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Traffic is my yoga (or Marcus Aurelius in a Mustang)

Traffic. Who likes it? Growing up in Smalltown, Arkansas, I never really experienced traffic until I was stationed at El Toro, California, which is south of Los Angeles. I remember thinking that thea person must be truly, and deeply nuts to drive on the freeways there in the best of conditions. And I saw people driving in a way to make it the worst of conditions. It seemed that nobody had a shred of concern for human life as they darted in and out of the smallest of spaces. If regular automobile drivers were nuts, my opinion of the motorcyclists who opted to travel on these freeways was that they had already came to a sense of peace with their impending doom, that they were traveling Buddhas without any attachment to their lives. Either that or they were the very definition of insane.

A few years later I lived in Houston, Texas and another knot of traffic jams. Now I was a civilian and had to move from one location to another on a regular basis, from school to work to home to shopping, all using the city freeways. Such frustration was never an issue in when I was a Marine, lived and worked on base. Now I was in daily competition with other drivers to get to the next opening, the faster lane, ahead of that slow-moving truck, hitting the red-lights just right, and so on. Now my fellow drivers were not nuts, we were all competitors. Once, while trying to merge onto the freeway, a little old lady in a large Buick, closed the gap and would not let me in. I was suddenly faced with the choice of slamming on my brakes, causing the dozen cars behind me to pancake me, drive over the railing and off the overpass, or nudge her out of the lane. I quickly chose the nudging. For my troubles I got tire marks down on my left side of the car and her flipping me the bird. To me these paled in comparison to hospital bills and vehicle costs from the alternatives. When my girlfriend told me that her friends and her would all pile up in a car, grab a cooler of coca-cola, put some tunes on, and jump into traffic… for kicks, I looked at her with another deeply felt sense that this person was utterly, and completely insane. Why would anyone subject themselves to this rat race intentionally? Also, they were adding to the congestion, making it worse for those of us stuck in the morass.

A good traveler has no fixed plans, and is not intent on arriving. -Lao-Tzu

A few years later and I have moved to Eugene, Oregon. My car is on its deathbed and so I give it away to charity and become one of the bicyclists everywhere. I’ve been narrowly missed by cars, I’ve purposefully laid the bike down onto the ground to avoid getting smashed by a careless driver, and I’ve been hit by a car that turned into my bike lane. I developed an acute sense of defensive driving, so much so that when I rode in a friend’s car, I couldn’t help but check around me when ze turned the vehicle. I was constantly looking for the next car to come out of nowhere. Some days did suck, when it was stormy or cold and rainy, but most days it was a pure joy to ride the bike. I remember riding up Skinner Butte and passing a minivan. The driver had the windows rolled up and was mindlessly driving along the road. I, on the other hand, was exposed to the wonderful scents of Summer in the Willamette Valley, the sounds of my beloved city (Eugene is still my favorite), the feeling of the breeze. I remember looking at the driver with a feeling of pity that they were losing part of their life by not being present.

Flash forward a couple of years and I am driving an 11,000 lb up-armored Humvee. I’ve deployed with A Co, 2-162 Infantry to Baghdad, Iraq for Operation Iraqi Freedom 2. I was the driver, there was another E5 in the TC seat, we had a soldier manning the .50 cal machine gun in the turret, and sometimes 1 or 2 soldiers in the backseat. My defensive tendencies now switched to an entirely offensive tendency. We operated with the “3 P’s”… that is be polite, professional, and prepared to kill. Instead of fearing the hit, I was looking to hit. This doesn’t seem to make sense because in this environment, more so than Eugene, OR, I was constantly under threat of being attacked. Roadside bombs with IED’s, ambushes, carbombs, erratic civilian drivers, were always a threat. And yet we knew that one of the safest protections for us, more than the armored vehicles, was our posture. We constantly displayed a posture of vigilance, of a readiness to fight. The thinking was that the enemy would rather attack someone that appeared sluggish, mindless, hesitant or afraid of fighting, than they would someone that appeared on ready and eager to fight.

When I left Iraq I moved to Portland, Oregon and fell into another routine of school, work, home commutes. This time I had the feelings of competition that I learned in Houston, with the feelings of defense I learned in Eugene, with the now stronger feelings of offense in my driving. Offensive driving was more than mere competition, it carried a greater urgency and a moral imperative to it, and coupled it with the fight/flight response. I could not drive 2 miles on the highway without completely losing my cool. I would routinely slam my fists into my passenger seat, curse the people around me, and anger filled my heart. Twice I have gotten out of my truck on a busy street and started to move toward the vehicle in front of me with the purpose of beating the person within it. I lived 10 minutes from work and even in such a short drive I would arrive to work in the foulest of moods and it would take me hours to get out of this mood, if I could do it at all. I began therapy and for two years I worked to regain control of my emotions. I did not like the person I was. I was not who I used to be. I went through a lot of brake pads and rotors on my truck due to aggressive driving styles.

A couple of years later I got a job that required a lot of travel. I had a company Prius and the entire state to cover. I was constantly on the road. Soon into the job I thought I would die of a heart attack. Every day on the road was another increase to my stress. Even though I was no longer in therapy, I was still using the tools and skills I learned. I was still making progress. I learned about some signs that I was going to lose my cool. The first ones was that I was cursing and slamming my fist on the dash. Before this I was clueless and if asked I would’ve said that the anger came over me all of the sudden. This is not true, in reality I was constantly angry. It was just that I was not aware of it until I was hitting things. My next tell was that I was not satisfied with the music on my iPod while driving. I learned that if I skipped 20 songs to find one that felt right, then I was on edge and needed to use some calming tools. But I kept at it, trying to learn an earlier sign. I soon noticed that I would begin to tense my thighs up, in preparation for gas/brake use. I don’t have a tell earlier than this one yet.

For the past 15 years I’ve read a lot of Yoga magazines. I am constantly buying one. I have some DVDs, a mat, and several books. I’ve attempted some of the asanas at home, but I’ve only been through one class out in the world, something that I want to change, though I’m spending a lot of money on CrossFit currently. I’ve started meditating 3 years ago and have become more and more regular in it, mostly every day. I am not a yogi, but I am constantly working on myself.

As I understand one approach to asanas is that they are difficult poses to hold. While in one I am unsteady, shaking, breathing erratically, mind is moving from calf to stomach to this to that. And yet, if I can sit in this pose, without rushing it, allowing myself to be in it without judgment, and focus on my breath, I gain self awareness that is wider than whatever part of my body is struggling at the moment. This, over time, lends a calm serenity to life. I understood this with asanas… but what really hit home was that traffic was the same thing. By being present with myself in traffic, without judgment of myself or others, by focusing on my breath, I could gain greater awareness, and then acceptance, of my situation.

I finished my degrees in Philosophy and Psychology, and readily applied all that I learned into my own life. One school of thought that stuck well was that of Stoicism. I began to read Marcus Aurelius as well as contemporary writers influenced by the Stoics. These writings matched well with what I learned in Positive Psychology, my own therapy, working as a group co-facilitator in a domestic violence batterers intervention program, experiences in the military, and practical knowledge as an infantry instructor. I am convinced that much good could be accomplished if our public schools taught mandatory courses in Stoicism. A thought that took shape was the Stoic idea that difficulty in life was a good thing if one viewed it as an opportunity to develop virtue. Virtue is not something that a person is born with, it isn’t something that is learned from a book or in a class. It is learned only by application of one’s reason in one’s daily activities. Each situation that upsets us is an opportunity to deepen our soul, to broaden our perspective, to actively engage our selves to the end of becoming virtuous. With this in mind, I saw traffic as an opportunity to develop patience and kindness.

It was not easy at first. I failed every day. Yet there were moments when I made progress. I started to string those moments together. Then they became lengthier periods, then days. Now the norm for me is to be a better person while I am driving. It was this year, 9 years after returning home from deployment, that I noticed a new behavior, and when I did so I was filled with joy. I’ll explain… in Iraq if a vehicle came towards our patrol it was my job to stop it. This first meant deploying weapons, but if it were too close, too fast, it meant ramming it with my own vehicle. You see, it is better that my vehicle, which was the rear vehicle in the patrol, to be destroyed by a car-bomb than the possibility that it get past me and near the center of the patrol, possibly taking out my Patrol Leader. Sacrifice is a part of the job. For 9 years after, whenever an oncoming car would cross the center-line and into my lane, my immediate reflexive reaction was to point my car toward it, regardless if it is a small car or a bus. This is, needless to say, a very dumb thing to do. Now, years later, a car crossed into my lane and my reflex was to avoid it.

I have my days, when I am tired, poor diet, stress, boredom, or whatever, when I slip into past habits, and find myself gassing the car forward simply because the person that came up behind me is driving faster (competition) or weaving in and out of traffic (aggressive). When I catch myself I will use a variety of things to gain center again. Breathing, music, purposefully driving the exact speed limit (everyone else is driving faster), critically examining my assumptions about the other drivers, and more.

Fifteen months ago I put my truck in the shop for the weekend and the loaner car the dealership gave me was a convertible Mustang. I drove that car all weekend and fell in love with it. Though it was the winter time, I put the top down and was taken back to the days when I rode my bike around Eugene. Two days later I traded my truck for that car and never looked back. I’ve found myself sitting in bumper-to-bumper traffic, the freeway swollen with cars at a standstill. I would look around and see the faces of people in their cars, faces twisted with frustration and angst. Then I would look up at the blue sky, feel the warmth of the sun, and smile. It was hard to be in a hurry when one was savoring an experience. Driving to work in the morning I will sometimes put on a chill music list, put the top down, leave with an extra 10 minutes, and enjoy the drive without hurry. Around me drivers are jockeying for position, trying to beat red-lights, or fit into a space with their vehicle. I’ll notice that a car, driving with anger and aggression, will reach a point across town at roughly the same time that I do, or perhaps 60 seconds faster. Is 60 seconds worth increased stress in my life? No.

I might not have been ready for my car five years ago. But doing the work, meditating regularly, viewing difficulties as opportunities to develop my best self, realizing that I am not the center of the universe and that others have their own interests also, has helped prepare me for this car. Now I can drive my car, enjoying the experience, being energized by it, instead of the other way around.

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Open

I had Friday off. I did my 06:00 CrossFit workout, went home and made coffee, and goofed off on the computer a bit. I checked on projects, emails, calendars, and then made my way to WordPress. I have 20% of what I’ve journaled in my life on the computer. Prior to discovering Livejournal I filled up large binders with journaling, and then many paper journals. I have boxes of them. I’ve shifted everything from LiveJournal, after they were bought by a Russian company and the community spirit was essentially ruined, and now live on WordPress. I’ve transcribed some of the paper entries over to this format.

So here it was that I was going through some of the earlier posts on WordPress and adding tags and categories to some of the posts. Many, MANY of the posts could be embarrassing to me. But I keep it as a record. I’ve ripped the scabs off of my heart over and over and over, and looking back over time I see that my capacity to be loved and to love have grown tremendously. It is hard to believe that I was that person writing those entries twenty… ten years ago. So I keep this blog for three reasons. First, again, it is a way to gain perspective of how far I’ve come in development. I have no less a drive than to become what Maslow termed Self Actualization. I recall a Psychology professor telling the class that Maslow himself said this was exceedingly rare, that he might meet one person in each of his classes that fit the description. In other words, it was very hard.

This reminds me of several discussions that I’ve had with my family… why I am not married. Common to many is an idea that one purpose of life is to have a family and kids. Recall the television show The Beverly Hillbillies where Ellie-May is constantly being pushed toward eligible bachelors by Granny. It is a strong influence in the calculus of my Self and many relationships that I’ve had in the past there was this influence, along with the misguided notion that we have one soulmate out there for us, as though it were Fate or a divine plan that we meet up our other half (which seems to imply we are incomplete without that person).

The second reason I share this is that I’ve met others who experience the same as I do. It is strengthening to see that one is not alone. This is a primary reason why I share my close calls with committing suicide in the past (one and two), in the hopes that another person will see them and realize that they are not a different species of thing, but a human like the rest of us, mucking things up on the road of our lives.

The third reason is that perhaps someday, there might be someone who knew me, and after I am gone, would be interested to learn more about me. Though the window to start a family is nearly closed, that is another reason I do so.

So here it was, Friday morning, and I came upon this post… Remember Kim. What happened the next two days is still a mystery to me. But reading that post hit me hard. I lost all vigor. I wept my eyes out, repeatedly, for the next two days. I felt lead weight throughout my body. I couldn’t walk with much energy. I was a complete mess. I met Kim a few months before she died in an auto accident, July 14 2001.

I live in Salem, Oregon and when I knew Kim I lived in Eugene. While there I would often take trips into the Cascade Mountains to the East. So I decided to take a trip to the Cougar Reservoir and check out the Cougar Hot Springs and possibly the French Pete Wilderness, both of which I’d not visited for a decade. I drove my car down I-5 and picked 65 MPH to drive. I didn’t feel any sense of hurry at all. The normal push/pulls of traffic that can sometimes get me to jockey for position, passing slow cars and such, were not there. I simply drove. And while driving… sometimes a wave of emotion would hit me and I’d cry. Still, on I drove to get to the mountains, the constant source of solace that I’ve had since I moved to Oregon. Whenever things get their worst, that is where you’ll find me.

Driving on I-5 I was reflecting on my inner states, the chaos of emotions, the heavy sorrow that I felt, the guilt, loss, regret… it was as though a slow-moving whirlpool of mud within. I followed thoughts and emotions where they lead me. Though I was hurting, underneath it all is the belief that this is necessary to become truly a soul in life.

Of the realizations, it struck me how I had no taste for violence at this time. I thought of my role as an infantry instructor, how I prepare soldiers for combat, and that part of me, the creator of a certain type of fighter, one that is as I’ve described in my trainings as ultimately having a complete mindset of what psychologists call Hostile Attribution Bias. This mindset is utterly foundational in the full understanding of masculinity. It plays a huge role in the behaviors of veterans in crisis. I thought on this while driving, 65 mph, on the freeway. I didn’t have the stomach to perpetuate these mindsets onto people. I know full well the usefulness of one side of Ares, God of War, in combat. But the usefulness outside of a combat situation was rare. It is as though one is allowing a single paragraph to define the tone of an entire book. As I felt my way around these thoughts, I noted that I didn’t feel any more desire for the organizational structures of the military. I didn’t feel any motivation to go to drill. I didn’t feel anything at all. Only that something was missing in all of it,  something that was vital. I thought to myself that I had two years left on my enlistment, and I was looking forward to its end.

This reminds me of something that I’ve read. Thursday I picked up the book Born to Be Good: The Science of a Meaningful Life and flipped through parts that I had read before. This page seemed pertinent to my current state… Screen Shot 2015-03-08 at 12.48.42 PM

The author postulates the spreading of JenIf this is so, what is it that we spread when we are fully wrapped up in the learning/training/experiences of the military/combat/masculinity? What is the opposite of Jen?

The above was on a chapter on touch. I recalled a fond memory with Kim. It was a sunny morning, we both woke up, lazily, and laid in bed with nowhere to go. Her eyes were, as always, bright fires, utter singularities of existence in the vastness of space, and she looked at me and smiled. I remember her warmth, her touch… and her endearing knobby feet as she slid them against mine. That is one of my cherished memories. Years ago I watched a charming movie called After Life where in the movie “after death, people have just one week to choose only a memory to keep for eternity.” I highly recommend this movie. Given the past three days, this one memory would be my choice.

I stopped at my favorite gas station SeQuential BioFuels at their location near I-5.  I love this gas station. I stopped for some actual coffee and some healthy snacks. As I was leaving, holding my purchases, a lady stopped and opened the door for me. It was a nice gesture, one that occurs around us often, and wasn’t unique. What I did notice, however, was that I was… this is hard to define here… open. You see, when much of the politeness that I have, though it may be fueled by genuine friendliness or the like, is still within the bounds of some sort of guide. Not the behavior… the behavior is the same… ‘thank you… you’re welcome’. When the lady opened the door for me I merely leaned my head slightly forward, smiled a genuine, heart-felt smile at her kindness, and said ‘thank you, how very kind of you‘. The reason this struck me as different isn’t the behavior, but the emotion behind it. I… had no inhibition to my gratitude and happiness toward others… if that makes sense. It is hard to pin it down.

Allow me to use an analogy that I give in some of my trainings about veterans and post deployment. Imagine that I am standing five feet before you. Now, imagine that I hold up my arm and stretch a rubber-band back and it is pointed at you. I’ve done this in trainings and people will sometimes, ever so slightly, tighten up their body, preparing for the small sting of the rubber band. Now, when I take away the rubber band, the tension in the body goes away. It is easy to feel the difference because you are aware of the transition from one state to another state. When you are in the tension state you can also pinpoint its source… the impending rubber band. Now imagine living with this tension, but every waking minute, every day, for years… for life. You cannot imagine what it feels like to not be tension-less, you cannot point to any particular source of the tension (so many things we can blame) and where does one begin? At an unconscious level, one is always awaiting the next rubber band to snap. Among other things this fosters a sense of guardedness. And it is easy to hide guardedness behind social convention and rules. So when I, as normal, said thank you to the lady opening the door for me, I noticed that I wasn’t guarded. The inner part of me moved forward to meet the inner part of her, with no other agenda than expression of gratitude. It was, to me, quite stark.

When I lived in Eugene I made the trip out to Cougar often. So it was strange that I continued past my turn on and continued to Oakridge. Past Oakridge, looking for the road that leads to Cougar Reservoir, it hit me that I had driven too far south. Strange that I would make such a mistake. I knew this area well. So I drove back through Oakridge and hit the Old Willamette Highway. With the temperature now over 60 degrees, I put the top down on my Mustang and tried to make up time. What was a two-hour trip was now taking me over three hours. I took the turns aggressively, but felt no joy. Normally I cannot help but give out loud ‘woo hoos’, but this time I merely drove, trying to get to where I was going.

At Cougar Hot Springs the parking lot was packed. I had only been at the springs three or four times before, and each time it was deserted when I did so. Though that was usually after sunrise. Now it was almost 3 pm. I had hoped to soak in the hot springs, but really what I wanted was a walk among trees, without the sound of traffic or people. I contemplated going to French Pete Wilderness, just down the road. But I decided to pay my $6 and check it out anyway. At the 1 of the 3 pools is shut down due to a cave-in, and the other two were full. I didn’t mind the nudity, and changing would’ve been easy for me (wearing a kilt and all). But now I didn’t really want such close proximity to other people. Earlier I had been open to the lady at the door, now I was closed to people. Plus, as is usual wherever there is any clothing-optional areas, there was a male creeper vibe from a couple of the soakers. What I really wanted was a hike, so I left.

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Back at the parking lot the attendant said there was a good non-trail that went past the hot springs and up the creek to a waterfall. It wasn’t a trail, but one could follow it if they looked. There had been some trees cut down, and some others that fell down in a recent storm, so he was unsure  of the status of the trail. But most people didn’t go back there and it was quiet. So I turned and went back. I found something little bigger than a game trail that lead off the path. I followed it up and over the creek and soon came to an area filled with very large trees knocked down. They were huge. I had to climb over and under them. I lost the trail a few times, and in taking any avenue that could move me upstream, would find a portion of it again. It was very much like the elf trail in Mirkwood. From three feet away, given the wrong perspective, the trail would utterly disappear. I scaled up the sides of the draw, down and over more logs, and so on. Many times I would say to myself that I was thankful for the added mobility that CrossFit has given me. It was much easier going through this terrain than I anticipated. Thank you box jumps, overhead presses, cleans, burpees and pull-ups. And while pushing/pulling up/down obstacles and cliffs to go upstream, my muscles and blood working in conduction, I felt small moments of life within me. They were fragile, like sparks yet to take hold in a campfire on a windy night. And just like that, they were gone.

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I finally got to the end where the waterfall was. I didn’t know if it had a name. Likely it does on some map somewhere. But I dubbed it ‘Kim Falls’. Though I doubt she ever saw it, I carried her memory there on this day.

I sat there in the bowl of the waterfall and I struggled to feel any joy. All I felt was loss. I talked to Kim, telling her how sorry I was that I wasn’t with her the night it happened, how I’m sorry for the fight we had prior, how part of me wishes that we had run off together, and a million other thoughts. I felt the sting of the loss and the loneliness and wondered if what I truly wanted was a cessation of the pain. The selfishness of this, that my pain was more important than the loss of Kim’s life, stabbed me like a dagger. I beat myself up over this, that I should wish for an ease of the hurt while in the universe there was a system that allowed for someone like Kim to die. I hated how small and petty I was. I hated how I squandered the time I had with her. I hated me. In the parking lot I had seen a bumper sticker that read something to the effect of “we’re judged by the good that we do not do”. This single sticker was inline with the theme that had been running through my mind all day long. It was hard not to take its appearance as some sort of providence.

I sat there, struggling to find something. Before I left home I had looked upon all of my books for something that would give me comfort. I ended up with The Essential Marcus Aurelius, and I opened it up.

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I remembered The Logos… or for me since my first close-call with suicide… beauty. For me there is no separation between the two.

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This was it. I didn’t read this and was suddenly filled with joy. But I read it and recognized it. I looked up again at the waterfall, the logs around me, the various stages of rot, growth, erosion, and more. I saw the carbon cycle, the watershed, the niches of micro habitats and microclimates. I saw my life and I looked wider and wider. I was a small moment of pain in a vast… vast web of connection, of influences and results, the wyrd of mythology. I will honor this pain, this loss, and I hope, in so doing, I will learn greater patience, greater compassion, greater perspective. I wish to continue to learn to be that light at the tip of the candle… I am not there yet.

I drove home, sluggishly, with the top up on the car. Sunny, and 65 degrees, and I didn’t care. I drove home and that night I watched a movie, Seeking a Friend for the End of the World, which was itself quite charming. It was a good end for a long, weary day. My eyes hurt from crying all day. My body ached. I wanted to close my eyes and sleep.

There were no dreams that night, but when I awoke I laid in bed, consciousness dawning on me slowly. I breathed deeply… in… out… in… out… and I was aware of my breath. I was here. I was alive. Kim was not, I still felt loss, but I was here. Though the power of the emotion would still hit me through the day, I started to turn a corner. That night I went to a hockey game, driving an hour to Portland, top down on the Mustang, playing music and singing and dancing like a mad man. I’m sure more than one person on the freeway thought I was a odd duck. But I did not care. What if I could have 1/10th of the love of life, that singularity of existence that I saw in Kim’s eyes… I would care less about meaningless inhibitions.

And so I drove to the game, the sun setting over the Coastal Range, Keep on Rockin’ in the Free World by Neil Young and Round Round by the Sugarbabes blaring on the radio.

I am a better person to have known Kim Beers. Often, over the years, I’ve thought of her. I am not sure why the loss has hit me so hard 14 years after her death, but it has and, even so… I am thankful for the short time that I had with her. And, if there are parallel universes, where all the infinities of our choices play out, I imagine that Kim and I did indeed run away together and are on the open road, living as beatniks, as free and as fully as human beings could do so. In this life, however, I am without her and though I am still half asleep as a soul, not yet sprouting into the light, her memory helps me. Some of that fire in her eyes has caught spark, after all this time, on the tinder of my heart. Now it is up to me to nurture the flame.

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Homeless Veterans

A couple of years ago I was asked to be a Motivational Speaker at a picnic for homeless veterans in Portland. I was quite nervous. I was worried that I couldn’t connect with them and their story. In the end I picked what was, and is, our commonality… our military experience and the values we share. I read Shakespeare to them, St Crispin’s Day speech, which is one of my favorites. From what I was told, I was successful in what I was tasked to do.

A few months later, my job was gone, I couldn’t find other work, and soon I was homeless. At times I did feel self-pity raise its head, yet for the most part I took it as an opportunity to learn. Why didn’t I go to one of the resources that I knew of for the homeless? Why didn’t I call one of the many friends that offered their assistance? I felt deep emotional currents pushing/pulling me down different paths, none of which were towards a shelter or friends. This was fascinating to me.

In the 23 days that I slept in parking lots and behind buildings and at rest stops, the last few days sneaking back into my empty apartment (I knew the maintenance people were behind schedule in turning the unit) for a few hours of sleeping on the floor. This, in no way, makes me a bonafide experiencer of homelessness. 23 days is nothing. I took showers at a local armory. I could get food readily with the cash I had saved. I didn’t experience anything near what our homeless experience in their day-to-day lives. But I got a glimpse and I try to learn from that glimpse. Of all the things that stuck with me, it was the following that still does.

One night I was driving around (I lived out of my small truck) looking for a place to sleep for the night. In Beaverton, OR there is an abandoned Circuit City (or there was) and I drove behind it and in a corner and settled down for a nap. Soon there were headlights. A police car. The officer came and tapped on my window and asked me what I was doing. I said that I was just trying to sleep. I didn’t have a home. I would move along in a few hours. He said that there was a ‘no camping’ ordinance in Beaverton and that I couldn’t stay there. He looked at my window and saw my various stickers and asked me if I was a veteran. When I answered ‘yes’ I saw the quick flash of pity across his face. That was the worse thing for me.

Now to the present day.

Most of the time I am engaged in something or other, but at times I just let myself veg-out. Driving a long trip yesterday I turned off the radio and just let my mind fantasize. What if I won the lottery? This is unlikely, notably because I never play the lottery. But it is a fun exercise to do, imagine if I won. So I was driving home and imagined all the usual stuff… give money to my family, friends, etc… typical stuff. But then I got to the ‘what would I do’ part. Instead of just going down a list of charities, I fantasized about actually doing something.  There is a lot of about homelessness that is more than just people that are without a home because of employment. There are mental health issues (thanks Reagan) that I am not addressing here. I only saw one sliver of the whole, that of the homeless veteran. It is this that I fantasized about helping. Here is what I imagined…

I hire an executive assistant that knows stuff that I don’t know. Such as real estate, taxes, legal things, whatever. Then I buy a warehouse near downtown Portland. Many buildings around it are empty and the owner was happy to sell it to me and get some money back. I then light it up with inside and outside lights. It is bright. Inside I add a row of computers to a computer room. Another room is a barracks style room with beds and footlockers. There’s a box of locks and keys available for anyone. Free linen for the beds.

In another room I have a large laundry facility, no coin-ops, and lots of soap. There are showers too. In another portion I build a dozen small rooms of various sizes, 1 to 4 person rooms. The rooms and laundry and shower are open all the time.

Computer room is open only with staff. Volunteers from the community offer resume classes, and other skills teaching from time to time.

Another room is the kitchen with tools to make and cook. There are freezers and refrigerators lining the wall. I hire a permanent staff to oversee the kitchen, particularly with sanitation. But mostly this is a place where people can cook for themselves. They can store food. I’ve worked a deal with many local businesses with rotating donations of food. Some of the companies have staff volunteer to come and cook or setup a buffet table. I emphasize that the food must be healthy. I accept nothing that is detrimental, such as overly processed food. Whole food. Nourishment.

Along the walls are various flags, mottoes, insignias, etc… to fill a person with pride. Nobody pays to be here, there are no tenants, it is use as you need it. No lengthy questionnaire, no microscope, no history, no shame… just come here and regroup yourself. I’m not here to fix you. I’m just providing coffee.

In another room is a wardrobe room. Donations of suits and shirts, ties, shoes, and jackets to assist in job hunting. Local dry cleaners offer to clean for someone doing a job interview. In another room there is coffee and pastries. People congregate there. Music plays. Some of the people volunteer to ‘work’ at the cafe, though nothing is for money.

Another large room has the equipment in it… weights. Twice a day, morning and night, an instructor from some gym in the city comes and gives a WOD.

Sometimes a yoga teacher gives a class. In another room it is sparse and quiet. A meditation room. I’ve established connections with different religious traditions in the area. On various religious holidays, a local religious leader of (insert religion here) stops by to assist.

In another room is the bike room, with lots of tools and benches. Local bike shop owners give classes on maintenance. Some of the people have built their own bikes.

In another room there is the ‘theater’ where there is a regular movie night.

And here is where there is a real difference… we have formations. Every week a new ‘Platoon Sergeant’ is picked from the ‘ranks’, as are squad leaders and squads. Every person that walks in is greeted by someone who lives there. They are put in a squad, the SL meets them, and spins them up. It isn’t me, or any other people who are saving them. Give them space and they’ll take care of themselves. I recognize this is applicable only to a portion of the homeless population. I recognize that there is a need for specialized treatment, psychotherapy, and more. But I was not that, nor, I believe, are many of our homeless veterans. But I am open to seeing the data.

Not only formations, but posted Plan of the Day as well. The vets who live there are encouraged to sign up for ‘working parties’ when they are not looking for work/housing. These working parties offer volunteer services around town. They give to their community. In other words, they are not moochers taking hand outs. They are veterans who are, again, giving themselves to their loved communities. It is easier to receive services when you feel that you’ve done something in return. I know, I know… we’ve served, that is all that is needed. Not really, it is more complicated than that. But see further below for more on this.

Let me explain. I’ve been to a couple of Veteran Stand Downs as a service-provider. From Portland to Medford and in between. I’ve seen the generosity of the community as they offer services and goods to a population that needs it. But it lacked something.

I saw this 60 Minutes episode and it was night and day from what I was used to. Watch that clip. It is powerful. It has something that I’ve never seen in 6 or more stand downs in Oregon… pride. All the problems found in the homeless community are there, but there is pride in this clip. Standing in formation you can see it in their eyes. That! That bit right there is huge! How could I create an environment that allowed for pride?

After my brief stint of living in my truck, I was talking with some workers at Central City Concern about my experience. There are some wonderful people that work there and I have great respect for them. I told them that everywhere I looked at services for homeless, didn’t apply to me. They all REEKED of victimhood. The term ‘handout’ was poison to me. I wanted nothing to do with them. I told them that if there was a small room some place where I could have just showed up, checked my email (for a job I was looking for), grab some coffee, take a shower without having to make excuses or play a part, maybe do some laundry, no questions asked, no big drama, no ‘how can we help you’, I would have loved it. If, instead of a shelter of services there was something like a ‘tactical resupply checkpoint’, I would’ve been all over it. I didn’t need anyone to save me (how I felt whenever I went anywhere near some services) but I could use a resupply.

This is what I know. That veterans are different. Give them space and opportunity and get out of their way. They’ll surprise you. They can organize, plan, and execute.

Speaking, briefly, to the mental health aspects and the possibility of some having PTSD, TBI or moral injury, given a chance to step outside of the role of victim and into a role of autonomous person, is powerful. Moral injury is not easy to get over. In one study that I read (I’m looking for it again so I can cite it) the author states it takes 25 acts of heroism to balance one act of murder. It is possible that in an environment like this, they can start to work themselves out of that hole. Working on work parties, picked and chosen by the tenants. They are the ones that find the work and opportunities to volunteer. They are not a cheap labor force to abuse. They might find a school with a broken fence, or a help rebuild a playground for kids, or something of the sort. Who knows. But they are in control of their fate.

In my fantasy about this, I merely provided space and equipment and then I got out of their way. I paid staff to regularly do maintenance, food safety, security for items, etc… but that was it. If case management was needed, or more involved services, there are entities in town that did that. We were just a bad ass tactical resupply checkpoint where bad asses, who happened to find themselves homeless, could regroup.

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squirrels

I’m trying to get into a habit of short writing exercises where I just free-form anything that comes to mind. I started out with the first sentence and went from there.

The squirrels leapt from the limb. With wild abandon they gave their fates to the wind. They didn’t know what was to happen in the next fifteen inches of free fall, the next fifteen seconds of life. All that they did know was that behind them was an angry hawk that had crashed onto the limb, razor claws tearing the bark from the limb where the squirrels had just been sitting mere breathes before. The decision, more of an instinct, was to trust that some unknown was better than the known of piercing talons and ripping beak.

So they leapt.

At this time, a man had been walking by. His feet dragged the ground as though shackled to a ball and chain, though his heart was heavier than any iron links would be. He wanted to scream at the universe, the gods, fate, at the injustice that he found himself in. He did. Yet, wounded as his spirit was, all the vitality leaked out through the sobs late in the night, all he could muster for his screams were but wisps of sighs. He ached for things to be different. He longed for something to change his frame of reference on life. Under the water of hopelessness he longed for the brilliant Sun in an optimistic sky.

Instead he got squirrels.

Onto his head they landed, their tiny hands gripping in frenzy, trying to regain some control in a trajectory where they had abandoned all control. Touching down on physical possibility, they did what squirrels do when faced with oblivion and given multiple paths. They zigged, they zagged, they went bonkers. This is a highly adaptive response to a lunging predator. There is no rhyme or reason, no pattern, no way to predict where the squirrel will run to next. The squirrel runs to what is is safe, and away from what is moving toward it.

For example, hands.

The suddenness of the squirrels on his head ripped the man out of his melancholy as powerful as any lightning bolt ever thrown by Zeus. Electricity poured through his nerves, sinews snapped, muscles flared, and he leaped up and down, ran in circles, shrieking incoherences, flailing his arms, and trying with all the desperation of man on fire with only wet sponges to douse himself, to swipe the two squirrels from his head.

Terrorized, with only a hopeful panic to fuel them, the squirrels darted up and down and around his head. As one hand came swooping in, the squirrel would dart down below the ear, under the jaw, over the shoulder, and up behind the other ear. Meanwhile the hawk had flown off. Mice are easier. Still, the squirrels ran round and round, up and down, and left reddened trails around the man’s face and head. He, meanwhile, became more and more animated. Twirling around and around so much, he entered a rare state of transcendence that only the most experienced Sufis have touched.

Nirvana.

The man fell to the Earth, panting, sweating, and euphoric, the blood still swirling in his veins, the crackle of electricity raising his hairs. The squirrels, seeing grass, darted through the green and under a hot dog cart. His lungs expanded, his pulse full, he gazed upward into the sky. The day was bright, the sky was aqua, and puffy white clouds hung motionless. For the first time in weeks his gaze looked outward, not inward. Laughing, tears streaming down his face, he spies a cloud overhead…

… it looked like a squirrel.

Running in a what?

I started running marathons when I was 39. Before then I rarely ran, if ever. I did a marathon because it was on my bucket list of things to do.

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I’ve logged a lot of miles over the years and really started to hit my stride in the last 2 years. Oddly, it wasn’t until after a couple of marathons that I began to consider myself a runner.

Any runner will tell you that there are things that annoy the crap out of us. Things such as inconsiderate dog-owners that allow their dogs to poop everywhere, bicyclists that don’t announce their passing (and too close), people that love to run in packs and cover the entire trail (at a snail’s pace), and more. Many of these things are outside of our control and when I meet them I try to keep this in mind. Some things, however, are in my control. Hydration, fuel (gels, nuts, butters), chaffing, proper shoes and equipment, routes to run, times, rest, etc… Like many runners, I’ve experimented with many different variations, run at night vs day, 3x week versus 4 or 2, gel or M&Ms, etc… And still there is one thing that drives me bonkers… my shorts.

For whatever reason, whether it is the size of my thighs, my gait, or what… my shorts ride up and bunch up in the crotch. This drives me bonkers. I’m not talking about after ten miles… after 1/4 mile. I am CONSTANTLY tugging down on my shorts. I’ve bought the really short men’s runner shorts, and they still ride up on this as well as the sides are shorter, but the inseam is still long. I’ve tried running commando, different briefs, and so forth. When I wear my shorter running shorts, I get comments from friends (Nice legs!), but then again, I get them when I wear my regular running shorts as well. It appears that the ‘guy standard’ in shorts is at least mid thigh and below, moving ever toward the knee.

During the summer I often wear a kilt when hiking. I freaking love it! Some guys think it is strange, others have told me in hushed tones “I wish I could wear a kilt”, implying that they’d be ‘girly’ if they did. After all, no matter what some of the vociferous kilt wearers say… it is a dress. So I started looking for running kilts online.

Here is a review of a running kilt.  But seriously… $175 for a running kilt? And all that fabric? Isn’t it hot? Note, scroll down the page a bit to see the running shorts he is wearing. Quite short. So this got me to thinking, what about running skirt? A quick google found me this website about Skirted Running Man.  He writes about the utility aspects of it and after reading a bit, I decided to order one from Running Skirts.com and cut the liner out.

ed skirt

Before dawn I took it out on a 6 mile run where I did some fast pace running. And after running in it, all I can say about the utility of it is HOLY COW! No bunching up, no annoying rubbing and chaffing from fabric. There is a debate on various runners websites about the running skirt, and much of the hoopla, especially the anti-skirt side, is around the idea of fashion or ‘looking cute’ on a run (and getting unwanted attention from men). But on the utility side, I’ve seen all positive. Such as this story about Shannon Farar-Griefer (she is a BADASS!).

So on the utility side, these are a win. Not even close. I much prefer wearing these and I’m contemplating wearing them when it isn’t so dark outside. My resistance, as you might understand, is the grief that I would get from people for doing so.

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So it comes down to this for me… bullshit gender schemas. I was basically going against the grain of accepted masculinity.

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As the above article notes, the thing about masculinity is that it is a social value. You are a woman by biology, but you are a man by behavior. In the several hundred presentations that I’ve given about mental health, crisis intervention, stress responses, how to be freakin’ awesome, resilience, BATTLEMIND and PTSD, and more… a common component to all of this is the highly restrictive and sometimes damaging effects of narrowing definitions of masculinity on mental health. Since my own return from deployment to Iraq, and the trials of reintegration and readjustment, I’ve leaned into this to learn what I can.

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Then there is this side of masculinity gone haywire… misogyny. It is odd that valuing ‘feminine traits’ in women doesn’t demean masculine traits (in men or women) but valuing feminine traits in men somehow devalues masculine traits.

Many people (men) who have sat in one of my presentations have scoffed at the notion of a pervasive and sometimes hindering rule of masculinity. So I’ve always issued the challenge “wear a dress to the grocery store and report back to me your findings”. Thus far nobody has taken me up on my challenge. So this leads me to another reason to wear this… I am interested in what reactions I will experience within myself (already noted lots of negative when a car drove by me this morning).

As a Stoic I try to look at underlying patterns and find the true causes and act in accordance. Fashion, it seems, is arbitrary. Other than the utility of an item, what reason is there for preference of one or the other? This has already been shown to be of added utility and comfort. So the only negative left is social approval and emotional responses on mine and other’s. Thinking of this I came to two conclusions.

First, on my reaction. It is an opportunity to remind myself of my Stoic ideals and try to get to the heart of the matter. The closer I get, the less I care.

Second, on people that will not approve. Why care I for their opinions? (see first point above) But also, and here is where my masculinity raises its head in anticipation, there have been various physical assaults against people for a variety of reasons, among which are because they were assumed feminine (women are attacked, effeminate men are attacked). In this regard I WELCOME the opportunity for someone to attack me. In my reasoning if there is a person who is looking to attack someone because that person is (whatever stupid reason goes here), then I would welcome their attention being placed on me. Perhaps we could have a discussion where my inner Socrates would debate with them, or perhaps they’ll meet my Marine side (which can get very mean).

It is early in this experiment… we’ll see how it moves forward.

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Dreams of fleas, fighting aliens, and Dexter

I am not a clinical psychologist (yet) and have not much more than the basic undergraduate training in such. But I do have experience in other matters of the mind and soul, about life, and everyday brings more questions for me.

Descartes was known for his naps and long periods of working in bed. There is something to this. I’ve used the half awake, half asleep, late morning period as an experimental shop for as long as I can remember. I’ve set myself up in situations to note my automatic emotional reactions, I’ve tested out theories and stories and more. I find that I have just enough focus to render input, but not too much as to rid any unbiased outputs. It is also a time when diffused thinking is strong and my mind makes leaps and new connections are found by my awake self, already known to my unawake self.

This morning I had a variety of dreams in this state. First there was the dream of the fleas. I kept waking up due to fleas on me. I was dreaming I was in bed as I was. This isn’t too far from the truth as I have treated my cats for fleas in the past week, though I’ve only caught 2 on my person and none in bed. I would half wake up and itch the body part that I dreamed I had the fleas on, half asleep, and drift back into slumber. This occurred over and over, and I had enough realization to know that I was exiting a deep sleep for this dream. Next time I imagined 5 to 10 fleas on my calf and I could see them distinctly against my skin, under the covers, in the dark room. I noted that this must be a dream and not reality because I was able to see them in this dark environment without moving my head toward my leg, lifting the covers, turning on the lights, contorting my body, and more. And yet I felt the sensation of fleas. What’s more, I felt them other places as well. So instead of lazily swatting at them, again and again, I focused my attention on one area I knew I could not see yet could feel… the back of my head. I felt a flea walking behind my ear and I strained to noticed its path of movement and speed. It didn’t move. It wasn’t fleas. Suddenly al of my fleas were gone and I was able to drift back to sleep.

Another dream that connected to some other thoughts followed later this morning. The Earth was being invaded by aliens from outer space. I never saw them. In my dream I was in the Army Combat Uniform because I work at the Military Department Headquarters here in Salem, Oregon. There was a large ship in the sky and lots of small fighter/attack ships swarming out of it. They were the size of small cars. They were flying around and shooting everything. The world was filled with burning cars, buildings, and smoke. I ran to my convertible Mustang, put the top down, and had another soldier sit in the back, backwards (not easy to do in such a small seat), kneeling and high outside the car. The seat-belts were double wrapped and the buckles were facing me in case we needed a quick egress. And I burned rubber. I put that car through the paces, screaming around wrecks and corners, while the other soldier shot at everything with the weapons. Turns out the M4, with such a small round, was useless. Then the dream had me in the seat of a space fighter. It was roundish and able to accelerate into almost any direction at my discretion. It shot four laser burst forward and one diamond burst to the rear. Think the 80’s movie ‘Explorers’ meets the Raptors of Battlestar Galactica. So off I went into the sky, the Earth below me, and I zigged and zagged, flying into weak spots and then flying into dense spots. Firing and blasting aliens.

Now, while I was doing this, I was monitoring myself, my emotions and thoughts. In the movies the hot shot pilot flies by the seat of the pants, emotions running, and yet here I was… cool as a cucumber. My thoughts were:

  • If I die I will have lost nothing as all must die
  • It matters not when I die, only how I live
  • the aliens cannot anticipate my moves because they think me guided by emotion
  • emotions will get me killed, making me susceptible to manipulation into traps and baits

It was known in the dream that the aliens were emotionless and operated from pure logic. They understood what our emotions were, how our fears worked, and this went into how their squadrons worked. I didn’t play that game and was successful. I kept blasting aliens. But then I noted that I wasn’t using my emotions, my strength, but neither was I using logic. I was using randomness. I could have set up a remote drone to do what I did. But could I really? Was there something guiding me at a deeper level? A sixth sense? What I refer to here as a sixth sense is a deep emotion. In my dream I had confused the cognitive state of self aware feeling and classification as the emotion and had forgotten the much deeper portion of the true emotion.
Dream jump. The Showtime series Dexter. I had just started the final season where Dr Vogel is talking to Dexter about what psychopaths are, do and don’t do. In a recent episode she said that psychopaths are needed demographics, they are a part of evolution, they are not mistakes. She was curious about what Dexter thought was love, what motivated him to look after Debra, if it was self interest as she believed it was, or if it was emotion as Dexter did. With these thoughts in mind I asked myself the question: Why is it that psychopaths are assumed to always be violent? Why is it that they are treated as needing to kill? This is how Dr Vogel speaks of them, the Alphas. What is this need if not an emotion? To speak of them as having no emotion and yet a slave to urges and needs is a mistake. During my walk yesterday (non dream) it seemed to me that what we talk about as therapy, the majority of it is how to get a grip on our out-of-control emotions. Back to Dexter, perhaps it is wrong to think of psychopaths as emotionless, but that emotions are felt different in different context. Certainly I understand the violent part. I’ve contended that one of the effects of military training, culture, and war is that it dampens the emotional barriers to producing harm against others. The ‘emotional brakes’ that hamper someone from going too far in a physical altercation are not there. And as expected, many veterans are over aggressive in their dealings with family and others. Look at Domestic Violence. But while I’ve identified this in myself, I believe that it isn’t so much a wired state of affairs so much as it is a function, though complex. For as prone to violence as I’ve become, as easy as I could imagine myself hurting others, I could not stand violence in other situations, such as horror movies.

Dream jump. Back to the alien battle. I now looked at the humans in the star fighters attacking the aliens. The aliens were supposedly advanced species from outer space without emotion. Why would humans have an advantage in logic vs logic thinking? Our tactics would likely be infantile to theirs. Randomness, I believe, doesn’t truly exist. Chaos theory shows order out of randomness while it also shows the limits of knowledge. Just because we continue to push the boundaries of the unknown does’t mean there aren’t rules outside the light of measurement, rules that influence actions within. I read a great article on how the random coin flips have tiny influences we are unaware of, but might alter the result. You might not notice for one out of 100 flips, but perhaps 1 out of a trillion you would see it working. Looking at the cosmic scale, it is no wonder that that life is varied. Who knows what else is out there.

Back to the alien space war. I looked at the humans now with an evolutionary view. They weren’t merely humans, but the end result of a long line of mammals. Mammals that have worked in packs, struck out alone, hunted prey using their wits, and have been the prey of a variety of animals, notably giant eagles. All of this evolutionary behavior has created a deep system of emotions that act as the rear seat radar operator, Goose, and constantly seeks out threats to avoid as well as advantages to seize. What gets in our way is when we think that our thinking mind, the ‘I’ behind our thoughts, is what drives the show. It isn’t. The emotions are the engines, the ‘I’ is the captain, or could be the captain. In the end, it can only steer. The captains of large trading vessels could go nowhere if there was no wind. Serenity could go nowhere when it was out of gas. I saw that my earlier flying wasn’t cold and emotionless and random, as I had first believed. But that it was influenced by unseen emotions that constantly scan the environment. It was just that I wasn’t getting in its way.

Then my two cats said ‘enough of this, we know you are not asleep’ and they told me to get up and feed them. They had bee patient enough.

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Meaning in military deployment

It is a beautiful Sunday. Not a cloud in the sky. Normally I would go running, or watch football, but of late I have been pondering the psychology, philosophy, and spirituality of Meaning in Life. I’ve been reading writers in Depth Psychology, mythology, psychology, religion, and more, and struggle with the usual dynamics of my desire to go macro (big picture) and micro (application in a particular instance). An elegant theory would be able to zoom up and down. In having a discussion with a treasured friend, who is currently undergoing her own PhD program, she made the comment “you’re working on building a theory aren’t you?”. I was jolted. No, I replied, my goal isn’t to devise a theory. My goal is to understand it. Right now I do not. The limitations are of my own brain in being able to zoom up and down and jump to different nodes in the web of associations. So today, instead of running in the crisp air, I am drinking black coffee and reading, and trying to use a newly downloaded tool to aid my limited brain. Thus far I am liking Scapple. I only wished it had an iOS app.

Today I’ve gone over three studies, hence why the graphic of the web diagram is so very small. But one in particular is giving me pause to ponder. That is:

Britt, T. W., Adler, A. B., & Bartone, P. T. (2001). Deriving benefits from stressful events: The role of engagement in meaningful work and hardiness. Journal of Occupational Health Psychology, 6(1), 53–63. doi:10.1037//1076-8998.6.1.53

Granted this is written in 2001, prior to so many things happening in psychology and military deployment. I am hopeful that I will be accepted into a graduate program where I can again obtain access to research articles and see what new developments have occurred. But in the meantime, what struck me the most in this article is the influence of Contextual Experience. “The results revealed that soldiers who reported little contextual experience reported fewer benefits of the deployment“.

Elsewhere in the paper:

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“The fact that such factors as witnessing the destruction caused by the warring factions were associated with greater benefits might appear at first glance counterintuitive. For example, one might expect that being exposed to destruction would be rather depressing, leading to withdrawal and feelings of hopelessness. Mitchell and Dyregrov (1993) noted that destruction is a source of stress for many emergency workers. However, the present research showed that such exposure was in fact positively related to construing benefits from the deployment. In the context of the peacekeeping mission, destruction was likely seen as reinforcing the justification for U.S. intervention, adding meaning to the soldier’s work on the mission.”

So I am going to simply rap about the above paragraph a little, throwing caution to the wind and letting my free form go. I will flow between psychologist lingo and infantry lingo. So there will be curse words and time to time I will sum up psychology concepts into an infantryman’s simple summation. Then again, I do not see what the social disparagement against curse words are all about.  I would argue that to say ‘fornicate’, ‘make sweet sweet love’ or ‘fuck’ are all the same. If I am talking about sex, why does it matter to someone’s sensibilities if I use one term or another term? That one is offensive and another is not, to me, is utterly ridiculous.

It is not a paradox to me to see that Mitchell and Dyregrov noted destruction as a source of stress, while Britt, Adler, and Bartone noted it as a source of benefit. Imagine the life of an emergency worker, such as when I was a volunteer firefighter. You get the call to respond to an emergency. On the one hand you feel good because you are helping, you are being useful, you are protecting others. However, if it is a particularly bad event, there are casualties, and there is a ‘waste of life’ (waste: use or expend carelessly, extravagantly, or to no purpose.), then this would be a stressor. Why would God allow such suffering and evil? Why am I scraping drunk kids off of highways? Why am I searching for remains in homes torched by dry Christmas Trees? Why does randomness bad shit happen? (note, see the influence of cohesion on perceived meaning in life).  A study on mental models of meaning and purpose of firefighters in relation to such seemingly random and/or destined events (note the two polar extremes) would be very interesting.

Regarding Britt, et al, article, I recall my own experiences in deployments. My first one was as a young Marine in Desert Shield and Desert Storm. I was already in the Marines when it happened. I loved (still do) the identity of the Marine and all that it stood for and was caught up in the American orgasm of sending troops to war. As a side note, while I agree with Greenwood’s song, I am sick to death of hearing it. Desert Storm had every damn commercial, sports game, and so on playing that song. But the idea behind the song, fighting for my country’s freedom, was wholly bought into by myself.  I never questioned it.  Years later I was in Houston, going to the University of Houston (go Coogs) and I watched the movie Three Kings. It was the first time I actually considered our military actions as being for something other than protecting America. That is, we were protecting oil interests. As I looked at the bigger picture, how we had abandoned the Iraqi uprising, how we kept a puppet dictator in place that would justify increased military spending on our part (and influence in the world) and other actions, I saw it as a war to increase the rich. When I watched this movie and the wave of considerations came rolling over, which my naive belief that I was simply protecting American freedom was the damn holding the flood back, I went straight to a bar and ordered whiskey, straight, and let it all sink in. My faith in the motives of my country was shaken.

Flash forward five years. I signed up and deployed to Operation Iraqi Freedom 2. This time it was easier. There were supposed WMDs to find, an axis of evil that was bent on attacking America (9/11), and I had fellow warriors overseas continuing the fight. I didn’t harbor ill will toward the populace of the country, only those in power. I am not haunted by the images that car bombs will do to a crowded market. I saw it as a tactic used by the enemy.

I will state here that I am antagonistic against fundamentalism of any kind, any religion. I hold fundamentalists all in the same category of distrust. Whether they are fundamentalists Muslim, Christian, Libertarian, Socialists, or whatever, I distrust you. Anyone who is willing to kill for their belief is intellectually lazy and a danger to everyone else. I will not kill for my beliefs, because beliefs are emotional states of ‘certainty’ in regard to wishes and paradigms. As such, they can be, and often are, incredibly wrong no matter how you feel about it. However, I will kill in defense. The astute observer will note here the thorny problem in the philosophy of ethics between relativism, nihilism, and other ‘isms’, to which I welcome such debate. This openness is the opposite of fundamentalism. No fundamentalist is truly open to respect of other’s opinion, nor the possibility of self growth or virtue. Not a one. Eventually you will get them to state “that is my belief, let’s agree to disagree”, even when given insurmountable evidence of their jackassery.

Back to the point. In recent years I have worked with helping veterans reintegrate. The majority of veterans will do so just fine, however a minority have hangups. It was often the case that I would work with an individual with legal, financial, family, social problems. In talking with them and their units, I would hear the sentiment “but we didn’t do shit on this deployment. We just rolled up and down MSR (military supply route) or pulled guard duty. We never got shot at.” The picture painted by these were a boring deployment. They were surrounded by a populace that was burdened by a poor economy, a lousy political system, little opportunity for upward mobility, a harsh environment, who were war-weary, and tired of seeing Americans, tired of seeing no improvement in their lives, tired of seeing futility. Interaction with the locals didn’t increase a sense of ‘helping them’ but instead a sense of ‘we’re in the way’ or ‘we’re not welcome’. So it was a shock to many returned soldiers when members of their units showed reintegration issues. They were using the same simple formula that our movies and pop psychology has given them… ‘war = hell = fucked up soldiers’. The formula of ‘war = boring = fucked up soldiers’ did not compute. There is generally a lot of confusion about this. To make matters worse, every reintegration powerpoint by well-meaning, but utterly out of touch therapist, perpetuate that war = hell, that violence shatters lives, that exposure to bad shit increases the chance of a fucked up soldier.

But if the above formulas were true, and I completely reject them, then the Britt et al, article is interesting because it shows something that counters it. That is, ‘exposure to fucked up shit = increase in meaningful deployment’. Going back to my second deployment, I remember walking down some alley. We were a single squad of soldiers on a waking patrol. An old woman came out with a pan of very chewy dates (like eating a mixture of tar and peanut butter). Though tactically stupid, I ate one as a sign of good faith. She was crying and giving us blessings and telling us stories of her family being taken away by Saddam and killed. She was very thankful for Americans in toppling Saddam. Now, the debate about why America went to Iraq is a big one. Personally I do not for a second believe (again that word ‘belief’) that President Bush sent us over because of Freedom. However, that IS why I went. The years since then the case has been made on the shoddy evidence for WMDs, the billions made by Halliburton on our war (I strongly dislike Dick Cheney), and so forth. Yet still, I recall this old lady, and many more civilians who came up to me on patrol, with tears in their eyes. Regardless of our crappy National politics are, it was a good thing to rid Saddam for the Iraqi people. Seeing the poverty and abuse that ten years of war, no fly zones, sanctions has done to the country, much of it our fault, I am happy to see the people of Iraq hold more autonomy in their hands. It is messy now, filled with inept and corrupt politicians, but it is a start.

This backdrop of the people of Iraq was a potent source of suffering for me regarding my combat actions. One cannot fight a war with high powered weapons within a densely populated area without it hurting others. Ignoring it will not make it go away. Calling it ‘collateral damage’ will not lessen it, because in your heart you know that ‘innocent people get fucking killed’, which carries more weight than the cognitive ‘collateral damage’. I guess this is the difference in curse words (see above) in that they emote the more/less emotional/cognitive appraisals. Emotions are generally regarded as ‘dirty’ and reason as ‘pure’. I need some whiskey and a philosopher of language to aid me here.

What about the current troops deployed? What purpose is in their deployment? I know from talking with some that they are on a ‘clean up mission’ where much resources are being taken out of the region and they are holding down the fort while the withdrawal process occurs. This ‘locking up the store’ is not welcomed by some of the soldiers that I know. Personally, it was this that kept me from going over. I wanted to ‘seek out the enemy’, not pull tower duty all day. But just as looking at the thoughts in one’s workout that help push further, so too might looking at a deployment aid. Some call this ‘spin’ (politics) but we spin everything in our lives and the nature of our spin colors our emotional reactions. Spin isn’t good or bad, it just is.  I know how to spin cold, wet, training to enable better performance, how would one spin a boring deployment?

Just some thoughts… and looking at the clock I must ready myself to go to Portland for an event. So I will end it here.