Monday, December 31, 2007

Happy New Year

Happy New Year!

And I'd like to take this moment to reflect on the strangeness of this particular holiday. I mean, I'm as happy as the next guy to take any given calendrical excuse for a celebration, but really, it's just so arbitrary. And it happens every year; one would think the quadrennial February 29 would attract more attention.

Oh well, maybe I'm just bitter because -- as usual for the last few years -- I've got a nasty cold for New Year's Eve, which is always a bit of a damper on the revelry. One of these years, I'll be in a position to throw the large, classy New Year's party I've always pictured myself throwing. You know, the kind of party in the holiday ads for top-shelf liquor brands. Instead, I'm driving down to hit the bars of Milwaukee, a city I love, but of which the infrequent positive mention contains, without fail, the phrase "blue-collar charm". Tomorrow I'll have the inveitable comments on why I'm not making resolutions, as well as photos of my big Christmas project: the Gingerbread Fortress.

Election Thoughts I

I'll admit: I haven't been following the progress of next year's presidential elections with my usual partisan gusto. I've been consumed with a general apathy on the subject, despite the fact that the next president of the U.S. will almost certainly be making decisions on issues of utmost importance to the future of our country and our world. The problem is that I just haven't been able to get very excited about any of the candidates on offer. I haven't been able to pin down exactly why this would be the case, but then a pundit made it all clear to me. (Thanks, pundit). The problem, at least as far as the Republican contenders are concerned, is that the most likely front-runners for the Republican candidacy are polar opposites politically, and their contest for the nomination could well tear apart the Republican party.

One of these days I'll do the obligatory my-thoughts-on-the-candidates post, but before I can do that, I'll actually have to sit down and do some thinking about them.

Saturday, December 29, 2007

Local News

I love the BBC Online main news page when you refuse to tell it which regional edition to give you; it's forced to try to give you all of them. There are several upsides to this. One is that I actually get to follow world news, as opposed to just happenings in the countries the media has decided matter to me. Two is that you occasionally pick up hilariously inane local news items from places like the Outer Hebrides, such as this mysterious container which has washed up in charmingly-named Stinky Bay on the island of Benbecula. Awesome. There is no way I could have ever considered myself an informed person without that particular news item.

Thursday, December 27, 2007

Fitting Responses

The various international responses to the assassination of Benazir Bhutto have been so perfectly fitting, they could hardly be caricatured. The United States has condemned those who attempt to stop the progress of democracy; the United Kingdom has called for unity in the face of terror; the EU has condemned the use of violence; and Russia has stressed the importance of maintaining stability. You wonder if they've all got big files of prepared statements on hand for such occasions.

Benazir Bhutto 1953-2007

Benazir Bhutto, twice Prime Minister of Pakistan and head of that country's most popular party, has been assassinated. Choosing to participate in democratic politics in a decidedly undemocratic country, Bhutto must have well understood and accepted the dangers she faced. Her courage and commitment to democracy (if not her record of performance in government) are to be commended.

This does not bode well for the future of Pakistan. The scheduled elections for January are now thrown into question, and we have yet to hear how President Musharraf will respond. It had been looking recently that his path back to legitimate rule (following his dissolution of the government and declaration of emergency rule) would intersect with Bhutto's return to from exile. When he finally agreed to give up his uniform and run as a civilian in the next elections, he seemed to be paving the way for the logical coalition between his own great personal popularity and Bhutto's genuine electoral popularity. Now, on the other hand, the possibility of emergency rule looms yet again. Bhutto's assassination took place in the middle of Rawalpindi, Pakistan's "garrison city", the beating heart of that country's enormous military and security forces, and what ought to have been the safest place in all Pakistan. If terrorist forces have the capability of striking there, then no place is safe.

This of course does raise the question of who could have been behind this attack. Unfortunately the number of people and groups hoping to obstruct the democratic process in Pakistan makes it impossible to narrow down suspects on motive alone. Musharraf will almost certainly take some scrutiny, particularly if he can use this attack as justification to maintain his powers. Taliban remnants and al-Qaeda splinters are also possible suspects. My gut feeling, however, makes me suspect the involvement of Pakistani intelligence. One hears now and then shadowy rumor of 'rogue elements' in the top echelons of the Pakistani security and intelligence community: whispers of their involvement in bombings in India, in providing Peshawar safehouses for Taliban and al-Qaeda in transit to and from Afghanistan, in undermining Musharraf's response to the militants who occupied Islamabad's Red Mosque. I continue to suspect that Pakistan, much like Iran, is a country whose power struggles take place deep below the surface, well out of sight of the rest of the world, bubbling up in resignations, firings, exiles, and assassinations that seem strangely out of context to outside observers.

I've held for some time that Pakistan, Egypt, and Nigeria are three countries that don't get worried about enough, and three countries I would be unsurprised to find myself deployed to before the end of my Army career. I hope I'll never have to look at my little list as having been prophetic.

Wednesday, December 26, 2007

That Was The Worst Christmas Ever

Or at least, I should hope getting mauled by a tiger puts you in Worst Christmas Ever territory. If not, well, geez dude, remind me never to visit your house around the holidays. Seriously, though, what a terrible thing to go through, at least for the family of the person killed. Seems like the injuries were fairly minor for the other two, in which case, the story value is pretty much off the charts. "Oh, that scar? Yeah, that's from when I was mauled by a tiger. On Christmas."

Monday, December 24, 2007

Merry Christmas

I was going to write an eloquent and beautiful Christmas greeting, but it appears my sister beat me to it. I don't think she'd mind if I just piggyback on her Christmas message:

Merry Christmas!

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Welcome to the Future

Have robots clean your gutters!

I actually read a review of this in Popular Mechanics, apparently it doesn't actually work all that much better than just cleaning your gutters by hand, but it's still worth it for the sheer entertainment factor. I believe it.

Square America

I've added a new entry to the Blogrow: Square America. It's a collection of photographic ephemera, pictures taken in an earlier time which have mostly lost their context and now stand alone. There's a strange sort of beauty here, sort of a vicarious nostalgia, maybe? It's the sort of thing that tears down a bit of the anonymity of modern life and reminds us that every nameless face in the street has a story. On that note, I should add Found Magazine as well. Same concept, but focused on modern ephemera: handwritten notes, reminders, shopping lists, photos and such that people have found on the street, in library books, or just about anywhere. Some of my favorites.


So I'm sitting in a coffeeshop in Uptown Minneapolis, and I'm reminded again how much I love the Twin Cities. Chicago will forever be my favorite American city, probably my favorite in the world, but I will always feel at home here in the Cities. On my brief and infrequent visits I now regret that I spent so little time up here in the four years I spent in college less than an hour away. I may get my chance, though; I've decided that if I were to go for my Masters, I'm pretty sure it would be here, at the University of Minnesota. And I'd live in St. Paul. I know Uptown's the hip, cool place for young people, and it's a great area (imagine a better-dressed, somewhat more conservative version of Madison's State Street or Berkeley), but I'd still live in St. Paul. It's the quieter, older, more family-friendly of the Cities. Also cheaper. Plus, there are tons of beautiful, huge, early-20th century apartments, built in an era when apartments were for living, not just existing. Many of them have dining rooms (gasp!) and large porches and such. Can you tell I'm ready for a place of my own? After six years in communal housing, who wouldn't be?

'Tis The Season


Monday, December 17, 2007


This recent Wondermark got me thinking. While I was in college, it was a real pet peeve of mine when people would strike up conversations in a shared foreign language, effectively excluding non-speakers from the conversation. This struck me at the time as extremely rude. Later, while studying at a dedicated language school, there was a sort of etiquette for using foreign languages for private asides; for example, using eye contact and body language to keep any non-speakers engaged (and to assure them the side conversation wasn't at their expense). Now out of that environment, I find myself with sarcastic comments to make and nobody to make them to without resorting to murmuring and whispering, which now seems so crass. It's so much more satisfying to make your comments loud, clear, and incomprehensible.

Should Have Gotten a Picture...

Of the nativity scene proudly displayed in front of the Tarot/palm/psychic reading emporium I drove past in Great Lake City yesterday. It's up there with Lutheran Lucciola's Gregorian-chant-piping-Buddhist friend, but more inexplicable.

Sunday, December 16, 2007

On Real Meanings

Went to my darling niece's Sunday School Christmas program this evening (no, not that niece, rather her younger cousin). Are all pre-packaged children's Christmas programs like this? I guess so. My mom has despaired of finding a decent program for their church's youth, commenting on how they're all the same sentimental message about the "real meaning of Christmas" without ever delving into that meaning to any depth at all. The irony is that a 30-minute program on the "real meaning of Christmas" ends up devoting all of 45 seconds to Christ. And in the meantime, we get to sit through all the kids. who. are. reading. their. lines. for. the. first. time. along with thekidswhocanmemorizebutneedsomeworkontheirelocution and the kids ... who thought they knew who thought they knew their lines but ... just need just need a little reminder. My vote? Stick to the script. Let the kids rattle it off in charmingly memorized unison, let the shepherds hit each other with their staffs, let the angels squirm in their itchy tinsel wings, and let us all be done with it. And maybe, just maybe, let the Gospel be preached to all those parents who haven't been in church since Easter. All the rest is just trying my patience.

Thursday, December 13, 2007


My mom's fridge now contains no less than four different types of cookie dough waiting to be baked. And I've got a drawerfull of spoons.

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Wasting Time

For the first time in, oh, two years or so, I've got more time than I know what to do with for a few weeks. So I finally get to spend as much time as I want sitting at the computer, drinking the beverage of the hour (getting 'bout time to trade coffee for beer), and staring at optical illusions, for example. Hat tip Shane.

I like this illusion a lot. The same thing happens if you've ever stared out the window while sitting in a rear-facing seat on a high-speed train. When the train comes to a stop, the entire world appears to be approaching you. It's unsettling until you realize what's happening. Strangely, the effect isn't reversed by watching things approach. Our brains are apparently hardwired for moving forward.

This one is downright unsettling to me for some reason.

Monday, December 10, 2007

On My Way Home

Now is the time for the long journey back from the lands beyond the great grey-green greasy Limpopo River (all set about with fever-trees). I'm on my way back to the great grayish North for a well-deserved nearly-a-month of leave. My parents came down to Georgia for my Airborne graduation ceremony, and my dad's driving back up with me. This noon we'll stop in at the home of the Elephant's Child for a visit.

I've still got lots of thoughts about Airborne; hopefully within the next few days I'll pound out some reflections on the most distinctive sort of school I've ever been through.

Friday, December 7, 2007


In reference to the Elephant's Child's thoughts on church ceilings, ponder the incredible continuity of something like 3,500 years of gold stars on blue ceilings. Beautiful. This is from the temple complex of Karnak at Luxor in Egypt, the site of the ancient Egyptian capital of Thebes.

Monday, December 3, 2007


No jump today. Too windy :(

That doesn't mean we didn't still spend a 12-hour day getting into harnesses, sitting around, getting our harnesses checked several times, getting cleared to jump, loading the first ranks on the C130s, then getting out of it all when they decided it wasn't happening. Kind of frustrating. We're trying again tomorrow. It's supposed to be clear with low winds, so we ought to get both jumps in, which will only set us back a day, then. If we miss another jump, though, we'll have to jump on Friday, which means we'll have our graduation ceremony right on the drop zone. Honestly, as frustrating as being delayed is, that'd be kind of cool ;)

Saturday, December 1, 2007

Getting Real

Yesterday we got lined up in our final jump manifest formation. As in, the lines we'll be in when we load the planes and the order in which we'll jump out of them. So yeah, it's finally getting real that I'm going to be jumping out of a plane on Monday. I'm remarkably unperturbed by that thought, though the fact that I'm not worried now makes me concerned that I'll be more nervous than I now expect when I get on the plane. If that makes any sense at all. In any case, there are concerns, but mostly realistic, manageable ones. The course averages about five injuries (serious enough to prevent finishing subsequent jumps) per class of 360 or so, and that's in five jumps. So each jumper faces a 0.2% chance of significant injury per jump. Pretty minimal, and since most injuries are jumper induced, and I'm performing somewhat above average at the basic tasks, I'm confident I won't be one of those five.

Thursday, November 29, 2007

Boat has Two Syllables

Unsurprisingly, this quiz has confirmed that I do in fact speak like a northerner, just like my sister. Unsettlingly to some, I've also picked up a few vocal habits typical of the South, particularly y'all, which I suppress pretty well at home, but tends to confuse southerners who hear me use it, since the rest of my speech is so thoroughly northern.

What American accent do you have?
Your Result: The Inland North

You may think you speak "Standard English straight out of the dictionary" but when you step away from the Great Lakes you get asked annoying questions like "Are you from Wisconsin?" or "Are you from Chicago?" Chances are you call carbonated drinks "pop."

The Northeast
The Midland
The South
North Central
The West
What American accent do you have?
Quiz Created on GoToQuiz

Jumping the 250

The highlight of Tower Week, the second week of Airborne School, is jumping (well, being dropped) from the 250-foot parachute training tower, which I did today. You can see the historic towers in these pictures; they haven't changed much, though one of the four was blown down in a storm in 1988. I hadn't been particularly enthusiastic about the tower, since it struck me as kind of silly and just one more chance to get injured before Jump Week. I became less enthusiastic after seeing multiple malfunctions on the tower over the course of the day, though the safety precautions worked in all cases and there were no injuries. The tower isn't a requirement of the course, see, and often many soldiers don't get the chance to do it anyway, due to weather conditions or whatnot. But nonetheless my turn came up and I was hoisted aloft and dropped, and boy I wished I could have done it again. It was a lot more fun than I expected, and I was surprisingly at ease. I'm not really bothered by heights in any case, but I was expecting the hoisting and the long moments of waiting at the top to be rather nerve-wracking. Not the case, apparently, because I just sort of relaxed and enjoyed the view. And then I dropped, and I was more focused on manipulating my parachute for a soft(ish) landing. It takes less than 15 seconds to drop 250 feet, so it's really over before you know it. No lollygagging about in the sky like a civilian skydiver's parafoil, the Army's parachutes are designed to get you on the ground quickly, and for good reason. If you've seen Band of Brothers, you'll remember that in a real Airborne insertion, the sky isn't exactly a safe place to be. Not that any Normandy-style invasions are anywhere in my likely future, but that's the idea. Tomorrow we should have a short day with just a few classes, and then I'll be off for my one real weekend of Airborne school. I really have no idea what I'll do all weekend, since during the week I generally just hit the Internet for an hour and go to bed early. I'm sure I'll figure something out. And then next week is Jump Week! Five successful jumps (including two with combat gear and at least one at night), and I'll be fully Airborne qualified!

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Christmas Hints List

As a favor to my dear mother and anyone else struggling with gift ideas, I've put together a list of hints in my sidebar. I'll try to add a few more things so it's not quite so specific; I really hate when Christmas lists are nothing more than "these are the things you will buy me".

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

The Day is Nigh

I used to joke that I wouldn't join the military until I could do so as the pilot of a GFRS (Giant Fighting Robot Suit). Granted, I slipped up on that promise and joined a bit too early, but I've remained excited by the prospect. Me and my buddies in CA even used to jokingly muse about the future Mech Corps and even invented a branch insignia (a sprocket Or on field Sable with crossed lightning bolt Argent and laser beam Crimson, if you can imagine). In any case, as this video shows, it's exciting times in the US military. Who knows, if I stick around long enough, I might just get a chance to reclass to mech pilot after all.

Saturday, November 24, 2007

Loving the Midwest

I've been home for just a couple days for Thanksgiving, and I've been greatly enjoying being back in the upper Midwest. I particularly appreciated this helpful sign posted on the door of the local Fleet Farm (sort of an agricultural Wal-Mart).

I'm almost happy I don't have any of my close buddies with me at Airborne, so at least this time I won't have to take the usual commentary on how much my accent has regressed northwards.

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Ground Week

Finished Ground Week of Jump School today. Well, yesterday, actually, since we didn't do any training today, just cleaned up and got released for the long Thanksgiving weekend. It was a lot of fun, overall. I'm certainly encouraged, since Ground Week is by all accounts the most difficult portion, and I didn't think it was particularly hard at all. Which isn't to say I'm not more sore than I have ever been in my life, because even though it's not exceptionally difficult, Airborne training is brutally punishing. This video gives a good idea what I've been up to, despite the rather frenetic editing:

Ground Week mainly consists of practicing proper exits on the 34-foot tower and proper PLFs (Parachute Landing Falls) on the LDA (Lateral Drift Apparatus). We spent one full day on the tower, and nearly two full days on the LDA, which you can see at work in the video when the narrator mentions practicing PLFs until you get them right. And it's kind of funny, PLFs are terrible and you dread each one you have to do. Until you start getting them right, that is, at which point you feel like could do them all day, because they don't hurt anymore. But then you're done, because you're doing them right. Boy, you really do pay for the ones you do wrong, though. Last night when I was laying in bed, I had to use my hands to lift my head off my pillow to get up, my neck muscles were so exhausted from PLFs. Having a long weekend for Thanksgiving after Ground Week was perfect timing, really.

I have a lot more thoughts about Jump School, particularly regarding the remarkable pedagogy at work, but I'll probably get to that later this weekend or perhaps after Tower Week.

Thursday, November 15, 2007

All The Way

I report for Jump School tomorrow. Needless to say, I'm really excited and a little bit nervous. I really oughtn't be, since I'm confident I'm ready for it physically, but it's still a bit intimidating. I guess my biggest fear is that I'd be injured and not be able to complete the training, in which case I wouldn't be able to go to my assignment at the 82nd and could end up who-knows-where. And there are few things I hate more than facing an uncertain future over which I have no control. In reality, though, there's little reason to suspect that three weeks from tonight I will be anywhere but in the belly of a C-130, waiting for that red light to turn green.

And while I certainly appreciate any thoughts and prayers, these concerns of my own definitely pale in comparison when I'm reminded that S and K, two of my closest Army buddies, are headed to Iraq on Saturday. That's where my thoughts and prayers will be this weekend.

Blog Quizzes

So, some of these things are fun, I'll grant that. Especially the more pointless the topic. But some of them are a little spooky, or in this case, leaning toward offensive. There's just something about the title, "How Happy Are You, Really?" that seems to snidely imply you're less happy than you think. And even if it comes up that you are happy, while I'm glad Internet confirmed it, I already knew that much. And happiness isn't one spectrum, because there are several things that are causing me varying levels of emotional distress, mostly the prospect of facing down a series of momentous life changes in my near future. But here it is, for what it's worth:

You Are Very Happy

Your life is totally together, and you enjoy every day.

And you don't need a quiz to tell you that!

You know how to find pleasure in the little things...

And even when life isn't so great, you have a good sense of perspective.

Sidenote: I'm pretty sure this quiz was designed for women. Just the impression I got.

The Blog Readability Test

Along with Uvalpie's Girl, I wouldn't have posted this if it had been anything less.

cash advance


Tip from Shane. Truly amazing.

1337: Part 3

Wednesday, November 14, 2007


Just finished a full day of driving through the heart of the deep South. Yesterday I had the pleasure of traversing the greater part of Texas, spent the night in Shreveport, and today I made it as far as Montgomery, Alabama. I wish I had some interesting thoughts to share about my experience, but the thing is, though this is the fourth state in two days, I never really left Interstate-Land until this afternoon, when I got onto US80 to cross Alabama. One notable: there's a Waffle House at pretty much every exit I've passed through Louisiana, Mississippi, and Alabama. I also saw a Mister Waffle, which appeared to be a low(er)-grade knockoff, sporting a suspiciously similar sign of black capital letters on illuminated yellow blocks.

Other observations? I don't like driving at night. I prefer lonely two lane roads to the Interstate during the day, but absolutely hate them at night, when oncoming traffic means your eyes never adjust and you feel like you're driving nearly blind.

Also, I've started to notice signs of the drought that has affected this part of the country. Since I entered Alabama, I've been seeing more and more 'rivers' that look like little more than muddy ditches. I expect that will get more pronounced when I get to Georgia tomorrow.

Saturday, November 3, 2007

I've Been Memed!

Well, here it goes. According to the rules of this meme, I am to list a handful of courses I'd like to take, as well as one with the person who tagged me. So, first on my list would be Beginning Bookbinding with the Elephant's Child. I mean, I already go by the nickname "Books" among half of my Army buddies, so I might as well roll with it. Plus, there's something very fundamentally satisfying about anything involving paper, string, and paste.

Next on my schedule would be Calligraphy and Hand-Lettering. I have a soft spot for dying arts, I suppose.

From dying arts to dead languages; I would love a course in History and Principles of Orthography. I have, as must be clear by now, a deep reverence for the written word. The development and history of writing systems fascinates me to no end, and a course that covered the principles of how ancient writing systems are deciphered would make me indecently happy.

Now, on to broadening myself. I am in desperate need of a course in Sports Skills for Non-Athletes. Thanks to the Army, I'm now in the best shape of my life. I still lack, however, many of the rudimentary skills of coordination necessary for even casual participation in team sports. A primary focus of this course would be not throwing like a nine-year-old girl with a broken arm.

Fundamentals of Drawing would round out my schedule. Not everyone can be a great artist (and I have little inclination in that direction), but everyone can master the fundamentals of perspective and such that allow one to quickly produce clear, understandable sketches. I can handle myself with words, but there are so many times when you can save a great deal time and effort by simply drawing a picture, if you've got a decent grasp of the basics.

So, those are my courses. Who to tag, then? Let's start with Lutheran Lucciola, and since I'm working to expand my personal blogrealm beyond mutual acquaintances with Elephant's Child, let's see if I can get a response from Lens Lover, Shane at Ramblings, and Quantitative Metathesis.

Iraq, again

So apparently the Afghans aren't a heck of a lot better at PT than the Iraqis. Go figure.

I haven't put these clips up just to poke fun, incidentally. The bigger point is demonstrating exactly how hard it is to set up a functioning country from scratch. Even on something as fundamental as physical training, the average recruit to the Iraqi army is coming with almost no practical skills. As out-of-shape as many new American soldiers are, almost all are at least familiar with the concept of performing calisthenics in a group, in cadence. I guess we can thank public school gym classes for that. Iraqi recruits, however, come from a culture in which physical fitness for its own sake is a completely foreign concept. Iraq is really hot. One simply doesn't do hard physical work unless it is actually necessary. Additionally, it's the sort of place where fitness is identified with the peasantry, where being out-of-shape is a sign of luxury and wealth. I'm pretty sure soccer is the only reason any of them are in decent shape at all. The Iraqi people are continually amazed that American troops work and patrol during the heat of the day, because to them it's something you just don't do. There are all sorts of rumors that we have special pills that let us withstand the heat, or that our body armor is air-conditioned. Don't we wish.

In any case, the Iraqi Army is a microcosm of the sorts of issues that will continue to hold the country back for a while, because the doctors, teachers, judges, and civil engineers are hardly in better shape to do their jobs. We forget that though we destroyed the physical infrastructure of Iraq in the invasion, Saddam had been destroying Iraq's human infrastructure for 30 years. We forget that the knowledge and expertise of the population needs to be rebuilt along with the infrastructure, and these sorts of things just take time. I for one, along with most of the soldiers I know, have no problem with the idea of this taking another decade, though preferably not at current troop levels, obviously. There are a lot of things that are really looking up, but there's still a long road ahead. Patience, however, is not one of the great American public virtues.

Tuesday, October 30, 2007

The Future of Iraq

I sure hope not.

Courtesy of
Intel Dump.

Here Come the Holidays!

Is it just me, or does it seem like Ramadan comes earlier every year? {cue rim shot}*

The 'holiday season' is a'changing. For one, we had to rearrange the name after Ramadan moved ahead of Halloween a few years back. Pretty soon we'll see if it drops from public consciousness once it stops lining up with the major Western festival season. The liturgical year has scarcely more weight these days, so maybe we can shorten it a bit there, too, by leaving Advent and Epiphany to the traditionalist fanatics.

In any case, for now, Have a Happy Ramahallowgivingsventzaahanaksmasyearpiphany!

*If you didn't get the joke, the Islamic calendar (well, pre-Islamic Arab pagan calendar, actually, but don't tell them that) is lunar, with twelve 28-day months, so the holy month of Ramadan does actually start 11 to 12 days earlier every year in comparison to the solar calendar.

Thoughts on Augsburg

Sunday night, in quiet lonesome celebration of the Reformation, I read through the text of the Augsburg Confession. I realized, while I was reflecting on my Lutheranism, that I had never read the most accessible of its founding documents. Reflecting on it, what a phenomenal document, indeed! I could certainly spend a great deal of time reflecting on each article in turn, but I guess I'll just comment briefly on the remarkable prescience of the reformers. In Article XXIII: On Priestly Marriage, the Confession has this to say:
Many God-fearing and intelligent people in high station are known frequently to have expressed misgivings that such enforced celibacy and depriving men of marriage (which God Himself has instituted and left free to men) has never produced any good results, but has brought on many great and evil vices and much iniquity. [...] And it is to be expected that the churches shall at some time lack pastors if marriage is any longer forbidden.
This was written in 1530, mind you, just shy of 500 years ago. Granted, the Roman Catholic church has held off these twin threats for a shockingly long time, but both the fallout of "evil vices and iniquity" and a looming lack of priests are now dangerously threatening the future of the Catholic church in the West.

The other place where the reformer's vision struck me as particularly farsighted is in Article XXVIII: Of Ecclesiastical Power. I'd hate to be reading too much into this, but I don't think I'm the only one who has a hard time reading this sort of thing without making connection to the principles that underly the proper separation of church and state:
Since the power of the Church grants eternal things, and is exercised only by the ministry of the Word, it does not interfere with civil government; [...] For civil government deals with other things than does the Gospel. The civil rulers defend not minds, but bodies and bodily things. [...] Therefore the power of the Church and the civil power must not be confounded. The power of the Church has its own commission to teach the Gospel and to administer the Sacraments. Let it not beak into the office of another; let it not transfer the kingdoms of this world; let it not abrogate the laws of civil rulers; let it not abolish lawful obedience; let it not interfere with judgments concerning civil ordinances or contracts; let it not prescribe laws to civil rulers concerning the form of the Commonwealth.
It is telling, then, to notice that the reformers seemed adamant to keep the Church out of affairs of state for the Church's sake. So much debate on the 'original' purpose of the Founding Fathers in separating Church and State in America comes down to back-and-forth about who needs protecting from whom, as if the one could only be corrupted by malicious forces from the other. The reformers here demand the separation of the "power of the Church and the power of the sword" and condemn church interference in state not out of secularist outrage, but rather recognizing that wielding power in temporal things weakens the Church in regard to the "eternal things".

I realize I could go on all night about this document, teasing out the implications of each article as I see them. I don't, however, have the time or energy to do that; nor do you have the time and energy (or interest) to read it all.

Bad Astronomy

I was reminded of the Bad Astronomy website and blog by my Superior Older Sister, who today dropped me a link to a curious argument against heliocentricity. While the WYSIWYG (What You See Is What You Get) premise is an inspiring ode to empiricism with its blinders on, it's a simple fact that there are compelling pieces of real, facts-on-the-ground evidence that show that the earth both rotates on its axis and revolves around the sun. Even if you're willing to decry Foucault's Pendulum as a hoax perpetrated by a vast Jesuit conspiracy, I doubt even the Jesuits could convince hurricanes rotate counter-clockwise in the northern hemisphere and clockwise in the southern. For that matter, if he's so determined to believe Foucault's Pendulum doesn't demonstrate the Coriolis Effect and ergo a rotating earth, why doesn't he just build one himself? It's a pretty simple experiment, really. Unless he's not actually interested in truth. Sigh. Some people. Bad Astronomy does a great job of debunking this sort of mischief, including one of my favorite sub-genres of this sort of thing, the Moon-Hoaxers, as well as Bad Movies, Bad TV, Bad News, and a variety of popular misconceptions about astronomical phenomena and physics in general. Good stuff.

Sunday, October 28, 2007

Christmas Music Already

As a recently-outed Dark Lutheran, I love the fading away of the Church year, and eagerly await Advent, probably my favorite season of the liturgical year. There's something about spending four weeks celebrating in hushed and reverent anticipation, and the way the building excitement of Advent parallels and prefigures the sadness of Lent.

That said, we're two months out from Christmas, and there's already a Christmas albums display at Best Buy. At least it's overshadowing Halloween, in the music department anyway. And while it's not yet the Christmas season, I was quite excited to find Sufjan Stevens "Songs For Christmas" album for sale. For years, he's made a small Christmas album that he would give out to family and friends, and last year they were released for the first time as a 5-disc album. I had looked all over for it last year, and never found it in time for the holiday. Short story, I bought it and highly recommend it. It has a great mix of Christmas hymns and songs respectfully performed, as well as his own reflections on family and the holidays, including "Come On! Let's Boogey to the Elf Dance!" and "Did I Make You Cry on Christmas Day? (Well, You Deserved It!)". He's one of my favorite musicians, who despite working in the 'mainstream' Indie music scene has many songs which are far more meaningfully Christian than the vast majority of what comes out of the "Christian rock" music machine. Consider the album "Seven Swans" which covers topics like the Atonement, the Transfiguration, the Binding of Isaac, and a hauntingly beautiful reflection on the Revelation in the title track.

Mind Your Doors, Papists! It's Reformation Day!

Happy Reformation Sunday, friends.

Today is a good day I think to reflect a bit on my Lutheran journey. It's certainly been eventful in the last few years. I was raised in the LCMS, and from Confirmation on have been committed to Lutheran theology, as well as I understood it at that point, anyway. The liturgy and practice of the church, however, were not something that particularly compelled me in my ignorant youth. In college, I experienced the beauty and comfort of Lutheran worship perfectly performed, yet the vapidity of sermons crafted to appeal to the broadest swath of idealistic and theologically-muddled youths kept me from ever feeling fed in chapel. As a result, I ended up attending the churches frequented by other members of the (generally excellent) Bible studies I attended during the week. While one of those churches lost me early when I found out I was hell-bound due to my infant baptism, through college I generally split my time between an American Baptist church and another from the Evangelical Free nebula. Both were solidly based in the Word, but I got the Word in Bible study as well, or for that matter, whenever I felt like opening my Bible. I couldn't put into these words at that time, but I know now that I was missing the Confession and Absolution, and the Sacrament more than anything. My time in college, then, was a split between learning about Lutheranism academically in class and chapel, and learning how much I yearned for it in those other churches.

I've known what my faith meant to me for a long time; better, I've continually been in the process of learning what my faith means to me. It wasn't until I joined the Army, though, that I've really begun to learn what my theology means to me, and been struck by how much Lutherans really are set apart. With the Army so heavily drawn from the deep South, Lutherans are rather poorly represented. In the Midwest, even the Evangelicals know what Lutheranism is and who Lutherans are. For many of my colleagues, though, the only committed believers they've ever met are Evangelicals or Mormons, and their expectations are based on that. It's been very eye-opening to me, then, to be such the odd-man-out, theologically. I'm starting to get better at explaining my beliefs, but more than anything it's made me realize how much more I ought to know about my faith and my theology. So, in celebration of this Reformation Sunday, I think I'll be staying in and reading the Augsburg Confession. It's a start, anyway.

For further Reformation Day reading, see this excellent commentary on praise music from Pagans and Lutherans, and an apology (in the original sense) of the liturgy from The Rebellious Pastor's Wife.

Friday, October 26, 2007

Deadly Euphrates Shark Attacks!

Well, actually, I suppose the fabled Euphrates Shark was only deadly to itself in this case. So for "deadly" read "suicidal". Which gives way too much material for snarky comments, and I'm just going to leave that train in the station.

Web Fun

It's a terrible thing to have a web-linked computer sitting in front of me in class all day. Then again, how else would I have to chance to expore the amazing artwork of Bent Objects? I think the creepy fry-spider is my favorite. Office supplies in the wild is pretty good, too.

Also a great time, check out Steve, Don't Eat It!, a subset of The Sneeze. The rest of the site is a bit juvenile and profanity-laden, but there's some good bits, too.

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Read Michael Yon

I get a lot of questions from friends and relatives about Iraq, and more specifically, whether I, as a soldier who will soon enough be visiting myself, have any insight as to what degree the picture we get from the media accurately represents what's really happening in that country. The short answer? Not very well. At all. What I hear from soldiers who've been there suffers from the usual problems of first-hand experience: everyone's viewpoint depends on their own preconceptions and the limits of the narrow slice of the country where they themselves worked. So even soldiers can't really say what's going on in the country as a whole, though all agree that the American public is hopelessly ill-informed by the media. Watch this space, because I'm sure I'll be discussing this more as I get closer to deployment.

That said, read Michael Yon. He's been all over the country, embedding with all sorts of units and traveling beyond where the military goes. If I had to trust one man's perspective, it would be his. And he's on a mission to take the MSM to task for the criminal laziness of their Iraq coverage. Read him, support him if you can. It's important.

And on a related note, what color are alligators?

Sunday, October 21, 2007


I've realized recently that since my primary connection to the blogosphere has been through my Superior Older Sister's blog, the vast majority of my blogrow is occupied by Lutheran homeschooling moms. Not that there's anything wrong with that, it just sort of lends a strange surreality to the whole thing. Well, in the interests of balance, I've added Ramblings, courtesy of Shane, one of my 'original' Army buddies from my Basic Training platoon. Shane was also the author of My Roommate Has Bad Ideas, an absolutely brilliant blog which unfortunately had to be taken down when it became clear it ought to have been called "My Roommate Has No Sense of Humor about Himself". Someday it'll be back up in all its glory, I hope.

Correction 22OCT07: I fixed the link to Shane's blog. Don't know how I messed it up in the first place.

Friday, October 19, 2007

In Defense of Gray

I ran across an interesting little blog post today, entitled "Why Illegal Immigration is not Simple", from Called As Seen. I don't have much time for strictly political blogs these days, or much interest, to be entirely honest. This post explains a big part of the frustration that has led to my growing apathy toward politics in general and American domestic politics in particular. Our society is increasingly incapable of dealing with subtlety in its issues. Everything is being reduced to soundbite politics, with the MSM to the fore, of course, but the blogosphere is hardly better. All too often, the rise of the New Media has given people the opportunity to insulate themselves in communities of like-minded people who can then pull out their broadest brushes to paint those holding opposing viewpoints. This is, needless to say, also not healthy.

The immigration 'debate' (to give it far too much credit) is possibly the single most frustrating example. I've been asked where I stand on the immigration issue. This is of course the modern iteration of the classic yes-no question, only now it's pro-anti. Is there really no space left for people to admit that immigration is a phenomenally complex issue? National identity, balancing majority and minority rights, economics, moral considerations; with so many angles, how could a person's opinion ever fall even on a single spectrum, much less a dichotomy? Where do I stand on immigration? The short answer? I don't know. There's compassion involved: who wouldn't break the law if he thought he could free his family from utter despair and hopelessness? There's fairness, too: what about the American dreams of millions far worse off around the world who were unlucky enough to be born across an ocean, rather than across the Rio Grande? There's constitutional worries: what is the state of a nation whose states rule it illegal to enforce federal law? Don't forget economic and social concerns: exactly how many immigrants do we need to keep this country's engines running, and how many can our society manage to successfully integrate? Each of these questions, if it can be quantitatively answered at all, is only one topic in the whole sticky mess. So why can we not admit this!?

The second issue that burns me on this is Israel/Palestine. Being an international issue happening very far away, people are even less-informed of the realities and even more prone to sweeping black-and-white statements of allegiance to one party or the other. I understand that any given person will come down on one side or the other, judging one side's position more valid than the other's. I lean towards Israel, and it's a pretty mixed sentiment. I cannot abide, however, a position that casts either side in the role of insatiable aggressor and the other as the hapless victim. This is rather bold, but I simply cannot recognize as valid any position that doesn't admit some level of sympathy for both the Israeli and Palestinian peoples, as well as some disgust for the actions of the Israeli government and extremist Zionists alongside those of the Palestinian terrorist movements. Bulldozing someone's house is not equivalent to blowing him up in the marketplace. But simply that they are not equally wrong does not make one of them right.

So what's the answer to all of this? Are there forums where people are still bold enough to step back and say, "hey, maybe this is complicated enough for there to be multiple reasonable positions toward it"? Few come to mind, and those are hardly major players in our modern society. As usual, I find myself fearing for the future. At least that's not new.

Thursday, October 18, 2007

Still Not Doing Any Work says I'm an Uber Cool History / Lit Geek.  What are you?  Click here!

So, apparently I'm an Uber Cool History and Lit Geek. That's pretty much exactly what I would have wanted this quiz to say about me. Nice.


Thanks to my dear elder sister, here are Seven True Things About Me:

1. My faith, my family*, and my country are the three most important things in my life, in that order. In other news, I'm shockingly traditional.

2. My personality has been shaped by my youngest-child status to a remarkable degree. Growing up hasn't changed that one bit, just made me more aware of it. My "Me Too!" Complex is a force to be reckoned with.

3. Who I am is perhaps unhealthily tied up with where I went to college. This is a common reflection among St. Olaf alumni, which probably accounts for why so many of us end up marrying fellow alumni.

4. I've somehow managed to live in or visit many US states and 16 foreign countries for various lengths of time, and I've learned that loving places is much like loving people. Loving other places could never threaten or replace my love for home. One the contrary, it has only made me love home that much more.

5. I had to lose about 60 pounds to join the Army. Since I've been in, I've lost about 40 more. After all that, I just wish I had better advice to offer people than to run four miles a day and be hungry all the time. Certainly never going to get a book deal with that one.

6. I've given up caring what the music I listen to makes people think about me. Now I listen to whatever makes me happy. It's been working pretty well for me so far, and I can handle the bemused looks.

7. My car is the closest thing to a bionic extension of my identity that I can afford right now. I used to think I was using it for reading and relaxing because I didn't like listening to my roommate's TV. Now I've got my own room, and still I spend just as much time sitting in my car. Huh.

So there it is, folks, the Bi-Coloured-Python-Rock-Snake in seven nutshells. Also: I've successfully avoided doing any work at all on the project I came to this coffeeshop to work on. Go me!

*Broadly defined, including family, friends, and Army buddies.

Sunday, October 14, 2007

Busy Busy Busy

I'm a bit frustrated with myself that I've been posting so little recently. I hate trotting out such a tired old excuse, but I've been busy. My current course of instruction is about the most intense course I've ever taken. It's not the single hardest thing I've ever done, but never have I done something so difficult for so long without a break: ten hours a day of wanting to pound my head against the wall in frustration. Some days it takes all my ambition to go get dinner instead of just crashing out for the night right after class. God be praised, however, that I have good teachers and some great classmates, and we somehow manage to laugh our way through it all. Also, despite the frustration and fatigue, I am incredibly thankful to be among the few assigned this supplemental course in addition to the basic course. Many of my colleagues will be first dealing with this same frustration not in a classroom but in Iraq, and with soldiers' lives on the line. I do not envy them.

In other career news, I received final word on the status of my assignment. The sergeant-major in charge of recruitment for Special Operations brought up my case with the HRC (Human Resources Command) to see if there was any way to switch my assignment to a Special Forces group. Unfortunately, the 82nd Airborne is in a state of "critical need" for soldiers of my particular skill set, and absolutely cannot give up my slot to the Special Forces. On the flip side, it is a comfort to know that I am in fact going where the Army needs me, and that I didn't somehow just slip through the cracks in the system. And I need to remind myself that while the 82nd may be the epitome of the "Big Army", conventional-forces world (as opposed to the unconventional-warfare background in the Special Operations community), it is still a prestigious unit and a great place to begin a career. You don't have to look far to see that All-American combat patch on some pretty distinguished shoulders.

So now I'm starting to mull the various paths available for my career. I've got a lot of options, but all of them are going to take careful planning if I don't want to simply float with the current. I need to take my GREs, for example, and start looking at Master's programs so I'll be on track if I happen to decide to begin Active Duty ROTC as early as next fall. I also need to continue to improve my PT score, so that I'll be ready physically if special training like Ranger School or Special Forces Selection ends up being my path. All my life I've made decisions (or rather, sort of avoided making them) by simply doing everything I could to keep all my doors open, so my path would become clear once God began closing the others. It's always worked out for me better than I could have ever predicted for myself, but it's still an incredibly difficult act of trust. I suppose it's pride that leads me to wish I could just write my own script, and I am in constant need of the grace which reminds me who the Author really is.

Spice Quest

It's fall in Texas. The days are getting shorter and the workdays longer, the weather's absolutely beautiful (though still "summer-like" by my standards), and winter squash are starting to show up at the grocery store. Which I probably wouldn't have noticed, if the sight of a butternut squash last week hadn't made me intensely hungry for "pumpkin" soup like we used to eat when I was a missionary kid growing up in Liberia. I decided I would have to get the recipe from Mom so I could make some for myself and my friends. Only one problem: the spice. No, not that spice, specifically, African chili pepper. See, African chilis are an entirely different family of peppers than those most Americans are familiar with via Tex-Mex cuisine, and an African meal would just not taste right without them.

So, off I went, scouring the internet for peppers. And boy I found plenty. Literally hundreds of varieties of peppers in dried and powdered form. Peppers from Mexico, Peru, Cuba, India, Thailand, China. From Africa, not a one. Imagine, an entire continent's capsicums woefully neglected by the world of online spicemongering! I broadened my search terms, narrowed them, broadened them yet again. I brought all my internet-sleuthing skills to bear, to no seeming avail. I was nearly ready to give up in frustration when I found World Spice Merchants, out of Seattle, purveyors of everything from asafoetida to wasabi and everything in between. Including beet powder, for when your dishes need that extra kick of... beets. In any case, they also carry African pepper, so by next weekend I hope to be cooking up a big pot of pumpkin soup for dinner. I can't wait.

Besides apparently being the only source for African peppers in the US, World Spice has another interesting quirk: online sales, old-fashioned style. Consider this:
"We prefer to do business the old fashioned way and won’t be asking for your credit card information. Your order will ship with an invoice enclosed and when you receive it, simply mail us a check."
That easy, huh? Don't see that sort of trust and service very often these days, particularly not on the internet. Sort of refreshing.

Sunday, September 30, 2007


At the post where I am taking my current course of instruction, in addition to training Soldiers, Airmen and Marines for the services' various version of my job, they also train military firefighters for the Air Force, Army, and Marine Corps. These "firedogs" are an intriguing bunch. The majority are reservists who will return to their hometowns with their top-notch firefighting and hazmat training to become professional firefighters. A surprising number are from inner-city Boston and speak in accents that prevent me from ever being able to take them seriously, since people only really talk like that in movies. All of them have completely drunk the Kool-Aid and bought into the particular firedog mythos that is force-fed to them by their Drill Sergeants. Their bravado -- dare I say, braggadocio -- is not entirely unearned, of course; their training is seriously intense physically and nothing to sneeze at academically. It also strains relations that they have absolutely no real clue what my job entails, but do seem to have some strange ideas in their heads about it. So all in all they keep life interesting around here.

All of this is as background to the particular firedog ritual I had the honor of witnessing just now from the 3rd-floor walkway where I pick up a rogue wifi network. Every Sunday night, all the new firedogs fresh from Basic who've inprocessed over the weekend are called to line up in front of the barracks for a photograph. As the photographers snap away, senior trainees dump buckets of soapy water on the new recruits from said 3rd-floor walkway. Mild hilarity ensues. I'm sure it probably meets some bureaucrat's definition of "hazing" and someday someone'll complain and ruin the fun for everybody, but until then, we all just get to shake our heads and chuckle.

Yet More Thoughts on Texas

This weekend was the first in several weeks that I've stayed in town and just relaxed here with friends, and I was reminded of all the little reasons I really like it here. Friday night we went out to a great low-key country bar for a night of pool-playing, dart-throwing, and beer-drinking. It feels strange to think of it as "going out", though, because the experience is so different from what "going out" meant in California or in most cities I've been in. See, I can go out here and actually have a conversation with my friends, because I never have to shout over the music. Paradoxically, I find myself paying more attention to the music, since it's at a level where it isn't just noise to be tuned out. I also pay attention because on weekend nights it's karaoke, and the singers are actually really good, and they sing all sorts of songs I've never heard before, or certainly never heard done on karaoke.

Beyond being able to talk with my friends, I love the fact that I end up meeting other people at the bar. People socialize here; beyond just single men and women looking to hook up, people actually engage strangers in conversation. And everyone's so polite. When someone brushes past in the crowd, he makes eye contact, smiles, and says "excuse me". In other words, he treats me like a human being, not just an object obstructing his path.

The bar is an excellent microcosm, but the observations are universal. People here take the time to acknowledge each other and treat one another with dignity and respect. I've gotten accustomed to being called "Sir", I'm getting used to using "Sir" and "Ma'am" myself. It's just so many small things, but together they add up to so much. I guess this is why I will always prefer the town to the city and the heartland to the coasts. And much as my primary complaint about California was all the Californians there, the single greatest thing about Texas is that it's full of Texans.

Sunday, September 23, 2007


It's my birthday! Happy Birthday to me! In celebration, I'm going to go wash my car. It's completely encrusted in bugs from driving to San Antonio and back (where I actually celebrated my birthday with activities considerably more fun than car-washing). Perhaps after evening church I will go get some ice cream at Marble Slab (whose chilled stone slab is, ironically, granite).

My First Blogging Award

Word has it, via Cheryl at A Round Unvarnish'd Tale, that I am a Thinking Blogger. I am very much honored by this nomination, particularly because I'm rather new to this. Now that I have documentation that someone besides my superior older sister is reading my posts, I'm starting to feel a bit more pressure to perform, or at least to post more often.

The conditions of this tag state that I must now tag four previously unnominated blogs that make me think; sadly, I fear I can't complete that task. See, part of my slow start blogging myself has been because I have precious little time to read others' blogs, either. As it stands, all my regular reads are already Thinking Bloggers, so I don't have anyone to tag right now. Oh well.

I really do wish I had more time for reading and posting, but it seems Uncle Sam has finally decided to get his money's worth out of me; my current course of instruction is the most time-intensive I've dealt with since Basic Training. I do sit in front of a Web-connected workstation, however, and I'm sorely tempted to surf during class. As of now, I generally pore over satellite imagery of Baghdad, convincing myself that it's relevant to my job to have a good sense of the city's layout.

View Larger Map

At least, it's certainly more relevant than the sort of material favored by the Marine who sits next to me.

Tuesday, September 11, 2007


Isn't it remarkable how the mind works, how the tiniest details of a morning can be crystallized forever? So much like those a generation before us, who remember in exacting detail how they received the news of JFK's assassination and those a generation before them, hearing of the attack on Pearl Harbor, I imagine -- I hope -- that my generation will remember as well the timeline of our collective realization that we had been attacked. For in an age of instant media, we heard about it before we even knew what was happening.

It was my second week in college, a complex time by any standard. I remember that I was standing by the toasters in St. Olaf's cafeteria waiting for my bagel to finish when I first heard that a plane had hit the World Trade Center. Knowing no more than that, we all imagined a small private plane, the pilot off-course and confused. Over the course of breakfast, more students filed in with more bits of news to process, enough to realize something serious was going on. We were watching CNN in the student lounge when the second plane hit, and it became horrifically clear that it was no accident.

We say we will never forget, but already so many are trying as hard as they can to do just that. Our mass media are reluctant to air the video of that day. We live in ahistorical times, and when a people is so willing to forget its past, where can its future lead?

Friday, September 7, 2007


Finished our FTX early this morning. The field training was awesome, better than I was expecting even considering the positive reviews past classes had of the exercise. But I've had maybe five cumulative hours of sleep (and never more than two at a time) over the past four days, and the days have been a touch intense themselves. Then today we still had to clean our rifles and attend sundry outprocessing and other personnel appointments all day. And I have to get up tomorrow to continue cleaning weapons for a few more hours. So it's off to bed for me, and I'm sure I'll have more to report in the next few days.

Monday, September 3, 2007

Yet Another TLA (Three-Letter Acronym)

Tomorrow we head out to the field for our big final week of field training exercises (FTX) which culminates our course here, as well as our tenure in Initial Entry Training (IET) status. In general, I'm looking forward to the FTX. I hear that the cadre who run it do a very good job with the exercises, so it should be good training for us, particularly for those of us heading to tactical units and -- sooner rather than later -- to Iraq. The last week or so of train-up has been a lot of fun, and the other soldiers we'll be out there with are a pretty interesting bunch, so I'm sure I'll have some good stories when I get back. In any case, I'll be out of touch the rest of this week (not that I'm all that in-touch, generally).

Sunday, September 2, 2007

Ellipsis, Thrice

Okay, so I have my actual assignment now, and I am headed to the 82nd. I'm pretty happy about that, overall, but I wish I hadn't let myself get so excited at the prospect of heading to 3rd Group, because now I feel a little let down. I shouldn't, as I'm intending to have a great time with the 82nd. The way assignments work at the big divisions, the greatest detail I know is that I'm headed to the 1st Brigade replacement company, from which I'll be picked up by whichever unit needs me. As such, there's a good chance I'll spin up with a unit that's already deployed. Which is to say, I could be headed either to the Sandbox or Afghanistan by the end of January. A sobering thought, but not really a frightening one, as such; I did join the Army in wartime, after all. One fairly common question from a certain sort of acquaintance is along the lines of "you do know you might have to go to Iraq, right?", to which my response is an expression conveying something along the lines of "... ... ...". It's right up there with people who ask smokers, "you know those are bad for you, don't you?" as if they half-expect the offending cigarette to be suddenly thrown aside in shocked disgust. Some people (okay, most people) need work on the whole brain/mouth filter mechanism (and I, too, am guilty as charged).

Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Eighty-Second! Patch On My Shoulder! Pack Up Your Chutes and Follow Me! I'm the Airborne Infantry!

It's looking like all my perseverance has finally paid off. Over the weekend, my assignment to Fort Hood disappeared from the assignments website, taunting me with the widely-despised "No Data Available" message, which occasionally heralds changing orders but generally just means system maintenance. This morning, however, I was greatly pleased to see my new assignment to Fort Bragg appear, along with my reservation for the Basic Airborne Course (i.e. "jump school").

So, I'm finally, finally, off to the Airborne for real. I don't actually know for certain yet that I'm headed to the 82nd Airborne Division, despite the famous cadence call of today's title, but I do know I'm going to Bragg, and that I'll be Airborne qualified when I get there. If not the 82nd, Bragg is also home to the 18th Airborne Corps (the echelon above the 82nd) as well as the 3rd Special Forces Group, so it's possible I could be assigned to either of those units as well. 3rd Group -- with its primary responsibility for sub-Saharan Africa -- would without a doubt be a dream assignment in many ways. In general, being assigned in support of the SF is probably the most exciting opportunity available for a soldier of my job and qualifications; more specifically Africa -- and Africans -- hold a certain special place in my heart as well. In any case, it will probably be a matter of a few days or weeks before I find out which specific unit I'm being assigned to at Bragg, but for now I'm already imagining life in North Carolina, and looking forward to it.

Tuesday, August 21, 2007

On Art and its Purpose

One of my college acquaintances just put up a new website of her artwork. Jordan's one of those dear, rare artists who managed to make it through four years of art education apparently without ever losing her silly bourgeois conviction that art is supposed to be beautiful. There are certainly many different levels on which any piece of art can be appreciated, and much great art does evoke a wide range of emotion, but I will never agree with the school of thought that considers art only that which "challenges" the viewer. Whatever happened to simply rejoicing in what beauty is to be found in this all-too-often ugly world of ours? Is it not the artist's craft to use his or her skills to find, translate, and share that beauty with others less naturally inclined to see it for ourselves? I praise God, then, that there are still artists like Jordan illuminating the world for the rest of us.

Friday, August 17, 2007

Great Day

Today I had a great day. And not just me, either; my entire squad and class all had a great day, to the degree that from lunchtime on we were in cringing expectation, just waiting for the other shoe to drop. It hasn't yet.

It's sort of strange, that this excellent day started with a bit of a disappointment. I was awaken a few minutes before my alarm (at 05:10) by the sound of a heavy downpour, courtesy of Tropical Storm Erin. I immediately strained to listen with rather un-soldier-like hope for the sound of thunder, which would herald the cancellation of Physical Training for the morning, but was disappointed to hear only the rain. See, the Army will still do PT in the rain. In any rain. (Once did a PT test in a freezing, blustering, sheeting downpour back in CA. Was awesome.) Lightning, on the other hand, means going back to bed. Sadly, no lightning this morning, so off we trundled to PT formation, where we stood, freezing and soaked. (Sidenote: I always imagined a tropical storm would be warm. Apparently not so.)

For a few minutes there, I thought it was going to be a pretty unpleasant morning, until our First Sergeant took us off for a run in the rain. See, among the cornerstone Army philosophies is "embrace the suck". And boy, did we. It didn't take long to be drenched to the skin, but the running warmed us up, and once you're soaked it doesn't make any difference any more, so you just choose to love it. And we did. After a few miles, we ended up back at the barracks dripping and laughing, and my squad and I headed over to the arms room to pick up our rifles for Weapons Immersion (one part of what I was referring to in this post), only to find that it was canceled the day, on account of M-16s being made of spun sugar, apparently. In any case, we headed off to the schoolhouse, happy not to be burdened with rucksacks, flakvests, helmets, and rifles for our walk back and forth to class.

Our day only got better at the schoolhouse. We took the second-to-last test of our course, which everyone passed, then found out that we would all be released three hours early due to a few classmates having a midafternoon briefing to attend. So, here I am, done with class and staring down a long, glorious afternoon of nothing to do. I can't even feel guilty that I'm not going to the gym to work out, because I've already started tapering off in preparation for my PT test next week. I can only hope that this day -- which we've all taken as karmic balance for the frustration and annoyance of the first four days of this week -- is only the introduction to a wonderfully relaxing weekend.

Thursday, August 16, 2007

Acceptable Risks and Risks Which Must be Accepted

The Army, along with the rest of American society, is continuing to grow progressively more risk-averse with every passing year. In a military environment, of course, a certain amount of risk must necessarily be accommodated in order to achieve the mission, whether it be in a combat environment or the more controlled context of a training base. Certainly nobody likes the idea of losing soldiers to accidents during training, but there comes a point when obsession with safety in training leads soldiers into more danger on the battlefield, if their coddled training fails to adequately prepare them for real dangers. We've certainly come a long way from our grandparents' generation, when hundreds of soldiers died in what were widely considered successful training exercises in preparation for the D-Day invasions.

I say all this as a sort of pre-musing leading up to some field training exercises I'll be participating in a few weeks from now, and which I rather expect to be something of a dog-and-pony show. I guess we'll find out.

Sunday, August 12, 2007

Texas Thoughts, part II

Being a soldier, and thus spending most of my free time socializing with other soldiers and -- more pertinently -- riding in their vehicles, I've had more than my fair share of chances to meet the local constabulary. There's a reason auto insurance companies don't give military discounts, if you follow me. Well, during my year-and-some-change in California, I witnessed several of my friends get pulled over, and was annoyed and really rather disappointed each time by the condescending and disrespectful attitude displayed by the California policemen. Even one bad experience, could make a bad impression, of course, but this was a consistent pattern witnessed over probably four or five encounters. Thanks be to Texas, however, for again renewing my faith in Americans generally, and policemen specifically. Last night I was pulled over and given a warning for speeding, and was really impressed by the officer's courtesy and professionalism, as I was a few weeks ago when a friend was was similarly pulled over. These little interactions really do color one's impression of a place, and Texas has been doing very well in my book. I still wouldn't ever want to live here long-term, but I'll have fond memories of this time, certainly.

Tuesday, August 7, 2007

Building a Field Expedient Air Conditioner

I'm in the Army, stationed in Middle-of-Nowhere, TX. It's pretty hot here. Like, really hot. But apparently not hot enough to keep the administration of this post from trying to pinch pennies by turning down our AC. They couldn't do it by, you know, selling off the 40" plasma-screen TVs that display the menus in our chow halls, or maybe not over-watering the grass until it runs down the streets in rivers (despite being in the middle of one of the wettest summers on record). No, the powers-that-be have decided that soldiers' air-conditioning was the easiest expense to cut out of the budget. Thing is, our rooms have individual controls, much like in a hotel, and it seems (so we deduce) that they've simply turned down the massive central compressor unit itself. See, everyone's AC still runs, it's just not really cooling much anymore. Since there's no air exchange with the outside, our rooms are now barely cooler and considerably more humid, moldy, and stinky than the outside air.

Now, being who I am, I'm not simply complaining. I intend to do something about it, and that something involves the ice machine that sits unheeded in the corner of our laundry room. See, most people haven't even noticed the thing's actually running and constantly full of ice. But I have. I figure I can rig up a bucket of ice dripping melt-water through some tubing on the back of a box fan for less than $20 or so. It ought to provide a decent amount of cooling, but it's the dehumidification I'm really looking for. Hopefully it might take some of the fight out of the mold colony in our AC unit before it declares itself an autonomous theocracy and launches a preemtive strike against us.

So tomorrow I'll probably be running to Lowe's to put together this project. Wish me luck.

Saturday, August 4, 2007

On Perseverance

I apologize for the delay between postings. I'd intended to keep up a relatively regular regimen, but life of course intervenes with trips to Houston and finicky internet connections, inter alia.

This week I finally had the great pleasure and relief to watch, in person, as my commander signed my application to volunteer for Airborne duty. This has been a long and unimaginably frustrating adventure for me, and I am indescribably relieved that it is now over.

I'm sure you're all dying to hear the story. So here goes: I decided back in December that I wanted to volunteer for the Airborne after I saw that my projected assignment put me at Fort Hood, TX, the veritable armpit of the Army. And while, in the Army, you have no control over your assignments as such, there are ways to influence the assignment process. The best is generally to strategically overqualify yourself for an undesired assignment by, for example, going to Airborne school in order to get out of an assignment to a ground unit (since Airborne training obliges the soldier to a minimum 12 months of assignment to an Airborne unit). This was my angle, and I jumped through all the hoops, filled out all the paperwork, and submitted my application back in April, while I was still stationed in California.

Or so I thought. I arrived here in Texas still waiting to hear on my new assignment. After a few more weeks of waiting, I finally asked my supervisor to check on the status of the application, only to find that it had never actually been submitted. It had fallen down the paperwork hole somewhere back in California, so I would have to resubmit it. "No problem," I thought. Think again. When I gave my paperwork to my supervisor, he reported back that my First Sergeant* had set some targets for me to reach on my Physical Training score before he would approve my packet. So I reached them, but in a scenario straight out of Vonnegut, the targets went up as soon as I met them, then went up again, and again. Needless to say, this was a rather frustrating experience.

Last week, I finally met the First Sergeant's targets and submitted my packet for command approval, which was duly given. And now that this whole misadventure is over, I've come to reflect a bit on what I've learned through it.

Firstly, a lesson on leadership: there are few things more demotivating than the perception that a superior's decisions affecting one's future are being made arbitrarily. While struggling to improve my own scores, I talked to other soldiers who had recently had Airborne packets approved with far poorer scores than my own. I felt singled out and persecuted, and I didn't know why. I still don't know why I had to meet targets far higher than what the Airborne school requires. But, while I felt demotivated through the whole process, I never did give up, much as I wanted to.

Which leads us to my second lesson, on perseverance. My experience of perseverance didn't play out like I would have expected from movies and fiction. Real perseverance is not about fighting for your goals and overcoming obstacles through sheer determination; at least, it isn't for me. It's about realizing that giving up hurts nobody but yourself and anyone counting on you. I'm reminded of one of the lessons from Ender's Game: real life is not a game, you can't simply quit because the rules are unfair. Or rather, life is a game, but one in which the rules are often rigged against you and there is no choice but to accept that and try to win anyway. I may have felt like I was being given the runaround when my targets kept changing, but what would I have accomplished by giving up? I would have simply been acquiescing to it. In the end, perseverance is not about "I'm going to do this no matter what it takes," but rather "I've committed far too much to let anyone -- even myself -- take this away from me." It's not glamorous, it plays far less well on a movie screen, but that's life. And I don't think there is anything wrong with that.

*The First Sergeant is the senior Non-Commissioned Officer of a company, in other words, the ranking enlisted man (or woman) in a unit of around 60-100 soldiers. Generally equivalent to the centurion of a Roman legion in terms of responsibility, comparative rank, and approximate time in service (15-18 years).

Thursday, July 26, 2007

The Dubiously-Friendly Gift-of-the-Nile and Her Malcontented Populace

In response to my favorable comparison of the situation in Turkey with that of Egypt, the Elephant's Child wrote:
Didn't realise things have been taking a nose dive in Egypt. In my mind, it's fixed as a "good" Middle Eastern country.
Well, Egypt is still a 'good' ME country in context of the geopolitical scheme that lasted from the fall of the Berlin Wall to the fall of the Twin Towers. In other words, a post-Cold War, September 10 mentality that valued "stability" over all else. Egypt is at peace with her neighbors, notably Israel, and generally represents the reliably quasi-secular-nationalist bloc of the Arab League, in which Egypt is the power player. Egypt is also a US ally of sorts, insofar as the terms of her peace with Israel include generous monetary and military blood money aid from the US.

The problem is, such stability needs a future. An autocracy like Egypt is 'stable' for now (her Ministry of the Interior is rumored to be the worlds largest employer) but that sort of heavy-handedness is unsustainable, to co-opt some Green-speak. The Muslim Brotherhood (incidentally the parent organization of such better-known children as HAMAS, Palestinian Jihad, and al-Qaeda) is a pervasive presence and continues to grow stronger. This is President-for-life Mubarak's permanent bogeyman to justify delaying his country's ever-promised democratization: if Egyptians could vote, the Brotherhood would come to power and Egypt would become a Sunni theocracy to rival the Shii* republic in Iran.

He's probably right. The Brotherhood's popularity continues to grow; though they officially banned, a particular bloc of 'Independents' (wink-wink nudge-nudge) holds 88 seats, or about 20% of the Egyptian Parliament. The problem is, the Islamists can't be held at bay forever by heavy-handed political persecution. The random arrests, beatings, threats, torture, and disappearances that Mubarak uses -- like so many presidents-for-life before him -- only serve to keep the Brotherhood underground and feed into its narrative of oppression. The fact that US money supports his government only serves to tie him to the Great Satan while confirming their claims of American hypocrisy. Mubarak is still strong, but he's not getting any younger. His son Gamal is widely expected to succeed him, and has made all the right reformist gestures, but then, so did Dad, once upon a time.

Long story short, Egypt is still an ally, for now, and only by the narrowest of definitions. The future, however looks bleaker. Until I start seeing some real reforms, Egypt will remain with Nigeria and Pakistan on my worry-list. Which is to say, countries I would not be too surprised to visit before the end of my Army career, and not for the souvenirs.

*Okay, I hate to be a stickler** here, but my senses of English style and Arabic grammar can't let me use "Sunni" and "Shia" in the same construction. So here's a quick lesson: sunna and shia are nouns which can mean both the religious movements and mass nouns for the people who follow them. Thus "clerical hierarchies are characteristic of Shia Islam" and "the Sunna dominated Saddam's Iraq". On the other hand, sunni and shii are adjectives: "a historic Shii mosque", "a traditional Sunni wedding". The -i forms are also used as individual nouns: "three Sunni gunmen", "he's a Shii". Some of these usages, however, roll rather uncomfortably off the tongue, complicated by the fact that the root of shia/shii includes a sound (the infamous "ayn") unique to the Semitic languages. This sound (along with its evil cousin the "hamza") is the reason for the incomprehensible assortment of apostrophes (both normal and inverse) one finds thrown about transliterated Arabic, as if they made anything any clearer.

**Okay, okay. You got me. I live to be a stickler.