Pax Per Bellum

It’s been a rough month.

Partially, this is my own doing, because I’m kind of a sucker for unpleasant knowledge. It used to be harmless fun. What happens if I drink this? Why is this substance illegal? Surely, a drop like this won’t kill me. Let’s try!

Now, I’ve transitioned into reading the news. All of it. From everywhere. What happens if I search for this? Who are these people? What does this really look like? Is it really as bad as they say?

Call it stubborn curiosity, morbid fascination, or intellectual imperative. I’m not naive, just apparently a glutton for punishment. Saying that used to be a flippant little remark. Yes, I have some deep-seated inability to enjoy happy things, and look how I surround myself with small miseries! Isn’t it adorable?

But I got burned.

In a misguided, go-straight-to-the-source attempt to learn who these ISIS/ISIL fellows are, I watched one of their recruiting/propaganda videos (no, not the one you’re thinking of–I still have some self respect) that’s been floating around on the web and, well… I know now. And no, I’m not telling you where to find it. I’m sitting here in my room, telling you what this disease feels like. If you want to know as badly as I did, go catch it. Just not from me, ok?

To say that it is violent is to call the ocean wet. And “savage” doesn’t seem to fit with the emotional calculus and professional video editing evident in its creation. It’s the kind of cold, smiling brutality that reminds the viewer (or at least the viewer who isn’t sympathetic to the cause) that the human body is just meat. It makes one’s joints ache and stomach churn. And yet, the video has a twisted kind of appeal. No matter how badly you want to look away, there’s something in it that’s carefully designed to tap into that most base of animal instincts inside each and every one of us. Militant or not, sympathetic to the cause or not, we all get a mainline boot of fight-or-flight.

But this video wasn’t designed to scare me or recruit me. This was directed toward potential allies and enemies in the Middle East. As a terror tool, the effect is obvious. Carnage–real carnage–is a terrifying thing. But as a recruitment tool, it almost seems counterintuitive. In America, our military recruitment propaganda is a lot of big ships, fast jets, and sneaky commandos sneaking places. Maybe this is because we haven’t really fought a war we needed to fight in a very long time. But we’re also a democracy, more or less, and rely on our freedom of choice: do we fight, or do we not.

In the places where ISIS is getting a foothold, however, there is often no longer a choice, but a dilemma. If you fight against ISIS, implies the video, well, see this building where guys are fighting against us, and see how we’re giving them no quarter and transforming them into these macabre piles of corpses and heads here? Yeah, they’re you and everyone you know. But if you fight for ISIS, you get to not be in that pile of corpses. See? Everyone’s happy. Well, except for those other guys, but they’re dead now, so they don’t have an opinion anymore. It’s a hell of a way to create a utopia.

This makes American dude-bro hawkishness seem downright civilized. We glorify armed men as heroes, forgetting that “greatness is based primarily on values that we abhor.” Okay, maybe a quote from a confessed spy and traitor wasn’t the best choice there, but the man had a point. If we consider ourselves to be a great nation, we need to be sure that the greatness is coming from values that we admire and would want to foster in others.

With recent, high-profile incidences of police militarization in the US, and with increased reportage of excessive force and unnecessary police violence toward unarmed citizens in places like Ferguson, MO, there is a temptation to draw connections toward the brutality seen in other places around the world. Obviously, the ISIS fanatics and our own police forces have very little in common, other than being armed and primarily male. But they also share an increasingly us-versus-them attitude.

To protect Americans from terrorism, the federal government donated surplus military equipment to local police departments across the country. How grenade launchers, automatic rifles and APCs would stop something as carefully planned and under-the-radar as the 9/11 attacks is a mystery, but it made people feel safer, so that’s good, right? Maybe not. Here’s a favorite quote of mine from HBO’s The Wire:

This drug thing, this ain’t police work. No, it ain’t. I mean, I can send any fool with a badge and a gun up on them corners and jack a crew and grab vials. But policing? I mean, you call something a war and pretty soon everybody gonna be running around acting like warriors. They gonna be running around on a damn crusade, storming corners, slapping on cuffs, racking up body counts. And when you at war, you need a fucking enemy. And pretty soon, damn near everybody on every corner is your fucking enemy. And soon the neighborhood that you’re supposed to be policing, that’s just occupied territory.

–Maj. Howard “Bunny” Colvin, Season 3, Episode 10 “Reformation”

The point of this, if not obvious, is that when you give police departments military hardware, and every small town has a tactical unit, don’t be surprised when they get tempted to use it. It also draws the line between soldiering and policing. In fact, the Posse Comitatus Act expressly forbids “military involvement in civilian affairs” unless called upon by Congress to do so, which is why military bomb disposal units, but not drone operators, can work with local law enforcement. This is largely due to the skill set that separates the military from the police. The goal of a police department is to hold a community together, whereas the goal of the military is generally to take communities apart. The militarization of police forces, and the warrior mentality that accompanies it, negates that separation and creates the situation Bunny describes, in which ordinary citizens are treated like “a fucking enemy.” It’s hard to call someone a peace officer when they’re loaded to bear with weapons of war.

We’ve had a pax per bellum mentality about a lot of things: terrorism, drugs, disease, hunger, poverty, and cancer. We do this with the erroneous confidence that through war on these things–meaning their eventual elimination–we can achieve peace. ISIS, too, wants to achieve peace through war, but what they’re searching for is ideological uniformity. Given the complexity of human nature, uniformity is a pipe dream. Even if they succeed in setting up whatever kind of society they’re trying to build, the kind of brutal intolerance for differences of opinion will eventually cause them to implode.

Of course, Ferguson isn’t Syria, and the police aren’t ISIS, but war is war: divisive and singleminded.

Peace is balance. These things are going to be with us for a very long time, and in many arenas it may serve us better to police when we can and war when we have to.

My Summer Vacation, Part III: Flying High With Ms. Biscuit

Manila. We were just cleaning up after one mess, when another fell from the sky. Unless you’ve been vacationing in your fortress of solitude for the past month, you’ve probably heard every bit of news about the Malaysian Airlines flight shot down over Ukraine, so I won’t go into it much, except to say that boarding our own flight, prefixed with “MH,” there was a definite chill in the air aside from the blast freezer that is Filipino air conditioning. It was quite apparent that everyone was doing everything they could to think about anything but high-altitude death.

Everyone, that is, except for one woman.

Let me digress for one moment here. Air travel, in general, sucks. Before being allowed anywhere near the aircraft, there are queues, scans, queues, more scans, queues, questions, queues, and, if you happen to be flying in the US, the surrender of dignity and the very real possibility of nudity. And of course, there are more queues.

But once you’re up in the air, flying doesn’t need to be a horrible experience. It’s not the subway, where the accepted method of communicating with your neighbor is keeping your mouth shut and your eyes on the floor or some other inanimate object. In fact, airplanes are one of the few vehicles in which turning to your neighbor and attempting conversation is still almost universally considered not weird.

Almost.

It was about 20 or 30 minutes into our flight, right around the time when those who were going to try and catch a nap on the four-hour flight were getting comfortable. A loud voice popped my comfortable bubble of pleasure, just as I was settling into a book. It wasn’t the tone that screams danger–just the kind that indicates that the four hours are about to feel like six.

“Rosemary! Rosemary! You have to try these biscuits! My children love them!” the woman crowed from the row behind us.

And so it began. Demands for biscuits and drinks came first, quickly followed by an analysis of the crash of MH17, particularly the fact that many, many AIDS researchers had been on board. If there is one thing that nervous passengers trapped in a flying metal cylinder six miles up do not want to hear, it is an analysis of a recently doomed flight from the same airline. People were turning around, giving her the evil eye, but some part of her brain interpreted “potential angry mob” as “rapt audience.” And in a sense, we were. She was so loud that almost everyone within three rows had their airline-issued headphones on. And even then, we were captive witnesses to her life story, as told to Rosemary from one middle seat, across the aisle, to another middle seat.

She has three kids: two daughters and a son. One daughter is 27 not married, and worked for Microsoft in Singapore, but moved back to the Philippines. Her mother, of course, wants her to get married, but she (or her mother) is having trouble finding someone at her level.

And then, before launching into the story of her own life, she wanted more biscuits.

She got married at 21 in London. “I was born Hindu, but in 2008, God touched me, and I was born again.” I got that part through a loud fight scene in the movie Ip Man, which I’d thrown on because reading was a fool’s errand. The guy next to me turned to me and we shared a moment. No words were spoken, but we both knew what we wanted to ask: “Now show us on this doll: where did God touch you?”

The story of her religious revelation and conversion to Christianity (a marvelous topic on which to crow loudly while on a plane returning to a Muslim country, by the way) continued unabated for as long as the biscuits lasted. Mercifully, they ran out quickly, and she flagged the cabin crew down for another hit.

“We’re sorry, but we have no more biscuits.” No more?! No more. Just three. No more. Okay, just one, then. “Ma’am, we have run out of bisuits?” But couldn’t they go back and check, pretty please. No. Why? There are none left. It took a delegation of cabin crew to confirm that there were, indeed, no more god damned biscuits, so please shut up about them already. Rebuffed, Ms. Biscuit turned to the topic of bodily functions.

Rosemary has knee problems, and so did Ms. Biscuit, until she started taking something called MSN. I may have changed my mind about her if I thought she had been injecting the Internet into her knees. But nope. No NSA geeks tapping her lower extremities. Oh well.

As we descended into Kuala Lumpur, Ms. Biscuit asked Rosemary to look her up in Indonesia because clearly they had a spiritual connection. As did we all–at least with each other. The level of hostility toward this woman was incredibly tempered, considering how long she had held us all captive. On a flight back from Laos, friends of ours (not terribly inclined toward hyperbole) were witness not to Jesus, but to an epic fight between a German woman and a Malay man after the woman politely asked a group of first-time flyers to please stop praying so loud because it was freaking people out. The man took offense and launched into the woman with a tsunami of invective. The crew apparently tried to calm the man down, but he threatened to kick everyone’s asses, and shook his fist in righteous anger. The woman cowered and broke down sobbing, and the two were separated, the woman moved to the front and the man to the back.

The point is that it could have been a whole lot worse. The B story of this is that on almost any flight in the US, this woman would have been asked to not shout across the aisle, and if she didn’t stop, would probably have been gagged and bound in a very not-sexy way. So maybe we need more doms working for the airlines. No whips, just good knot work.

My Summer Vacation, Part II: Food and Stuff

[I made an edit to my last post. Apparently, the video I had didn't embed, and I didn't notice until Trisha pointed it out to me. I've put a link in the text.]

On one of my days off (it’s always a working vacation), before Typhoon Glenda hit, I went to the Yummy Eats 2014 food festival. I went primarily to pick up handcrafted, thick-cut bacon from Mad Meats, but once you have a bag of meat, there’s a tendency to start a collection. After all, what good is meat if you don’t have cheese? And what good is cheese if you don’t have artisanal crackers? And so on. I didn’t get a lot of good pictures from the festival, but the following are the ones I thought were worth sharing.

Cream Cheeses

Cream cheeses flavors with herbs and garlic. Very good, but we forgot about them and left the jars I bought in the Philippines.

Pouf!

Pouf! Marshmallow Creme. It came in three flavors: original, Oreo, and cookies and cream. I tried the latter, and it was delicious, but I didn’t think I could transport a jar of it safely back to Malaysia in my baggage.

Chicharrones

Chicharrones. Deep fried pork rinds (pork skin). Absolutely delicious.

Game of Thrones Cake

A Game of Thrones cake!

There were many more booths, one with a lasagna that I loved, but alas, I left my festival guide behind, and can’t remember the names of the vendors.

As always, the food in the Philippines was ridiculously good across the board.

Stay tuned for Part III, in which I drop some helpful tips for not being “that person” on an airplane.

My Summer Vacation, Part I: My First Typhoon

Now that family time is winding down, I thought I’d get back on the horse, writing-wise, and share a few moments from the last two weeks in the Philippines. I’m also going to call the 60-Day Blogging Challenge a loss. I didn’t write every day for 60 days, and even though those days were at the end, when things got super busy, it’s a bit late to ret-con the whole thing as a hiatus. I got close, though, so that’s something. Anyway, enough wallowing.

My First Typhoon

As some people may know, The Philippines got hit with a mid-size typhoon, which, according to most accounts could have been a lot worse.

Here’s a video I took of the winds outside.

The power had gone out, and I was trying to work, using a mobile WiFi device, but service was spotty, especially as cell towers went down, or when flying debris battered them into a wiry pulp. During one service outage, I took the above video, and then, when I’d moved upstairs, I snapped the following picture as one tree began to disintegrate.

Breaking Apart

 

The damage in this particular neighborhood was light: missing roof tiles and shingles, several downed trees, and a couple crushed fences. But a quick excursion into the city proved that the storm had been somewhat stronger than first thought.

Busted Windows

Windows in a nearby high-rise were blown out, and the roof of a hotel (not pictured) was partially destroyed. At one point during the early hours of the storm, something oblong and orange flew by, caromed off the upper wall of the house, and disappeared down the road. I’m almost certain we were hit by a mango, though there remain skeptics. It is possible, nay likely, that those windows fell victim to other such projectiles.

Collapse

Due to the high volume of such storms, the city has taken to having billboards that can roll up and be stored on site. If the advertisement isn’t stowed in time, it can act like a sail and pull the whole structure down with it. Of course, some of these frames are old, have been through several storms already, and are ripe for the picking.

Tree Down

 

Trees like the above and below littered the streets, both in Manila proper and especially in the suburbs, where larger trees caught the wind and toppled over, often taking street signs and chunks of the sidewalk or road with them.

 Another Tree Down, Angle 2 Another Tree Down, Angle 1

 As soon as the winds had died down, reconstruction and debris clearing began, but it turns out, some of the funds going toward disaster recovery are held up due to investigations into corruption and pork-barrel politics. Oops.

Stay tuned for Part II, the lighter, fluffier side of this trip.

Back in the Philippines

I’ve been a little remiss about getting the last few days of the 60-Day Blogging Challenge wrapped up. I should have started earlier, so that the last days of it weren’t a scramble of international travel and family business. Oh well. I’ll try to get the last posts banged out over the next few days.

My future daughter-in-law had her baptism today, something that was, for me, a first. I went to Catholic high school, and have been to full and half Catholic marriages, but am not myself Catholic, and have never been to a real live baptism of a real live baby. Aside from the baptizee soiling herself upon application of the appropriate fluids (I bet the priest would have regretted talking about how the child should be naked as a symbol of rebirth, had the parents opted to go that route), the event was about as smooth as could be expected, which, if you don’t know what to expect, is a rather odd thing to say–but here we are.

The next day or so should be somewhat busy, what with our engagement party and related festivities, so updates may be brief, but they will be forthcoming, even if I am not.

Also, I needed to get this out of my <span style=”font-family: baptismal;”>system</span>.

Mahjong

In preparation for our upcoming trip to the Philippines, my fiancee and I are teaching my parents how to play mahjong. It’s a fairly straightforward game, even though its rules can change slightly, depending on where you’re playing. The general idea is to win by having four groups of three and a pair. The groups of three must be of the same suit (Balls, Sticks, Characters, etc) and can either be a run of consecutive numbers or three of a kind. There are exceptions and wild-ish tiles, like the Winds, of course, but their use follows the general set of rules. It’s a little like poker, gin, and Go Fish all rolled into one, and played with thumb-size tiles instead of cards.

Theoretically, this is an easy game to learn, once you memorize the Chinese numbers. Little did I know how difficult it would be to differentiate balls from sticks. My parents are artists, but the ball and stick thing is a huge hurdle. We’re working on it, though. Also confusing are the Chinese characters, particularly for the Winds, which to the Western eye can look very much the same at a quick glance. Past that, though, it’s just like any other game–symbols and strategy.

My mother, against whom it took me many years to defeat in Scrabble, has now begun aggressively cleaning up. I’m beginning to think she is only pretending not to know what the difference is between balls and sticks.

We got sharked.

Boot

I have possessions, some small, some large, but nearly all of them are transitory. Electronics get worn out and become obsolete. A favorite pen will eventually run out of ink or fall apart. Chairs, no matter how comfy, get left behind during a move. And while other men might have Super Bowl rings or family heirlooms, I don’t have any such jewelry. Even my collection of physical books–you know, the paper kind–are giving way to electronic copies. It doesn’t mean I don’t treasure the ones I keep, but the knowledge within them is a far, far greater prize than the medium.

One thing that I have brought with me from place to place for almost a decade is a photograph. It’s not of me or of any place I’ve been. It’s neither a professional shot nor an amateur Polaroid. The picture is of a boot kicking out a car window, sole front and center, and cubes of shattered safety glass exploding out past the focal point in a glittering bubble. Inside the car, one can just barely make out my father’s face, shrouded in shadow. It’s a perfect line of motion, frozen. I bring it everywhere with me partially because it’s a conversation starter. What is this? Why? Who? What’s the story, man?

Well, what is the story? The car belonged to my parents’ friend, Charles, and the window had had a crack and needed to be replaced. Item number one on the to-do list was take the old window out. Of course, why gently remove a piece of glass if you can smash it–and why boot out the rear passenger window of a Volkswagen if you don’t plan on making an art project out of it?

For the longest time, I had assumed that my mother, not Charles, had been on the other end of the camera. The car is a Volkswagen Beetle, and I know we used to have a blue one when I was very small. I called it the Bu Bo-baxen. I am a marginally better conversationalist now.

But this is the other reason I have kept the photo for as long as I have. It’s a constant reminder of the malleability of memories. Even a photograph requires context. Without knowing who took the picture, when they took it, where they were, and why, it’s just a pretty picture. Some photographs include all this information in the picture. Wedding photos, for example, are a special kind of archiving; this happened to these two people in this place, at this time of day, and with these emotions. They’re the kinds of photos you can instantly understand when walking into someone else’s home. Ah, you say to yourself. Married, two kids, wealthy enough to have this kind of wedding, but not insane millionaires… and on and on. It’s the Darmok of our lives. Dick and Jane in Hawaii. Dick and Jane holding hands. Jane in her white gown. The happy couple, their feet in the sand. These kinds of photos are the most logical way of compressing tons of sensory and emotional information into an easy-to-transport package.

The same applies to the kind of moment captured in the photo I take with me from place to place, only with an important difference. As art, Jack in the Volkswagen, his boot through the window, is, to everyone but Jack (and possibly Charles, his eyes shielded), an almost entirely subjective experience. You can get the straight story from him, or you can get an interpretation from Emmett, his hands gesticulating. Sooner or later, however, the story will be lost, and all that will remain is the photo, compressed data awaiting extraction. The car, its window exploding.

Not to make too much of it, but go back in time and ask Leonardo about the real dope on the Mona Lisa, and he might have something to say. Now, though, we have the Mona Lisa Smile, which each of us interprets according to whatever bits and bytes of information our minds need in order to fill in the gaps during data extraction. It’s the same concept as Jurassic Park, where they used frog DNA to fill in the missing chunks of dinosaur code–only with an slightly smaller probability of horrible death.

That incompleteness is what makes the photo so valuable. It’s neither data that can be compressed further nor knowledge that can be learned. It’s neither purely in the domain of memory, nor is it purely art. The image remains, but the story, known to me now, still mingles with the memory of the story I’d created for it. Understanding the picture, for now, means understanding its changed nature, and means understanding who has it and why. The photograph remains in a wonderful little gray area, a node in the network of how I understand the world. My existence, in relation to the object, puts a lot of weight on it, perhaps unfairly. But once I’m gone, it is free once again to be just an object until someone else comes along and weighs it down again.

For Day 20