Essays

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.

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

Radio Radio

Serial Killer III: Radio Radio

Technologically, the mid-’90s was an exciting time to be young. By ’96, I had watched as the computers on our desks had gone from the single-unit Mac Plus, to alternately shrinking and expanding variations on the desktop tower. Monitors went from black and white to grayscale to 256-color to lifelike color. Games, at first simple distractions of shades and vectors, became immersive, story-driven works of art.

Our first 14.4 modem’s screeching, clicking and hissing echoed venomously through my parents’ newly built studios, but we harnessed the beast and rode it confidently into the Internet. As baud rates increased, exploration of the unknown went farther and deeper. Soon, my uncle’s stories about sending messages back to the States from Europe in the ’80s at (a bone-crushing!) eight baud drew laughs. When my friend Scott’s house was wired for DSL, I spent my first afternoon truly just screwing around on the Web. What happens if we type this? Where will this seemingly made-up url take us? And that continued at home, only for shorter bursts. But I found nothing that I, even at thirteen, hadn’t already anticipated. Human nature plus complete freedom and unlimited space yield pretty obvious results.

The big discovery for me in this era was the illusion of privacy–through a lower-tech medium than I’d expected. One warm spring day, I was helping my mother clean out her office and installing a newer, more reliable cordless phone. Cell phones weren’t universal yet, but having a cordless was standard. The new set installed, I began putting away the old one, when the handset fell off the cradle. I bent to pick it up and heard a sound coming from the earpiece. The years have tarnished the total recall of what I heard, but this is what I remember of it after gingerly picking up the plastic handset and listening to the conversation bubble through the light static:

… comin’ to me.

So what you do?

I hit that nigga with the pipe. Knocked the mothafucka out.

Well, that’s how it goes… So what you doing Friday?

Sometimes, all it takes to uncover a massive crime is luck and a little bit of battery power. Those old cordless phones could, with their telescoping antennae and the right environmental conditions, pick up other conversations on similar frequencies. While the phone still had a little juice left, I turned it on and went up to my room for higher ground and a better signal. I spent the next hour sitting at my desk and listening to hissing, popping and the occasional garbled transmission until even the background static faded out as the battery died.

Weeks later, I bought myself a scanner radio with a much wider range of frequencies. Tuning in late at night, I would reach into the invisible lost-and-found bin of the electromagnetic spectrum and eavesdrop on the lives of others. Police tracked a burglar across the city, a pair of medics tried in vain to save a woman who’d been hit by a car, and construction workers told jokes over their walkie talkies. And I listened.

In the years that followed, I used the lessons of the radio to safeguard my own privacy. I would only put out into the digital world those things that were approved for public consumption. But it went further than that. I also began boxing thoughts, ideas, and even parts of my personality within myself. The concept of the memory castle might be an apt description of how I began storing these things. Room by room, hallway by hallway, ideas had their place. Some I’d stored in common rooms, available at any time for use in conversation and writing. Others I merely hid in rooms, freely available to those who took the time to look. And still others I put behind doors, accessible only though an increasing number of locks and keys. But even that isn’t secure. Substances, discomfort, and lack of sleep can unlock doors more efficiently than the craftiest of questions. How do you keep the worst of your demons on lockdown when faced with that kind of security liability? The answer, it turns out, is obvious, given the source of the question: fragment and encrypt the information and store it in the clouds, far, far away from the castle.

Lace

[Today, I’m revisiting and editing (for the millionth time) an essay I wrote a long time ago. Partially, this is due to blog fatigue. Being unable to get out of the house to do anything other than run errands makes finding something new and interesting to write about every single day a special kind of torture. The other part to “partially” is that the essay fits nicely and neatly into the prompt, and comes directly after the revelations in the pervious Serial Killer post. Enjoy.]

Serial Killer II: The Lord of the Thongs

The summer after my first year in college, I come back home and find myself working a temp job at Nordstrom’s Rack, a discount outlet that carries overstock and items that just don’t sell in the regular Nordstrom’s stores. Most days, I drag myself from the warm pocket of air between my sheets at about four in the morning, cram some food into my stomach, shower, and then get a ride to the mall, where I sit on the cold curb, watch the sun come up, and wait for the store manager to arrive and unlock the employee entrance. The work is decent—if a tad monotonous—and it allows me a regular schedule so I can plan outings with the girl I started seeing a week before I moved out of the dorms.

Because I’m just a temp and not technically a store employee, my duties include tagging and sorting clothes for the women’s department, while keeping my distance from actual women. During the early mornings before the store opens, I walk the floor with the regular employees, inflating balloons and straightening up displays that look as if they had been torn apart by rabid dogs. During the day, however, I am typically cast from the customers’ view and forced to set up shop in the stock room, where I organize and tag new arrivals. I fill rack after rack with blouses, sport coats, and slacks, all the color of unripe bananas. With a laser scanner strapped to my right arm and several industrial-size rolls of red, blue, and green dot stickers hooped around my left, I try not to let the hard fluorescent lighting rob me of my consciousness. It’s the kind of light that casts no shadows, except in the darkest loneliest recesses, way back behind shelves of lipstick and eyebrow pencils.

I have finally begun to have an interesting sex life, so it follows that fate, in its grand cosmic humor, arranges my singular instruction for the day: sort the children’s thongs. This means not just tagging and scanning, but putting the tiny thongs on the tiny-thong end of the rack and the itsy bitsy thongs on the itsy-bitsy end. This rack, like all the others in the stock room, is a three-tiered, two-sided construction of twenty-foot-long steel bars jutting out from the wall. It is designed to hold a few hundred thick parkas, but the thongs are so small and the rack so full that I am afraid to guess how many we have and why. As I look up at it, the twenty-foot expanse of frilly lace and string between me and the wall seems to stretch on to infinity. My supervisor suggests that the sooner I start, the sooner I’ll finish.

Three hours later, sitting atop a sturdy orange ladder, I have an armful of size extra-extra-small spaghetti-strap underwear, the smiling images of Strawberry Shortcake, Barbie, and Hello Kitty emblazoned on the triangular fronts. I find it is best not to let my mind wander during this particular assignment. If I do, I envision the nine-year-old girls who absolutely mustn’t have panty lines, and then the mothers, the purchasers of the Strawberry Shortcake thongs that now lie limply over my knee. And then I wonder if the girls really did want them in the first place. We have enough thongs to last us a year, so there must be demand. This Christmas, will one of these girls tear open a small soft package to have three or four of these pink lacy contraptions fall into her lap? And will she ask, noticing the dainty, floss-like construction, what in the world they are—or will she hold them up proudly like the Stanley Cup? Will she be asked to model them—or will she volunteer? These are dark, sinister questions best not asked, let alone answered; yet the thongs themselves seem to be questions without answers. Aside from the time lost to the unusually long breaks I take this day—sitting out in the relatively fresh air of the parking lot, watching the shoppers bounce from shop to shop, and forcing myself to think about anything but the frilly lace inside—I spend every minute of my shift sorting the questions, both on the rack and in my head, and when I finish I feel as if there is an indelible stain on my cosmic record. This can’t be one of those things that everyone goes through—one of those experiences that build character—can it?

One of the quirks in oral storytelling I’ve developed over the years is the tendency to start with a statement or question, often pointing toward some awful or perverted aspect of human life. But the trouble with oral storytelling, especially to a live audience, is that the story gets bogged down with skeptical inquiries. It’s like watching a movie with that one hyperactive friend who won’t pay attention, but still wants to know what we’re all laughing at.

Let me tell you: there is little else in this world more humbling and sullying than having to walk around with armfuls of tiny, size-zero thongs, especially when they have Barbie and Hello Kitty printed on them. This one time, I was home from college for a summer, and I found work through a temp agency. They shipped me out to Nordstrom Rack, where it eventually became my job to sort little girls’ thongs. And—what? No, I’m sure they were children’s thongs. They had cartoon characters on them, for chrissake.

Listen, the specific size isn’t really what matters, because sizes tend to differ with manufacturers, but let’s just say that they were so small I wouldn’t have been able to fit them on my head. No, it’s not a sexual thing. Haven’t you ever been tempted to put underwear on your head? Well, your loss. You don’t know what you’re missing. It’s actually a joke I played on a girlfriend once. While she was preening in the bathroom mirror, I dug around in her dresser, found a pair of smooth red panties, and put them over my head so my eyes were in the leg holes. When I jumped out of her closet, declaring, “I’m Spiderman!” it looked for a moment like she was going to cry or hit me. Or both.

So they were smaller than normal. Anyway, can you imagine a grown woman wearing a Hello Kitty thong? 

At this point, I face a quiet room and a lot of worried stares. But these stares I actually find interesting, because it tells me who assumed I actually thought about putting a thong on my head at the time. I hadn’t. The Spiderman incident won’t happen until almost a year after my brief reign as Lord of the Thongs. I’ve done some strange, questionable, and potentially (and actually) reputation-damaging things, but I do them if I think I’m going to get a rise out of someone. The only thing I would have gotten out of my boss is a pink slip. Maybe I’ll get a reputation as a premature Dirty Old Man, but in the perilous world of storytelling, that’s an acceptable risk.

Tommy Tommy Tommy Tommy

The Serial Killer, Part I: The Aerie

(Note: The prompt for this three-part series is, “Today, write about a loss.” I’m not going to say overtly what the loss is, but over the course of the three posts, it should become apparent. Some of my readers my recognize parts of this series from previous writings–not on this blog–but the arrangement may put them in context.)

The night glowed black and amber from the streetlights. In a distant living room, a portly man in a white tank top sat alone watching television, all but motionless except for when he lifted a can of beer to his mouth. A few degrees to the left, and the city lights sparkled like jewels. A few degrees to the right, and two dogs had sex in a yard lit by the full, custard-colored moon a few degrees above. Fire a laser from any of these things to the lifted slat in a dark green set of venetian blinds, through the lenses in a pair of binoculars, and into an open eye, and you’re in my head.

A born observer, I map the night, checking off the things I know are normal, and note anything out of the ordinary. It’s not invasive or lascivious–rather a search for answers to the question, “What happens when no one is watching?” Under my blanket, my binoculars peeking out, I try to mask any sign of active observance. I’m twelve, but I have this kind of unobserved observation down to a science. I’ve seen things I never thought I’d see, but I still haven’t seen sex–at least between people. Not that I’m looking for it. Over the course of a few years, I’ve seen dogs and cats humping, and I saw two raccoons begin some sort of mating ritual only to be run off by an irate homeowner. I’ve also seen birds and cats catch small rodents, and watched possums and raccoons rifle through garbage cans. I’ve watched a dozen different people make late-night pasta, lift weights, do aerobics, and drink beer in front of the television. I’ve watched fights go from bad to worse, and from bad to good. I’ve watched males and females of varying ages leave for and come back from trips to the store, dog walks, and clandestine romances. I’ve watched a man sit on his front porch, smoking a pack of cigarettes and crying until stubbing the last one out on the concrete. In comparison, sex doesn’t seem that interesting because all these things are typical.

I have made a mental checklist of things that are out of the ordinary, however. A car slowly cruising down our and neighboring streets, headlights off, raises some questions. A police cruiser stopping in front of a house down the block is troubling; even in East Oakland, our neighborhood is considered fairly safe. One small kitchen grease fire, quickly extinguished, was interesting to note.

And when the power goes out–if a drunk driver takes out an electricity pole, or during summer blackouts–the dynamic changes. People who might ordinarily be asleep wake up and light candles until the power comes back on. Small animals, now shrouded in darkness, take the opportunity to move about. Larger predators follow suit.

Rarely is the noteworthy stuff happening on our street. One night however, I note a set of headlights as a pickup truck turns a corner a few blocks away. I follow it as it rolls steadily toward our street. It’s one of those extended cab deals, large enough to put a family up front and a couch in back. It turns on to our block and stops in front of the first house from the corner on the other side of the street. Out of the truck climbs a man I’ve seen before, so I begin to file the observation away under “usual,” but then two girls, maybe a year younger than I am, follow him. I know there’s a boy who lives across the street, but we don’t talk much. I make a mental note to ask him about his cute cousins. They never return, though, and the thought fades. Like the small grease fire, I write the whole thing off as a one-time observance.

Years later, home from my first year of college, blue dye still fading from my hair, I ask why the house across the street seems so empty. I’m told that the FBI showed up one day and hauled off a bunch of their possessions, and that the mother and son had moved away when the father went to prison. I didn’t even get to ask what for. Child pornography, I’m told–and not just possession. The long-stored, but not forgotten memory comes crashing back onto me, and I feel like I’m going to loose my bowels. Maybe my memory and this revelation are connected. Maybe not. The worst possible conclusion is the easiest to make, though, and it grips onto me like a vise.

Eventually, I got tired of asking myself what I could have done differently. These are those tortured moments, when we ask ourselves why we didn’t do something, anything, when we could have made a difference–why our skepticism faded away in the moment when we needed it most. So I crammed this unpleasant episode into one of those sealed mental compartments, where it ages like wine–or vinegar.