerful Mary is, and how Jesus will do anything she asks of Him. The most interesting one I ever read was by Fulton Sheen, in which he speculated that what Jesus was really saying was that if He did this and manifested His power He would be setting out on a path from which there was no turning back, and it could only end with His crucifixion.

I suppose on some level there is truth to all of them, but today the idea of Fulton Sheen’s took on a reality in my mind that is convincing in its beauty and elegance. I am convinced that when Jesus said that to her, she knew what was at stake. He was giving her a chance… to do what? To hold Him back? To keep Him for herself? To say, “No, not you my Son. You know what the world will do to you. I just want you to be safe.” Could she have said this? Yes. Just as she could have said “No” to the angel at Nazareth thirty years earlier, she could have said “No” at Cana. The choice God gave her was real, to be the Mother of His Son, or to refuse. Salvation really did come about as the result of a fallible human being’s “Yes” to God. I think Cana was something similar, but more immediate. Now she was faced with an actual human being. She knew Him and loved Him. He was her son. She had born Him in her womb, nursed Him at her breast, held him while He learned to walk, taught Him, fed Him, clothed Him. He was truly flesh of her flesh. In all the years they had lived together they must have talked of His mission, and she knew the prophecy of Simeon concerning her beloved Son. Faced with that kind of choice, a daughter of Eve would have grasped after the one she loved. What kind of grace must have been poured out upon her, to enable her to exercise her redeemed femininity, that high and noble love which demanded of Jesus what He demanded of Himself!

This is that “Great Femininity” that Dante envisioned, that can look on the best of her man’s masculinity, and affirm it even when it takes him away from her. She does not seek to smooth every obstacle out of his path, she does not encourage him to take the safe, easy path. When he loses faith in himself and feels like giving up she gently affirms her faith in the best part of him. You can see it in the men who have wives that support them unconditionally. No matter what setbacks or failures he runs into at work or among his peers, his wife’s support and loyalty outweigh them all. He can conquer the world. I know a man who is a full time volunteer in a Catholic Men’s ministry, who lives entirely on whatever donations he can get. He is able to do this because his wife supports him. She believes in him and his mission so much that she and his children willingly live from donation to donation to enable him to do what he is called to do.

That is the power of this “Great Femininity.” You can see it in the man who is blessed by it. He will answer God’s call, whatever it is, and he will persevere. Such men will change the world, because of the women who love them.

Saturday, December 3, 2011



For I, the LORD your God, am a jealous God, punishing the children for the sin of the parents to the third and fourth generation of those who hate me, but showing love to a thousand generations of those who love me and keep my commandments. Exodus 20:5-6

The phrase “Jealous God,” is one of those knee jerk phrases, and this is one of those knee jerk verses. Automatically it puts a sour taste in the mouth of modern Americans. We have a problem with God being jealous, and we have a problem with God punishing children for the sins of the parents. How can a loving, merciful God punish an innocent child for an infraction of His cosmic preferences that he did not even commit? How can this be the action even of a just God? And yet, the people who hate this verse tend to hate it on face value without considering the context, and in this instance I am not talking of the context within Scriptures. I am talking about the context of real life. People who hate this verse (myself included, since I wrestled with it a bit at one point in my life) hate it without pausing to think about what this would look like in the world we live in.

In life, actions have consequences. This is how God designed the universe. When I act, that act ripples outward and outward, both in the results I expect and in the unintended consequences. There is no way human wisdom and foresight can predict all the consequences of an action, or a series of actions, or a life.

So what does that verse look like in real life?

A week ago, my maternal Grandfather died. He was 74 years old. He was born in 1937 in a state mental institution. His maternal grandfather was committed to the violent ward of a state mental institution following a head injury that left him with a complete and dangerous personality change. His mother had suffered a mental breakdown following some months after her divorce and was also committed to a state mental institution. There is no way of knowing at this point who his biological father was, but Grandpa was born in that institution about eight months after her commitment, and immediately turned over to state custody. Before he was 18 months old he had been scalded with boiling water and struck by a car. He never knew his biological parents, and was never adopted, though he eventually spent his childhood and youth with a single foster family. On face value it would seem that Grandpa was dealt a bad hand right from the get-go. The choices of his parents and their parents had consequences in his life, real consequences that really hurt him. That is real life. Our bad choices hurt people who come after us.

But, fast forward 74 years to the day of his death. Grandpa died, beloved of his family, a faithful member of the church, wise, at peace, ready. He served in the Air Force during the Cold War, he remained a faithful Catholic, married in the Church, raised his children in the faith, designed and built electronics, made furniture, fixed cars, followed the fortunes of our nation through good and bad, with prayer and work right up to the end. His 8 children, 42 grandchildren, and 7 great-grandchildren are all souls that would not have existed otherwise. The life of faith, family and country are our life blood. We have soldiers and sailors, artists and business men, actors and students, movie makers, activists, entrepreneurs, farmers, mechanics, designers, husbands and fathers, wives and mothers, teenagers, children, and babies.

Think about that for a second. In some ways he was dealt a bad hand. In fact, if Grandpa were conceived under similar circumstances today, there is a large segment of the population who would consider it an act of mercy to abort him. He was reaping the consequences of the choices of those who came before him, but God was also working. Grandpa was put in good foster homes, and allowed to grow up in one home for his whole childhood. He took what he was given, and he made his own choices, and now we reap the benefits of those choices.

That is what I see when I read that verse from Exodus. God is not sitting up in heaven trying to keep bad things going for three or four generations. He doesn’t need to. Bad things keep going by themselves. That is not a threat of vengeance, but a promise of mercy. It is only because of God’s intervention that the consequences are limited to those few generations. On the other hand, no one can know, no one can even begin to imagine the good that will come from one life lived well. God longs to pour out blessings, good things, life to the full, if only we would cooperate. A life lived with faith is an open door. Through that door God is allowed into the world, and runs riot with good things for everyone, until other doors, closed and shut by selfishness or ignorance or fear, stop Him.

Mercy is the fundamental reality, or to put it another way, Love is all there is. Live that reality, and let God into the world. You have no idea what will come of it, but it will be good. It will be greater than you can possibly imagine.

Saturday, November 26, 2011

UC Davis Incident: A Technical Critique

I suppose everyone has seen this video by now.

I’ll start off by saying that from a big picture point of view, I don’t know much about this incident. I don’t know much about Occupy Wall Street, I don’t know what (if any) goals they have. I don’t know what these students were trying to accomplish, or whether they knew what they were trying to accomplish, or how legal their protest was. I also don’t know much about the overall decisions from the cops’ point of view. Whether it was necessary to move the protestors or not, whether it was necessary to intervene at all, I can’t say. My issue with this is from a much more technical point of view. That’s not how you run a revolution, and it’s not how you deal with one. Both sides seemed amateurish to me.

First, from the cops point of view: Let’s bypass the question of the legality of breaking up the protest, and the decision to make the arrests and skip straight to how that decision was executed. Cops on UC Davis campus: automatically in hostile territory. They can start by knowing that 1: they are not welcome; 2: they are already assumed guilty until proven innocent; 3: they are surrounded by cameras, which is essentially a hostile PR campaign already under weigh. Thanks to this attitude, combined with the ubiquity of I-Phones and youtube, police ought to know that even before they get on the ground they are already the target of choice for a decentralized mechanism of propaganda gathering and distribution.

This situation is the truth on the ground. Lack of situational awareness of this strategic concern is the root issue behind the mistakes made.

If you watch the video carefully you’ll notice that the only voices you can hear are the voices of protesters. They are not especially unified, not especially controlled, but they have one advantage: they are loud. By contrast the cops are absolutely silent. They aren’t yelling and screaming, only a few of them are doing the talking and they appear to be the command and control (C&C) element for the riot control unit. This is good unit discipline, but bad PR. It means that the only point of view that is going to be heard is the protesters. Anything the cops say afterwards is automatically damage control at best, which leads me to my first critique: where was the megaphone? If you are a riot control unit, your megaphone is your primary weapon. If you don’t have one, you’re wrong. You can’t shout down the protestors, but you can at the least make sure that you are providing a step by step narration of what you are doing, which is then an intrinsic part of any audio record of the event.

Next step, the decision to arrest was made. Already their actions are crippled because they don’t have the shouting power to issue clear instructions or ultimatums. All we see is one muttered contact in the first ten seconds, and then two minutes of the cops standing around, silent and indecisive. I know what they are doing. They are pulling security, while the C&C element makes up their minds what to do. Bravo on maintaining good discipline, but in the long run it makes them look like idiots. At 2:12 you can see one officer make one half-hearted attempt to pull one of the protesters out of their formation. Everyone knows what’s coming, but the cops are not visibly trying to resolve the situation without escalating to the use of chemicals. So I have to ask, what is their protocol? Given a decision to arrest, it might be argued that it’s safer to break up the formation with pepper spray than with batons. I would whole heartedly agree with that. However, there has to be an escalation of force protocol. Warnings (mostly inaudible apparently) notwithstanding, I would question the wisdom of going directly from verbal warning to pepper spray. There has to be an intermediate level of force.

Starting at 2:05 you can hear a female voice yelling “Protect yourselves, cover your eyes.” Why shouldn’t that warning have come from the cops? Nothing enhances your image like visibly and obviously seeking to limit damage to your opponents.

The actual spraying, from 2:25 on is obviously visually disturbing to civilians. It looks so wanton, so cold-blooded, so cruel. He’s spraying it right in their faces and they aren’t violent, aren’t visibly resisting. It screams “Police Brutality.” From a tactical point of view I can understand it, though. Once the decision is made to move them, and the tool chosen is pepper spray, it makes no sense to delay or be half-hearted about it. Either do it or don’t do it, but don’t half do it. It does no one any favors to draw it out. One quick pass across their faces is not going to damage them seriously, and from then on out, it’s all business. Break up the formation, pair up on the protestors, cuff them and move them out. I would have had my paddy wagon closer, but other than that it was tactically pretty good. They don’t lose security either. The perimeter gets pretty thin at one point, but by 4:30 all the moving pieces are resolved. The perimeter is full and solid, and it needs to be. They are surrounded by a crowd, and maybe the crowd was initially spectators, but now they are clearly shifting into protester mode. Anyone who was not involved before is involved now. A solid perimeter is a must.

Say what you will, from the point of view of the cops it is a tactical success. They moved into a hostile crowd, arrested the focal point of that crowd and moved out in less than ten minutes with no injuries on either side. No one broke ranks, no one went crazy, the objective was met and the withdrawal was planned and disciplined. The problem is, no one is ever going to see it from their point of view except those who already know it.

Now, let’s move to the protestor side of the house: Overall I am left with an impression of simple, mass hysteria. They did a lot of things right. There were clearly movers and shakers within the crowd who were periodically able to start a mass chant, aided by the fact that it’s friendly territory for them. Those most involved have at least passive support of everyone around them, and moral support from a majority of potential youtube viewers. They can move with ease, their risk is minimal due to the cops’ rules of engagement, and their payoff is potentially high. The big questions I have really come down to, What’s it all about? Who organized the protest? Who decided to occupy that particular piece of ground, and why? Was pepper spray anticipated? Apparently not, but an intelligent organizer might have anticipated it, and planned a ready-made PR campaign for it. Overall, though, my impression is of hot-headed, young, amateurish disorganization. I would bet most of the people there could not have told you why they were protesting or what their goals were in any coherent form that would hold water for more than a minute. They didn’t need to. Whoever organized it doesn’t need intelligent disciples to provide rational argument on a popular level. He needs bodies to fill space, and vocal cords to fill the air with noise.

The exploitation of the incident was ad hoc, and hot-headed. At 8:56 you can see that the crowd is getting riled up, and is starting to press the cop’s withdrawal. A cop flashes a tear gas canister and a student yells “They’re spraying again.” The crowd backs off a little and at 9:05 you hear a voice start rising out of the chaos. Again, it is not the cops, it is a protestor. He essentially leads the crowd in proclaiming that they are going to give them a moment of peace so that the cops can leave. By 9:33 they are cheering and shouting as if they drove out the invader, when that is simply not what happened. It was a spur of the moment thing, and it was hot-headed. Taunting edgy, adrenalized cops in a situation like that is far from a smart move, tactically. Strategically it makes all the sense in the world because any reaction on their part is more fuel for your fire later on, but the fact remains that it was only the fact that those police officers were disciplined and did not rise to the taunts that saved those kids from a serious hurting. Their restraint was the protestors’ only guarantee of safety. The taunting was a juvenile attempt to appear in control of the situation, when that was far from the truth, but once again, the truth matters very little to America. The cops won the battle, but they lost the war.

The protestors were a little lacking in follow-up, though. This is a golden opportunity to get the message out but there seems to be an issue: There is no message. There are only pity-parties, such as this first class example of incident exploitation. No manifestos. No pithy statements of objectives. There aren’t even any demands. I still have no idea what they were protesting. There should be a website with clearly defined problems to be addressed and solutions to those problems proposed. But I haven’t seen it. Nothing.

This leads me to my biggest issue with the protestors. In the Army we have a saying: “If you don’t have a solution, don’t point out the problem.” Apparently these kids see a problem. Whether it is a legitimate problem or not I don’t know, but all they are doing is criticizing. As far as I can tell there is no effort to come up with a solution. That’s the government’s job, apparently. There is no coordination, no planning, no foresight. They seem to be flying on the seat of their pants, letting an agenda emerge haphazardly as they go along. As someone with some degree of specialized knowledge on this subject, that’s no way to run a revolution, unless your goal is simply mass hysteria. I can think of several scenarios that would fit that picture.

I do not take sides on this issue. I neither condone the use of tear gas, nor do I agree with the protestor’s allegations of police misconduct. If I have put a little more time into showing what I perceive to be the cops’ point of view it is because no one else seems to. I am trying to avoid Monday morning quarterbacking. Instead I am trying to provide an honest and objective assessment of both sides. I have no illusions that either side will read it, but it might just help a few spectators find a more balanced and hopefully charitable view.

Monday, November 21, 2011

Comfort Camping

My weekend in the woods was excellent. It rained cats and dogs the first day, and part of the first night. After that it cleared and after the first two nights it warmed up as well. I am not used to using a tent in the field, so I was a little surprised at how much of a difference it makes, but I think I’m probably going to invest in a hammock with a rain screen for my future comfort camping trips.

I feel like St. Paul, knowing how to get by with a lot or a little. I’ve slept in a torrential downpour with nothing but the clothes on my back, and I’ve slept in big tents, little tents, cabins, apartments, houses, guest rooms, hotels, airplanes, Humvee seats, and even cars.

The main difference between tactical camping and comfort camping is how quickly you can pack up. With tactical camping you have to be ready to go in an instant, which means that you don’t unpack anything you don’t absolutely need, you don’t bring anything you don’t absolutely need, and you go where you have to, when you have to. With comfort camping you can take your time picking up and moving, so you can spread out a bit. You can pitch a tent, start a fire (no need to worry about it giving away your position. You can sit around that fire and chat with the guys, or read a book. It is a remnant of my tactical habits that I don’t like to go camping with more than I can put in one rucksack and walk out with. I guess what I like doing is backpacking. On this trip, though, I brought my 44 Kg kettlebell. I can throw it up on top of the ruck and walk the whole thing out if I need to, although it would be slow. However, I needed to keep up some kind of workout routine while I was out there. As it turned out I had time to use it more than once, and time to go on a couple of runs.

Most of the time we just sat around and read books or talked. I finished Dubay’s “Evidential Power of Beauty,” and Nelson Mandela’s Autobiography, as well as both of the Little House on the Prairie books I brought, and started “The Brothers Karamazov.” That’s going to be quite a while to get through. It’s 900 pages long, and it took me hours of steady work just to get through the first 100 pages or so. I usually average 80-100 pages an hour. Russians! But it is good. I am enjoying it slowly.

I also started “The Image of Beatrice” by Charles Williams, a contemporary of C.S.Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkein. I’ve read two of his novels (“Descent into Hell” was easily the most understandable and terrifying portrayal of hell I’ve ever read.) I’ve also read his “Outlines of Romantic Theology” which was both beautiful and demandingly coherent. I am somewhat ashamed to admit that I’ve never read more of Dante than “Inferno” and from reading Williams I am inclined to believe I have never really even read that much. Thus far I am especially impressed by his blending of supernatural, mystical and even romantic awareness, with rigorous, clear sighted realism. He does what I aspire to do, seeing and knowing the world with every faculty of his being, heart and mind, body and soul. His distinction between the way of rejection and the way of affirmation as opposite but complementary aspects of the Christian life is also a brave thought. It was kind of an en-passant thing thus far, but it rises from his holistic awareness of creation. It is a concretization of ideas I’ve been working through recently, but too much to go into at the end of a casual blog post.

Man, books are just not as much fun without someone to talk them over with. The trouble is, no one around here reads the same books I do. You miss something when a book doesn’t go through you. People are like rivers. We are meant to take in good things but not to hold on to them. If they don’t move through us and flow on in blessings to other people they stagnate and die. Fortunately there are many, many ways for blessings to flow on.

We also had a few patients, myself and the other medics: sprains, strains, muscle and joint aches, and even a stick in the eye and FOOSH (Fall Over Outstretched Hand). A lot of ibuprophen, ice, ace wraps etc. A couple of ER transfers for x-rays. Nothing too spectacular. And of course, there are the feet. The never ending cycle of dirty feet after every event with blisters to be trimmed and dressed, nails to be cut, advice to be given, an occasional lecture about proper foot care. Really, if you maintain your feet properly you should never need to see a medic for them. I never have, although I have been gifted with very hard feet. On the other hand, I like doing foot care. It may sound strange, but I do. I like all aspects of patient care, but there is something about feet, hands and eyes that really appeals to me. I marvel at the amazing coolness of these structures. I also learned that I’m never going out to do med coverage again without my iris scissors. Trauma shears are just not the right tool for trimming blisters. As a matter of fact, once I get my whole minor surgical kit assembled, it is going to be my constant companion.

This is me and one of the other medics out in the field, chilling out. Someone got this with a cell phone while I was doing my morning bible reading and making oatmeal. Notice the product placement I am doing. SF soldiers use domino sugar.

Should I get paid for that?

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Camping Trip

This is what you get for volunteering:

The newest students in the course are getting ready to go out for land nav practice and testing, (that’s the thing where you try to find your way around the woods with nothing but a map, a compass, a totally useless rubber rifle and an equally useless and much heavier rucksack.) The cadre running it have asked the graduating class for a few medics to do med support for this event. There were three medics signed up, but two couldn’t make it out for some reason, so in formation yesterday the cadre said, “Hey, we have a land nav thing for the junior class on Thursday and I need two more volunteers for med support.”

Crickets… Crickets... All the brand new medics are staring off into the wild blue yonder, pretending we can’t hear.

“Come on, give me two. I need two hands.”

Dum-de-dum-de-dum, I’m just standing here trying to be invisible. Don’t mind me.

“Let’s go, medics, I’ve got all day.”

Okay, this is looking a little embarrassing. It’s just med support, so you go out there on Thursday and sit around hoping no one hurts himself. No big deal. Somebody has to, so I decided it may as well be me. I raised my hand.

“Okay, go link up with the --- guys to figure out where and when you need to be.”

So accordingly I went and linked up with them. It turns out this little exercise does indeed start Thursday, but it continues Friday, Saturday, Sunday, Monday, Tuesday and possibly Wednesday as well, depending on how bad these guys are at land nav. Nice.

Oh well, there it is. What can you do? Well, since this is not tactical camping for me, this is going to be comfort camping. I’m bringing all sorts of little comfort items out with me, this time, and I’m going to be straight chillin’. I’m bringing books, snacks, a pot, a cup, oatmeal, sugar and tea, and even a tent in case of weather inclemency! This is going to be the most laid-back camping trip ever.

Did I mention I’m bringing books? “The Evidential Power of Beauty,” by Fr. Thomas Dubay; Nelson Mandela’s Autobiography, “A long walk to freedom”; The Brothers Karamazov; Little House in the Big Woods, and Farmer boy, and of course, my trusty Bible. I’m set. See y’all when I get back.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Green Hat

This week was the culmination of a very long, long road. It started years ago, when I was only 17, and I first heard of the "Special Forces" when I was in basic training. Even before I left basic I had decided that I was going to leave the Army Reserves, go Active Duty, and try out for this elite unit.

It would be years before I finally got the chance to go to selection, and I didn't make it the first time. I smoked all the physical and mental tests, but my interpersonal skills were not up to par. At the end of Selection I was non-selected as "too much of a loner."

I didn't want to go back. It was a hard school, and I felt like a redo was just too much work. So I spent four more years in the regular army, working my way up from specialist to sergeant, to staff sergeant, and gaining experience as a soldier and as a leader. After fifteen months in Afghanistan, during which I served as a squad leader in combat for more than a year, I felt readier and went to selection again with a very clear plan in my head: I would either make it and go Special Forces, or I would finish my enlistment and get out. At the time I was strongly thinking of entering the seminary if SF didn't work out for me.

The second time through was ten times worse than the first time. They had shortened it from 24 days to 14 days, but still had all the same events, and some of them were even harder than I remembered. The shortened timeline meant very little sleep, no time for food, and a much more distant and stoic cadre. When I finished, still standing tall at the end, I knew it was only the grace of God that had gotten me through. Once you are selected that certificate is good for two years. You don't have to decide to go to the Qualification course right away. I had planned on taking some time off, not making my decision right away, but taking some time to think and pray about whether SF was really what I wanted to do, but when I sat down with the Cadre who was counselling me on my selection at the end, something else happened. He said, "Congratulations you have been selected. Do you want to accept your selection right now?" I opened my mouth and the words, "Yep, and I want to be a medic," came tumbling out of my mouth. It was not my plan, but as soon as I said it I felt like it was a pretty good plan after all. I had already been a regular army engineer for six years. Why not do something different. The Cadre was surprised, but he signed me up for it. I also got my first choice of language, which was Korean.

Fast forward almost three years, through Airborne School, leadership training, Korean School, Small Unit Tactics, SERE school, the year long Medic School, culminating last month with the famous "Robin Sage" exercise.
 And then, on wednesday, I graduated. I walked across the stage and got my Green Beret in front of my parents, and some of my relatives who made the trip out to see it.

This is me shaking hands with my Dad.

It has been a long road, and it ain't over yet. It's just begun. I now have a three year commitment to an operational Special Forces group, with many deployments around the world ahead of me. I have a commitment to furthering my medical knowledge and skill level, possibly becoming an MD eventually. Add to all of this that I have a deep certainty that Special Forces is not my ultimate calling. God is calling me to something else, and SF is just a step on that road. I don't know what it is, yet, but I think it will be cool.

He is faithful. HE has gotten me this far. I have no fear.

Saturday, November 5, 2011


“Tramp!” goes the boot as it crushes the ground,
“Stomp!” goes the heel, and “Slap” goes the toe.
The rucksack creaks and squeaks, the ponderous sounds
Of overloaded canvas, in time with the slow,
Slow, agonizing pace of too many pounds
At least a hundred, sagging from my spine.
I feel it in my shoulders, I feel it in my feet
Slapping down and down and yet again down,
Always slapping down.
With shockwaves like a hammer on hamburger meat
Plodding on clay, on shale, on grass, weed and bush
Trudging in the dust of the field or echoing on the street.
Pain from toe to heel, pain from heel to knee and then
Shooting up in grinding vibrations to hips and lumbar spine
As every one of these weary, dogged men
Stoop and limp and plod under the weight of the ruck;
That damned unwieldy tick that we’ve strapped on again;
To carry across the land.
                                        Through the night, through the rain,
Through the draws and hills and swamps and thorn;
Pitch black sticks in the pitch black night
That stab you in the eye with careless scorn.
The “wait-a-minute” vines that claw and clutch and drag
And lie in wait for our heels, in the dark before the morn,
As we curse our way onwards in pitch black
Sans moon and stars, and wish we were never born,
Or if born, at least born normal people, not the sort
Who volunteer for this tomfoolery!
                                                      But that awful ruck!
All else is really an afterthought, my mind always returns
To that creaking, sagging, soul crushing bundle of suck
Ninety pounds of gear on my back: ammo, water, food
Clothes, med bag, and explosives just for luck;
Then, to top it off a 25lb necklace! The iron pig,
Swinging in front of me by its sling.
80 clinking rounds in the feed tray, to start with,
“Carry as much ammo as you can bring.”
And then a bandoleer of 120 more, because hey, you never know!
Muzzle and bipod stick out like a broken wing,
Catching the brush and shifting, sliding canvas on my collar,
After a few hours that will start to sting.
But someone has to carry it, right?
                                                     It’s really just the weight.
I carry it, not on my spine, but on my soul like a brick.
My spirits sink as hour after painful hour drags on,
And from twenty-two to zero-two we’ve moved barely a klick
And left half our mojo behind, somewhere in the draw.
The wait-a-minute vines got it. The bush was just too thick.
We hit the tracks and make up some time,
Urging speed from battered limbs and trying our best
Not to twist our ankles between the ties,
Or in the gravel. Pushing on. Only a minute for a rest.
Behind schedule. Forget security, out on the road,
And run. We need to make link-up, so haul butt
With dogged, shuffling, comical steps under the load,
For half a mile of open blacktop,
Ready to dive into the brush if a glimmer showed.
Of headlight, but nothing comes. Civilized people
Are all asleep right now. We run
Praying there’s a ride at the end of this one.
But no.
             Alas, only an angry, nervous face,
And a stream, and a quick, “Follow us.”
Then lights running off into the darkness.
“Awww. Sad face.” Someone says, but no more fuss.
These guys are running light, and they know the way,
And they’re fresh. We barely have breath to cuss
And we have a guy with a sprained ankle.
Little things like that, you know, they add up.
Who’d have thought?
                                  The lights go on, and on, and on
Up the ravine. We fall behind, get separated.
Link back up, move out again, fall behind
And half our element moves on without us.
If it weren’t for the injured guy I wouldn’t mind.
I swear I’d still smoke half of them even now.
But this guy can barely limp, and I can’t find
The slightest glimmer of light ahead, just black.
“Crossload his gear.” Everyone gets something.
They wait for us, we link up again, move back out.
Farther and farther, up and down, on and on.
This is not much fun, I think, with a slight pout.
No one can see my face, so I’ll pout if I like,
I just want to be rid, once and for all, of this
But here we are.
Forming a perimeter, facing out, catching a breath
A quick meeting in the center and the word comes out,
“We’re stopping here tonight. Rucksack flop.”
Tonight, indeed? All two hours of it before it’s light?
But at least we can stop,
Face inward,
Crouch down,
And let the ruck do the work:
Fall over backwards
And rest on the ground, leaning against that beast
Like a lazyboy recliner, as all the stress
And tension drift away and are released.
Every muscle and sinew are totally relaxed,
And light and warmth and pure endorphin high
Flood every corner of my being in a rushing flow
Of pure, unbridled bliss.
A bliss which, without the rucksack, I would never know.

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Punching Bag Woes

So this is a complaining post. I’m complaining about the fact that there are no good punching bags in any of the gyms I’ve been in on Fort Bragg, and I’ve been in most of them.

I’m serious, this is an issue to me.

You would think, on a military installation a punching bag, in fact, multiple punching bags, would be standard equipment. They had one hanging up in the student gym at the medic school, but it was pretty worthless. It was one of the kind that hangs up on the metal frame with the two support pipes running to the floor on either side of it. Perfect for breaking your foot on if you do a round house kick just a little off target. It needed to be weighed down with several hundred pounds worth of weight plates just to keep it flying across the floor. But it was better than nothing. Then the cadre got angry at us for denting the floor by dropping weights on it so the closed the gym to students and it became the cadre gym.

So then I brought my own personal punching bag in and hung it up in the quad by the barracks. It was a perfect set up. Alas, there was a small cut on one surface of the bag, and with too many people abusing it and not using it properly and constant exposure to the elements, it ripped open. I took it down planning on repairing it, but the Sergeant Major had it thrown away because it was an “eye-sore”. My punching bag! The one that I paid good money for.

A gym just across the street came to my rescue, though, They opened up a boxing room and a grappling room. The grappling room is a 20’ x 20’padded room with good quality matts, and the boxing room had six short bags and two long bags hanging from two stands. As soon as I saw the stands, I knew they wouldn’t last long. Each stand consisted of a single steel post going straight up into the air and branching into a four sided frame. It stood on a 12” x 12” metal plate, held in place by four bolts into the concrete. The leverage was so obviously too great for the bolts that I couldn’t believe anyone had seriously paid money for it. Some fat civilian contractor who has never thrown a punch in his (or her) life probably okayed that purchase. At any rate I used the heck out of it for about a month and a half before the kicking accumulated, and then came the one kick so hard that the bolts ripped clean out of the concrete. After that the gym took down the bag stands and has not responded to any of my inquiries about when they will replace them. The people at the desk tell me I should, “Take it up with the committee.” Something about budgeting. Please! They have the bags. I’ll go down to Lowes and pick up all the stuff I need to hang them so that they will never break, and it would cost me about fifty bucks.

I bought another punching bag and hung it up again in the quad, and I did a lot of good training on it. Then somebody took it down while I was on clinical rotation, and I have no idea what happened to it. Probably another “barracks cleanup”. How by any stretch of the imagination does a punching bag constitute a non-military appearance? A barracks without a decent punching bag is the disgrace, in my opinion.

The gym tried to set up a punching bag stand with a water filled base, but I kicked the top off of it with my third kick. It was a lousy design.

Now they have fallen back on the muscle guy dummies. These are not as good as a bag for hitting because of two flaws. The rubber they are made out of is too soft, and if you hit them too hard they fall over and you have to pick them back up again. Still, better than nothing.

So yesterday I threw 800 punches on one of those dummies. My left hand is a little bloodied. The space between the knuckles of my pointer and middle fingers blistered and ripped, and I got a small rip on the knuckle of my pinky. That’s the problem with punching rubber, it creates more friction, and my left hand wasn’t ready for it, but my right hand is still like a rock.

I sometimes say that the perfect fitness program requires very little equipment. At a minimum you need something to lift, something to hang from, and something to hit. Of those three, hitting things is possibly the most satisfying. There is just something about a solid, perfectly placed punch that pleases me. Deep down inside I enjoy it. When every muscle and bone in my body works together as a single unit, all contracting, twisting, tightening and cracking like a whip, in perfect cooperation as fast as you could blink, and the whole force and weight of my 210 lbs smacks into the leather focused behind the point of a single knuckle, it’s just satisfying. It really is. You have to experience it to understand it.

But it is important to me, both as an esoteric exercise and as a practical skill. I firmly believe that every man needs to know how to throw a proper punch at a bare minimum. How much more every soldier? Can you, then, explain to me why a punching bag is not a standard fixture in every barracks in the army?

I can’t.

Monday, October 3, 2011

Patients are More Fun when they Aren't Drama Queens

One evening a little girl came into the ER. She was about nine years old, and she had fallen on her outstretched hand while roller-blading. Her right arm was in a sling and she had abrasions on both her knees, but what really struck me when I walked in the room was the fact that she was sitting contentedly and quietly on the edge of the gurney, kicking her legs and looking around with interest. She was little and cute in the way that only little girls are, with messy brown hair done up in a sort of pigtail. She was still wearing shorts and a t-shirt, although someone had thrown a man’s zipper jacket over her shoulders, because the room was cold. Her parents were standing on either side of her, looking anxious, but she had a bright, intent, wide awake look. Her eyes were open all the way and a little extra as if she was perpetually amazed that there was so much in the world to see. She grinned at me as I walked into the room in my scrubs with my beard and that reminded me just how awesome my job was.

“Hello,” I said cheerfully. “What brings you in here tonight?”

“Oh,” she said casually, as if it had just suddenly occurred to her, “I fell while I was roller blading.” Her voice was cute too, very high pitched and squeaky. She said it with a perky attitude like, “Oh, if you must know. It’s probably not even worth mentioning, but you asked.”

I knelt down in front of her and examined her knees very carefully. “Hmmm, yes, I see. Wow. Well, you know, I think we can take care of this. I can call a surgeon and well get you scheduled in. We’ll probably take them off right about here.” I made a slashing motion across her legs right above her knees.

She laughed and squealed, “No!”

“What? You don’t want us to take off your legs? Really? Then why are you here?”

“This!” she laughed and held out her arm in the sling.

“Ohhhhhhhhhh!” I nodded, because it was all so clear now. “So that’s why your arm is in a sling. Oh, I get it. Okay, so what happened to that?”

“I fell on it,” she giggled.

I got her to describe how she had landed, and to point out exactly where it hurt, but she assured me that it didn’t hurt very much at all. I made her go through all her ranges of movement with her wrist and elbow, and then poked and prodded and pinched and squeezed. “Does it hurt here?”


“Does it hurt here?”


“Does it hurt here?”


“How about here?”

“Not really.”

“You know what? I’m not even going to ask you any more questions, because you’re too tough. You could probably be lying on the floor with your hand cut off and I’d ask, ‘Does it hurt’ and you’d say, “No, not really’.” I said the last part in a high, squeaky voice to illustrate how she would say it.

She just laughed at me. Her parents relaxed a little bit when I explained to them that she might have a small fracture but it didn’t look serious and we’d get some x-rays to see exactly what was going on.

For an adult I wouldn’t even have needed an x-ray, although in a civilian hospital I probably would have gotten one just because it’s expected. Since she was a child, though, I wanted to make sure there was no crack in the growth plate. In the ends of every bone in a child’s body is a thin plate of cartilage sandwiched between the end (epiphysis) and shaft (diaphysis). The area where it attaches is called the metaphysis. As the child grows the cartilage grows and gets longer and longer, while at the same time it is being replaced by bone which does not grow. At some point, usually in the teen years, the bone replacement catches up with the cartilage growth and then that limb stops growing. When this happens in all bones of the body the person has reached his or her full height. However, if the plate is damaged while the child is still growing this can cause the growth to be lopsided or deformed or even to stop altogether. Hence the reason I ordered an x-ray.

As it turned out her growth plates were fine. The only damage was a torus fracture of the radius and ulna. Another characteristic of children’s bones is that they are softer and more flexible than an adult’s bones. Under stress they tend to bend and wrinkle rather than crack, somewhat analogous to the difference between a green twig and a dry stick. A torus fracture (also known as a buckle fracture) occurs when the outer layer of the bone, the cortex, wrinkles under pressure. It's pretty easy to see in this example from medscape. Follow the long bones up towards the wrist and you will see a buckle in each side of the bone. Hers looked very similar. She thought it was pretty cool that she could see it on the x-ray.

So we put her in a short arm splint to immobilize the wrist and signed her up for an orthopedic consult a week later. She was still chatting it up with the nurse as she fitted the splint, and I just had to go in to watch. If only all my patients had a sense of humor like that.

Friday, September 30, 2011

Afraid of the Dark, Part 2:

Part one, which explains why I was afraid in the first place, is here.
So once I realized I couldn't go back to sleep I picked up my rosary and started saying it. I keep a loaded pistol with a tac-light on the floor by the head of my bed (there are no women or children in the apartment) and a large, razor sharp kukri knife strapped to the head board (no, it’s not paranoia. It’s just a convenient place to keep these things.) And I always have my rosary hanging from the handle of the knife. I say it to fall asleep, or if I wake up and can’t go back to sleep. If I’m awake I may as well be doing something useful, right? Ten decades later (this went on for a bit) I’m feeling a little better. I’ve thought it through pretty well. It’s kind of fun to think about fear as an intellectual exercise while you’re in the middle of. I’ve done that an awful lot and I was doing it this morning. I knew, of course, that this was not a fear with an object. There was no dangerous thing presented to my senses. It was just a fear of the diabolical. I presented the scenario to myself, “What would I do if I did open my eyes and the demon lady was standing there?” Well, honestly I think that would have been less frightening. Sort of a, “Finally. I wondered when you were going to do something,” sort of feeling. It’s always easier when you finally look your enemy in the face and dare him (or her) to do the worst.

I would have reached for the knife probably. I wouldn’t have used the pistol as a first option, because first, it probably wouldn’t accomplish anything, and second, I would be firing in the direction of my roommate’s room. Even with hollow points, I wouldn’t want to bet on the wall stopping my hollow points. On the other hand a knife stirs up a fierce warrior spirit which lessens fear. I realized that if some sort of incorporeal visitor did show up, the primary threat is simply fear. If I can’t hurt it physically, it probably can’t hurt me physically. All it can do is terrorize (this seemed crystal clear to me at the time.) Fear is a painful emotion. It feels toxic, like a burning in my throat, a jittery, unsettled feeling. I control it by long habit, but it is not pleasant. Even jumping out of an airplane is exactly the same. The fear is the primary threat, not the jump. I am consciously aware of this, especially when I am in the middle of some frightening situation, and it allows me to shove the fear off to the side and evaluate it objectively. Eventually I can force my nerves and muscles to respond to my will, despite their reluctance to do so. Breaking out of that freeze is the hard part, after that doing nearly anything can’t be worse than doing nothing at all.

After about an hour of this I finally decided to go and turn on the AC. I did stick the pistol in the back waistband of my shorts. Not that I thought it would do any good, but it is primarily a “just in case” thing anyway. Once I had a clear line of fire, i.e. with no roommate’s room in the background, if something had appeared I probably would have put a couple of rounds right in the center of where it would have had mass, if it were a mass-having type of creature. Purely on the principle of the matter, you understand.

It’s remarkable, though, how much difference it makes having the temperature right. Once the AC was going and the temp started getting down into the sixties, I was able to get comfortable and fall asleep in about one more decade.

I don’t mind not sleeping that much. When I woke up at 0345 I knew that it was likely I wouldn’t get back to sleep again, but I had already gotten about five hours and that would be more than enough to get me through the day. A night or two of poor or no sleep is not something I worry about. Eventually I will get tired and go to sleep. I don’t even really mind the fear. It isn’t so much something I feel as something I look at. It is an inconvenience that will go away eventually.

What I really mind is people who make movies like that and stick previews of them in front of quite a different kind of movie. I don’t like horror movies like that, the supernatural evil type films. I take supernatural evil quite seriously. There really is a devil, he really does hate you and he really can terrorize people. I know some people who have experienced minor levels of it in real life. I know he exists, and that he is stronger than I am, and that if he could he would like nothing better than to terrorize every living person until they went mad from fear. This is not funny. It is not a joking matter.

It does not worry me. He may be stronger than I am, but God is stronger than he is, and I am confident that God will never allow me any trial I cannot bear. To put it another way, no matter what trial He allows me, He will also give me the strength to bear it. That’s what the rosary is about in situations like that, reminding yourself of His faithfulness and trying to pass that on to whoever you’re praying for. But I have to ask, why would you think that’s a good thing to make a movie about? It’s not like jumping out of an airplane or off a bridge into a river for a thrill. This is something evil and ugly you are deliberately exposing your mind to. Why would you want to watch it or encourage those who make it? When it comes right down to it, why would you want to feel afraid? I expect I’ve done my share of frightening things, and when it comes right down to it I’m usually able to gut through it, by the grace of God. Why anyone would want to feel it for its own sake is a mystery to me. Fear sucks. Live without it when you can, face it when you have to. Filling your mind with artificial, pointless human suffering, fictional as it may be, and dosing up on the real fear it produces is a toxic, soul numbing, stupid thing to do.

That’s just my opinion. Does anyone reading this like horror movies? What is your experience of them? Why do you like them?

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Afraid of the Dark

I had a very unpleasant experience this morning. Back track, though, to what started it. Yesterday afternoon I went to see a movie. It was an action film, and not a particularly great one, but good enough for a matinee. One of the previews, however, was kind of a shocker. At first it was just a home video of two little girls playing in the backyard of a ordinary American home, one jumping on the trampoline, the other hanging around the edge of it. The dad who was taking the video was trying to get the girl on the ground to smile when suddenly the picture changed. It was a brief flash, not enough for me to see what the new picture was. It went right back to the home video footage, but it was fast, dark and disturbing. It turned the back yard and the home video and everything else sinister. Then the dark disturbing music began and rapid flashes of sinister images. I covered my ears and closed my eyes, but there were two things I remember from the rest of the preview. First was the quote, “I don’t remember. We didn’t know what it was, we just knew it thrived on fear. The more we paid attention to it, the stronger it got.”

The second was a long scene of the two little girls playing around in the bathroom. They had a camera set up to look in the mirror, and they turned the lights off so all you could see was the power indicator light from the camera. Then they said the phrase, “Bloody Mary” three times together, and waited to see what would happen. It turned out the older one had set it up as a prank on the younger one because she had a flashlight and after a couple of seconds she turned it on so it lit just the lower part of her face and yelled. Of course the younger girl screamed and then laughed, but as the flashlight swung around the bathroom, and they chased each other out the door, for a split second you could just make out a tall female figure standing in the dark behind them. It was nothing more than a silhouette with long, tousled hair hanging all around its head, but when I saw it (I had opened my eyes) three thoughts immediately crossed my mind. First was, “Saw that coming.” Then I thought, “That’s a really cheap, simple, and powerful movie effect.” Then I said ruefully to myself, “Well, that’s going to keep me awake tonight.” Apparently it was the trailer for Paranormal Activity 3. I haven’t seen the first two, and what do you know? Looks like I’m going to plan on never seeing the third one either.

Fast forward through to about 3:45 this morning. Thus far I hadn’t even thought about the movie. Then I woke up, hot and thirsty and with two hours before the alarm went out. Usually I just use the bathroom, drink some water, and go back to sleep. Unfortunately, as I lay back down something kicked that scene, with the tall lady standing in the background, into the front of my mind. It was not a pleasant thought. The window was a little open, but the air outside was humid and still. The air conditioning was turned way up, and I always have trouble sleeping when it’s hot. Ideally I like it to be in the sixties or I just can’t get comfortable. I’ve slept outside in sub-freezing weather, and in 90+ weather. I would pick sub-freezing for sleeping any day.

So there I was, trying to sleep and being unable to. Every time I opened my eyes I was scanning the room for a tall, ragged female shape, and every time there was a noise outside the window I keyed in on it like a cat. Now, I don’t usually have night fears. I operate in the dark all the time, and usually it gives me a feeling of being at an advantage. But every once in a while I’ll have a night like that, where for some reason it just feels like there is disembodied fear in the air. Nothing to do about it, but just endure it.

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Scope of Practice

One night the EMS brought in a girl who was found unresponsive in her home. By the time she arrived at the ER she was answering questions, mostly appropriately, albeit with a significant delay. We were able to get a complete but contradictory history from her. She denied remembering anything, although she said she had had one drink and some marijuana with her friends that morning. We told her this looked like a drug overdose but she didn’t respond to that. She was a very pretty 21 year old, but she was far too thin for her body type and her forearms were crisscrossed by dozens of fine white scars. Physical exam was mostly unremarkable, except for a general lethargy and delayed/weakened motor responses in her extremities, and her pupils which were pinpointed, no focused and sluggishly reactive to light. She did not have the ability to follow a light with her eyes. All ocular movement was erratic and saltatory.

We did a urinalysis (UA) tox screen on her and it came back hot for barbiturates. Looking back in her file I found that this was her fourth time in the ER for prescription drug use. To top it all off, she was a pharmacy tech.

We had a long discussion with the ER doc about what we could do. We were all agreed that she shouldn’t be working in a pharmacy, but he said there was nothing we could do without violating patient doctor privilege. I argued that the laws contain a clause that states that if the patient is in imminent danger of causing harm to herself or others we not only have a right but a responsibility to report it to the appropriate authorities. In my view if a druggy is handing out drugs, her dipping into her own stock is the least of my worries. My worry is that she’ll be high at work and she’ll mislabel a bottle or put the wrong pills in it, or the wrong dose, or give it to the wrong patient and that could literally kill someone. Has it happened yet? No. I don’t think waiting for it to happen is a good plan. She needs to get fired for everyone else’s safety.

And what about her? Why the drugs and the alcohol and the cutting? Her mother showed up at the ER and wanted to take her home against her will. The charge nurse explained to her that we could not release her into anyone’s custody because she was not a minor. We could not keep her if she didn’t want to leave, we could not sign her over to her mother if she didn’t want to go. Her mother argued back, unable to see the plain facts of the situation through her grief and frustration. Didn’t we see that if she went back to her own house she would just get stuck with her friends again, and these friends were really bad. It was all their fault her daughter was doing drugs. If the patient could come home with her she (the mother) would keep the bad influences out of her life and she would turn around. Why couldn’t we just see that?

I couldn’t help but wonder, if that parental love hasn’t been sufficient thus far, what makes her think it’s going to become magically effective now? Regardless, legally there was nothing we could do. Like it or not, she was 21 years old. She was legally responsible for her own decisions and we could no more remand her into her mother’s custody than we could detox her. She was not in danger of her life. She was not overdosed, she was just stoned. That’s what those drugs are supposed to do. Even if she had been in danger the only treatment is to stick a tube in her stomach and pump out any pills that haven’t been absorbed, dilute with activated charcoal and support heart rate and respirations until the effects wear off.

What was up with her? The problem was far beyond emergency room scope of practice. Did her parents not love her? Had she been abused as a child? Had she not been able to find any good friends? Whatever the myriad single elements that made it up, they all came to one thing. The problem was that she had a deep, throbbing, aching, abysmal hole in the depths of her soul. That is beyond my scope of practice.

Sunday, September 25, 2011

Pineland Bivouac

Pineland Bivouac

Light on the cheekbones

Strong fingers of airy gold

Bright, blazing, baked smell

Of soft, sharp, sunkissed pine straw.

Carpet thick like thatch

Fallen on forest floor.

Dusty, drifted, dry

Burning, bright blanket

Myriad acupuncture needles

Under bare, bruised, battered, butchered feet:

Glorious after the march.

Saturday, September 24, 2011

Spiritual Stomachs: Rambo Style

I came up with a theory of spirituality this weekend, based on a quote from Rambo: First Blood. I think I made a real stride forward in spiritual understanding.
We all know some people who just can't seem to thrive spiritually. Whether it's in our church or our family or a larger circle of acquaintances, they just can't seem to draw any nourishment. A sermon or homily that inspires and ennobles me leaves them cold and somewhat put off. A book that I think is wise and profound seems to them harsh and uncaring. C.S.Lewis is too stuffy, JPII is too learned, the parish priest is not understanding enough, the deacon is too pre-vatican II, the youth group leader is too post-vatican II, etc.

I am not talking about the people who simply live to find fault with whatever they are hearing or reading. That is a different problem. I am talking about people with real emotional or intellectual hangups that make them unable to draw nourishment from something. Maybe the person preaching is reminding them of the emotionally abusive preaching they heard as children. Maybe the book is echoing overly rigid parental moralizing, or duplicating guilt trips taken as a teenager.

See, when you are a teacher (and we are all teachers at one time or another) there is more to teaching than the truth you are saying. There is also the intent with which you say it, which is sometimes very hard to come to terms with. Nothing makes a more effective battering ram than the truth, precisely because the one using it as a weapon can quiet his conscience with the fact that what he is saying is true. Or mostly true. Or based on the truth. Or very likely true.

Even more important is the person receiving what you are saying. Not everyone can receive everything right now. Some people simply aren't ready yet. This requires the teacher to listen, really listen, far more than he speaks. It is only by listening, not just with ears but with mind and heart and whatever intuition you are gifted with, that you can begin to understand how your listeners are hearing you and whether you are helping or hindering them.

It's like cooking a meal for someone. Some people are allergic to wheat, or dairy, or peanuts, or yeast. Some unfortunate people are allergic to everything except white rice and water. No matter how delicious the food you buy, it can be ruined if you don't cook it well. Even if the food is good and you have cooked it perfectly, it is worse than useless if your guest dies of anaphylaxis after the first bite.

In the same way it isn't enough to ensure that what you are saying is true. That's the necessary starting point, since no one can cook make mud nourishing, no matter how good a cook you are. But also you must learn to present it in a pleasing manner, and makes sure that you are cooking it so that your recipients can eat it.

I have been singularly blessed in this matter. My spiritual stomach is almost as solid as my physical stomach, which is all but unshakeable. I have eaten worms from a pit that a hundred men had been rolling around in for days. I have eaten road kill. I have eaten raw meat, grass and bugs, drunk creek water, and eaten food off street shops in Iraq, Afghanistan and Korea. Nothing upsets my stomach (except too much caffeine, weirdly enough). It's like cast iron. I have almost no food hangups either. There is only one food I have ever come across that makes me gag trying to swallow it and that is soggy bread. For some reason I still can't eat that.

Spiritually my digestion is very similar. I can read any book and draw something from it, including, but not limited to, the Leveyan Satanic Bible, Fight Club, and Once and Future King, (words cannot describe how much I loathe that book. Given the choice I would re-read "Fight Club" before I resubjected myself to Once and Future King.) There have only been a few books in my life that I've thrown out without finishing. I once ordered all the works of DeSaad and threw them away without even opening them because I read a summary of his life before they arrived. There are limits to what I can and will imbibe and I am getting pickier, especially when it comes to movies. But when it comes to people, I can't remember the last time I was unable to stomach something someone said. There is always something useful, even in the most abusive, or angry, or foolish, or pigheaded opinions, even if the benefit comes simply from suffering them gladly and praying for them.

I can eat things that would make a billy goat puke.

When we share the faith we are serving a banquet for our brother or sister. Let the food we serve be nourishing, let us cook it to the limit of our skill, doing justice to the greatness of the substance by presenting it well. And let's not douse it in hot sauce if our guests don't like spicy food. That's only courtesy.

I know what you're thinking, "What does this have to do with Rambo?" To answer that I embed the following clip from what is pretty much the most awesome cheesetastic movie ever:

Friday, September 16, 2011

Naked Under Your Skin

Let’s take the idea of nakedness a little bit further, by taking a look at the history of clothing.

The first garment ever modeled by humans was a fig leaf, or several fig leaves, sewn together by Adam and Eve to cover themselves after they ate the apple. Shortly after that, God made them clothes out of animal hides to cover them better. You don’t get a lot of wear out of fig leaves, apparently.

At the same time they were stitching their fig leaves together they were also listening for God coming to them in the garden, and when they heard him come, they hid themselves.

What changed? Before they ate the apple they were naked together without shame, and they conversed with God face to face without fear. What changed? How did they suddenly become ashamed of themselves? To answer that, we follow the two trends, for they continue to this day. We are still making clothes to hide from each other, and we are still trying to hide from God. The reason for both is the same.

Nakedness is an expression of vulnerability. This may seem self evident, but take a moment to think it over. When you were an infant people changed your diaper, bathed you and dressed you without your consent, but as you grew older you learned to do all these things (except, perhaps, change your diaper) for yourself. “I can do it myself, Mommy,” is an expression of both maturity and of control. It is now possible for you to set boundaries. Privacy is introduced. Some children have more trouble learning this than others do, but eventually most people develop a sense of modesty, which is the ability to say to the world, “This is private, none of your business.”

Why do we teach this, and why is the instinct learned so readily? Because on some level we all learn fear. The nakedness of the human body was designed for a purpose, the purpose of affecting a union. The union is to be a union of free choice, and total self-surrender, which is why it is so beautiful and powerful. It is a gift. The essential ingredient of a gift is freedom, both freedom to receive and freedom to give. What Adam and Eve did was to reach out and attempt to seize a gift (“you will be like God, knowing good from evil”) that was not given them. They violated the freedom. As soon as they did that their “eyes were opened” and they saw each other in a new way. Adam saw Eve and saw that, if he didn’t want to, he didn’t have to wait for her to give herself freely to him. He could take her by force and dominate her, physically and emotionally. Eve saw that he could do this, and she saw that she could control him more subtly by charm and seduction. Each learned, all in a second, that it was possible to use the other, rather than wait for the freedom of gift. Did they really think it out that far? I doubt it. I very much doubt they could see in an instant all the long history of abuse and domination, manipulation and rape that they set in motion. They could not see the horror of depression, self-mutilation, suicide and sheer emotional and spiritual pain that they had unleashed. All they knew (I would guess) was that the other was no longer fully trustworthy. Each feared, where fear had been unknown before, and they created barriers to hide behind.

The relationship with God was much the same. After trying to snatch out of His hand something that He had not yet given them, they realized they had betrayed His trust and love. Unable to stand the guilt and shame they hid. I wonder if they didn’t project their own selfishness on Him and fear that He would take from them and use them. They certainly tried to shift the blame, Adam shifting it to Eve, and through her to God. Eve blamed the serpent. But they feared God, and they hid. Foolish gesture, of course. Nothing and no one is hidden from God, but God is not like us. He will not Lord His power over us. He wanted Adam and Eve to lay their souls completely open and free before Him, but if they wouldn’t consent to be naked before Him (spiritually) He wouldn’t force them. He allowed them to hide.

The rest of salvation history has been His coaxing, His wooing of us. This is symbolized in human courtship. We talk of smooth lady’s men who can “charm the pants off” the women they want, which is a perversion of the gift. A profound and deeply right symbol of that gift is a husband slowly wooing his wife’s heart until she has no fear of giving him her body. She feels comfortable and safe with him because, as John says in his letters, “There is no fear in love for perfect love casts out all fear.” We are all still trying to hide from the God who loves us. We clutch our dirty rags of vanity and self-delusion around the nakedness of our souls and scream in fear at the slightest hint of being asked to strip them off. We fear God using us (for we use each other and ourselves) but He never will. He will spend our lives slowly teaching us to be comfortable with Him and feel safe with Him, but He will not be satisfied until we shed every last stitch of our pitiful scraps of covering and allow Him to wash us clean and dress us in robes made white in the blood of the Lamb. He wants to marry the Church, His Bride. He Himself will provide the wedding garment, but it will be to adorn the beauty of His Bride, not to hide her shame. She will have no shame left.

She will be perfectly willing to appear before Him naked, seen through and through by His piercing gaze, and she will not shrink. Perfect love will have cast out all fear.

We are that Church.
I am that Church.