Interlude, for Iuvenes, for Seneces

It is November, and as I promised, here I am.

However, here I am, and here I am not.  Or at least, better put, here I am not quite fully.  Yet, at least.

Over these past months, I have had some health issues come up:  not at all life-threatening, but serious enough to cause me to pause and examine. In the meantime, I celebrated my sixtieth birthday.  Another Hallmark day, come and gone.

Consequently, after much reflection, I made the decision to leave my work at the United States Veterans Health Administration.  My last day of service was, appropriately enough, Veterans Day.

I deeply enjoyed my almost nine years of work with combat veterans.  I learned much. I was deeply moved.  I changed.

Yet, far too sadly, when War never seems to end, persons like myself, those of us who are touched “askew” by War: we get older.  Energies that we once had, dwindle some.  The body sometimes says to us, as it said to me, “It’s time.”

I have been fighting this realization for a while.  Yet, true to form, the one who helped me was a combat veteran, a young man who looked me in the eye and, with a knowing smile, merely said, “It’s OK, Doc.  Everybody’s tour-of-duty finally comes to an end.  You served your time.  It’s OK.”

I can’t thank him, and his fellow combat veterans, enough.

For a while now, I am going to be doing “substitute doctoring,” otherwise known as “locum tenens.”  It is good, helpful work, work which will allow me an opportunity to to reflect, not only on Dream 1 and Dream 2, but even more on nine good years, nine hard years.  Nine years of listening to war, of serving fine men and women who simply were wanting to find Life again and move forward.

For their sake, and yes, for my own, I need to take the time necessary to reflect and to rejuvenate.  Odd word in this case, rejuvenate, from the Latin iuvenis, young.  I’m afraid I’m much more the senex, the old man.  But we can’t re-senecate, can we?  We just senecate.

Ah, well:  hopefully not in a manner senile.

I’m not sure when I’ll be back.  I suspect I will.  As a senex iuvenior, a younger old-man?

I can hope.  And so I will.


A Dream (2)

All right, so it isn’t November.  Here we go anyway.

Another dream, another story, guided yet not, that will play a role in future thought, future writing.  I write it down so as not to forget. And I write it down so as not to avoid remembering.

I am outside a lodge in the woods, somewhere in the northern United States, Michigan, perhaps.  There is a spacious porch all along the front of the lodge, replete with chairs, tables, and some type of early-evening meal.  A handsome couple is sitting at the central table, facing me, and there are other men standing around them.  They are all in their late-thirties/early-forties.  Even though I don’t recognize them, I realize that I know them.

I then remember that the both members of the couple had served in the United States Army.  The man looks at me and speaks.

“I’ve got to go back to the Army, or at least to the Reserves,” he says.

“What was your MOS (military occupational specialty)?” I ask him.

“I was in JAG (a lawyer, i.e., Judge Adjutant General), and I want to go back there and serve.  That’s where I was happiest.”

He looks at his wife, who smiles back at him and then turns to me.

“Me, too,” she says.  “I’ve just got to go back.”

“And your MOS?” I ask her.

“I was a truck driver,” she replies, though I also intuit that she had very specialized and technical duties as one.

Several of the other men agree that they wish to go back into military service, also in the Army Reserves.  One of them, a younger Latino man, finally says to me, “Don’t you want to go back?”

“I was never in the military,” I reply.  “I don’t think I ever would have made it.”

“Why do you say that?” the lawyer asks.

I pause, because I’m not sure I want to tell the truth.

“I don’t trust authority enough.  I could never just simply obey orders.”

The Latino man smiles.  “Civilians have a hard time with that.”

“Yes,” I say.  “It’s hard for us to believe that a soldier could be ordered not to move, and then just sit there and listen to another soldier scream at him for hours and hours. To do that, sit there, just because that’s what you’re supposed to do: I could never believe in anyone enough to do that. ”

The Latino man, still smiling, walks to my side.  “You know, something like that would likely never happen, and if it did, the other soldier would likely get in trouble.”

“You know as well as I do,” I say, “that things like that sure do happen.”

“In garrison (i.e., United States bases), maybe,” he says, now standing in front of me. “But you know it’s different over there.”

We stare at each other.

“Obey so that no one dies?” I finally say.

He nods.  Again, we stare at each other.

“I could never do it: obey someone because he is who he is.  That’s not enough for me.”

A pause, and then the Latino man says to me, “Really?”

And I wake up.

The important take-home from this?  The dreamer’s rule-of-thumb:  everybody in the dream is you. I dreamed myself in each of these persons, “myself” included.  I spoke “me” in all four persons.

See you in November.  Unless another dream comes my way.

The brain, the unconscious have ways of messing up plans.

A Dream

It’s been several weeks since the last post, I know.  At this point, I’ll leave the explanation simply as “much has happened, and much will be happening.”  Life will become much more open in mid-November, and I will look forward to beginning the next phase of Listening to War at that point.

Consider this post, then, a cameo appearance—or rather, perhaps, a harbinger of what is to come.

For I wish to share with you a dream I had last night.

As background:  in the summer of 1974, my high school band went on a four-week excursion through Europe.  Richard Nixon was still President. The Middle East Oil Crisis had just taken center stage. At one point, the trip was cancelled because of the travel restrictions that had been implemented in Europe because of the oil shortages.  Yet soon another travel company was found, and so off we went, through the Netherlands, (then-West) Germany, Switzerland, Austria, Italy, and France (with a brief pit stop in Liechtenstein).

Nixon resigned as we were touring through Florence.

After forty years, I still have so many powerful, wonderful memories of that trip.  It was a defining moment in my self-concept and self-awareness.  For six months afterwards, I kept my wristwatch on Paris time.  I was just seventeen, after all.  Cut me some slack.

Thus, the dream.

I am sitting in the front of a tour bus. I realize that we are getting ready to travel to New York, where we will board a flight to Europe. “We” are the current-day members of my high school band, along with their families, as well as myself and many of my high school classmates (now adults) who also went on the 1974 trip with me.  I’m sitting at the front of the bus, on the side opposite the driver’s seat. No one is sitting next to me.

I look out the front window of the bus to see traffic passing by us, on a highway.  We are in a large city.  The bus driver is not yet in his seat (I know that he is a man), and I admire that he is going to be awake enough to drive us the twelve or so hours that it will take us to get to NYC.

I look to my right, out my side window.  It is slightly ajar. A cool, even chilly breeze is coming through it.  I am excited to go on this trip back to Europe.

Then, I realize that I did not bring my clarinet.  (Yes, yes, what else did you expect me to have played back then?  The tuba?  Seriously?) I think, though, that I might be able to borrow one from someone else, someone who does not play as well as I do.  (That’s an embarrassing detail, but dreams don’t allow you to fudge. I was indeed at the time the first-chair player in my band.  Looking back, I was often obnoxious about it.  Probably part of the dream’s message.  Dreams do that, you know.)

Then, however, I realize that I forgot to get my new passport.

I can’t believe that I forgot to do that, yet at the same time I understand that, in a way, I purposefully avoided all opportunities to get it.  I recall that when we went back in 1974, the band staff had worked with us to make sure that we would all get our passports in time.  I realize that the modern-day band had done the same. I easily could have taken advantage of the opportunity.  But I hadn’t.

Thus, I realize that with the bus about ready to leave within the hour, I won’t be going to Europe.

I decide that I must find the band director to let him know.  I find myself in the hallway of a building, like a convention center. Many of my fellow travelers, both young and old, are milling around, waiting to depart with the bus(es).  I find the band director (yes, the head band director of my high school years), and I ask him if we can step over to the side, as I am ashamed to have others hear what I had failed to do.

I speak to the director very apologetically, almost tearfully, confessing that I had failed to get the passport, that I would have to let down my fellow, adult classmates, as we were going to be serving as sponsors for the younger band members. I ask him to understand that I had not fully understood myself why I had been so negligent.

The band director, though, is not in an understanding mood.

He screams at me (curses, actually), ordering me to get out of the building immediately, disdainfully telling me that he does not have time for me and that I don’t deserve to go on the trip anyway.

At that point, I, though, no longer am finding myself in such an apologetic mood.

I scream and curse back at him, disdainfully telling him how worthless I think he is, as well as how ridiculous his whole “band-trip” project is.

We walk away from each other, still screaming, still cursing, still trying to outdo each other in how much we despise one another.

I then walk down some steps, and suddenly I sit down on them, overcome with a realization:

I really hadn’t wanted to go on the trip in the first place.

I remember how excited I had been when I had originally learned about the trip, about how I had planned to take my wife and my young-adult children (son-in-law included) with me.  Yet, I remember, we had simply not been able to arrange that, partially because of costs, partially because of schedules, and thus I was going to have to travel by myself.  I remember that I had not really wanted to do that.

Then I think of several specific high school classmates who were going to be going on the trip, especially the man who later became my college roommate and who had been one of the groomsmen at my wedding.  I realize that I would be letting all of them down, leaving them with more responsibility for the younger students.  I also realize that I had been looking forward to sitting with them in cafes in Paris, Rome, Berlin, drinking coffee, sipping wine, reflecting on our lives.

Yet even then, I again realize that I had not wanted to go.  I had wanted to stay home with my family.

I had told myself that I had wanted to go, and I had set myself up for the whole failure scenario.  Even while I had been telling myself that I had wanted to go, I had purposefully made it not possible to go.

I then even think about my band director. I easily can understand why he became so upset, and even though I have no desire whatsoever to speak with him again, I can empathize with his anger.  I realize that I would have been just as angry, had I been him.  (In real life, he had been a good man whom I did not fully appreciate at the time, let alone whom I did not sufficiently honor for his work in trying to hold together a music program that had gone through dramatic, public, unpleasant changes over the previous year.)

I think about Paris, Rome (both cities I visited), Berlin (one, in 1974, I obviously did not).  I feel a longing to go there, yet immediately I feel even more strongly a truth, one almost breathtaking:  I had really—really—never wanted to go on this trip in the first place.

And as I begin to wake up, I say to myself, “Good Lord, I have always known that I wasn’t going to go, haven’t I?”

Thus hath my inner Jung spoken.

The shrink in me knows exactly how important the dream was. And will be.

See you in November.

Take-a-Book-to-Work Week(s)

Several weeks have passed since I read Roy Scranton’s War Porn weeks punctuated by roller coaster rides; outpatient surgeries; hours of stories of lives lived, not-lived, and sadly-likely-never-to-be-lived; lists of French vocabulary; and the occasional cup of coffee sipped in a typical début de 21ème siècle college-town bistro.  Like the one I’m sipping now.

Perhaps I’m ready to write about the book, finally.  Perhaps.

Truth be told, I’m deeply enjoying being just another doc in small-city America.  When one is unimportant, one’s weekends are so much quieter.  Yet it has its drawbacks:  when one wonders what’s au courant in the world, one is always subject to the vagaries of editor-publishers’ whims and the algorithms of Google searches.

Thus, I cannot say, with certainty, what the current status is of Professor Scranton’s (in)famous essay in the Los Angeles Review of Books, “The Trauma Hero: From Wilfred Owen to ‘Redeployment’ and ‘American Sniper‘” in the littéraire-guerrier world (give me a break: where else will I use all that French vocabulary?)   Yet the professor-author in both essay and novel continues to question me:

Will I be able to listen to all the voices of War, even those suppressed in any particular narrative, the voices of those killed in addition to those who survived the killing?  Those harmed and those who did the harming?

In War Porn Americans and Iraqis are harmed. Americans and Iraqis do harm.

There are a lot of voices to be heard in War.

Trust me: War is a metaphor for Life for a reason.  When I listen to stories of veterans and non-veterans, part of my job is to hear what is not spoken, i.e., hear, if only in my mind, what those who interact with the person in front of me might say were they in the room.  There is, after all,  a truism among some in my field: every vicitmizer has been a victim, and every victim has been a victimizer.  You have to be careful with truisms, of course.  One must be wary of blaming the victim.  One must be wary of crucifying the victimizer.  Yet one writes off the sentiments underlying truisms—at least occasionally, if not often—at one’s peril.

As a psychiatrist, my job is to listen.  Listening does not equate with not-judging, but it does equate with keeping one’s mouth shut, even if for only a time.  Never think that I don’t struggle with the moral complexities of silence, that I don’t constantly question myself as to whose pain should be more relevant at any point .  Yet I  live with my daily decisions as to when to shut up and when to talk, and so far I keep showing up to work for another day.  If the day comes when the silence-part is too hard, it will be time take another job.  And talk more loudly and often.

War Porn is, in one way, the story of two American soldiers, one in-war, the other post-war, and one Iraqi man, a mathematician caught up in War, whose English was probably as good as my French.  Woe to him. Being bilingual, even if imperfectly,  has its pros and cons.

Yet it is the Iraqi mathematician, not so much in his starring role, but rather in his cameo appearances in the lives of the two Americans who will forever stick with me.  It is precisely my knowledge from his starring role that creates my feelings about those cameos, feelings about him, about those two soldiers, feelings about judging, reading, and listening, about saying something and keeping quiet.

In his LARB essay, Professor Scranton warns readers against glorifying any particular story of War, the story of the “trauma hero” as much as the story of the “war hero.”  The anti-hero has a tale to tell as well, after all.  After reading War Porn, don’t I know that.

I’ve met war heroes, trauma heroes, anti-heroes in my work.  Sometimes in the same person.  As I finish my essay in my college-town coffee shop, considering the multiple characters (and I do mean characters) I’ve seen pass through here this morning, I think of how far the mathematician’s native Basra had once seemed from his academic life in Baghdad; of how far my weekend seems from the more-important ones in Washington DC, New York, and Los Angeles; of how miles can mean so little in times of War; of how I have been both victim and victimizer; of how I have no clue what depth of pain those words can create, both in times of peace and times of war.

And on Monday, I’ll head back to work.  And War Porn, in some way, will be there with me.

The Twilight (War) Zone

It’s been a good few weeks with family and friends, even if it was a tad on the hot side in Orlando, Florida, USA.  Still, my years in the American South prepared me well, and survive, I did, enjoyably even.

(And, oh, yes, a couple of unexpected surgical procedures for family members, but all are doing much better, thank you, and all are more than ready to move on.)

Throughout this time I’ve been reading various short stories written by the late 19th/early 20th-century American author Ambrose Bierce, journalist, author, adventurer—and combat veteran of the American Civil War.  One of his more famous anthologies was Tales of Soldiers and Civilians, published in 1892.  Some have compared Bierce favorably to a more famous fellow-writer of an earlier generation, Edgar Allan Poe.  Indeed, Bierce’s stories have a horrific quality to them, much as do Poe’s.  Ask, for example, the protagonist in one of the most-often anthologized stories in the collection, “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge“: Peyton Farqhar, a Confederate civilian who is to be hanged by Union forces—and who gives new meaning to the term twist ending.

Not only has that story often been anthologized, it has often been performed as well. Previously unbeknownst to me, though, was a fact that brought back memories not only of my childhood, but also of many hours of my adulthood: a French short-film version of the story had once run as an episode of Rod Serling‘s early-1960’s classic series, The Twilight Zone.

I have a special spot in my heart for The Twilight Zone.  As I recall all these years later, so did my parents, who must have spent many a Friday evening watching murderous, talking dolls; lonely grandmothers with habits of postmortem telephone conversations; a younger Colonel Kirk losing it somewhere in a sky much closer to Earth; and a hitchhiker who still gives me chills every time I think of seeing him in my rear-view mirror.  To this day I can while away hours on Netflix watching them.  The endings get me every time.

What also was unbeknownst to me, though, revealed only via the magic of Wikipedia, was that like Bierce, Rod Serling was also a combat veteran, having served in the Philippines with the United States Army during World War II.

The editor and writing guru Shawn Coyne, author of The Story Grid, considers horror stories to be an end-of-the-line version of the thriller genre, stories that live out the values of life and death by eventually placing the hero at the mercy of the villain, with the winner of the contest determining whether you’ll either have a). a commercial success on your hands or b). a decent review in The New York Times.

In the horror story, though, the villain is not just your average, bigger-than-life bad guy. The villain is an Evil greater than any of us can imagine. Even when the hero survives, there is no turning back to a world that existed before the inciting incident.  There may be denouements after most climaxes, but some denouements, apologies to Orwell, are more denoue-ing than others.

As I said, ask Peyton Farqhar.  Or any combat veteran, for that matter.

As I read literature by combat veterans (and even as I think about watching old black-and-white dramas by them), I remain struck by the shifts between the language of the story-as-going-on with the language of the scenes-where-time-stands-still.   I often find the shifts in vividness and tone between them to be jarring.  Since I am a civilian, I can only assume what the veterans I serve tell me: they are jarring because, in fact, combat jars, not only the body, but even more the mind and soul housed within.

Neuroscientific, trauma research only verifies what veterans such as Bierce and Serling have long shown us in their art: when time stands still—even as, in the worst of ways, it does not—the body records sensations in the most minute detail.  Words might fail those sensations at the moment itself, but if the veteran can one day return to that moment (never just in mind, but always, to some extent, in body) and craft words around those sensations (never altering them, merely giving them new form), the veteran can create within a few paragraphs sensations that will change us civilians forever, give us a denouement the experience of which we owe to all those who were willing to take actions that we, in one way or another, participated in calling them to take.

In the short-story form, whether written or staged, writers do not need to face the challenge of war writers of longer forms: the challenge of somehow finding a way to link, with language, memories that (quite likely, literally) lack neuronal linkages in the minds of the protagonists (and perhaps authors?) narrating their tales.  Consequently, Bierce and Serling can become masters of the moment, the moment itself when War/Death gives merely a glimpse of itself, a glimpse sufficient to turn off not only the hippocampus, but also the very Self.

Peyton Farqhar, Ambrose Bierce, Rod Serling: go ahead, ask them about that moment.

But only if you’re prepared to listen.


Now, About that Mosque . . .

A couple days ago I finished Matt Gallagher‘s Youngblood.

Even now I sit before the screen and wonder how to speak what I heard spoken.

In her January 2016 review of the book, the New York Times‘chief book critic, Michiko Kakutani, wrote :

On one level, the novel is a parable — with overtones of Graham Greene’s “The Quiet American” — about the United States and Iraq and the still unfurling consequences of the war. On another, it’s a story about how we tell stories to friends and strangers, trying to convey experiences they will never know firsthand, and how we tell ourselves stories to reckon with the past — or, perhaps, to live with painful memories that are difficult, if not impossible, to assuage.

I agree wholeheartedly.  Yet, somehow, her sentences are so, what, normal.  I admire her capacity for linguistic ease—elegance, even—after having come to the novel’s end.

I am finding myself not so fluent.

The key phrase for me in the above is:

a story about how we tell stories to friends and strangers, trying to convey experiences they will never know firsthand

Well, true enough. So would be a story about my watching my maternal grandmother make egg noodles from scratch. Shoot, I can even add the “painful memories”part, for the heck of it.  Grandma could often be on the difficult side, after all.


Indeed, Mr. Gallagher tells a story—not a war story particularly, as you’ll find no climactic battle between the forces of Light and Dark at book’s end.  No, as Ms. Kakutani notes, his story is part coming-of-age, part mystery, and part tragic romance. It has a protagonist, Lieutenant Jack Porter, the California ROTC grad who had once protested the War until some mouthy Leftie in the car made one too many aspersions on his older brother, the Army officer with the Silver Star.  It has an antagonist (well, of sorts), Staff Sergeant David Chambers, the hardened veteran of multiple tours, the NCO with the shady past and the five skulls tattooed on his forearm. There’s the requisite sidekick, Qasim, AKA Snoop, the Sudanese interpreter.  There are the love interests, for both our hero and his nemesis: Rana, Marissa, Sergeant Griffin.

All is written well. I left the novel feeling that all three genres had been adequately narrated.  I left the story and its characters saddened, but I understood why what was, had to be.

Yet because of Youngblood, I may never hear many combat veterans’ stories the same again.

Most days, combat veterans only allude to me of War’s tragedies, rather than describe them.  Many days, in fact, some combat vets do not even allude. They have found their peace. They have satisfied their need-enough for understanding. War does not visit them regularly.

Such veterans tell stories, just as Ms. Kakutani writes criticism: fluently.

Others struggle more with their storytelling, but they do their best to be fluent-enough with me. They acknowledge  that War still visits them, during the day, the night, both sometimes.  They assure me, though, that they keep moving, keep trying to write a life story that works. They work every day to do just that.

Combat veterans like, for example, Jack Porter.

At story’s end, Mr. Gallagher has Jack narrate a scene reminiscent of the end of (at least the movie version of)  Doctor Zhivago, where Omar Sharif’s Zhivago desperately runs after a woman who might have been Julie Christie’s Lara, never to reach her (although, fortunately for now-veteran Jack, he doesn’t keel over with a massive coronary, as did his Russian counterpart). The scene in Youngblood, like the scene in Pasternak, works well as tragic romance. Jack tells it fluently.

I imagine Jack sitting in front of me, speaking to me the novel’s final words: “But there was nothing there, just the faint echo of my own steps.” I imagine how I would let those words sit between us, how I could possibly then hear him say “And that’s what happened, Doc,” I imagine saying, “Thanks, Jack.  That makes so much sense.”

Yet I also imagine that were Jack to walk out of my office at that point, I would not be hearing balalaika music strumming “Somewhere My Love,” even if it were played with a Middle Eastern tonal scheme.

For Mr. Gallagher gave me a Jack Porter who not only roamed streets in search of a past that might became a future. He gave me a Jack Porter who had a past that, I strongly suspect, would not, as Faulkner once quipped, reliably remain past.

How could I tell?  Because it can’t stay past for me. Even now, I remember.

I, unlike Jack, unlike Mr. Gallagher himself, have never known how War can upset a good story.  Mr. Gallagher did, however, reveal to me hints of the experiences that can defy fluency.

Of the scenes that hijack otherwise linear narratives, rip them apart, then taunt all the characters within the scene (and without) to go ahead and just try to get back to a semblance of a coherent tale.

You do that, pal.  Give ‘er a whirl.

You know, after the mosques that blow up under your feet. After the American soldiers with the funny names who long to make a difference in a world in which snipers take aim at them.  After the Iraqis who find their intestines hanging from a tree.  After the girls who prove that it really isn’t that hard to serve falafel when you don’t have a nose left to smell it.

Yes, let’s get back to our story.

I strongly urge all to read Youngblood.  I strongly urge all to ponder a tale of endurance, secrets, and love.

Nonetheless, I warn you: you may not feel very fluent afterwards.

But then, neither, I suspect, does Jack Porter after such a tale. Neither, I know, do many, many others after their tales.

Yet if men and women like Jack could sense that, just perhaps, we lucky ones might be willing to imagine a sliver of War’s senselessness in the midst of such tales, they might be then willing to hope that, indeed, their own stories of senselessness might, just perhaps, one day make a sliver of sense.

Don’t Go Arguing with Neurons

As I continued reading Matt Gallagher‘s Youngblood, I also happened upon a trending article from The Atlantic,  “Power Causes Brain Damage,” by Jeremy Useem.  Well-written, the article’s background premise presents no surprise: when people attain positions of power, often they display diminished capacity to empathize with the sufferings of others.

Anyone who’s taken an Intro to Psychology course since about, say, 1965 should be able to tell you as much—just as those folks who came across Stanley Milgram and his Yale shock machine in the early Sixties. True, the point of that particular experiment was more about social pressure, but power sure makes social pressure much more, say, sociable.

Mr. Usheem, though, reports that the background premise now lights up a screen in (literally) living technicolor.

He writes about current work in the neuroscience of empathy, especially concerning mirror neurons, brain structures that appear to be triggered when one is watching someone else doing something or even experiencing something. They’re sort of like our species’ built-in “There, but for the grace of God” mechanism.

According to the researchers quoted by Mr. Usheem, when folks feel powerful, their mirror neurons don’t feel so inclined to fire. Or so it seems.  Obliviousness, at least in such cases, appears to have a neurochemistry.

Neuroscientific psychology, psychological neuroscience: take your pick. If you want a good intellectual bar fight to break out, link those two words together, publish them, and then check out the comment section. Trust me: someone will eventually snarl “biological reductionism,” after which another will pipe in with “mentalistic presuppositions,” or some such, and you’ll be off to the races.  Like a charm.

Academia is so predictable.  At least something in this world is.

I’ll confess, though: I’m a linguistic mercenary when it comes to neuroscience. We live in such a Cartesian society, no hour of my professional life  goes by without my meeting persons who assume that what happens in their mind has little to do with what happens in their brain, let alone their body. People might pay  lip service to “mind-brain”, but that and $3.50 gets you a latte, most days.

So you’ve got to be straightforwardly sneaky.  This is how the mercenary mission goes:

If you think something, feel something, or will yourself to do something—while also connected to a snazzy machine—your brain will light up (or not).  No light-up-brain, no think-feel-will.

Simple as that.

Correlation, not causation, you say?  Perhaps.  But  when one is a linguistic mercenary, one need not let a trifling like that stop the show.

For one advantage to our societal allegiance to Descartes, at least in the early twenty-first century?  Most folks in the West are so impressed with the bells and whistles of machines, once you mention the word body, they stop nitpicking with you about the word mind.   Biology trumps psychology, every time.

For combat vets, for example, all you then have to do is say something like:

1. The body registers what happens to us, whether we want it to or not.

2.  The body doesn’t forget.  Even when you order it to do so.

3.  Neither does it take orders from Central Command as to how it will or will not respond in any particular situation.  Training takes you far.  But only so far.

4.  Your body tells your mind what will happen far more readily than your mind tells your body.

5.  But then, my combat vet friend:  you already know that.  You live it every day, down to your last cell. Sometimes every night.

6. You don’t just remember War. You relive it.

Point not just made, but felt.  Mission accomplished.

To take the body seriously is to take seriously that language can only do so much to express the body’s depths of experience.  Power is a social phenomenon, true, like words, for it happens between at least two people, whether any words are spoken or not.

But to realize how power feels in the body of the powerful—while being oblivious to the feel of that power in the body of another, less powerful? Ah, that’s inside a single mind, inside the neuronal compromise between a single brain and a single body, a series of neuronal firings that convinces the brain not to waste too many neurochemicals on cells that, ultimately, will never get the mind, i.e., you, what you want.

So forget empathy, soldier.  This is War. It is what it is.  Mirror lights off.  Onward.

The researchers tell Mr. Usheem, in fact, that if those series of obliviousness-neurons fire together often enough, the pesky mirror neurons might not bother you again for quite a while.  Maybe never.

But caveat miles, let the soldier beware: mirrors in the brain can start picking up the reflections of others at the most inopportune of times. Maybe even in an instant of battle.  Maybe in the days, even the years back stateside.

I’m about halfway through Youngblood now.  Already Lieutenant Jackson Porter is struggling with the biology of power as it ebbs and flows throughout his cortex, his midbrain, his brainstem, his lungs, his hearts, his guts. However it turns out for him, War has changed not just his outlook, but also his physiology.

Since Lieutenant Porter narrates in the first-person, though, we may also assume that he has learned another truth about neurons:  once they have fired together, they may once again reunite for good—or bad—times’ sake.  That’s called memory.  It is often not a friend. Only the few can claim the luxury of days, months, even years of enjoying power’s oblivious biology after War.

For the many, like the good Lieutenant, those oblivious times must eventually be confronted during later times less oblivious, as they face the memories of their bodies that might have been present fully at some particularly memorable moments, yet the realities of their minds that might have been far less so at those same moments.  They may have known exactly what they were doing, what they were saying at those times, in other words, while at the same time not having been fully they. 

As they face memories of minds that were the products of brains that, at least at some moments, were not firing on all cylinders.

And so the linguistic mercenary doctor fires off once more:

1. It was both you, and it wasn’t you back there, Lieutenant Porter

2.  That’s just how the body works.

3.  But, thankfully, biology is not destiny.  It’s just biology.

4.  Memories may feel like present reality, but they too are just biology.

5.  Present reality, fortunately, is far more than biology.  And, fortunately, it can be a spot from which new biology can be formed.

Trust me: it wouldn’t be “mission accomplished” for our good Lieutenant.  But it would be start.

Talking the Talk, After Walking the Walk

Started reading Matt Gallagher‘s novel, Youngblood, this week, and even now I struggle, just as I have all week, with a question:

If an author has been to War as a combatant, even if only as a potential combatant, whether or not that author lifted even a finger against someone else, an author, though, who has been more than well-trained to lift such a finger, and to do so more-than-effectively: does that author somehow speak of War differently—profoundly, meaningfully differently—than do those of use who have never similarly lived War?

I began Mr. Gallagher’s book soon after I had finished Peter Van Buren‘s Hooper’s War, a novel that I liked, as I have written. Furthermore, Van Buren is no stranger to War-ravaged lands.  He made his literary name, after all, in a memoir that got him into more-than-a-little trouble with the United States Department of State, his long-time employer and end-of employment adversary:  We Meant Well: How I Helped to Lose the Battle for the Hearts and Minds of the Iraqi People.

Yet there was something about Gallagher’s prose.

Consider the following opening lines:,

The war tried to kill us in the spring.

There is nowhere to go in a landing craft except where it takes you.

rage forth, bold here & man of war, you have no flood documenting her lament, no legal recourse in re: administrative decisions on the matter of torture TV rage the rockets red not singly but in global consensus

The men of Bravo are not cold.

It’s strange, trying to remember now.

Three of those lines were written by those who had been sent to War as combatants.  Two by those who were not.

Each of the three books written by those sent as combatants weaves its tale in a voice different from the others.  Yet there is something about their voices.  Something that I hear every day as I sit in my office. Something, as the novels proceeded, that I did not hear, or at least did not hear quite as sharply, in the other two.

Yet, honestly, I could not have picked out which is which were I, beforehand, to have been offered these five sentences on a quiz.

I have been listening to men and women, as a psychiatrist, for thirty-five years.  I surprise myself as I write that sentence.  How many of my fellow young psychiatrists I still so intensely remember from those early years in Durham and Boston.  I wonder: what have they heard through those years?  How often through those years have I been hearing only what I had been expecting to hear, rather than what was conveyed to me?  How would they have heard differently all those whom I’ve heard?

Yet I have to say: once I began listening to combat veterans, to those who had been trained to lift those well-trained fingers, whether or not they did, I began hearing something—something—that I had not previously heard.  A couple years ago, I took a brief professional hiatus from them, listened instead to those who had never been to War, yet whose lives had been, in every figurative way, war zones.

Nonetheless, I did not hear from them, as painful as their figurative zones had been, what I had heard from those men and women whose war zones had been literal.

Different does not mean better or worse.  But it does mean different.

It’s so easy to overgeneralize.  It’s also easy to underestimate.

So I keep reading.  And listening.


Hooper’s War, My War

A longer piece today, reviewing a book well worth reading.

In Peter Van Buren’s book, Hooper’s War (Luminis Books, 2017), history changes.  Yet history never changes, even when it does.

What might have happened had the atomic bomb never been dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki? he asks. Had the Allies invaded Japan instead, taking first the southern island of Kyushu, establishing then a beachhead on the main island of Honshu?  Had the ancient capital of Kyoto, until that point spared aerial attack, become the scene of a firebombing that would leave behind nothing but ash posing as February snow, to be taken up by the wind and then returned in torrents of black rain upon a teen-aged American soldier screaming, “Get it off me, get it off me.  It’s people, get it off me.”?

What might have happened had a ninety-year-old American tourist, years later, stopped hearing that boy’s cries?

While visiting a Buddhist temple north of Kyoto in 2017, former Lieutenant Nathaniel Hooper tells an elderly Japanese women he meets there that he had “outlived them all, and usually in a war that means I won.” She doesn’t seem to mind: she is there to talk to ghosts, after all, the spirits of her two children, while pouring water onto one of the many small Buddhas scattered throughout the garden, comforting souls that had years before thirsted until the heat had finally consumed them.

It is the image of that old American man that sticks with me: his bending down toward those small statues outside the one temple that had managed to survive not only earthquakes, but also heavenly conflagrations, the shrine having been scuffed around the edges only by some, shall we say, fateful artillery fire. His then reaching into his pocket, his pulling out a yellowed scrap.

My wife refused to return to Kyoto herself, but insisted I do something for her, after her death.  Doctors say someone can’t technically die of a broken heart, but I know better.  It just takes a long time.  So my final obligation in Kyoto was to leave behind an old photo of two Japanese children.  I’d helped take care of it for 70 years, but it was never mine.  It was a treasured possession of hers, and it needed to return home, before the next change of season.  They were together. It had just taken a long time.

“Words were all I had,” Hooper tells us. And so Van Buren adds words to that image, moving backwards in time as his American protagonist encounters Naoko Matsumoto, the woman with whom he shared those seventy years, and Sergeant Eichi Nakagawa, the man for whom, perhaps, he did.

For in the end, whatever each man did, he did for her.

Hooper’s War is anything but a romance. It is not an action thriller, either. It’s not the ending at the beginning that matters, after all.  It’s the beginning at the end.

Van Buren calls it a tale of “moral injury,” the au courant psychological term for what War does to a man’s, a woman’s soul.  I’ve heard that some are trying to quantify the term these days. Data is always so helpful when it comes time for reports to the Budget Office. That means we won. I think.

Words can only qualify an image, however, not replace it.  Van Buren makes no promises otherwise. Yet with his words, he delivers, such as when the American soldier and the Japanese soldier play chess, literally and figuratively, mediated by the words and the heart of the young Japanese woman, fully bilingual, fully willing to live out the values that both men would have preferred had remained hidden in the pasts of southern Japan or middle America, pasts that Van Buren slowly unfolds for the reader, until youth is rediscovered, histories that will never again be.

And it was at that moment of discovery, in the final pages of the novel, that Hooper’s War became mine.

If as a practicing psychiatrist all I do is hear the wars of others, if I do nothing to make some small part of their War my own, then really I’m just a cleaned-up version of “First  Warrant Officer Rand, 20th Army Air Force, strategic bomb damage assessment branch, acting deputy chief assistant assessor”—by the way, also a high school math teacher from Nebraska.

“So, Rand, you’re saying [all this destruction] is good?” [asked Hooper.]

“No sir, not good,” Rand said.  “I’d have to score it pretty close to perfect to be honest about it.  Almost nothing left standing. That’s an achievement.”

“If you’re so smart, Rand, tell me, why are there so many logs blocking up the river?  What caused that?” I said.

“Oh, those aren’t logs, Lieutenant.”

Yet in Van Buren’s book, it was not the Nate, Naoko, and Eichi outside Nishinomiya Station, south of Kyoto, who first claimed me.

No, first it was a Japanese housewife, whom I met briefly in the closing pages of the book.

My father told me [Eichi] that because Japan had freed Korea and China from the west, our markets were flooded with new goods from those faraway places.  Mother especially loved the Korean plums, quietly insisting they were juicier than Japanese ones, even as my father would shush her for fear a neighbor might overhear her being what he said was disloyal.

Then it was some (likely) high-school track coach from, of all places, Reeve, Ohio.

I [Nate] was 14-years-old in December 1941, sitting in an overheated classroom hearing about Sherman’s Burning of Atlanta and Pickett’s Charge at Gettysburg, asking my equally bored teacher numbing questions about why we had to learn this stuff.  Every minute dragged like a week’s worth of Mondays.

The novel made War mine through these passing mentions of adults who, without much thought, were living what they were living because someone else, somewhere, had died to give them that opportunity, both soldier and civilian.

The dead aren’t that choosy, one way or the other, which side they might once have been on.   Plums, classrooms, all the same to them.

I am Eichi’s mother, Nate’s teacher. I am the one who has eaten those plums in those classrooms, who even now nibbles on a sticky bun in a quiet bed and breakfast as my Twitter feed narrates more deaths in Afghanistan, acknowledges final words uttered somewhere, whether in English or in Dari.

I live in my Society.  I profit from my Society. My Society has sent troops to other Societies, for reasons good or ill, depending on whose viewpoint you assume.

Either way, I have therefore sent them there as well

In his “alternative universe,” Van Buren has forced me to to realize: I too am morally injured.  Even more,  I have morally injured. Yes, I still can enjoy a rose garden and a Lake Michigan breeze. Yet I don’t get a pass, either.

Neither Lieutenant Hooper nor Sergeant Nakagawa indict me, their families, their Societies for the acts they themselves, as soldiers, committed or did not commit.  They chose their fates as much as they were chosen by them, and they lived with those choices—and died with them.

Yet, somehow, I cannot but feel indictment, not from the young men in wartime Japan, perhaps, but rather from a boy who had his picture taken with a girl years before, when they had both enjoyed Sakuma, the fruit drops in the metal tin, made in the factory so far away from their hometown. From a boy in Ohio who “left the house in the morning always knowing [he’d] be back in time to wash up for supper.”

Those two boys–and the girl whom, at different times in different worlds, they together loved–they say to me, “You, Dr. Deaton, you helped make this story. We were merely playing our parts, understudies to much older folks like yourself, taking direction, falling on cue.”

The Buddhas, the old man, the photograph, quiet Japanese villages and rustic Ohio towns: may the images last with me, even longer than the words. Thank you, Mr. Van Buren, for having, in Hooper’s War, given both to us all.


Two Kooks and a Coward

Odd title, I know.

I’m using the blog partially as an on-line diary, if you will: a place to keep my thoughts, to which I can turn later to ruminate, adapt, clarify.  Also, I’d like it to be a place of “confession,” a place where I put ideas out in public, if only to force myself to remember that there might be one or two people out there in cyberspace who remember “didn’t you say once …?” and who would force me to keep (at least a few) of my resolutions, or perhaps re-think what I was once so sure that I thought.

Such as, for example, writing a book.

At one point, as a few of the faithful few might remember, I’d thought of pulling together a book out of the blog posts, but once I actually took that project seriously, I ended up realizing that, no, that was not the book for me to write.  I allude to that on the Welcome page.

No, instead I wish to challenge myself to write a book that, I have to admit, few people will likely read, but that I wish to write: a well-researched, carefully thought-out book (or two) on understanding better the experience of Listening to War, on understanding how theory (both with a small and a capital t/T ) can make Listening better—and, of course, worse.

A book in which the standard of better or worse will be the standard of making it more likely that those who have been to War will feel heard, truly heard, by those, such as myself, who are willing to listen.

So who are the kooks?  Well, although it is passé in so many circles, psychoanalytic thinking still draws me in, challenges me always to ask the central question in my life:  What’s missing?  What lies deeper? What lies beyond that?

Now, many, if not most, modern mental health folks assume from the get-go that “psychoanalysis = kook.”  I’ll probably do little in my musings to dissuade such folks of that conviction.  I could stop right there.  Kook = me.

But even the “kooks” have their own “kooks” whom they can slander, and believe you me, psychoanalysts can disparage with the best of them. And two of the greatest “kooks” in modern, American psychoanalytic thinking?  The Swiss psychiatrist Carl Gustav Jung, and the French psychiatrist Jacques Lacan.

Trust me: these men are anything but kooky. Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.

But the very fact I put those two men’s name in the same sentence makes me the kook par excellence.  Trust me on that as well.

So who’s the coward?  Well, that’s me, too.

The nice thing about writing a blog that few read is that you actually have folks take an sincere interest, while not having to constantly defend yourself.  I can say “kooky” things, throw out “kooky” ideas, and the world’s not worse for the wear—nor am I.  The nice folks who are willing every once in a while to read the blog can keep me on the straight and narrow, but I don’t have to be brave enough to make a fool of myself in a public setting in which people are actually looking directly at me while their eyes roll like bowling balls toward the pins.

For thinking of Jung and Lacan, two men who could probably not be more unalike, does somehow draw me, at least at this point, toward thinking about my challenges in Listening to War.  It’s the very fact that they are both so unlike, yet both so willing to look at what we might rather not look at.  I like that.

And who knows: maybe at the end of months and months of essays, I might find myself writing a book about that.

And since I’m a coward, maybe if I do so in the quiet public of a quiet blog, I just might finish it.

You never know.  Kooky, but possible.

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