Monday, April 21, 2014

Review: Dandelion Wine

Dandelion Wine
Dandelion Wine by Ray Bradbury

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Dandelion Wine is a wonderful mixture of memoir and science fiction. Bradbury brings these two elements together and creates a wonderful novel from them, one fit to be read slowly and ingested entirely. Through the story of two young boys, brothers, and their Summer of 1928, Bradbury creates a series of reflections on the nature of time and change. The attentive reader will enjoy the food for philosophical reflection scattered throughout and will end with a deeper conviction to enjoy life, however brief and fleeting it may be, to the fullest. I recommend this book for all readers.

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Friday, April 18, 2014

When God became an atheist

Early in Ray Bradbury’s novel Dandelion Wine, Douglas, the 12-year-old central protagonist of the novel, has an experience in which for the first time in his short life he realized the beauty and significance of his own existence in a profoundly and deeply felt way. So feeling, he thinks to himself, “I’m really alive! … I never knew it before, or if I did I don’t remember!” The novel that follows a series of events which occur around and to Douglas during the Summer of 1928. These events lead to Douglas’s realization near the end of the novel that someday his life, which he only so recently learned to fully appreciate, will eventually end. Young Douglas struggles to accept this newfound knowledge of his own mortality, finally even becoming so ill as to be dangerously close to death. Upon emerging from this sickness, he wanders into his grandmother’s kitchen pantry where he discovers a jar labelled only “RELISH.” When he discovers this jar, he feels suddenly “glad he had decided to live” through his illness. He decides at this to relish the many joys of life while accepting the inevitability of its end.

The story that is told here is another version of the only story ever told. It is the story in which the protagonist “dies” (or undergoes extreme hardship nearing death) and is revivified to a more complete life or otherwise grows in an important way in the end. This story is, of course, best told in the biblical account of the suffering, death, and resurrection of Christ. This biblical telling is also unique in an important way, namely, that the protagonist who undergoes the process is not a human being in the usual sense but is, rather, God-become-man. As G.K. Chesterton pointed out:
Christianity is the only religion on earth that has felt that omnipotence made God incomplete. Christianity alone felt that God, to be wholly God, must have been a rebel as well as a king. Alone of all creeds, Christianity has added courage to the virtues of the Creator. For the only courage worth calling courage must necessarily mean that the soul passes a breaking point -- and does not break.
In the recapitulative work of Christ, the redemption-narrative of death and rebirth is itself redeemed and sanctified. It is then set forth as the archetype to which others must adhere. Without the crucifixion and burial on Good Friday, there is and can be no Easter resurrection and Paschal joy. The narrative repeats itself throughout the Christian life, such as in the rite of baptism in which “we are buried with him by baptism into death: that like as Christ was raised up from the dead by the glory of the Father, even so we also should walk in newness of life” (Romans 6:4, KJV). It, in fact, defines, the Christian life as a whole, which is a process of dying to one’s self and sin in order to live a life in Christ, who is the fullness of life.

I cannot remember the first time I experienced a recognition of my own mortality. I believe it was probably a gradual process, as it must be with most people. I can, however, remember the first time that the full meaning and inevitability of my own death came to me. It was the first time that I celebrated Easter as a Christian. Growing up in a non-religious household, throughout my childhood Easter had meant nothing more than a few extra days off from school and a basketful of candy on Sunday morning. As a result, I entered into my first Holy Week expecting very little. What I found, however, was an experience through which I came to understand myself better than I had at any point previously in my life. In contemplating the suffering and death of Christ on Good Friday, I found a God who is, as Chesterton once described him, the “only … divinity who ever uttered … isolation,” the only “God [who] seemed for an instant to be an atheist.” In other words, I found a God who became as I had been. As the journey continued, however, and I shared for the first time in the joyful proclamation of the risen Lord on Easter Sunday morning, I found a man who had become as I desired to become.

Through contemplating and, in a sense, experiencing the suffering, death, and resurrection of the Lord, I came to understand more truly than ever before the inevitability of my own death and to place my hope more fervently than ever before in the resurrection to come. It is only through coming to terms with my death and placing my hopes in this resurrection that I began to approach the state which Douglas had found after his sickness, an experience of the joy of being and the desire to relish each moment of life.

Saturday, April 5, 2014

The little things

'That's the trouble with your generation,' said Grandpa. 'Bill, I'm ashamed of you, you a newspaperman. All the things in life that were put here to savor, you eliminate. Save time, save work, you say. ... Bill, when you're my age, you'll find out it's the little savors and little things that count more than the big ones. A walk on a spring morning is better than an eighty-mile ride in a hopped-up car, you know why? Because it's full of flavors, full of a lot of things growing. You've time to seek and find. I know -- you're after the broad effect now, and I suppose that's fit and proper. But for a young man working on a newspaper, you got to look for grapes as well as watermelons. You greatly admire skeletons and I like fingerprints; well and good. Right now such things are bothersome to you, and I wonder if it isn't because you've never learned to use them. If you had your way you'd pass a law to abolish all the little jobs, the little things. But then you'd leave yourselves nothing to do between the big jobs and you'd have a devil of a time thinking up things to do so you wouldn't go crazy. Instead of that, why not let nature show you a few things? Cutting grass and pulling weeds can be a way of life, son.' 
Ray Bradbury, Dandelion Wine, p. 64

Thursday, April 3, 2014

My struggle with PTSD and the existence of evil

On November 5, 2009, I was assigned as the Non-Commissioned Officer in charge of the 24-hour staff duty at my unit's barracks on Fort Hood, Texas. Typically, this duty is one of the most mundane activities of military service. Your job is, in essence, to sit, along with two junior enlisted soldiers, for 24 hours straight, occasionally making rounds in the barracks area to pick up cigarette butts and, on the weekend, corral drunk young soldiers. Your biggest challenge is simply staying awake for the duration of it. That night, however, was different. That was the day Major Nidal Hasan opened fire on a group of soldiers in a building across the street from my unit's barracks.

We could hear the gunshots from where we stood in my unit's barracks area. The sound of a firing weapon is no novelty on the United States' largest military base. Eventually, the sounds of weapons, humvees, helicopters and other loud military equipment becomes mere background noise to most soldiers. There is a sense of security that envelops you when you are on a stateside post. You are surrounded by the finest men and women you have ever met, men and women you trust with your life and well being. There is no sense of community quite like the sacred bond between uniformed service members. That is precisely why these particular gunshots were so disturbing. They were different. They were closer than they should have been, nowhere near a firing range. And the sense of uneasiness they at first sent through us was quickly validated by a call from our superiors, ordering us to place the soldiers in the barracks on lock down and informing us that there had been a shooting on post. The sacred bond had been violated; a soldier had attacked his fellow soldiers at their most vulnerable moment, sitting in a waiting room waiting to be medically cleared to deploy and fight for their country, side-by-side with their comrades.

We spent the afternoon in a haze of rumor and worry. Each of us struggled, in spite of clogged phone lines, to get through to our friends and family in and around Fort Hood, verifying one at a time that each was safe. While we waited for more information from those in the know, we did our jobs to secure our own area and speculated on what might be happening. There was talk of a team of shooters. There were rumors that the shooting had continued in a housing area, a particularly nasty rumor given that soldiers' wives and children were home alone in those housing areas.

Finally, in the evening, we sat outside of the barracks and watched the miles-long traffic as soldiers, who had spent their entire day locked down on post, headed home to their worried families in the on-post housing areas and the neighborhoods in the surrounding community. It was perhaps the only night we spent on staff duty in which none of us nodded off to sleep. We stayed up the whole night pondering the motives and the consequences of the atrocity we had been so near. Even when I drove home the following morning, after nearly 30 hours without sleep, I found it difficult to lay in my bed and rest.

The shooting yesterday at Fort Hood brought back the vivid memories of that afternoon and evening nearly five years ago. I stayed awake much later than I should have, watching the online live feed of the Killeen, Texas, television news station, reading over and over again the meager details of what had occurred on the post at which I had spent the majority of my military career. What affected me most as I watched and read was the frequent reference to the possibility that the shooter may have had post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). The agenda of the media was obvious from very early. At the initial press briefing by Fort Hood's commanding general, Lieutenant General Mark Milley, reporters asked ridiculous questions about soldiers carrying concealed weapons on post and, again and again, about the mental health history of the shooter.

Last night, I believe I felt much as people with Asperger syndrome must have when the media collectively felt the need to mention again and again that Adam Lanza, who opened fire at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, in 2012, had been diagnosed with Asperger's. There was talk about how people with Asperger's are incapable of feeling empathy, how this might have been the reason he did what he did. This was the preconceived narrative reporters were already concocting only minutes after the shooting at Fort Hood. He had PTSD and PTSD makes you a stone-cold killer.

I was diagnosed with PTSD a little over two years ago. My tours in Iraq had taken a toll on me. I found myself unable to deal with or control my anger, at times, or my sadness, at others. I had trouble sleeping and when I did finally sleep it was fitful and filled with nightmare images of things I had seen, people I had known and lost. I still struggle with this. The nightmares are less frequent, but they have not gone away. I still cannot watch movies with much violence. If I find myself in a crowded place, I enter a state of hyper-awareness in which I can hardly manage to think or breathe. While driving to work through downtown Savannah, Georgia, I scan the roadside for improved explosive devices (IEDs/roadside bombs); my fists tighten into a white-knuckle grip on the steering wheel when I get caught in rush hour traffic. I struggle with all of this. But I am not a murderer. I am not an "active shooter incident" waiting to happen. I am a soldier who, like most other soldiers I know, deals the best he can with what he has seen, knowing that I was there for the right reasons, even if few Americans appreciate it and even fewer understand it.

At the heart of the media's agenda in the aftermath of shootings like that which occurred yesterday at Fort Hood is a distorted approach to ethics in the modern world. In an America now almost 50 years after the upheavals of the 1960's and the imposition of radically different ways of viewing human being and activity, we have lost our moral compass. The rapist is "sick" and the murderer is "psychotic." For a short time after I left the military, I worked in a prison where I saw this approach up close and personal. Men who had murdered in cold blood, men who had sexually molested young children and others of a similar moral caliber were "treated" as if what they had done were the unavoidable symptoms of a disease. The result was that the men themselves came to believe this. Rather than seeking forgiveness and redemption, they instead sought a "cure" for their "sickness." Of course, this cure was entirely personal. It did not involve begging those they had harmed to forgive them, nor did it involve repentance before a just yet merciful God. Instead, more often than not, it involved medication that numbed their senses and meetings in which they prattled on about their feelings for hours, shortly before they went back to their cell blocks to watch hours of television, much of which celebrated the very crimes they had committed.

The man who committed that horrible atrocity at Fort Hood yesterday was not sick. He was not insane. He did not do what he did because he had PTSD. American news media: the word you are looking for is "evil." What he did was evil and, just as virtuous men do virtuous things, it is evil men who do evil things. The victims here are the three soldiers he murdered, the 16 he injured, their families and every soldier everywhere who has now had that sacred bond of trust between warriors shattered. The shooter is not a victim, whether of his own disease or of the military which gave him the orders to go to the place he acquired it. We must return to the proper language used to describe and define human activity, the language of ethics. He chose evil and so became evil.

Monday, March 31, 2014

Review: Collected Poems, 1943-2004

Collected Poems, 1943-2004
Collected Poems, 1943-2004 by Richard Wilbur

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Richard Wilbur's poetry is a breath of fresh air in a wasteland of postmodernism and neo-gnosticism. Wilbur rejects the modern movements which depreciate man, the cosmos and the creator of both. He turns instead to and continues within the tradition of the great poets of the past, clinging to traditional modes and themes of poetic expression.

Wilbur's great ability is to draw out of even the most seemingly mundane and simple experiences, from clanging elevators in modern cities to flowers in lonely rural settings, a metaphor for the greater themes of life: love, truth, time, eternity and so on. Each moment, no matter how seemingly insignificant, is redeemed in Wilbur's poetic vision of the world. Each moment becomes significant in its ability to direct us to the transcendent and permanent.

I recommend this collection of Wilbur's poetry for anyone who loves poetry, truth or beauty. The perfect place to read it: in a city park, surrounded by the beauties of nature, of our fellow man and of our urban constructs, all at once -- the way Wilbur presents it to you.

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