Veterans Day

I am fortunate and deeply grateful to have the kind of friends and family who acknowledge me with kind words on Veterans Day.  But something bothers me about it, too.  At first I thought it was the same sense of unworthiness that kicks in on Memorial Day.  That’s part of it, but that wasn’t quite right.  Then I saw friends all day changing their profile pictures to something reflective of their military service, and as much as I enjoy seeing some of those pictures (especially the throwbacks!), something about that wasn’t sitting right with me either.  Finally, I saw a friend’s post about Remembrance Sunday, and it helped me put my finger on it.

Remembrance Sunday has its roots very close to Veterans Day — both began as commemorations of Armistice Day, the end of World War I hostilities.  In Great Britain and the UK, it is held to honor the contribution of their military and civilian servicemen and women “in the two World Wars and later conflicts.”

Jeremy and I were lucky to be in London two years ago in early November.  I was curious about the sight of small poppy pins on the lapels of seemingly everyone’s winter coats, and asked what they meant.  In the weeks leading up to Remembrance Sunday, people don the poppy pins, used since 1921 to honor those who have died in war.  The poppy comes from a poem written by John McCrae, a poet and physician who enrolled at 41 in the Canadian Expeditionary Force to serve as a gunner and medical officer.  He wrote the poem “In Flanders Fields” while sitting in the back of an ambulance, the day after burying a close friend who had been killed in battle.  Today, the pins are available for a donation to the British Legion, who uses the funds to support all current and former British Armed Forces members and their families.

In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.

We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders fields.

Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.

The sight of all these poppies, particularly after reading the poem, was no longer merely charming; it was deeply moving.  I purchased one in honor of our allies, and wore it for the rest of our trip.  At the time, I thought simply that the visible British support for their military men and women was a lovely thing to see.  Two years later, in America, I have a few more thoughts.

Veterans Day is not for veterans.  As much as we appreciate the kind intentions, we don’t need to be thanked for our service by our friends and family.  They know some of what military service has cost us.  Some of us, it’s a few points of sanity; some of us, it’s the months away missing important events; some of us, the invisible wounds (visible and not) of loss and trauma; and some of us, it’s the ultimate sacrifice.

Veterans Day is also not merely an advertising gimmick, to be used to ingratiate your business with servicemembers.  It is a nice gesture, but one that often smacks of commercialism, and that’s not what this should be about.

Veterans Day is not a day for hero worship.  Not all veterans are heroes, to be sure, but all veterans are veterans, who volunteered (for whatever reason) to serve.  Not all veterans are good people, either, and not all of them do good things while they’re wearing the uniform (or after they’ve taken it off).  It is not so much the veterans themselves that should be honored, as their willingness to serve.  We wear uniforms, in part, to depersonalize us; to make us all blend together, to be part of a team, not individuals to be glorified.

Veterans Day is also is not the right day to cry that “you’re no hero, and you’re certainly not protecting MY freedoms.”  I am an enthusiastic supporter of political discourse, but there are three hundred and sixty-four other days of the year for that.  The most important day of the year to make that argument, in my opinion, was last week – Election Day.  If you or anyone else you know disagrees with the way that our military is administered or employed, please – for heaven’s sake – SAY SO, constructively, in a way that makes a difference.  Campaign against unnecessary deployments, wasteful spending, and conflicts that you believe are morally wrong.  Call upon elected officials for accountability to represent your interests.  As servicemembers (especially on active duty), there is a limit to what we can say about the government while we’re in uniform; we have a vote, but it’s just one vote.  But we serve a government elected at the behest of the people, so if you don’t like how the military is employed, tell them.  We represent you, not them.

Veterans Day is for those who do not serve; those whom we represent, not because they are our family or friends, but simply because they stand under the same flag as we do.  I worry that there are parts of America where no one remembers that.  I’ve lost count of the number of times people all over the country asked “wait, we’re still in Afghanistan?” last year while Jeremy was deployed.   In Sacramento – forty-five minutes’ drive from Beale Air Force Base – I was stunned by how often local strangers told me they didn’t know there was a base nearby. And perhaps I was left a little bitter, when someone said that just days after a dear friend of ours was killed in action in Afghanistan.  We were still reeling from the loss, and being confronted with the fact that people weren’t even aware of his service – much less his sacrifice – was too much to bear.

Which brings me back to the poppies.

Looking back on our days in England, I’m surprised all over again by how many people donned those small red flowers.  I’ve read that the poppy tradition started here, with the American Legion.  I wonder today what America would look like if we still wore them.  I imagine there would be heavy concentrations of red flowers around military bases, and probably in our nation’s capital.  The people most eager to make donations to “support the troops,” after all, are often the friends and family of those who have served.  But they already support us, and they often need support themselves.

Perhaps I’m a pessimist, but I think there are many parts of the country where we’d see very few poppies, if any at all.   So much of America simply does not have any skin in the game, and our veterans have become either a prop or a political hockey puck, depending on the day.

These thoughts aren’t for my friends and family.  They know what this means without me having to say it.  I just wish there were a way that I could see that the rest of America did.

Moving is hard. Even if other people are doing it for you.

We are moving to North Carolina this week, which is both thrilling and scary (North Carolina isn’t scary, but moving is.) My husband is transitioning from active duty into the Guard (yay!), and we have been busily jumping through both military and civilian sets of hoops to get out the door and on the road. And the movers were supposed to come last Friday to start getting us packed up and on the road.

But the movers never came on Friday. WE call THEM to find out what’s up. “Oh, we only had about half our guys show up today. But don’t worry, we’ll send an extra big crew Monday. They’ll be there between 8 and 10 am.” Monday rolls around. At 9 am, WE call THEM to see if they’re on their way. “Oh, they’ll be there around 11:30.” Three guys show at 12:30 pm. (If three is the “extra big” crew, what does the regular crew look like?) And stay until 8 freaking PM on Monday. Monday night, they left, saying “I think we’ll be back here around 9 tomorrow. This should go pretty quick, probably about five hours and we’ll be on our way.”
Guess what happened today? You might not guess, so I’ll just tell you. No sign of the movers until 11:30 am. Two guys come today. And it’s 11:37 pm in California right now, and they are STILL FRICKIN’ HERE. Almost done, but STILL HERE IN THE HOUSE AT 11:37 PM.
As a member of a military family moving on the government’s dime, let me first say that I’m grateful that we aren’t paying for this. But let me also say that we are kind of stuck between a rock and a hard place. At any point in this chain, what were we going to do? Fire these guys? They almost certainly know that the moving bookings out of Beale AFB are backed up a minimum of 3 weeks, so if we wanted to be serviced by a different company, we’d be inconveniencing ourselves. It takes a significant number of complaints, I’ve heard, before the government would sever the contract they’ve made with a particular moving company.
When you are faced with such gallingly terrible customer service as this company has provided (seriously, nobody in the Sacramento area use PDQ Van & Storage, a subcontractor of Master Van, to move your stuff, ever ever ever, k?), you want some form of recourse. But these movers know that you’re not their customer. The government is their customer. And the government accepts a certain amount of loss, damage, theft, and general calamity as the cost of doing business. I could be wrong, but I’ve gotten the impression that the moving companies generally aren’t on the hook for the replacement value of anything missing, destroyed, or stolen. The government is. So we’re not only paying companies that have less incentive than usual to do a great job (because they are unlikely to be “fired”), but we’re also insuring those companies against loss in the event that they can’t do the one damn thing they were hired to do. ‪#‎YouHadOneJob‬
I’m pretty sure these guys are here because their company (or the one-star-on-Yelp-reviewed company that subcontracted to them) were the lowest bidder, and you get what you flippin’ pay for.
I’m going to stop ranting now and just pray that our stuff will all arrive more or less intact when we find our new home in NC… any warm fuzzies sent our way will be appreciated.
Also, at 12:22 am, they finally left.

A little song of myself

I was staying at the hotel on Yokota Air Force Base last summer.  I found this stainless steel ring with a few bars of music engraved on it.  I’d puzzled over it, but I never tried to figure out exactly what the notes would play.

This would be a good time to tell you that, from about age eight to eleven, I studied classical guitar pretty seriously.  We moved, I changed teachers a few times; I lost my practice buddy (my dad) to a real job after he graduated law school; and I fell away.  I never quite lost my affection for music; I love singing, sang in choirs in high school and college, starred in a musical at the Air Force Academy.  When I was on my second deployment in 2009, I even worked with an extremely talented (and slightly alcoholic) contractor to provide music for Catholic services on our part of the base.  But all told, these things were never really a priority.

I can’t explain why I keep turning my back on music.  I don’t know why I tell myself it doesn’t count as something “real” for me, that I can’t do anything with it that “matters.”  I have no less than four guitars in my house right now, and I almost never play them.  It’s not that I can’t, exactly.  After I shake off a little rust, I can still play about six complex-sounding songs with impressive facility, and I’ll occasionally trot one out as a party trick.  I can’t tune a guitar by ear, but I can eventually make the thing sound decent.  If I have a few days to wrap my head around a piece and it isn’t too complicated, I can even still kind of sight-read.  I’ve got no excuse for the head games I play with myself.  Don’t get me wrong — it’s not like it torments me on a daily basis or anything.  But as a child I was told, often, that I had it in me to be a really great classical guitarist  Like, a professional.  And when I drifted away from that path, there was something of sadness that took its place.

So there was no good reason I couldn’t pick up a guitar, tune it, and make out what those notes are.  None at all.  But tonight, when I finally decided to figure out what that ring’s song is, I didn’t pick up a guitar.  Didn’t even think about it.  I googled “music note player online” and signed up for a Noteflight account.  And while it’s a pretty easy program to use (and seriously, it’s quite cool!) it does require a little music knowledge.  As I started to click through, I found myself dusting off a book in my brain that I haven’t used in years, and discovered with pleasure that the pages were still intact.

After all that fuss, the music on the ring doesn’t seem to be much of anything.  It might just be something someone bought because it looked cool.  It’s about a size 7.5-8, so it could probably be a man’s or a woman’s.  I wish I knew whose it was, so I could get it back to them.  But I’m thankful they left it in that hotel room for me to find, so on a night like tonight, I could be reminded that I contain multitudes.  There’s a real danger in forgetting that.  Because if I don’t remember how marvelous and powerful I can be, there’s a very good chance I won’t see how marvelous and powerful the rest of you can be, either.

For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you.” – W.W.

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All fired up, and everywhere to go

Since leaving the active duty military, I’ve struggled to find a sense of purpose.  Something about being part of a bigger machine made me feel like my efforts, however small, were blessed-off as “worthwhile.”  Even when they didn’t feel worthwhile.  Even when I knew they weren’t.  And let me be totally honest with you — I was really not a great officer.  I’m better now that I’m in the reserves, but part of that is because the bar is slightly lower.  (Kidding, mostly.)  But no matter how inadequately I felt I lived up to my responsibilities (and my potential), there was still an identity attached to all that — an identity I could define myself as much “in spite of” as “because of.”

And now, who am I?  I’m a wife.  I’m a dog-mother (which is really not a thing, but it does take up lots of my time).  I’m a $9.25 an hour sales associate, a few hours a week, just to get out of the house.  I’m an Air Force officer a couple days a month.  I’m a lousy housekeeper.  I’m a fairly good cook. I have several wonderful close friends nearby, to whom I am a pretty good friend, and a small handful more who are very dear but too far away, to whom I am somehow both devoted and terribly inconstant.  I’ve tried to nurture a religious life of sorts, but I’m afraid that I’m forever damned to be the rocky soil (Mk 4:5-6), so I don’t count myself as belonging to that, either.  I spent a little while as a serious Crossfitter, once upon a time, but I don’t love it like I used to (I wish I did — with all this free time, I might be pretty good by now) — so right now, I’m an aspiring yogi.  Funnily, the yoga’s done much more for my spiritual life than the Bible studies.

All of these things describe me, but none of these things are me.  And that was a problem I used to get paid a hell of a lot more to have.

But every so often I’m reminded of what I would feel like when I fell into the zone.  When I got caught up in a project so passionately that I would lose track of whole nights — where I would forget to eat or drink — where I’d realize it had been hours since I should have gotten up for a bathroom break, nevermind to stretch my legs.  God, those were good nights.

And I spent some time thinking about it, and I realized those times have invariably been when I’m sitting in front of a computer, fingers to keyboard, writing.

There was a time, before I turned eighteen, when I thought writing was something I should pursue — but then fear and pragmatism and small disasters took over.  Writing was never something I thought was worthy, after that — sure, as a hobby, but don’t put your eggs in that basket.  As a result, I didn’t think of it as writing when I was working on one of the few work projects I really cared about — creating, maybe, but not really writing.  Sure, it was kind of writing when I was transcribing and analyzing dozens of interviews I’d conducted in a debriefing course I took.  And I couldn’t deny it was writing when I was crafting my deployment letters.  But then, I forgot.

And now that I’ve started putting fingers to keyboard again, and sharing my words with other people, a strange thing is happening. No matter what I’m doing, there’s suddenly something I’m always thinking I’d like to do, something always tugging at my sleeve, saying “come play with me.”  It’s like the pilot light in my brain has been turned back on.  I’m not always ablaze — Lord knows my nervous system couldn’t handle the way I feel when I fall into one of my creative fits of frenzy — but it’s always possible.

As I write this, I realize it’s happening now.  My hands and feet grow cold, but I don’t notice.  I shiver ever so slightly — it’s really more like a vibration, running through me.  I clench my teeth, and sometimes my abs, both involuntarily.  There’s a tightness running side to side just below my collarbones.  I feel like there’s an engine where my heart should be, pistons firing, with the drive train running up my neck and straight to my brain, where the wheels are.  My mind speeds along, a million miles a minute, and my fingers trip happily over the keys, trying their damnedest to keep up.

I know it will take me a little while to calm down enough to go to sleep.  For my beloved husband’s sake, I’ll do my best, and wrap this up now.  But let me say it here and now — I’m learning, tentatively, to say some version of it in real life, with the modifiers of my uncertain heart always getting in my way — and I need practice.

I think I’ve found the identity that has always burned inside me, since I was too young to hide it, through so many years of feeling like it wasn’t a true or worthy calling.

Let me share it with you, dear reader, for it gives me a thrill like none other –

I am a writer.

I am a writer.

I am a writer. 

A message from Death

There are times when my eyes are closed that my mind drifts up, a kite on a warm breeze to a place I don’t know.  

Last night, at the end of yoga class, we lay in silence.  I closed my eyes and let the spool of thought spin in my hands as the kite floated higher. 

I saw a small dark swirling angry hole in an orange sky, with burning red eyes. 

It said to me, I am Death.  

But I was not afraid, and I did not look away.  

The cloud swirled open into a larger, more diffuse shape, like a hurricane viewed from above.  And as I watched, the hurricane slowly became a beautiful woman cloaked in soft grey feathers. 

She told me, I am death.  I am the only sure thing in all the world.  I am the one you know is always there.  I am the only guarantee you have.  No one else can make these promises to you.  I am your one true friend.  You can rely on me. 

She showed me, then, how sad she is when she is called to take someone too soon.  When evil or disease or disaster call her to us, she mourns.  It hurts her to pull us away.  We fight her, too, when we fear her.  And it breaks her heart when a broken soul summons her before his time.

You see, I love you, she said.

Then she showed me what it was like to come for a person who believed his life had been full and complete, who was ready for his rest, who welcomed her with peace in his heart.  That it was a joy for her to come to him, to fold him in her cloak and walk softly with him away from life.  

I don’t know where she takes us, but I felt comforted to see her face.  Death is gentle, even when the things that summon her are not.  And she wishes to meet us as friends.  

Telling Lies for Fun and Profit

I’m working on two fiction projects right now — the first is a pretty awesome experiment with Tyrell Mayfield and Maria Granovsky, two incredibly talented people whom I know only through Twitter (although I can claim at least one mutual friend with Mr. Mayfield from my previous life).   We’re working on a multi-POV military/medical conspiracy thriller trilogy.  Working title: Vampthrax.  It’s been really fun (and kinda easy) to work with two people on developing a complicated, believable plot (and complicated, believable characters).  It’s also been challenging to do it from across the country, but my currently-forgiving work schedule (playing salesgirl a few days a week) has made it a little easier.  We’re in pass-the-baton mode, so while there’s a lot we can do in terms of individual character development and backstory, we also have to exercise a little patience as we pass around our outline and share our first chapter drafts (which may or may not change the direction you were going to take your second chapter!).

The second is going to be a novelization of some of my observations from my time on active duty.  I wrote a LOT of letters home while I was on deployment — the most writing I’ve ever done in my life, totaling about 58,000 words (which feels like a lot, but it was spread out over seventeen months total).  While some of it stands up pretty well, I imagine it’s going to be as painstaking a process as mining diamonds.  I am not at all inclined to write a true memoir; I don’t have the cojones for a tell-all.  (Maybe when I’m ninety.)  But a story that tells some of the things I saw, and that threads together things that I wish would have happened (and things I’m tremendously grateful never happened), from the point of view of a character who’s a better person than I am — well, isn’t that what [most] fiction is about?

There will undoubtedly be have already been days that I feel a little bit stuck on my projects.  (I had one of those very recently where an offhand comment by someone reminded me that I don’t actually know anything about writing fiction.  At first I was unhappy.  Then I dug out my copy of Larry Block’s “Telling Lies for Fun and Profit” and decided I should grow a thicker skin.)  The good news about “stuck days” is that I can take the momentum from one and roll it into the other… but for the days when I want to keep up a sincere effort to write regularly but play with something just a little different, well, I’ve got this.  For too long I took this place too seriously, mostly because there are lots of wonderfully talented serious people whose work I enjoy tremendously, and I want to be more like them.  But this is not a portrait of them — it’s a portrait of Jenny, so I’ll just be who I am for now.  And if you keep showing up to see what that looks like, I’ll be very grateful.

Rape “Prevention” and Victim-Blaming

Say somebody loses their wallet, or even carelessly leaves it somewhere. We’re not talking about being robbed by a mugger; we’re not talking about being pickpocketed. We’re talking about a wallet left right there, out in the open.

The world is full of people who will pick up that wallet and keep it, sure, and we expect that. The world is also full of people who will open the wallet, take out the cash, and then turn it into lost and found or mail it back to the address on the driver’s license, and that doesn’t surprise us either. But halfway decent people who see a wallet sitting there out in the open don’t view the mere act of the wallet being left there as an invitation to its contents. Halfway decent people see the wallet and leave its contents intact. And good people see the wallet, pick it up, leave its contents intact, and try to get it safely back to its owner.

In the world we live in, it’s admittedly naïve not to protect your personal belongings, and most of us will "blame ourselves" if we leave our wallet someplace and all the cash gets taken out of it. But just because you left your wallet someplace doesn’t make it right that someone took your money. That’s still wrong.

In the world we live in, it’s admittedly naïve for women* not to do everything they can to protect themselves. And the world is full of arguments that will compare various behaviors by victims to the "lost wallet" scenario (or, still worse and my personal least-favorite, the "walking down a dark alley talking loudly about how much money you have in your pocket" scenario). But a wallet isn’t a person’s right to physical safety. And while "leaving a wallet out in the open" is a fairly cut-and-dried situation, standards of "acceptable" behavior or dress for women vary widely among cultures. "Dressed like you’re asking for it" means something different in Iran than it does in Brazil, it meant something different two hundred years ago than it does now, and it means different things in different communities in America. "Dressed like you’re asking for it," and all of its various cousins, will depend entirely on a victim’s culture. And the culture that these concepts depend on is a culture that ultimately believes perpetrators can’t control themselves and aren’t responsible for their sexual behavior when "tempted" by a victim’s actions or behavior. We do young men* a moral disservice every time we blame a victim for a rape because of how she was dressed, or ask her "what were you doing out alone at that hour?" We set the stage for "date"/"acquaintance" rape when we imply that when a woman’s body is "left out in the open" in some way — because of a short skirt, or too many drinks — it’s in any way acceptable to engage in any type of sexual contact without her explicit consent.

It makes as little sense, from a moral perspective, as raising children to believe that when a wallet is left on a park bench, the money they find inside is theirs for the taking.

We will probably, and unfortunately, never live in a world where we don’t need to take steps to protect our belongings, and where women don’t need to take steps to protect their bodies. But we should hold ourselves to a higher standard than we do now, and make every effort to be the kind of good people who return lost wallets and understand that nothing a woman does is ever, ever, ever an invitation to sexual assault.

*I use "women" and "men" here as general terms because, statistically, most sexual assaults are committed against women by men; I know this is not always the case but I used these terms for brevity, and I believe and hope that eradicating the culture of victim-blaming will protect all possible victims of sexual assault.

Memorial Day

Excerpt from my letter home from Iraq, on March 28th, 2008:

On Good Friday, one of the combat controllers from the unit that I am deployed with was killed by an IED in Afghanistan. Technical Sergeant William H. Jefferson was 34, and he had spent seventeen years of his life in the military — four as a Marine, and thirteen as an Air Force combat controller. He was married, with an eight-year-old daughter; his wife is seven months pregnant. He was one of the men slated to return from this deployment early for the delivery of his unborn child. Before he went out on Friday night, he had watched his wife’s sonogram video, and we were told that he left in high spirits. And then, after an act of horrifying, deliberate violence, his wife answered the door on Saturday morning to find that she would not be welcoming her husband home in a few short weeks, that she would now bear alone a child who would never know his father.

TSgt Will Jefferson was, by all accounts, warm, generous, funny, good-natured, a devoted and loving husband and father, and a seasoned veteran truly dedicated to the service of his country. He had asked to be sent back out to run with a team for this deployment, to go to one of the most dangerous parts of Afghanistan… to serve with the boys on the ground, to get dirty. These men, in this profession, do not serve to stay safe or to do the easy jobs. They are all here because they could not resist the siren song of real combat, and they all ask for the opportunity to be in the thick of things. They will all gladly jump to go to the places that lesser men are grateful to avoid. It is rare for a combat controller to be killed in action, not because they don’t face serious risks every day, but because there are relatively few combat controllers and they are so well-trained. And still, a coward crouching behind a rock in Afghanistan can end the life of anyone who is in the wrong place at the wrong time. And still, this arbitrary, chickenshit hatred will leave behind an irreparable and empty gash in the lives of our fallen comrades’ brethren and their families. I have read the reports and seen the pictures of the battle damage suffered by the vehicle and the personnel inside after the IED went off, after the vehicle was blown thirty meters from the explosion site. While I cannot report the details here, I will say that they are both gruesome and stark in their brevity.

I never met this man, but I have been in the midst of this squadron’s grief for nearly a week. And though this hollow loss was created by hatred, I have watched a ferocious brotherly love rush in to that vacuum to make things as right as they can ever be. That’s one thing about the special operations community… as a senior captain, a helicopter pilot, half-cynically, half-gratefully told me, “No matter what else I can say about life in AFSOC, I’ll say this: the one thing they do right is to take care of you after something happens to you.” I have seen first-hand that no expense was too great, no inconvenience too burdensome, no obstacle even stood a chance when it came to bringing our fallen hero back to his home and his family and observing his death in a manner that befitted a warrior.

There have been at least four memorial services for this man, and the one I participated in here was the single most moving ceremony I have ever observed during the nearly eight years since I first put on a United States Air Force uniform.

We stood outside in formation in the hazy glare of the Iraqi sun. Almost a hundred and fifty people — most of whom had never met this man — were in silent, voluntary attendance. We were placed at ease, but we stood still for a long time in the late afternoon, quietly, scarcely moving as we waited. The sun was setting when we were finally called to attention. The American flag was raised, and lowered to half staff. Then began the tradition known as “roll call.” Our Senior Master Sergeant called the name of three airmen from my squadron, each responding “Here, Senior.” Then he called for the fallen by his rank and last name. Traditionally, there is no reply, only silence. When we planned the ceremony, we did not even guess — not in a million years — that there would be another TSgt Jefferson in the audience, and when someone responded “Here, Senior,” by pure reflex, there was just a split-second where I could feel the surprise of the other people who knew the way the script was supposed to go. But the tradition also holds that the next line is to call for the fallen by their rank, first, and last name… and after “Tech Sergeant William Jefferson,” there was no reply but silence.
Finally, he called for “Technical Sergeant William H. Jefferson.”
Two beats of silence.
And then a response.
“Sir, Technical Sergeant William H. Jefferson has been killed in action.”

We were put at ease again, and there were several speeches and prayers… and for a situation where no words can help, my commander — this brave, tough, bold lieutenant colonel who has won so much of my respect during my time here — did his best to pay homage to the life of his brother. There was only one pause, quiet and completely dignified, where I knew he was trying not to cry again, to hold it together in front of all of us. He finished his eulogy. The Chaplain prayed, and the overall mission commander here spoke briefly.

Then… and words will not do this moment justice, but I will try for you because I have to share the importance of this moment, because it carried in it everything that is important to me as an American.

The honor guard returned to the flag. As taps played, they lowered it and removed it from the flagpole. They folded it so carefully, so gently, so precisely. The first honor guardsman handed the flag to the second guardsman, with fierce ceremony, and the second guardsman clutched it to his chest. He turned and marched slowly, deliberately to where my commander stood, and handed it to him… again, with the pride and power due to this flag and everything it stands for. My commander held it to his chest, and strode forward to the base of the flagpole. At the base, they had set up a pedestal with a photograph of TSgt Jefferson, a red beret, and a pair of boots, a rifle, and a helmet, in the traditional configuration commemorating the fallen. My commander knelt and laid the folded flag with tender, simple reverence on the pedestal, at the feet of this small memorial.
He remained there on bended knee.
Time stopped for us all as he honored the life and service of Will Jefferson with a tribute more eloquent than any words could be.
He stood, saluted, and turned to go.
One by one, every single person in attendance filed quietly up to sharply salute Technical Sergeant William H. Jefferson and everything he stood for.

My imperfect but heartfelt Catholicism has given me an eye for ceremony, and I honestly believe that if he had seen our memorial service, the Pope himself would have been moved to genuflect, for a moment, at the memorial we left at the base of that flagpole, and at the sacrifice made by this man, who died on Good Friday in a fight — at its root — for what is good and right in this world. I believe that despite the trash and triviality that threaten to overwhelm our nation, the real heart of America beats with the blood of people who know that real freedom belongs to every man and woman on this earth. As long as there are people willing to fight for that freedom, our country has hope.

But still… the virtue and heroism of this brave man’s death are small consolation to his family. Please, if you would — Will Jefferson’s wife and daughter and his unborn child… keep them in your thoughts, and if you pray, keep them in your prayers.

This was my first experience with combat loss, and I wish I could say it was my last.  There are far too many stories like this, and we as a nation seem to have grown fatigued with remembering them more than once or twice a year.

I’m not here to guilt you into sadness, or to judge you for how you’re spending your Memorial Day, unless you’re confusing “trying to shame other people for an inadequate display of patriotism” with “honoring our fallen in a meaningful way.” I’m seeing a lot of sanctimony on the web today, with notes of condescension towards what are perceived to be insufficient commemorations of the sacrifices made for our country by our honored heroes. Know this: anyone who has truly grieved the loss of someone killed in combat doesn’t need to be reminded to honor them today, or any of the other 364 days of the year; anyone who hasn’t is unlikely to have their paradigm shifted by a social media post.

I have also seen reminders that today is ONLY about those who were killed in combat. But something to consider: many veterans have lost all semblance of a normal life in service to our country when they sustained disfiguring and disabling injuries, including the kind that don’t leave any scars (traumatic brain injuries and severe post-traumatic stress disorder come to mind, and don’t underestimate the emotional damage to veterans and families who measure their deployed time in years, not months), and in my not-very-humble opinion it’s perfectly OK if you wish to honor all who have suffered for their service to America. Especially since they still need our help.

Finally, recent events have driven home an important point. When someone is killed in combat, whether you believe they have gone on to a better place (and I do) or simply that their pain is over, they are no longer hurting. The people who need support now are their family, friends, and loved ones.

Remember those who have sacrificed so much for our nation privately, or publicly, however you choose. If you feel moved to acknowledge the day in an outward way and find yourself at a loss for how to make a difference, please consider giving to the Wounded Warrior Project, the Special Operations Warrior Foundation, or any of the other excellent charities that support our surviving wounded and the families of all who have given so much in service to our country.

Now go, please, and hug your family and friends, do a little shopping if you like, and enjoy your barbecue.

 

A Civil Election

The first election I remember was in 1992. I was in third grade, and my elementary school held a mock election. Kind of a charming idea, really; teach kids the value of civic duty and the meaning of representative government, compare the results to the national election, and plant the seeds for involved citizens of the future.

I don’t remember who I voted for (it might have been Clinton – I think I felt vaguely betrayed when he got himself impeached) or why… but one thing sticks with me still about that fall.

My parents wouldn’t tell me who they voted for.

I remember being curious, and my usually-exuberant mother being shyly dodgy about it the way she always is when she’s decided to keep a secret. The explanation for why, I imagine, must have come from my dad, whose reasoned eloquence is hard to argue with (but not impossible, as I learned in my teen years). My parents considered their choice of elected official to be an intensely personal one; I think they would have discussed any of the facts in the election with me (and probably did), but when it came down to which lever they’d actually pull in the voter’s booth… that was private.

I think some of this probably stemmed from a desire not to unduly influence my young mind towards a particular political bent. They taught me a firm and consistent set of values, and I wonder if they hadn’t decided that it was more important to give me a good foundation and let me decide which house would best stand on it.

Of course, nearly-nine-year-olds also aren’t exactly known for their discretion. I imagine my mom and dad were wary of the possibility that I might let slip their personal politics to the neighbors, or that I’d wind up choosing sides at the lunch table in a discussion that I was too young to even begin to understand. And in looking back at this choice of theirs, I realize just how clearly they understood the divisive, caustic power of the American political conversation, and I’m grateful.

For years, I have suffered under a hopeful delusion that all my fellow Americans are reasonable humans, capable of holding a respectful conversation and attempting to find common ground on the way ahead for our cities, states, and nation. I have never wondered about the contents of friends’ ballots so much as the contents of their hearts. But the more snarky Facebook posts and rude tweets and cruel jibes that I see from people I otherwise know and like, the more concerned I am for the ugliness that is overtaking our collective souls.

Perhaps I am at a disadvantage, having grown up in a household where one’s inner political world was treated as somewhat sacred. (As I matured, so did the political conversations in my family, by the way, and we are quite open about politics now – within the “circle of trust,” of course.) So while there are a few issues for which I will proudly plant my flag, and I will make a jokey observation about any politician or candidate if the mood strikes me, it seems strangely intimate to tell a friend who I might vote for, let alone to declare it for all the world to see.

And nicely, privacy affords me the luxury of being wrong without also being terribly embarrassed. When it comes to so many things, I feel quite immature and unwise. The places I get my information are flawed. I don’t know everything. There are many people who are much smarter than I am, but many of them have agendas I can only begin to fathom. So whenever I’ve joined in an ad hominem attack or succumbed blindly to hype, I feel deeply ashamed. My perspective isn’t perfect, and I try to keep my mind open to new ideas that are argued well and supported with evidence. I worry that I don’t always question this evidence the way I should, but I am willing to try, because I think we should care about our government. We should feel free to discuss the election if we wish to; we should feel compelled to learn as much as we can from credible sources before we enter into debate; and even if we do this passionately, we should also do it carefully, respectfully, and sincerely, especially if we have any hope of persuading the other side to see our point of view. And even if the other side starts to fight dirty.

So please, in this election season: be gentle. Polite, even. And before you add more smarm and rage to the WWWeb, consider how much quieter and kinder the world would be if we were all a little more private about these things. After all, no matter who wins, we still have to live with each other.*

*unless the zompocalypse is nearer than we think… which is why I’m glad my husband is shopping for a katana right now.

Revolutionary?

I don’t think Lady Gaga is fat.

Not objectively, anyway. When I first saw some of the unflattering photos that have grabbed headlines lately, I thought she looked like she had gained some weight. She still appears to be within what is considered a healthy BMI range, and if her costumes weren’t so ill-fitting, the photographs would have been far less remarkable.

But in our world, it’s big news when a blonde female pop singer gains or loses weight (or is alleged to have done so), so… whatevs.

I’ve actually really enjoyed Lady Gaga’s music over the years — my sister, ever the early adopter, sent me “Just Dance” before Lady Gaga became, well, Lady Gaga, and about half of her hits have wound up on my mix CDs and party playlists. I’ve only watched a couple of her professionally-produced videos. “Bad Romance” because it struck me as eerily beautiful, darkly fascinating, and artistically kinda daring. “Born This Way” because I’d heard it was a bit of a rip-off of Madonna. And her utterly charming “Lady is a Tramp” duet with Tony Bennett, because it was just a delight. I thought she looked great in all of them, and I’ve always found it interesting that her image seemed to be predicated more on the outrageously surreal than the traditionally beautiful. (How many of us, really, could pick her out of a lineup?) She is a changeling provocateur, and I think she has the genuine talent to back it up. (Even if you’re not crazy over her pop, check out her performances from the Tisch School before you dismiss her entirely.) She’s charismatic, and she’s got some positive messages; she’s not hypersexualized like so many pop tarts, and above all, she seems to be a woman in control of her destiny.

And now she is launching a Body Revolution. While I admire her bravery in admitting to a history of eating disorders, and I think this is wonderful in theory, I’m not sure what the reality says about us all.

I was curious to see what this Body Revolution thing meant, so I signed up for a Little Monsters account. I looked at her photos, and then I looked at the fan submissions, and then I had to stop and think about why it was all bothering me so much.

First, I was struck by how many objectively attractive people are sharing their secret self-loathing, captioning photos of perfectly nice bodies and faces with the struggles they’ve had to accept themselves. I hate seeing evidence of wildly distorted body images, perhaps because it reminds me of my own struggles there. (More on that in a minute.) What does it say about us as a society, that even these people feel bad about themselves?

Of course, some people are pretty obviously just fishing for compliments, which seems to defy the entire intention of the project: “to inspire bravery, and BREED some m$therf*cking COMPASSION.” (Emphasis Gaga’s.)

What I didn’t expect to see were the people who are posting evidence of physical deformities, diseases I’ve never heard of, and health issues that have nothing to do with body weight. These are people who aren’t represented at all in the media, not really. Even a show that makes an effort to portray a more diverse population (like, say, Glee) doesn’t have an actor with severe scoliosis, or a leg that has been mangled by an animal attack, or a large port-wine facial birthmark. The sadness that these people describe is jarring; I can’t begin to imagine what life is like for a person with a disfigurement or a disability, and their newly-professed courage struck me as both beautiful and heartbreaking.

Now, as someone who (like so many) has struggled with eating issues in the past, I suspect it’s hard for me to view the Body Revolution objectively. My story’s not unusual — high achiever under lots of pressure develops an eating disorder because she needs to control something in her life. I usually gloss over the difficulties I had while I was at MIT, but the truth is, my eating disorder was a big part of the reason I left. I’m healthy now, thankfully, and while some other time I might get into the specifics of my struggle and my recovery, the important thing here is that I know I’m seeing this through the lens of my experience. Maybe I’m a little cynical, or maybe I’m just a little sensitive, but here I am, and I know I’m not alone.

And while I think it’s brave of Gaga to publicly admit her struggle, and awesome that she is encouraging acceptance and compassion, I believe this isn’t a meaningful dialogue yet.

Objectively, the pictures that kicked off this Body Revolution are mostly rather flattering pictures of a slender, healthy-looking woman. They seem intended as an f-you to the “fat-shaming” camp, but in these photographs, she is not anything that anyone in their right mind would ever consider “fat.” I empathize with her internal struggle and I respect her for admitting it publicly, but I’m just not sure that these photos of a lithe body in a matched bra-and-thong set are quite as daring as they are being credited.

(Just for the record, if you’re looking for true body bravery, my money’s been on Nancy Upton for awhile — the woman whose satirical, compelling photo submissions to American Apparel’s crude attempt at a plus-size model search put the company in a VERY uncomfortable position when she won the contest.)

The other troubling thing with the message these pictures send is… you know how people say “I’m not even going to dignify that with a response”? Lady Gaga just dignified the snark. Lady Gaga is saying “my body is still up for discussion.” I used to think of her as someone whose crazy barely-even-human fashion ensembles sent a message that her body had nothing to do with her worth as an artist, but the pictures that started her “Revolution” are, ultimately, a confirmation that she is a star whose body matters. Whereas someone like Adele, who has cheerfully flipped the bird to the snark at every turn and has been wildly successful, has shown us that her talent bears no relation to the shape of her body whatsoever. (Let’s be honest — if Adele were a three-headed purple octopus from Mars, no one would care.)

So while I admire Lady Gaga’s intent, the fact that some apparently think she has done this to “prove she is not fat” — and, it bears repeating, she is not fat — means that she has sent a decidedly mixed message.

Looking at all the pictures submitted by adoring fans, I am worried that this movement will create a place where people are finding “thinspiration” instead of inspiration. Or where people are comparing themselves to each other in an unhealthy way. Or, maybe worst of all, a place where people are expressing “virtual compassion,” scratching an altruistic little itch and patting themselves on the back for being open-minded, but where nothing is really changing.

It is easy to look at photographs of a stranger and read their struggle and think “aww, gosh, we’re all really beautiful on the inside.” But our ableist, fat-shaming, ageist, sexist (and sexually-conformist), and even racist society has programmed us well. Those of us who are privileged (with health, with ability, with bodies and faces that conform to traditional notions of beauty, with youth, with a gender presentation that doesn’t bother anybody, and with a skin tone or features that don’t come with a set of prejudices — and I am speaking very self-consciously as someone who currently has all of those privileges to one degree or another) are not really being tested here.

We’re being tested when we decide whether or not to consume media that has an ugly message. We’re being tested when we choose whether to laugh at (or tell) a mean-spirited joke. We’re being tested when we have the chance to shut down cruelty with a well-placed “that’s not cool.” And we’re being tested when one of these strangers — someone who is “different” in a way that society doesn’t really tolerate — sits next to us on an airplane, or in a restaurant, or in a classroom, and we decide how to treat them.

Lady Gaga, I think your heart’s in the right place. If you steer this message carefully, you might be kicking off a good thing here. But if you want to start something truly revolutionary, there’s a long road ahead.

(This post was inspired by a Twitter chat with my friend Sabrina, who was also kind enough to review it for me before I published it. She is a talented writer and editor and a delightful, thoughtful human being, and you should go say hi to her on Twitter at @Sabrinaslibrary, and check out her awesomeness here and here.)