February 28, 2013

PTSD

On my morning run through the Internet I got side-tracked by a bunch of articles on MSNBC about post-traumatic stress syndrome, or PTSD. The article that had the most "uh-huh" moments was the one about the first 30 days back home. From adrenaline-seeking high-speed runs, to always sitting where you can see the room, to not liking people standing behind you ... oh yeah, I get it.

My first years -- not days, but years --  back from Vietnam were an odd blend of being here in body and there in mind. As I put it in SitRep Negative, "You had this sense of apartness from regular people and regular life, like you were here but your thoughts and feelings were coming from somewhere else, somewhere normal people could never know or understand."

For me at least, part of PTSD is having an overload of experiences that have no place to go once you get home. There is such a massive disconnect between the world you have just left and the world you have returned to. You are completely exhausted trying to get yourself across that divide. You don't have the energy to try and explain it to others who have no clue as to where you are coming from ... literally.

There is a deeper reason for PTSD besides finding a way to live with the memories. Veterans of war have a permanently altered understanding of just how fragile a construct our  so-called normal lives really are. The war left me with the very real sense of life as skating on very thin ice. If I didn't think about it, life was normal and safe and controllable. But I knew better. I knew that at any moment the ice could crack, and I would be instantly plunged into a life-altering void of chaos.

Being in the wrong place at the wrong time ... what Lewis Mumford called the accidental malice of the universe ... it could jump up and bite you in the ass at any time. So, yeah, I sit facing the front of the room when I can. I know where the exits are. I never go into a dark room until I have my night vision.  I don't just look at people, I look at people. When the flow of events speeds up, I slow down. The brain-stem lizard in me constantly flicks its tongue out, trying to get a feel for the ground, always asking, "What's wrong with this picture?"

Is that bad? I don't think so. PTSD is a burden, but as time goes by it is also a constant reminder of just how nasty, brutish, and short life was and still can be. And in spite of all I say, I am very much a "glass-half-full" kind of guy. I was that way before the war and I remained that way after the war, just with a few alterations to the original mental chassis, changes I have come to embrace, the final step back to wellness, such as it is.

I think this is the final point I would make to any returning veteran. Who you were before the war, that person is still in there. I don't think war changes a person so much as puts him or her in a position where certain daily habits of routine become deeply rutted neural pathways that overlay previous patterns of behavior. But take away the daily stimulus and those pathways will eventually smooth out a bit, allowing the old you to resurface.

The problem is that for a young kid, there is not a lot of the previous "you" to serve as a foundation. I was, relatively speaking, a lot older than most of my fellow draftees. I had a more fully-formed sense of who I was than most 19-year-olds do. So I had a "me" to return to. For a young teenager, the war looms much larger in their psyche, especially if you throw in a lot of re-deployments, a by-product of the all-volunteer army I hope we have seen is a disaster.

From this generation of soldiers, we have asked too much. We have asked too much from their families. The wounds are much deeper, the healing process much harder. The wounds are still very raw. I hope and pray that as time goes by and the wounds scab over and eventually begin to fade, most will find a way to live reasonably happy lives. God knows they have earned it.

February 26, 2013

The Writing Life

After months of indecision, I have finally settled on my next writing project. It will be a continuation of the approach I used in Requiem for Ahab, which was a sequel to Moby Dick built around a couple of sentences that refer to Ahab's wife and son. I always had in mind a second story using Heart of Darkness as a springboard, this time a prequel set in the Berlin Conference of 1885. I know what you're thinking. Wow! The Berlin Conference of 1885. Talk about your pulse-pounding thriller!

This idea of taking classic works of literature that no one reads any more and writing tales based on mere scraps on information buried inside those texts may not be the best way you build a huge readership, but the heart wants what the heart wants, and the writer writes what the writer wants to write.

Writing about the past, one soon discovers, is writing about the present. Requiem for Ahab was set mostly in the 1860s. While most folks would say the Civil War was the single most significant event of that period, you could argue that the discovery of oil in Pennsylvania and the rapid decline and fall of a once-thriving whaling industry were equally significant.

Fast-forward 150 years and we find ourselves on the edge of a similar moment, this time involving the decline and eventual disappearance of an oil-based economy, to be replaced by ... what? No one can say, partly because few have fully processed the idea that our oil economy is on the way out and like many of the whalers of old, we don't think it will really happen.

The Berlin Congress of 1885 was convened at a time when an entire continent's worth of natural resources was there for the taking. Concerned that competition for ivory and gold and other mineral wealth could spark confrontations that might bubble over into war, the great powers, under the leadership of Germany's Chancellor Otto von Bismarck, sat down to lay out the rules for competing in Africa.



What you got was a roomful of white males deciding the fate of an entire continent. You begin to see what I mean when I say writing about the past is writing about the present. Take a look at the leading figures who will dominate the air waves as we decide the fate of the sequester. Well, you get the idea.

Just as the Africans were thoroughly excluded from the debates on divvying up their home lands, so too will most of us not have a voice in the room as the fate of the federal budget is decided. Okay, so it isn't quite that bad. Women and minorities have made significant gains during the last 100 years. And democracy does give us a voice in the room, sort of. But at the end of the day, it still comes down to a handful of people, mostly males, mostly white, who will ultimately sort it all out.

The final declaration of the Berlin Conference was a rationale for exploiting the resources of a continent under the guise of saving the Africans from slavery, a piece of rhetorical sleight of hand that conveniently ignored the fact that Africans might not want to aid and abet in the despoliation of their continent.  There were voices raised in objection to the exclusion of Africans from the proceedings. There was the usual confluence of religion and politics, each washing the other hand to get what they wanted.  In the midst of all this, I hope to weave a tale of love and idealism and just perhaps a hint of the darkness to come.

February 21, 2013

Sequester This!

Google the phrase "federal debt crisis" and you will get a slew of articles, some of which will insist there is no debt crisis and, in fact, urge the government to spend more, while other articles will warn in grave tones that the national debt threatens to swallow the country whole. Daniel Patrick Moynihan, the late, great senator from New York, cautioned that "Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not to his own facts." I guess a lot of the pundits and politicians in Washington still haven't gotten that memo.

So which is it? A real crisis or just another Washington clusterf*k? Probably both. Yes, Virginia, there is such a thing as too much debt. Are we there yet? Doubtful, but certainly it can't hurt to every once in  a while prune the budget, the way a nurseryman prunes a tree to encourage more fruiting. The problem is that Congress is a blunt instrument, hence the sequester, which mandates across-the-board cuts to the federal budget.

One of the difficulties in understanding all this is that you can't analogize federal debt to state debt or household debt. When we, the people, run out of money, we cut back on whatever we choose. Federal agencies can't do that. They receive their marching orders from Congress in the form of laws. Ignoring those laws is, well, against the law. As for state budgets, the myth of state balanced budgets is just that, a myth. But that's another story.

Think of the federal budget this way. The president of the National Sheep Dip Association convinces a friendly congressman from Montana to slip a small provision into the USDA's appropriation bill that will order USDA to spend $100,000 a year to promote research into beneficial uses of sheep dip and to report their findings once a year to Congress. Henceforth and forever more, USDA is stuck with that item in its budget until it can convince Congress to drop it. The federal budget is the net result of tens of thousands of such congressional actions, big and small, over many decades.

So the budget grows piece by piece until it is out of control. Unwinding all those individual choices made over so many decades is not easily done. Just finding them all is a daunting task. And once it gets wind of an attempt to cut research on sheep dip, The National Sheep Dip Association will fight that measure tooth and nail, as will every other institution or business that benefits from a given slice of the budget pie.

The only way Congress can cut the budget without the inconvenience of actually having to make choices is to shrink the whole pie. But this has its own consequences.

When a business is faced with declining profits, they can eliminate the least profitable lines and let those workers go. In the federal government, programs are rarely eliminated, so staffing must be maintained, which means keeping everyone but cutting their hours. That's why furlough is everyone's new favorite buzzword.

A furlough falls equally on good workers and poor workers, useful activities and wasteful pork barrel projects. Everything gets cut back, but nothing ever gets eliminated. Federal workers end up doing more with less, and as their reward, they get to be vilified as worthless drones who couldn't get a job in the real world. Hello bitter, party of one. Your table is ready.

As has been noted many times before, until Congress is willing to cut defense spending and re-size entitlements such as Social Security and Medicare, the federal debt will not be significantly reduced. Only when that happens will you see change you can believe in. But in truth, there is not a working majority in Washington willing to make that happen. So the goal becomes finding a way to kick the can down the road while making the other guy give up more. As has also been noted in this space many times before, it's a hell of way to run a railroad.

February 18, 2013

Obama's Legacy

This may be a tad premature, but I thought I would beat the rush four years from now and offer my own quick assessment of the Obama Legacy. While President Obama might wish that health care will be the main thing for which he will be remembered, I suspect that two other aspects of his years in office will define his legacy.

First, the drones and the idea that we can kill "enemies," including U.S. citizens, without any sort of trial, for acts they are planning to commit but haven't gotten around to actually doing. Who makes those decisions? The intelligence community and, in some cases, the president himself. A Justice Department white paper maintains that we can take out terrorists in other countries if that country agrees or is "unwilling or unable to suppress the threat posed by the individual being targeted." Well, that ought to cover just about anything.

As a precedent, it is hard to imagine one more at odds with traditional notions of American fair play and justice. Some suggest that it is precisely those principles that led us into this moral quagmire. Rosa Brooks, writing in the journal Foreign Policy, argues that the rationale for drones can be tracked back to the intervention in Kosovo to halt Serbia's "ethnic cleansing," a crisis that justified the violation of national sovereignty in pursuit of a higher good. Since then, it has been one big slippery slope, accelerated by the advent of drone technology, which enables fairly precise lethal action without having to put any boots on the ground.

The second big legacy of the Obama administration will be cyber-warfare, as exemplified by Stuxnet, a first-strike computer virus that targeted industrial software controlling the centrifuges Iran needed to manufacture enriched uranium that could be used in a nuclear weapon. It's pretty much an open secret that Stuxnet was developed by the United States and Israel, an operation code-named "Olympic Games" that was begun under President George W. Bush, by the way.

The decision to deploy such a weapon was holy debated inside the Obama administration. The president overrode those concerns, including his own, that once out there, such a weapon might fall into the wrong hands. And thanks to a bug in the software, that's exactly what happened.

The United States was the first nation to use a nuclear weapon. The United States will now go down in history as the first nation to launch a cyber-attack, this time to stop development of a nuclear weapon. As with the drones, it's the precedent being set by these actions that matters. These things have a way of coming back to bite you in the ass. This is especially true of cyber-attacks. Everything runs through a computer these days. Anyone from an angst-ridden teenager in Amsterdam to a rebel with a cause to a government claiming the right to self-defense can launch a cyber-attack against anyone ... anywhere ... anytime.

There is such a thing as the law of nations, legal precedents designed in large measure to define the limits of sovereignty. Like any other legal system, once a precedent is set, it never goes away. More to the point--especially given that the United States sees itself through the lens of American exceptionalism, the idea that this country has a special mission to spread liberty and democracy--once the moral high ground is surrendered, it can never be regained.

Most presidents want a legacy that highlights their positive achievements. But for President Obama, history will also have to record  his legacy as a leader who unleashed the dogs of techno-war. The worst thing about techno-wars is that they are too easy to fight, because no longer will we have to sacrifice our own sons and daughters. Just our ideals.

February 15, 2013

Too Pooped To Pope

Is it just me or is the world getting crazier by the minute? In just the span of a week, we've had a manhunt for a crazed cop-killer cop that ended in a fiery cabin shootout, a cruise ship from Hell, meteors slamming into Russia, and the first resignation of a Pope in over 600 years. President Obama's State of the Union address very nearly got lost in the shuffle. To quote our good friends in the Twitterverse: WTF!

In some ways, the Pope's retirement was a bit poignant. Turns out he's just like any other working stiff who has that moment when he realizes he just can't face the office one more day, so he gave his two weeks notice, albeit in Latin, albeit in more ornate surroundings. Still, is it just me, or did it seem to you that there was a playful, "Let's have some fun with this" spirit in the way he handled it? A precedent-setting announcement of historic importance delivered in barely audible Latin during an otherwise routine meeting? Really? You have to think the Pope was having his own little private joke.

Sadly, the joke was kind of on him. A few decades ago his announcement would have rocked the world, maybe prompted a round of soul-searching as we pondered what would come next. Instead, it held the attention of CNN-nation for a couple of days, and then we moved on to the next big breaking news story. It's hard to hold the world's attention for very long when so much crazy shit keeps flying at you faster than you can process it. Even a Pope only gets 15 minutes of fame these days.

Part of this is simple recognition of the fact that the Catholic Church ain't what it used to be in terms of the width and breadth of its reach. At the same time, we also know that what comes next for the Catholic Church will very likely be more of the same: Catholic conservatives trying to hold the modern world at bay -- especially the female part of that world -- even as the Church withers from within. I hope not, because we need a vibrant spiritual community now more than ever.

I'm not big on religion, at least on the bricks-and-mortar side of it, but I do feel a vacuum in the public discussion that religion used to fill. We need voices reminding us that there are limits to human wisdom. We need voices reminding us that we are stewards of the world and that we have a moral obligation to care for all of creation. We need voices reminding us that material progress and spiritual growth must proceed hand in hand.

I'm not talking about the rules-driven form of religion that seeks in one way or another to impose its version of morality on everyone else. I'm thinking of religion that guides us to the mountain top so that we can more clearly see where we are headed.

We are on the verge of another huge burst of new technology -- 3-D printing, synthetic biology, robotics -- that will change everything, pushing us into areas formerly reserved to a higher power, revising and extending our understanding of just what it means to be human. What won't change is our human capacity for good and evil. How we use these tools ought to be just as important a part of the discussion as how we can make them faster and cheaper.

February 9, 2013

Winter

Adults may dread the arrival of winter, but for a child that first snowfall heralds a season of endless delights. Some of the brightest (and best) of my childhood memories are of winter days in Cohassset, a small coastal town about twenty miles south of Boston. What follows is a patchwork quilt of memories of short days packed with long hours of winter fun.

Ice skating on a nearby pond a short walk from the house down Atlantic Avenue  ... clumps of grass sticking up through the ice to catch your skates and send you tumbling and sliding, laughing all the way ... cracking the whip ... feeling the ice shift under your feet ... looking down through the ice to study the debris trapped in the freezing of it ... the sound of melting ice running under the snow ... tightening the laces on your skates amid a clutter of boots and shoes ... the long walk home ... hot chocolate with a big dab of marshmallow cream melting into it ...

The front yard down the street that had standing water left over from the fall rains that would freeze over in winter to make a pond big enough for games of hockey and red light ... sliding down the hill in my backyard ... holding the sled and running a few yards before flinging yourself down at the last minute to hurtle as far down the hill as possible ... sliding over one of the omnipresent boulders in New England and going airborne for a few feet before landing ... snowball fights where you packed the snow as hard as you could ... putting a small piece of gravel in the middle to give it added weight ... jumping into a snow bank ...

Walking under a clean sky that seems to go on forever ... nature stripped bare ... the silence of a snow covered field ... fingertips growing numb inside woolen mittens ... cold air freezing your nostrils ... smelling the coming snow ... blowing out clouds of air in short puffs just to see what it looked like ... hearing the ice groan as it expanded and contracted under a weak sun... the trees creaking under the weight of snow and ice ... snapping off an icicle and licking it ...scooping up a handful of snow and eating it ... catching snowflakes and studying them to see if they really are all different ...

Snow that stayed on the ground for weeks on end ... ... driving on snow-covered roads packed down to a firm surface waffled with tread marks from hundreds of passing cars ... the annual ritual of putting on the winter snow tires ... studded tires and tire chains ... the soft crunch made by tires as you drove slowly down the street ... the stiffness in the manual transmission as you tried to shift gears through congealed transmission fluid ... the muffled burbling of motors left running to warm up ...

Being glued to the television while Don Kent gave the weather forecast on WBZ-TV ... putting on boots and mittens and snow suit, topped off with a hand-knit cap ... snow sticking to your woolen mittens and piling up inside the elastic bands of your snow pants ... waiting while your mother took off your boots and snow pants before you could go any further inside the house ... more hot chocolate with marshmallow cream floating on top ...

You only have one childhood, one chance to experience things for the first time. If you are lucky, those first memories will be lasting memories to warm your soul throughout the winter of your life.

February 7, 2013

Problems, Problems, Problems

Remember that old Everly Brothers song, "Problems?" Problems, problems, problems all day long. Always there seems to be more problems than there are answers. But, as has often been noted in this space, you can't get the right answer if you don't ask the right question.

If you listen to certain pundits and politicians, the biggest problem we face is the federal deficit. Right behind that in most people's minds would be Social Security. But some argue that the real problem is the continuing obsession with the federal deficit on the part of some politicians. So which is it? Well, you'll have to decide that for yourself, but I did come across a couple of articles that I found interesting in that they both ended up pretty much in the same place.

First up is an article in the Wall Street Journal's Market Watch, written by Rex Nutting. The article begins by asserting that the federal debt is no longer a pressing problem, that we have, in fact, already taken more than enough measures to bring debt under control.


The above graphic from the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities purports to show that we already have stabilized the debt to Gross Domestic Product ratio, a basic measure of debt as a share of the national wealth. Mr. Nutting argues that pursuing even greater debt reductions means that other, more pressing problems will receive short shrift. To him, these problems are far more urgent than dealing with debt:
  • Unemployment. In some states, the rate of unemployment and underemployment is nearly 20 percent. That is an enormous amount of human capitol going to waste.
  • Climate Change: We all are beginning to see that climate change will cost billions of dollars. Drought, floods, rising tides, extreme weather: the future is now.
  • Infrastructure: Next time you see an overpass or a bridge, take a good, long look. You will see flaking paint and rust scales blooming like algae. And then there are the costs associated with avoiding future devastation wrought by a changing climate.
  • Democracy: Low turnouts, money in elections, gridlock, you name it. Washington, we have a problem.
  • The Wealth Gap: The gap between the richest and the middle class is widening at an ever-increasing rate. Mr. Nutting writes: "Between 1979 and 2007, the share of national income going to the top 1% of earners more than doubled, while the share of income earned by the bottom 80% declined."
The other article, by economist L. Randall Wray, talks about funding Social Security. He begins by making the argument that there is no crisis. Instead, the idea that Social Security was in crisis was drummed up by advisers to President George W. Bush, who was advocating privatizing Social Security. (Wouldn't that have been a nice move right before the bubble burst in 2008?) In fact, Mr. Wray argues:
"A useful way to measure the burden of Social Security on our productive economy is to look at the ratio of the program’s spending relative to GDP. On current projections made in the 2012 annual report of Social Security’s Trustees, that ratio is expected to rise from the current 5% of GDP to 6.4% in 2035 (with retirement of all the baby-boomers already completed). After that the ratio actually falls to about 6% and remains there through 2086—as far out as the Trustees care to project."
He argues that we have already absorbed a far larger increase than 1.4 percent, the rate having already doubled since the 1950s. That doesn't mean we don't need to be taking measures to care for aging Baby Boomers. He argues that the best way to reduce the future burden of supporting retirees is to increase capitol. As used by economists, capitol means "more human capital (education and training), more public capital (infrastructure such as roads, public buildings, and airports), and more private capital (productive plant and equipment, farms, telecommunications infrastructure, etc.)."

Mr. Wray points out that private companies only invest when there is the prospect of an immediate return on that investment. (The same could be said of politicians, who generally only act if it means something for the next election.) Businessmen are reluctant to invest today's profits in projects that won't generate revenues for  ten or twenty years down the road.

That is precisely what government can do and has done in the past: provide incentives to invest in future problems. The public works projects under the New Deal. The GI Bill. Eisenhower's National Defense Highway system. The answer from critics of federal spending is to cut aid to education, cut spending on infrastructure, and stop any sort of stimulus spending.

The next few weeks will be spent debating these very points. Do we have to sacrifice everything at the altar of deficit reduction? Is the federal deficit really that big a crisis? Is Social Security really in that much trouble? Can we cut federal spending in a meaningful way if we don't take a major bite out of defense spending? Can America have a future if we don't invest in it?

This is the debate America needs to have. Philosophers from Socrates to Descartes to Kant have urged us to question everything. We could do worse than to follow their advice.

February 3, 2013

Robins and Butterflies

This morning I happened to catch sight of a flock of migrating robins stopping to take a breather in my backyard. I snapped a couple of quick pictures with my cell phone and then went back to buttering my toast. By the time I was finished, the robins were gone.

So much of life is like that, random events that occur by the millions every day, events that may or may not get noticed during their brief lifetime, events that nonetheless are threads in the fabric of destiny being constantly spun from the looms of the gods.

Chaos theory tells us that very small differences in starting conditions can lead to significantly different outcomes, the so-called butterfly effect: a butterfly flaps its wings in the Amazon and a couple of weeks later there is a thunderstorm in Tulsa. Okay, so maybe that's pushing it a bit, but you get the idea.

The robins in my backyard ... are they the starting condition or the midpoint of some unfolding chain of events ... or both? Well, we know those robins are the starting point of this essay. But really, the point I am trying to make ... about moments witnessed by a single observer ... first took shape while I was out golfing, when a hawk startled me as I was walking from one hole to the next. Which in turn reminded me of an earlier incident, and so it goes.

We are the outcome of many such moments, private and shared. Take away any one of them and we are different people living different lives. Add a new one and the steering currents of our lives shift ever so slightly.

Which raises another question. Unless we understand all those moments, can we ever completely understand anything or anyone? The answer, my friend, is blowing in the wind caused by unseen flapping wings, be they butterflies or robins.


February 1, 2013

Consider the Dung Beetle

If ever there was a parable waiting to be told, the dung beetle would be it. They live the ultimate life of quiet desperation, a life spent shuttling balls of dung away from other dung beetles anxious to steal what will eventually be the birthplace of the next generation of dung beetles.

What could be further from God's thoughts than a beetle that dines almost exclusively on dung? What job could be dirtier than foraging for dung? What birth place could be more humble than the interior of a dung ball? What thief could be lower than a dung thief?

But God does listen to the dung beetle's prayers. The dung beetle needs to navigate his hard-earned dung ball away from other thieving dung beetles as rapidly as possible. After a few million years of practice, the dung beetles have learned to roll their dung balls to safety in a line as mysteriously straight as the Nazca lines that criss-cross miles of the Peruvian high plains.

The dung beetle pursues his straight and narrow path using patterns of sunlight and moonlight unseen by our eyes. But what about nights when there is no moon? What then? God pondered the question and gave them an answer. Look skyward, dung beetle, and gaze upon the galaxy arcing across the sky. That will guide you in a straight line to safety.

And so the dung beetle became a celestial navigator, using the Milky Way to keep it on course as it scuttles along with its dung ball to safety. As a wise friend of mine says, "Where there's a need, there's a way." In this case, the Milky Way.

If you believe God is in the details, then I suppose one must take a degree of comfort from a divine plan that has time to lend a hand to the hapless dung beetle. And if there is room for the dung beetle in God's plan, is there also a navigational tool to keep us poor humans on the straight and narrow as we busily roll our dung balls through dark, moonless nights to whatever fate awaits? I'd like to think so. I really would.