Sunday, September 30, 2012

Who Pays the Price of Freedom?

I recently learned that a military organization, in which I played a long and rewarding part, is being reduced in size and capability. The reasons have to do with the new economic reality, but the consequences will be felt for a long time, I believe.

We had the best of it, that's for sure. We grew up in an age of challenge, but it was also one of possibilities. The end of the Great Depression, the years of global warfare, but better than that, what I like to think of as the Age of Sacrifice.

Even that ill-conceived event known as the Korean Police Action, and its next iteration, Viet Nam, were heavily dependent on a broad swath of America to carry the burden. It was also because so many were active participants, that both events were eventually seen by many as wrong.

I don't know when it went wrong, but my sense is that when we began to think of our military as a way to exploit tax dollars for private gain (Revolutionary War), and make military service a volunteer situation (same time as the other part), we rode all over the Founding Fathers' idea of a civilian-oriented military. Today we have a philosophy gone wild, I think: "rake in tax dollars and spread them around among your friends, and the economy will benefit," doesn't work, because defense of a nation isn't something you can buy.

 More and more people are stepping back from their responsibilities as citizens, and the result is a loss of capability, of strength, and of future. It isn't this president's actions (or lack of them) that has brought us to this point. It has been going on for a long time. Remember Eisenhower's admonition to beware of the military-industrial complex? This is what he was talking about. And hiring paramilitary organizations to defend the country at home and abroad didn’t begin with our current president. The result is that we are, by and large, becoming distanced from the defense of our liberty, of peace and prosperity.

It is everybody’s job. It isn’t something we can buy.

Sunday, September 23, 2012

Measured Moments

The sun was still below the horizon at seven this morning, and as I stood looking toward the east, the ridge was in silhouette, just a dark line with dark trees against the pale grey sky. Movement! A line of deer, six or eight, perfectly outlined, grazing their way up the ridge. Just enough light to see an occasional flicker of white as one of them moved on. I stood where I was, at the apex of the driveway. At about 150 yards I was not disturbing the small herd, and Teddy, grazing grass along the roadside, hadn’t seen them yet. Just as they moved over the edge of the ridge and out of sight he caught their movement and silently, swiftly charged up the ridge, only to find nothing there by the time he arrived on the line. As I watched him come back, happy to have had a bit of a run so soon in our walk, I thought about what I had just witnessed, and about how, after more than two decades of living on this mountainside, I still get a thrill out of being so close to our natural neighbors.

Yes, the occasional bear on the deck or at the front door is perhaps a bit too close, but still, looking out and seeing our cohabitants so close, often closer than this morning, is a wonderful and beautiful part of our life here. How quietly thrilling it is to live in and be a part of this natural world.

We are a fortunate few who live where we do. We have a very little piece of the world to call our own, and it is a joyful experience every day. We have water that needs no chemicals to make it safe to drink (so far). We are able to look and to see a clear sky and hear birds and bears and breezes when we stand silent and still. We have air that we can breathe. There is a cost to all of this, of course, but it is one we have always been willing to pay.

It is a special kind of freedom we could enjoy nowhere else.

Sunday, September 16, 2012

Speaking Written Here

The events of the past week, as well as of the last eleven years . . . correct that: the last 236 years . . . are much on my mind these days. Yours, too, I’m sure.

What I’m thinking about is free speech. There may be things this country doesn’t do very well, but free speech isn’t one of them. It is, in fact, the one thing we have done well from the very beginning, and as long as we continue to hold fast to it, we will still be America.

There are those (even in this country) who take offense at hearing what others have to say. Understand that I know as well as you, that not everything we hear said is true, witness the recent political conventions and their political ads. Still, there isn’t anything that stops you from turning off or turning down the volume of what offends you. Nothing, perhaps, except the desire to know what others are saying if only so that you will not be blind-sided at some point either in conversation or in the voting booth. If you know what others are saying you can allow for that in decisions you make.

Americans have not always agreed on everything, nor should we. A nation that has only one voice is a nation of one idea, and that idea will seldom be the one everyone embraces. I don’t mean that it is okay to call people names, or shout down their voices, or kill them because you disagree. That’s not free speech. Especially killing those with whom you disagree. That is simply foolish. It will bring down the wrath of others, and the end of that is death to many, and especially to thinking. If we let our ability to think be controlled by fear, we are undone. We will be no more.

This last week, with the exploitation by our enemies of a film they don’t like, illustrates my point, I think: expressing yourself becomes a risk. But look at it this way: if we decline to express ourselves, even in terrible words, even in horrible images, we open the door to our death just as surely as we expose ourselves to those who will kill us because they don’t like us.You don’t kill a sick philosophy  by killing people; you do it by showing a better way. And yes, people will die. But people will die anyway.

As for me, I would rather die knowing it was because I said something, rather than because I said nothing.

Sunday, September 9, 2012

Don’t Write, Don’t Tell: Take Your Choice

Writers are a quiet lot generally speaking. Oh, we may talk a lot, but really what we talk about is not writing. In fact one of the first lessons you learn as a writer is that if you tell it you won’t write it. Most of us are story-tellers by nature, and there is nothing we enjoy more than spinning a great yarn from a few fragments of imagination or even from fact. Conversations with writers, unless perhaps you are one, can be disappointing.

Who wouldn’t like to sit down with Hemingway or Millay or Tolstoy or Christie, and discuss their stories? They’re dead of course, but frankly what you get from talking to a living writer isn’t much more enlightening. Not about stories anyway. Writers, by their very nature, gather facts, accumulate experiences, view the world from a very personal perspective, but if they are writing about it or think they will write about it, they keep it to themselves.

The thing is, an idea for a story or a plotline or even a title or main character is something that a writer works hard to use. Experience, knowledge, training, all add to the effort, but the real ingredient that matters is imagination: taking a name or an event or a word or fragment of an overheard conversation and remaking that element into a story or character. It is what separates us from those who say that someday they will write a novel about whatever it is they think would make a story, but it doesn’t happen.

We writers basically live in our heads. We see, we store, we push events around in our minds, and then we transfer what that makes to a piece of paper or screen. We have notebooks, scraps of paper, index cards, file folders full of facts and fancies. We speak through what we write. It’s a one-way conversation for the most part, which tells you something about a writer’s personality, if not his work: we like to be listened too, no argument, no response, just listening to (and buying) what we say. That’s the difference between "us" and the rest of you.

Don’t write, don’t tell: take your choice.

Monday, September 3, 2012

Enough is Enough

For about 25 years I was part of a medical research institute. The main thrust was developing new techniques and technologies to protect and repair soldiers who exposed themselves to danger in defense of our nation. It was good work, with good people, for a good reason.

Along with my exposure to the richness of scientific research and the wealth of brain power my colleagues represented, I was also able to examine the motivations and ultimate results of human intervention in changing the outcome of life itself. I began to wonder about where it should all end. Were we right to be expanding the limits of human existence? That’s what we were doing, in a way. Historically, war and pestilence had been the factors that determined life-span and population growth. As we (all of us, not just scientists) expanded the boundaries of life through improvements in agriculture, water quality, clothing design, transportation, medicine, and so much more, we introduced an unanticipated problem: over-population. At the same time, we were doing things that now we understand are reducing the capacity of this planet to support life as we know it. Not soon, but unless we make some radical changes now, later will be here sooner.

As I studied what my colleagues were accomplishing on the scientific side, I came to the conclusion that, at least morally, we could do no less than we were doing to compensate those young people who gave their lives (or at least a part of their lives or of their minds and bodies) so that the rest of us might live free. We were honor-bound. But what about the rest? Disease and trauma are part of living, part of the design for living as a world. There is only so much air and water and earth and life. The number of organisms that our small planet can support is finite. We may not know what the number is (yet), and hopefully we will not find out. New discoveries and old threats may extend life and our ability to live it, at least until the sun fades completely.

The question that I have tried to answer (for myself) is where will I place a stop order? I have a living will, have executed (interesting choice of word there) a DNR, and know that I cannot live forever. Of course, I’m not ready to stop living yet, but that time will come, and I have already made the decision that when I cannot live without machines and vast quantities of pills or injections, when life is simply breathing in and breathing out, I want no more of it.

It is not about me. It is about all of us: When is enough, enough?