the veneer of civilization

then you see kids, good kids from good families, kids that back home would help little old ladies across the street and go to Bible study do these horrible things. They’re in country for a little bit and it’s like the veneer of civilization peels right off of them”

The above quote was from a Vietnam Veteran as interviewed for the 10 part documentary The Vietnam War by Ken Burns. He was talking about “acts of war”. In particular, the acts of savagery committed by some American soldiers while serving in Vietnam.

At an average of 90 minutes per episode, completing the series was challenging. But I did and I have a lot of takeaways. Hours of battle footage, commentary, and interviews with all the players; politicians, soldiers from South and North (the enemy) Vietnam and all of the geopolitics involved in Cold War Southeast Asia. Per usual Burns provides an honest, balanced and unflinching look at one of the darkest chapters in recent history.

The veterans interviewed did the unusual. They talked openly about their experience. They ranged from the reluctant draftee; to the wide-eyed eager recruit seeking the honor and glory his father achieved; to the everyday guy from Anytown, USA that felt the call of Patriotism. They all went to the same place but all came back very different. It wasn’t like the last war, their Dad’s war. And glory was not in the cards.

A lot of men did and saw things that would haunt them. When villages were razed, livestock slaughtered, suspected enemies gunned down and food supplies destroyed were part of following orders a lot of soldiers found their moral compass in danger. Some made “deals with the devil” to rationalize their acts. One soldier said “I will never kill another human, but there’s no limit to how many Vietcong I will waste.” If they are no longer people then it becomes easier. They are the enemy they do not matter.

Then there were those who stretched the thin red line even further. Rapes, mass killings of civilians and excess brutality sometimes occurred. As it says above, it was if the veneer of civilization had worn off of them.”

At home, the war had changed people as well. The escalating campaign was enormously controversial. Young people broke rank with their parents’ beliefs. Students took to the street and challenged authority figures. Peaceful protest morphed into violence as frustration with a growing conflict grew. Pictures of bombing campaigns and burned children were finding their way into American living rooms and people were outraged. Some activists decided that violence was justified and riots and bombings occurred. It culminated when the National Guard opened fire on a crowd at Kent State and killed four. One veteran lamented “It has gotten so bad we are killing our own at home”. Until the Saigon airlift of ’73 this country was divided and forever damaged.

When the soldiers returned, there was no ticker tape parade. The hostility towards the war had been directed towards those who had been charged with fighting it. The brave men and women who fought the unpopular war emerged from planes and boats to be called “baby killers” and were spit upon. These people are still owed the Welcome Home they deserved. But as I have said. Everyone changed.

What are the rules of civilization? Are they inherent? Are we born to act rational and be decent to each other? Is it the job of parents to instill the concept of society in us? Is the veneer of civilization so thin that it can be easily worn down to the point that we are easily capable of barbarism and savagery?

If you don’t know what it was like to see the political climate of the late 60’s and early 70’s it isn’t too late to see it. Just turn on your TV. Riots, Nazi flags, death threats, mass shootings, people just being ugly to each other. So I have to ask…how thin is your veneer?

the gift that keeps on giving

“You had better take care of it or I’m taking it back!” She was kidding of course. But it comforted me to know that part of me wouldn’t put it past her. “She” is my donor. I call her my angel. Not for any good reason, you know except for the whole saving my life thing. We were in the kitchen at work about a month after our surgery and I had thanked her for the millionth (or what seemed like) time.

I had discussed in a recent post about a double organ transplant patient that I had the good fortune to hear speak. He told an amazing story and the most moving part was his relationship with his donor’s family. My situation is so different from his because my donor is still alive.

My kidney transplant of 2011 was by far one of the most important experiences in my life. The whole process, from the moment that it was determined that I needed a transplant, was amazing. While I will explore this incredible experience more in future posts I want to talk about Deb’s role.

Deb is the daughter of my then assistant at work. Deb and I were not close. She had a reputation of being short-tempered, fairly humorless and unfriendly. But we worked together well. I saw through her tough exterior.

I had worked for this company for only 1 year when my medical team came to the inescapable conclusion that I needed a transplant. While I was concerned that the company would accuse me of holding back my history, the fact is that it wasn’t decided until then. Instead of blowback I instead received amazing support and my General Manager proved to be one of the most supportive, dare I say a friend. The company allowed me all the time that I needed for doctor appointments and the myriad of hospital visits that were required to coordinate a transplant. I managed to accomplish it all, make up my time and maintain my value to the company. The only thing I didn’t have was a donor. As it stood I was looking at dialysis. Wait time up to 6 years for a cadaver match.

One day, while hospitalized for a kidney-related infection, Greg came to see me.

“I have news” he said. “Deb wants to donate to you.”  I was dumbfounded. Thankful, amazed, excited yes. But also dumbfounded. Deb is just a girl I work with, well…not anymore! Her stock just went way up. But why?

When I was released from the hospital my first stop at work was Deb’s cubicle. I needed to hear it from her. I asked her if it was true. It was. I asked her why. She said why not?  She told me she can help so she’s going to try, not to make a big deal out of it until we know she’s a match. Ok then.

She was a match. A perfect one. She began the process. She did all the testing. She made quick work of it. And as I got sicker she called our doctors office and asked what the hell is taking so long!? Somehow I made it to the big day without going on dialysis. I really believe that her telling the doctors to hurry it up was a big part of it.

We were on the news. A vendor of ours had a connection at a local news station and one day they showed up at our door cameras and mikes in hand. They sat us down and asked us to tell the metro Boston area our story. I was camera shy and didn’t say much. They turned to Deb and asked her why she is doing this for me. Her answer: “I have 2 kidneys, Bill needs one. Let’s not make a big deal out of it.” That’s pretty much it. That’s Deb.

The day of the surgery our families met for the first time in the surgical waiting room. We met at 5 AM on a Tuesday morning. Awkward conversation and nervous body language ruled the room. Then we were called. Our families hugged us and Deb and I walked into the hallway. “See you on the other side” I said.

She just laughed and said “just remember you’re going to be part girl in a few hours.”

When friends and family came to visit they found Deb hanging in my room. While the donor technically has a more painful recovery the recipient has a more complex recovery as the body acclimates to the organ and the medications are adjusted, she didn’t show the pain except when she coughed. She needed a cigarette but hadn’t had one in weeks in order to prepare for the surgery. She would become the hospital legend as she was caught three times sneaking out of the hospital to smoke. She laughed it off. I on the other hand was in a lot of pain. She joked that it was her bitchiness invading my body. Typical, never taking herself too seriously and deflecting praise.

So there we were in the office again, trying to treat her as just a co-worker and not put her on a (visible) pedestal. It’s nearly impossible to do so knowing that I cannot measure the enormity of her gift. Even if I was able to build her a throne, drape her in velvet and put her on it she wouldn’t want me to. I’m the one who continues to be emotional. It must be the female kidney. It may also explain why I pee sitting down and get bitchy once a month.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

the Duality of Man…Pilgrim (best John Wayne voice here)

“Private Pyle you are a disgusting FATBODY!” screamed the Marine Drill Seargent. Oh boy if he only knew how much he would regret that comment.

Full Metal Jacket is a movie that is forever etched in my mind. Brilliant acting performances by newcomer Vincent D’onofrio and veteran Matthew Modine, jarring training segments and powerful battle scenes.

As a self-proclaimed History buff this movie was just one more version of the war that no-one talked about. I know the story I just want to see this director’s take. Of course Kubrick does not disappoint in pointing out the absurdity and atrocity of an unpopular war. And the final segment, without giving it away, has both.

One of my favorite scenes is when Modine’s character is called out by a Colonel for having both “Born to kill” and a Peace Sign on his helmet. He explains that it is in homage to the Jungian concept of the Duality of Man. While the Colonel was nonplussed, Peace signs were for the kids at home protesting as far he was concerned, Kubrick hit on an important point. I have dedicated a lot of time and energy to the duality of man, this man in particular.

I believe that every person is indeed two beings; the one they are and the one they want to be. It is really a wonderful concept and, by its own virtue leads to self-improvement. Should you recognize it and want it. In some cases there is a negative connotation, for example when someone leads a life of deception or hides a tremendous secret. But my overall outlook on this is that it should be one’s life goal to work towards being that person you want to be by bettering yourself.

I am working towards being a better man. I will never be a perfect or great man but I will settle on being remembered as a good guy. A bonus, hell my GOAL is to be remembered as a good father, son, husband, coworker and friend. And if all goes well I will achieve some or most of those. Lord knows I’m trying. But it took A LOT of soul-searching and brutal honesty as I took a hard look at myself. What am I stuck with and what can I change?

A year ago I was very overweight and sick. Sadly I had accepted it and given up on trying to change it. Now I have taken control of my health I have lost weight and doing a much better job of managing my symptoms. I’m still sick but the new me is going to live longer.

A year ago I had a house for my family. But the waterline was at my nose. And the stress of maintaining that lifestyle almost killed me. Now I have very little overhead and the burden will be off of me once disability is approved. My savings are supporting my family and I can focus on my health, physical and mental.

A year ago I saw my kids every day but didn’t feel close to them. Now that we are apart I have really focused on strengthening my bond with them and I feel that our relationship has never been better.

A year ago my wife and I were full of anger and resentment. Today we have both recognized fault and have developed a new desire to forgive and respect each other. And although we are apart we are hopeful to get all of us together again.

All of this evidence of the duality of man. While the ultimate goal is the reconciliation of your two selves, part of it is to recognize that it is there and borrow and learn from it. Don’t hide it and don’t run from it, without it you can’t appreciate the new person you’ve become.

 

 

jump scares and laugh tracks

I went to a campground Sunday with my mother and her friend for a early Trick or Treat celebration for the kids. It was a gated community full of 3 season homes. Trailers apparently aren’t good enough anymore. For October, Holiday or not, it was staggering how many people were there. Approximately 500 people, parents, grandparents and tons of kids dressed in really good costumes paraded around with their dogs and open containers of hooch. I couldn’t stand sitting so I walked around and checked out the scene.

It was a party to say the least. Campfires, candy, coolers, fat guys sitting in lawn chairs drinking beer and wives telling them to slow down. I was hoping one of them would offer me a beer. I miss the days of sitting around with buddies drinking beers on a cool fall day. But none did so I kept walking. As I walked by one site the owner was playing the Halloween theme on repeat. If you haven’t heard it you may need context but if you have you know that is haunting and very effective at creating a scare. It then hit me…background music! Wouldn’t life be better with background music?

Imagine the worst moments of your life. Imagine that before you went over the handlebars of your bike when you were 12; the time you got jumped in the locker room; the time you got mugged; the time you got into a car that you shouldn’t have; the list is endless just insert yours here _______. If you had the luxury of hearing Oboes, Tympani drums, basses and violins slowly building to a crescendo or a sudden explosion saying “DON”T DO IT” or “WATCH OUT” or in my case “DON’T MARRY HER” would be pretty helpful. Of course none of us would have any wisdom without our “experience building” fuck-ups but it is indeed a nice idea.

I have a friend who, despite how many good qualities he has, is an opportunistic contrarian. He loves to reject things under highbrow pretense, basically if everyone does it he won’t. He once told me how his “dream car” was a Chevy Volt. You know, the whole carbon footprint thing. Admirable, but he then bought a hummer. Total fraud. He also told me he won’t watch any TV sitcoms because the laugh track is an “insult to his intelligence”. While I also find the notion of being prompted when to be amused or not, as if we have a choice, I am not going to reject the genre for that reason. But on the flip side, it could be helpful in certain social situations. Like when you are being sarcastic and your audience is either too uptight, or let’s face it, stupid to get it. Maybe if the press corp had one for the President they would at least know when he is being serious or just being a buffoon? In summary a laugh track would let the room know that you are trying to be funny so lighten up already!

Yes, I don’t like being told when to laugh and I don’t think a soundtrack would drastically improve my decision making but it may have helped me a few times.

“Don’t go in the cellar!”

A grateful nation indeed

I attended the funeral the other day of a very good man. A well-respected retired police officer; a decorated Air Force Veteran of Vietnam; a beloved member of the community and by all accounts a devoted family man.

I wasn’t very close to him personally, he was a Police officer in my hometown and a friend of my Dad’s. My best remembrance of him was getting pulled over by him for speeding when I was 16 1/2 years old. He didn’t give me a ticket, he just told my father. That was enough; my dad read me the riot act for disrespecting a police officer, his friend and my Dad’s name. When he retired he moved up here and became a very involved member of this small but vibrant town. When I saw him last year I apologized for mouthing off to him when I was a teen. He laughed it off.

He fought cancer for 18 years before he finally succumbed.

The funeral was well attended. Many members of his home town drove the 2 hours and people from town poured in to pay their respects and hear the many humorous homages to a man who was ironically remembered as a man of few words.

At the grave site was a folded flag and a delegation of uniformed soldiers at the wait. After the local minister said his last prayer and the last gospel song was tearfully performed by a grief-stricken granddaughter the familiar sound of Taps wafted through the breezy autumn air. The delegation then proceeded to unfold and then refold, with precision echoing great training and a sincere dedication to the grim task at hand, and then handed the flag to the widow.

“On behalf of the President of the United States, the United States Air Force, and a grateful nation, please accept this flag as a symbol of our appreciation for your loved one’s honorable and faithful service.”

That’s where I lost it. I challenge anyone to not be emotional when this service, which I have seen way too many times for a man my age, is performed. I freely admit that I cried. I also cried when my Grandmother was handed one, when my mother and I were handed one and I will again every time I see this done in the future. Because the Flag means something to me. And it meant an awful lot to the family.

See, that flag represents something bigger than ourselves. It represents service to country and community The very nature of the National Anthem is an observance that while bombs exploded in the night sky, in the worst possible conditions, the Flag not only survived but shone like a beacon. That flag has been a beacon of freedom to immigrants for centuries looking for a life that only the United States can provide. It has been raised on beaches, planted on the moon and it has draped every casket of every soldier who didn’t return home from battle.

This week some people are going to take a knee while that very flag is being honored. I don’t know how many because I won’t be watching. Yes, I’m one of those people that the “educated” elitist left call Patriotic, Nationalist and easily distracted from “real” issues. I keep hearing how kneeling during the National Anthem is acceptable and “their right to do so.” I’m not arguing that. No one believes in free speech more than I do.

My father once told me that while he would never disrespect the flag, but if someone were to do he would only hope that they had a hell of a good reason to do so. Because such a strong statement needs to stand on a strong issue. But in the case of the NFL the issue(s) at hand are convoluted at best, self-serving at the least and they can be handled another way.

Just because you have the right, because you can, doesn’t mean you should. Anyone who has a folded flag on their mantle will thank you.

the lucky hat

“Did you get that at Fenway?”
Startled from my apparent trance I turned to the kind-faced gentleman behind me in line at the market and recognized that he was referring to my hat. My favorite hat, the Red Sox Scali Cap. “Yes I did, actually” I replied.

“Bet that set you back a few bucks” he said

“Yea, but it was worth it. It’s my good will hat. Besides, it hides my chrome dome” and for effect I took it off and gestured self-deprecatingly at my bald head. He laughed and I then realized it was time to pay the clearly annoyed cashier who obviously had much better places to be today. I paid and walked out.

As I walked to my car I reflected on how NH life was growing on me but I’m still taken off of my game when someone just initiates friendly conversation. While I am a big fan of it I come from an area where people will generally read a candy bar wrapper to avoid eye contact. Enjoying that brief exchange with a friendly stranger, I opened my car to put my groceries in.

“What did you mean by Good Will hat? I thought you said you bought it at Fenway?” My friend from line was parked next to me. He thought I bought it at a GoodWill store.

I told him the Chili’s story.

Many years ago I was at Chili’s restaurant knocking back a few with my buddy Chuck. I liked the bar a lot and I really liked the bartender. Jane was a slightly heavy, forty-ish woman who was a refreshing change from the usual younger, vapid bartenders that flashed cleavage for tips but had little personality. Don’t get me wrong, I love tits but I’m old fashioned and like to have a bartender I can talk to also. I was wearing my hat. Jane was obsessed with my hat. She also had asked me if I had bought it at Fenway. She kept telling me how good I looked in it and I kept telling her to stop hustling for tips. She laughed. Then she told me how much her brother would love a hat like mine.

Over the course of several more beers Jane told Chuck and I of her brother in VT. He was dying of stage 4 prostate cancer. She wanted to get him something to cheer him up. She got a little emotional as she talked of him. The subject was changed.

When I paid my bill, I put the money inside my hat and left it on the bar. When she came over I slid the hat across the bar and told her to give it to her brother. She teared up and I tore out of there. No drama for me that night. Chuck slapped me on the back and told me what a nice gesture that was. Not to be immodest, but I do stuff like that pretty often. If I see a chance to make someone smile, unless I’m really attached to something I will usually give it away,

The next day I saw my buddy Steve on the street. He asked me where my hat was. Unbelievable. I told him the story and he also thought it was great.

2 weeks later I heard a knock on my door and when I opened it there stood Steve with a new hat. “For you” he said. “I was at the game last night, saw this and had to get it for you. You paid it forward and now I am too. Besides, you need to cover that bald head.”

When I finished telling my supermarket friend the story he was full of smiles. ” All of that from one hat, huh?”

“Yup, and every time I wear it I am reminded to spread some good will. Small gestures my friend”.

As we parted ways I jokingly remarked ” do you want it?” He laughed and got in his car.

Small gestures can mean the world to someone.

People suck…or is it you?

“People suck” Steve said. He said this frequently.

“No, they don’t. I refuse to think that way.” I was getting weary of this conversation with my roommate. He is a real nice guy with a good heart but people, with very few exceptions, annoy him.

“Would you at least concede that a good percentage of people suck?”

“Define good percentage” I countered.

“95%, and I’m low-balling it”.

“Not even close, I said. 5% tops.”

“Well, I wish I was like you. You honestly believe that. It must be nice to be as tolerant as you”. By nice of course he really meant gullible, weak and maybe even a “sucker”.

We left it at that. There is no winner with Steve and I. He’s the competitive type who insists on a clear winner or loser, no grey areas. To me, it’s not that simple. Besides, we’ve had this conversation so many times and he has yet to get me to change my percentages. I love how much my faith in humanity, or as he would call it my “naive side”, disturbs him. To his credit, he has a few people in his life that are either bitter disappointments, terrible friends or just downright bad people. He is a good guy with a big heart but he has been burned, anyone can tell, and his inner circle is pretty hard to access. I’m one of the few people he likes and respects. I respect him as well, a lot in fact. And he stands by his numbers.

Me, I also stand by mine. I believe in people. I honestly try to live by the mantra “be nice to all you meet for they are fighting a hard battle”. I believe everyone has a reason that they act as they do. Everyone is dealing with what life is throwing at them, and the faces don’t tell the whole story. And that’s the point. You don’t know so don’t judge. I like people until I have a reason not to. Most people are decent, caring and want the same thing: to be safe, to have a roof over their heads, have food in their stomachs and for their kids to have a future. They are regular people.

People who “suck” are easily definable, bear in mind I am giving my opinion and no one else’s. Murderer’s, child rapists, any criminal who sets out with a clear head intending to hurt people. Add to that religious zealots that harm innocents, thieves who prey on the weaker among us, and those who simply lack empathy. We see those people on the news every day. To Steve’s point, those people do suck.The rest of us, even convicted criminals, may have had a reason to do what they did. And, provided they served some kind of punishment, deserve a chance to redeem themselves and receive forgiveness.

There are a lot of unpleasant or difficult people out there that deserve their own category. The power-hungry mean boss, the back-stabbing co-worker, the aggressive driver that cut you off and then gave you the finger, the list goes on. These people are known as assholes, and they too deserve forgiveness. Because they are not worthy of the anguish they cause. We are a people of forgiveness, understanding, and empathy and we can overcome almost anything.

Steve points to my life and chalks my different attitude up to my circle. As a Freemason, I know a lot of good people. As a frequent volunteer at charity events, I see a lot of nice, giving people. In my professional life, I always had friendly relationships with all of our customers and vendors. With my friends, I am usually the one laughing and slapping backs. He points to these things and says that I live in a bubble. What he fails to see is that I created my situation and the ensuing happiness. I chose to join a fraternity to meet good people; I volunteer to create a positive experience and combat bad situations, I chose to be kind to even the most difficult of professional contacts in order to work better with them; and I choose my friends based on who I want to spend my time with. I control it. The people I can’t control, I deal with them by not giving them the time or the effort. I cut them off like oxygen to a fire.

We are mired in negativity and a lot of people are acting badly. Just like John Coffey said…”I’m tired boss, I’m tired of people being ugly to each other.”

Some people suck. That is true. Anyone who celebrates death and calls 59 deaths at the hands of a shooter in Las Vegas a “community service” because they are likely supporters of the candidate who beat yours…yeah, they suck. People who attack you on social media for your beliefs…yeah they suck. But there’s a block feature or you can scroll through it. We can control it. But the more of us who believe that people suck, I hear people say it all the time and I hate it, are missing the point. We can make a point to find the good, to forgive, and for Christ’s sake let some things go without reacting to it. But don’t give up on them.