Archive for May, 2010

May 29th 2010

The Letter

The Letter

Last week a letter arrived for my son from the National Guard. I did the same thing with it that I’ve done with the others, the Army, the Marines. I buried it in the kitchen trash. I even arranged the trash over it on the off chance he’d see his name and fish it out.

My father used to ask me, “When are you going to join the army, sweet boy?” I know he knew how much it needled me; I was always visibly uncomfortable. I never had the rejoinder that would shut him up. He was a tall man, fit and robust–I was a teenager and shy and my spirit cowered in his presence. He’d ask, “Where’d you get that hippie philosophy?” in a sneering voice. “Stuff I read,” I’d say, which only made it worse. He’d go on and on. He’d been a general’s guard in the Korean War and he credited that time with turning him into a man. He collected guns and one of his prizes was a Russian Luger he’d gotten off a prisoner and which he’d brazenly smuggled out of Korea. He even collaborated on books about the conflict.

Once, when I’d said something about the “enemy” being human, he said, “Down the barrel of a gun, those gooks ain’t human.” He held up an imaginary rifle and let off a few rounds. I remember vividly where my dad and I were when he said that, the smell of the restaurant, the look of the fake plants behind my father’s head. I was so stunned, I just sat there. I kept thinking of my girlfriend, who he’d met. She was Korean, adopted by a couple here in the states. I became sick to my stomach. I kept wondering how it could be that she wouldn’t be human–what circumstances could ever make anyone not see her as beautiful, full of life, human.

The war machine is getting better at dehumanizing the enemy. The latest move is to separate soldiers from their targets. War by drone, or by long-distance imagery. It is impossible for me to watch the footage of the Reuters reporter gunned down by US helicopters (you can watch the video on WikiLeaks and read the Reuters story). I start, but it overwhelms me. And the New York Times is reporting that 23 Afghan civilians were killed by, as the army puts it, “unprofessional” reporting from drone operators. We fight more and more via remote video and what then separates the “enemy” on the screen from the video game “enemies” my son’s generation spends so much time conquering?

Ironically, when my father passed away, I inherited his gun collection. They are all safely locked away and I made sure every gun had no ammunition in it. But they belong to me–me, who has never knowingly allowed a real gun in my house in my life. I remember when I was a kid my dad cleaning the guns (religiously) every weekend. He’d show me how to hold them, how to check to see if they were loaded, what never to do. He wanted to teach me to value them as he did, but we moved to California and I developed a hippie philosophy. I did not carry his values forward.

I have talked to my son about my actions. He’s seen me throw away the Army letters. He knows what all of this means to me. I have checked the box denying the Armed Services the right to send my son literature via the school or to use school records. A lot of good that does, apparently. I also preview my son’s video games and movies. But he is 17 now. I can’t shield him forever–and I’m aware that I am probably not shielding him now. I remember being that age. I just hope, if someone ever asks him to target another human being, however much they might seem like game avatars, he’ll say no. If asked why he won’t, maybe he’ll say, “My dad taught me.”


May 16th 2010



Is anyone’s life free of stains? Not mine; in reflection, I turn up the rug and all that’s been spilled over the years has dried in accusing layers. My house is dirty. I have not kept it well.

Of course, this is a conceit. My viewpoint is a choice and, like most depressives’, it evidences a strange sort of narcissism. Woe is me, etc. It is a viewpoint that feeds on itself too–that recognizes its own conceit as further evidence of the dirty house, of the general worthlessness of the beholder. Self-knowledge does not necessarily improve the depressive illness.

And illness it is. I take medication to improve the serotonin levels in my brain. Serotonin is a chemical that we know a lot about and nothing about at the same time. It has been linked to sudden infant death syndrome and regulates a variety of cardiovascular and endocrine functions, muscles, and breast milk production. According to WebMD, “Of the approximately 40 million brain cells, most are influenced either directly or indirectly by serotonin. This includes brain cells related to mood, sexual desire and function, appetite, sleep, memory and learning, temperature regulation, and some social behavior.” Clearly, if there’s something wrong with my serotonin, it would explain a lot.

Except, like most advances in science, the more we learn, the more we realize how little we know. There is no way to measure serotonin levels in the brain or even to be certain exactly how increasing serotonin levels affects mood. Scientists aren’t sure if reduced serotonin levels cause depression or the other way around. One theory holds that a suppression of brain cells from stress causes depression. The theory suggests that increased serotonin in the brain stimulates the growth of brain cells and that these new cells are what mitigate depression, not the medication itself.

It doesn’t really matter, I suppose. My current depressive illness has something to do with stress, which I don’t handle well, but also with shock. The triggering event itself is not important to this post, but I am in deep grief and shock and this has triggered a downward spiral of emotions. I must have killed off or suppressed quite a few cells to feel so uninspired by the world around me. Suddenly all the stains are visible: layers of them.

I’ve been here before. It will pass. I’m exercising more, practicing yoga breathing, distracting myself. It’s the AA way–fake it ’til you make it. Last night my son had some friends over and I busied myself driving for pizza, taking my stepdaughter to work and back, ferrying about. All their conversations were animated, excited. They barrel forward toward an uncertain future with their brain cell factories at full production and they are high on the serotonin of youth, the dance of friendship, the courtship of possibilities. I could learn something. My son, after dropping a pizza slice on his shirt, exclaimed to his friend, “That’s gonna stain!” And with that they took off laughing, grabbing a broom to sweep their treehouse.

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