Sunday, April 26, 2009

It's a Plane, It's a Bird, It's a Turtle Strike








Black-tailed Jackrabbit





After reading an article in New York Post the other day, I got out my dictionaries and looked up the verb “to strike.”

According to my father’s old American College Dictionary, it means, among other things, “to come into forcible contact or collision with: the ship struck a rock.”

In contemporary parlance, I’ve discovered, this is what might be known as a rock strike.

Let me explain: For weeks now, I’ve been uneasily following the Post’s campaign to get the FAA to release statistics that would reveal the full extent of the threat that birds such as Canada Geese—the kamikazes that brought down Flight 1549—present to the world’s aircraft.

This campaign features a shot of a flying goose in the crosshairs, and the headline reads, “PLUCK 'EM.”

JFK is right next to the Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge, a haven for migrating waterfowl. If the paper succeeded in drumming up sufficient public outcry, I’d worry about their fate.

While I’m fully in sympathy with the desire to keep planes and their passengers safe, I am also—I’ll admit it—a bird lover. When I think about these unintended encounters between bird and aircraft, I am inclined to think in terms of a tragic accident, and one that is usually fatal only for the bird.

But from another perspective, that’s not how it is.

On Friday, the government finally released its bird-meets-plane statistics, which the Post duly summarized. In the lexicon of the FAA database, these are “wildlife strikes,” the civilian variant of a missile strike.

I suppose I can see the logic of using this terminology with birds. Like missiles, birds are smaller than the planes, collide with the aircraft, and explode on impact.

The FAA data names the 10 types of birds that most commonly assaulted planes at four local airports over the last nine years.

Herring gulls are at the top of the list, with 286 strikes; killdeer are at the bottom, with 48 strikes.

I was upset about the killdeer. I’m used to seeing them on the ground, crying piteously and dragging a supposedly injured wing, feinting desperately to lure the onlooker away from the nest.

When it comes to other kinds of wildlife, namely mammals and reptiles, the terminology of strikes gets even weirder, at least from my perspective.

Is this counterintuitive bureaucratic language genuinely indicative of an institutionalized point of view? Are we really so deluded about who is the aggressor when it comes to relations with other creatures in the world?

The Post provides a list of “four-legged animals that have hit airplanes at Kennedy, La Guardia, Newark, and Teterboro from 2000 to 2008.”

Over the course of nearly a decade, 39 black-tailed jackrabbits have rammed into planes. So have 15 opossums (specializing in night flights, no doubt), 12 woodchucks (when they’re not forecasting spring or biting the mayor), 3 muskrats, and—in what I suppose you’d call shelling—11 turtles.

I’m not sure how the FAA collected this data—perhaps it has a specialist in roadkill. But in its honor, I am posting a picture of a turtle after it conducted a strike on an automobile.

Saturday, April 25, 2009

83 and Sunny on a Saturday in April







It’s one of those days when the temperature erupts and everything erupts with it.


Th
e carpenter bees are drilling holes in the deck again. It’s such a robust, fragile life. I'm feeling an ache for all the people who are losing people. I'm feeling a pang for the world.

In
the morning my tulips are in bud and in the afternoon they are in flower. To my delight the orange ones are intermingled with the violets, an accident of loveliness. The park is thronged with people. Smoke from the grills drifts through the air. There’s a crowd in front of the ice cream stand.

The tulips by the pools at the botanic gardens are as festive as a candy store. Sunlight streams through the pink and purple and orange and red and yellow petals as if they were stained glass. Cameras in hand, people drop to their knees. A boy barely walking begins to push closed the giant gate to the native garden. I smile at such things these days.

I see one T-shirt that says “Make Levees Not War” and another that declares “I won’t fix your computer.” For me: first shorts, first towhee, first thrush, first lilacs, first warbler. I think I hear the song of the knife-sharpening truck. My neighbor brings me a beautiful dahlia. A crow appears on the wire next to the pigeons, conversing.

Friday, April 24, 2009

Back to the Breath

Yoga notes: The other day T., one of the instructors, said something like: “Pay attention to your breath. It’s as close as we can get to the infinite in this life.”

Later: “You need the body to breathe. So in focusing on the breath you are focusing on the body.”

In whatever primitive state of “spiritual” evolution I may be, I like this. I like the infinite in this life. I like this body, which has to open up and let it all in.

I’ve had occasion to be grateful for respirators.

Sunday, April 19, 2009

Afterthoughts: Third Mind: Bees on Film

The high point of my visit to the “The Third Mind: American Artists Contemplate Asia, 1860-1989,” a Guggenheim exhibit that closed today, was Mark Thompson’s short film Immersion.

I walked in toward the end of the loop, so I saw the end first. There was a blue screen with vertical rounded shape (something like a lingam, one of those phallus-shaped monuments to Shiva), the surface of which was swarming with bees.

I knew there was a man under there, but I was quite certain he was wearing a veil or some other protective gear.

The clip ended and the screen went blue. I sat down. I was restless; the exhibit talked a lot about emptiness, but there had been a vast amount of information to absorb. I wasn’t in anything remotely resembling a zen state.

There was a sudden buzzing and a dot shot across the blue screen.

Eventually another. And another.

A lot of museumgoers did much the same thing—they stuck their heads in, buzzed off. This is what I usually do with video, but this time I was determined to stay through the whole thing.

Bee by bee, the room began to thrum. I read later that the bees had been shot at a slightly slower speed and then the film had been sped up, so they zoomed across the screen leaving little tracers. There seemed to be patterns to the flight. It felt abstract but not random, like a Pollock.

The density kept building. The distance between the camera and the bees occasionally shifted. Sometimes a bee would turn toward the camera, hovering, as if it were confronting its future viewers. You could see its legs dropped.

A lot of the time those rounded projectiles seemed to pass in twos. Was that a trick of the camera? Or were the bees, in the midst of all that activity, flying in pairs?

Eventually the filmmaker appeared—a pale young white man with a drooping mustache. It was 1973 or thereabouts. I read later that he’d put the queen on his head.

The bees landed, one after the other. He didn’t close his eyes. He blinked as they touched his eyelids. For a moment I could feel his breathing. The drama had begun. Thousands of bees would soon descend on him.

There was no room for sneezing, no room for error. Was there a moment of terror? He stayed so still. Breathing in, I imagine. Breathing out.

The bees gradually filled him in, covering his hair, his shoulders, erasing his face. I wondered how he could breathe—would they investigate his nostrils?

The contours of his head disappeared—he was just a rough outline, no longer clearly human. I tried to imagine how his ears felt, what was happening inside his skull, in the darkness, what it would be like to be living inside that throbbing hum.

Could he remember who he was? I was pretty lost in it myself.

The bees clustered, shifted, sometimes slipped, and then redistributed, a wall in constant motion. And then the image faded away, and the screen went back to blue waiting.

I looked at the plaque on my way out—29 minutes. The time had gone very fast. It was almost a meditation—a half an hour of sitting, breathing, the pulsation and droning, the storm and the nothingness.

I returned to the museum’s spiraling walkway. I was nearly at the top. I wasn’t going to look at anything else. I was done, I was quiet, all the intellectual ferment buzzed away.

I walked slowly down the ramp. Paint colors popped out at me as I drifted by.

P.S. I’ve looked around for Mark Thompson—seems he’s still an artist and beekeeper on the West Coast. Earlier this year, he was one of the attendees at a talk proposing a more spiritual approach to keeping bees. A book by Kevin Kelly features a striking account of Thompson walking, and not for art’s sake, with a swarm, the bees swirling around his head like a halo.

Saturday, April 18, 2009

Scentient Being

C., the yoga instructor, proposed that each of us imagine our heart as a flower. “What does it smell like?” she asked.

A
peony, in my case.

I love peonies—as I child, I associated their blooming with my birthday, although that rarely seems to happen anymore.


C. remembered that the pink peonies of her youth were crawling with red ants. According t
o Wikipedia, this is because the buds of peonies are covered with nectar.

In early Japan, Wikipedia
adds, the Japanese word for peony occasionally referred to wild boar. Why? Because straying Buddhists used flower names as code when they went looking the meats they were forbidden to consume.

The Japanese have also been known to arrange the pink slices of boar’s meat in peony patterns.


This seems almost a Buddhist lesson in itself. Something like: don’t get attached to the idea that anybody’s perfect.


Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Mourning Pages


Recently I had occasion to talk with Alison Smith, author of
Name All the Animals, a critically acclaimed memoir that touches on both death and homosexuality.

Smith had expected that people at book signings would want to declare their sexuality, but that didn’t happen. The constant subject, instead, was people who had died.


Being gay wasn’t what these readers needed to come out about. What they needed to come out about, she said, was grief.

Sunday, April 12, 2009

Question of the Day (Easter)

A gift of the Easter squirrel?
How do you dye a brown egg?

I was going to leave it at that, but then again, it’s a day for hunting, in this case for answers.

I grew up with white eggs, and I assumed they were easier to dye, but who knew? In fact, I realized I didn’t even know the difference between white and brown eggs.

It turns out there is no difference. White eggs come from white chickens. Brown eggs come from brown ones. According to my Internet sources, the nutritional content is the same.

I was under the impression that brown eggs were healthier. I have just realized that, as part of my belated embrace of whole grains, I have adopted the view that all brown foods are healthier.

In this, as Michael Pollan might point out, I am probably no less a victim of quasi-informed (or desperately hopeful) food faddism than the countless people who decided that all fats were bad or anything with added vitamins must be good.

Guess what? It seems you can dye the brown ones nicely, too, if you’re willing to forgo the pastel tones. You might get something richer, with kind of “a vintage look.”

Saturday, April 11, 2009

Miss Molly

Who knows what or why or when with these things, but I miss Molly these days.

Just wanted to get her picture up here.

I got her in 1994, from the shelter in Newburgh. I’d driven around all day, visiting every shelter in Orange County. This was the last one.

There she was, a handsome young black-and-white dog, a female. She sat in the back of the cage and would not meet my eyes. To my surprise, that would take about four months. It had never occurred to me that a relationship with an animal could grow and change.

The people at the shelter told me there’d been a thunderstorm one night and the dog had showed up on the doorstep of an Italian lady. That lady cooked Molly a big plate of spaghetti, put her in the garage for the night, and then brought her in.

“She’s a clean dog,” the shelter worker said. “She won’t make a mess in her cage.”

I had to wait a week to make sure no one claimed her before I could pick her up.

Looking back through my notebooks, I can see that a lot of things were changing at the time that I got her. I had recently moved. I was learning to drive a stick. My father was probably on the verge of his decline.

I’d gotten upset after an emotional phone call a few weeks before, and it turned out that after hitting my couch I had actually broken my hand. It became impossible to type, which meant I couldn’t work, so I decided to drive around and camp in New Mexico, a first.

I'd booked my flights without ever considering what the timing might be with a dog.

As a result, I had to collect Molly from the shelter, drive her to a vet for shots, and then drop her off at a kennel—the last one she would ever visit in her life. I see from my notes that she shied away from the male vet. “Oh, you come from an all-female household, don’t you?” the dog warden remarked.

“About a year old,” the vet said, pulling back her gums. “Not spayed," he said, feeling her belly. What is she? “She’s probably got about 50 breeds in her. Maybe some springer spaniel.”

Springer spaniel or not, Molly looked like a border collie to me, and to everyone else. When that charming movie about the herding dogs and the pig came out, kids used to stop dead at the sight of Molly in the street, calling, “Look, it’s the Babe dog!”

The people at the kennel asked me what her name was. I said I had no idea.

I went off on my trip. At Bandelier National Monument, I was standing on a cliff looking at down at the ruins of an ancient Anasazi settlement when for the first time in my life I saw a person using a cell phone. It seemed so strange and moving, this man’s desire to connect, that I tried to write a poem about it. (“Funny, he said, scanning the big sky/There’s no reception here.”)

When I returned, the people at the kennel said they’d at first been calling her Dice, but then switched to Fate.

Here’s what I discovered when I looked back at my journals: in the hours after I got Molly and before I took her to the kennel, I drove her to my parents’ place. They weren’t home, but their dog Rufus attacked my new dog the moment we got out of the car. That was terrible. I was distraught. I had failed her immediately.

I came home from New Mexico on July 4. On July 5, I drove to the shelter with my sister and picked her up. On the following weekend, I think, I took her upstate to spend time with my family.

Molly recoiled from my father, which made me feel awful and sad, and I mentioned the possibility of the all-female household. “Perfect for you," my mother said.

Rufus spent the whole weekend following Molly around growling or trying to hump her. My mother kept saying that it was because the female was acting like a “bitch.” This may have been true, but it was an aspect of my mother's worldview that had always upset me.

My father grew increasingly angry and maudlin. His sister, who was in a nursing home three hours away, had been ill. I suspect he was consumed with grief and guilt, but he didn’t talk about things like that. He sat in his lawn chair and stared out the dogs. He had lowered his head like a bull, I noted—or rather scrawled, with my splinted hand—and he was exhaling like a teakettle.

For the first time in my life, I felt the urge to mock him.

Around the cocktail hour, my father began to declaim about the Declaration of Independence.

“We’re not like other countries. We wrote that down,” he said, in a voice full of anguish. “And I have to believe that we’ll come out all right in the end. Because lots of people believe in it. And every Fourth of July, in the New York Times—“

He didn’t finish. He stood there, his hands raised before him, his face red, tears streaming down his face.

O
ddly, I don’t remember any of that in connection with Molly.

I’d almost forgotten that Rufus attacked her.

I sometimes I called her the Independence Day dog. She was likely to get an extra piece of steak around July 4, which I thought of as her birthday.

I never forgot my father’s weeping about the Declaration of Independence, but I would never have known that it was at about the same time that I’d gotten the dog.

Everything I remembered about Molly was good.

I remembered that I wanted to show my parents the new dog before I took her to the kennel. When I didn’t find them at the house, I drove into town to look for them. They were at the Grand Union.

It was a rare moment: I wanted them to meet the dog, and they were excited to meet her. My mother actually left her cart and rushed out front. She was sometimes so sweet, especially about animals. Molly shrank to the pavement, cowering. My mother knelt to the sidewalk beside her.

My mother believed that dogs should have two-syllable names, because it made for a nice singsong when you called them.

It was she who suggested Molly. I resisted at first—at the time, I wasn’t sure that dogs should have people names, and this one seemed almost too homey and nice.

But Anne Raver in the Times had written a wonderful column in memory of her beloved dog Molly, and I was willing to let my Molly carry that torch.

Moreover, ever since college I’d owned a collection of three Samuel Beckett novels: Molloy Malone Dies The Unnamable. So Molly was secretly Molloy, too. I’d never read the book, but I was sure there was something darker and tougher in that.

My father liked Beckett. He had the last lines of Waiting for Godot tacked up in the closet where he sometimes worked (“Well, shall we go?” “Yes, let’s go.” They do not move.)

In retrospect, I think I named my dog in honor of both of my parents.

I took her back to the city, and I called L. Our breakup wasn't exactly new, but it would take me years go get over it, and she was the first of my friends to meet Molly.

We brought Molly to Prospect Park and L. persuaded me to let her off the leash.

Molly ran in huge circles.

“She’s a runner,” L. said, and I always remembered how happy I felt to imagine she approved. I felt some hope for us in that moment—hope that, over many years, proved justified, as somehow, against great obstacles, the friendship survived.

I took Molly to Maine just a few weeks after I met her. We were walking in the forest near Freeport, and I gradually realized she’d disappeared.

I stood in the woods and howled her name, and eventually she came bounding back, reeking of cow manure.

I wonder if she’d made a decision. I don’t recall that I ever thought she’d left me again.

Within a year or so, I met G., and we spent many hours together with our dogs. She had a boxer, O., whom she loved dearly. She was devoted and attentive and playful. She loved him completely and openly, but there wasn’t anything infantilizing in her delight, for either of them.

I once had a friend who said her dog taught her how to love. I didn’t think that was true for Molly and me. I may not love well but I have always loved deeply. What I learned from G., I think, was how not to be ashamed of this one love, at least—the love for Molly.

It was okay to love her, okay to devote my time to her, okay to care.

Over the years, Molly would bring life to so many of my relationships.

My friendship with J., for example, was solidified in all the back and forth of dog care, and all the trust that that implies.

There was another J. in my life. For many years I’d thought she didn’t like dogs at all, but then she got two shih-tzus. I made fun of them, since they were tiny and had long hair and didn’t seem like dogs at all, and I hurt her feelings.

We didn’t speak for some years, but when we met again, she grew fond of Molly, and I developed a great affection for the lively, expressive pups, who’d gotten short haircuts and now had easily recognizable tails and legs. They walked all over Molly in the back seat, and she didn’t seem to mind.

There was some parallel, in think, with the ways that J. and I were coming to understand each other again. We were seeing each other fresh, learning to communicate in ways that seemed deeper than ever before.

I spent a whole lot of time talking nonsense to Molly. When I first got her, I used to sing as we walked. “A-B-C, it’s easy as D-O-G, baby you and me, dog,” or “My dog is red hot, your dog ain’t doodly-squat.”

I used to call her “Queen-dog-girl-dog-Molly-dog.” My friends all developed nicknames for her, too—idiosyncratic things that seemed to reflect something about them. She was “Mollski Kowalski” to A. and “Molly by Golly” to C. and “Mollypup oh Molly pup” to my sister.

Molly liked to sleep in the bathroom. At 6:30 in the morning, she got up and leapt onto the foot of my bed.

She loved to eat. As G. declared, “When Molly comes, there are no crumbs.”

I used to say I got her so that I could be walked. For many years we spent an hour or even two in Prospect Park every morning. We wandered the back trails.

She wasn’t a runner as much as a swimmer. I threw big sticks and she fetched them tirelessly from the water. She brought them in panting and then she’d shake. Every time I hear the worrying call of the robins this spring, I think of that shake.

I knew the seasons then. I sat by the lakeshore with my newspapers and we looked out at the winter ducks. I’d see the first red-wings return well before the calendar said spring. In the summers we’d stay out until the light faded from the sky. On the rare occasions when it really snowed we’d go out in the moonlight to ski.

From time to time, I dreamed about Molly. Often she was bleeding or drowning and there was nothing I could do. I always imagined that she was somehow a stand-in for me, for my own vulnerability—for what they might, in new age parlance, refer to as my heart.

She got old before I knew it. She stopped to rest a lot more frequently. Sometimes she just plain sat down. The marker for me came when she was diagnosed with arthritis, and the vet put her on Rimadyl. The first weekend she was on the medication, she ran a mile down a Maine peninsula after friends on bicycles, looking just like a young dog again.

We spent many years getting older together, almost as long as when I thought of her as young.

My mother used to say that dogs only loved you because you fed them, and she said that in a way that seemed to apply to relationships of all kinds. I brought that in to therapy, and B. said, “Yes, but you are the one who feeds her.”

When Molly was about 13, she developed a huge and fast-growing tumor on her leg. It wasn’t malignant, but it threatened her ability to walk. The Animal Medical Center advised that it be treated with radiation.

I agreed. I felt a resurgence of some ancient doubt—she was just a dog, was this going overboard? But they told me she might be able to live comfortably for several more years.

Did we really have a bond? Did she care if I came to the hospital or not? I wasn’t sure, but I was afraid to be wrong. For weeks I came to the hospital every day during visiting hours. The attendants would lead her slowly into a visiting room, where she would sag to the floor.

I lay beside her, crooning, stroking, murmuring, “A-B-C, it’s easy as D-O-G, baby you and me, girl.” After a while, I thought I was driving her nuts.

And eventually she came home, and she was better. The lost black fur on her haunch grew back in, this time as white. She didn’t look the same, but we were back in business for another two years.

I was worried about the steps to my apartment building. When my parents died, I bought a new house and installed a handicapped ramp on Molly’s behalf. I bought a ramp for the car.

In the last months, it took us half an hour to get around the block. And that was okay. I changed my pace. We talked to lots of passers-by, people who I knew meant well when they said, “I had one like that. I had to put her to sleep,” or “Will you get a new one when she’s gone?”

Our days in the park ended. I don’t remember the last time. Even the most important things just fade away.

There was no question she wasn’t fun anymore, not in any classic dog way. There were all sorts of things I began to realize I wasn’t doing. I hardly ever went hiking. It felt so lonely without her.

I waited for my feelings to change, for myself to wish the old lady away, as my mother might have predicted. But it didn’t happen.

I couldn’t rationally explain it, my sense that our intimacy was growing. It seemed I loved her more intensely every day. I watched her fall, and I watched her get up. She stopped snapping at me when I tried to help.

I remind myself of my father now, typing and weeping.

My Maine friend J. brought me an article, by Gene Weingarten of The Washington Post, who probably says this better than I can:

“Old dogs can be cloudy-eyed and grouchy, gray of muzzle, graceless of gait, odd of habit, hard of hearing, pimply, wheezy, lazy, and lumpy. But to anyone who has ever known an old dog, these flaws are of little consequence. Old dogs are vulnerable. They show exorbitant gratitude and limitless trust. They are without artifice. They are funny in new and unexpected ways. But, above all, they seem at peace.”

It wasn’t easy in these years, and I needed help. That help came, again and again, from my friends, but especially from my sister and her husband. I began to realize what it means to have family, and how they could be there for you.

Molly’s mouth, always red, got redder. And there came a time when she wasn’t eating. That was excruciating. I thought of how frantic my mother had been as my father’s appetite failed. I tried five different foods a day. In the end, the most reliable option was an Alpo stew.

When the vets put her on steroids, she was ravenous.

I kept saying Molly was 17. I wanted her to have lived longer than she did. But she was probably only 16. I took her back to the AMC, and she was diagnosed with two kinds of cancer around her mouth. I was about to try chemotherapy, which the vet said had hardly any side effects in dogs.

With some sort of intuition, my sister and B. came over to visit with Molly before they went on their Thanksgiving trip.

Molly died, of course, over that weekend. I say of course because one of my best friends and my mother had died over Thanksgiving weekends in the past. As my friend’s husband said, “I happen to know it is a very good day to die.”

I’d gone off to park the car, leaving Molly in the house. She had lost control of her bowels and then fallen. She had writhed, smearing the excrement all over the wall and the floor and herself.

There was no place to clean her inside, and I guided her down the ramp and tried the hose. It was a huge misjudgment on my part, and I should have known better, but I didn’t think. She went into terrible seizures.

My neighbor K. took us to the medical center, and they said if it happened again the brain damage would probably be permanent.

I brought her home for a full day, and on the last morning I cooked her a grilled chicken breast and we walked around the block and she lunged at a squirrel.

And then it happened again.

K. drove us back to the medical center. I lay in the hatch with Molly and called my sister on my cell phone, and I relayed her farewells.

Molly got rushed into the hospital on a gurney, and then they brought us into one of the visiting rooms, where two wonderful staff members let me hold her and whisper as they injected her.

They said she was pretty out of it. I watched my tears drip on to her fur, and that was the end.

It was such a shock to be without her. It had been 15 years. I’d never been in the new house without her. The silence was deeper than anything I’d known. I could hear all the clocks tick. I could hear my own breathing.

It began to dawn on me that in all the years I had thought I lived alone, I had not. How foolish of me. Molly had wagged her tail when I came home. I always had a source of happiness. I always had someplace to direct my love.

No matter what I did, there was always an audience. There was another being who thought it wise to pay some attention to what I was up to.

I had never thought of myself as her mother. I had responsibility and control, but she was an adult—a dog, and a mystery to me, but still her own creature.

After a while, I felt some relief. I had embarked on a relationship with this dog, and whatever my failings—maybe I’d stayed out too late too often, or maybe I should have turned on the air conditioning in the car more often, or maybe not kept her out for so long in the winter cold, or definitely not turned on that hose—we had succeeded. She had lived a long life.

There’s not much to say now. I’ve got her pictures, her ashes, even a print of her paw.

And it’s raining, which she hated, but I wish we could go for a walk.

Monday, April 6, 2009

The PEI Practices: Send in the Drones

[In which the political-ethical idiot (PEI) sets out to write a short comment on Bob Woodward and winds up producing an epic-length post on peace. Photo credits below.]


I.
On March 17, The New York Times ran a front-page article featuring Predator drones. These are small, unmanned military aircraft that can linger over an area for hours, streaming video to command centers, zeroing in on targets, and then launching their missiles.

Predators and other drones, the paper reports, have become the weapons of choice in Iraq and Afghanistan, where the Air Force runs the fleet; and in Pakistan, where the CIA is in charge.

Reporter Christopher Drew was apparently permitted to witness the scene at a base outside Tucson, Arizona, where Air Force crews and the National Guard members who’ve been called in to fill personnel gaps work inside “dimly lit trailers” at “1990s-style computer banks.” Although they are more than 7,000 miles away from the plane, they are nevertheless considered to be “flying the mission.”

As the Times tells it, a pilot and a sensor operator sit side by side and monitor the Predator’s "gray-toned video." Sometimes they’re on radio with the troops on the ground and they can hear the soldiers breathing.

Officers in Iraq make the final decisions about what and when to attack. It takes the people in the Nevada desert “up to17 steps—including entering data into pull-down windows—to fire a missile.”

“Air Force officials said a few crew members have had a difficult time watching the strikes. And some pilots said it can be hard to transition from being a computer-screen warrior to dinner at home or their children’s soccer games.”

II.

Last fall, the Washington Post’s famed Bob Woodward announced that the U.S. had a powerful new weapon that was perhaps more responsible than the troop surge for reducing the levels of violence in Iraq.

On the 60 Minutes that aired on September 7, 2008, Woodward said the “secret operational capabilities” were part of the “hidden story” of the war, but he refused to discuss the details.

The next night on Larry King Live, Woodward said that the story of the “top secret operations” would one day be described, “to the people’s amazement.”

"I would somewhat compare it to the Manhattan Project in World War II, which led to the atomic bomb,” he said. "It is a wonderful example of American ingenuity solving a problem in war, as we often have.”

I couldn’t believe it. Was he really talking about something on the order of nuclear weapons? What was this thing?

I asked my friends. Had anyone else heard Woodward say this? Did anyone know what the weapon was?

No one did. We were in the middle of the election in which the war in Iraq was supposed to be a central issue, but I never noticed that the subject of what Woodward called a “game-changer” came up again.

On 60 Minutes, which airs on CBS, which owns Simon & Schuster, which published The War Within, which is the insider’s look at the Bush administration that Woodward was promoting, interviewer Scott Pelley politely asked Woodward to say more about the new weapon.

“I’d love to discuss the details, but I’m not going to,” Woodward replied. This, the voiceover said, because such disclosure would “compromise the program.”

This is the kind of thing that has always irritated me. It’s like something out of the schoolyard, this “I know a secret but I’m not going to tell.”

It’s doubly annoying when the statement comes from a big-time journalist—who’s decided he’s not going to tell because it’s going to compromise the war effort of an administration he’s supposedly reporting objectively about.

This is the guy who broke Watergate?

My feeling after 60 Minutes was, if you know something but you’re not going to tell, don’t say anything.

Of, if you know a secret but you’ve made a heart-wrenching decision to abrogate your professional duty by not discussing it, talk about that.

Instead, Woodward sounded excited.

“From what I know about it, it's one of those things that go back to any war, World War I, World War II, the role of the tank, and the airplane. And it is the stuff of which military novels are written.”

“If you were an al Qaeda leader or part of the insurgency in Iraq or one of these renegade militias, and you knew about what they were able to do, you'd get your ass outta town."

III.

It now appears to me that the “secret operational capabilities” were probably a number of coordinated surveillance technologies linked to the Predators and other drones. It also appears that the “secret” to which Woodward referred was actually a fairly open one.

Although in September 2008 it didn’t occur to me to scour the Internet for news about anything besides the election, several blogs—among them Truthout and mathoda—swiftly made the connection between Woodward’s secret weapon and the drones.

And indeed, on September 12, 2008, less than a week after Woodward’s 60 Minutes appearance, the Los Angeles Times ran an article on the drones and their surrounding operational capability that goes further and is more frightening than what the New York Times published in March 2009.

Given its timing, the L.A. Times article may have been intended as an amplification of Woodward’s claims, but since the article never mentions him, I wouldn’t have known.

Snippets from the L.A.Times piece by Greg Miller and Julian E. Barnes:

Officials said the previously unacknowledged devices have become a powerful part of the American arsenal, allowing the tracking of human targets even when they are inside buildings or otherwise hidden from Predator surveillance cameras….

A military official familiar with the systems said they had a profound effect, both militarily and psychologically, on the Sunni Arab insurgency in Iraq.

"It is like they are living with a red dot on their head," said a former U.S. military official familiar with the technology who, like others, spoke on condition of anonymity because it has been secret. "With the quietness of the Predator, you never knew when a Hellfire [missile] would come through your window."

Like Woodward, Miller and Barnes reported that the souped-up hardware played a critical role in the improving the situation in Iraq:

“Officials said introduction of the devices coincided with the 2007 U.S. troop buildup in Iraq, and was an important, but hitherto unknown, factor in the subsequent drop in violence in that country.”

I don’t recall Republican John McCain, who built much of his campaign around his support for the troops and the surge, saying anything about the Predators. He did accuse Democrat Barack Obama of threatening to bomb Pakistan—when what Obama was undoubtedly saying was that he would take full advantage of the undiscussable Predator capabilities, just as he has already done. Everyone but people like me, I guess, was aware that there was a “hidden story” here.

IV.


I read both of Barack Obama’s books before I jumped on his bandwagon—or rather I listened to them. They were the first books on CD I couldn’t put down. I’d find myself running one more errand or sitting in the car for one second longer just to get to the end of a chapter.

Obama is thoughtful, engaging, and extremely gifted at telling specific stories and drawing the emotional lessons from them. It was this aspect of this book that felt so shockingly intimate to me—I hadn’t read other presidential memoirs, but I couldn’t imagine others giving you such a strong sense of what the man might have been thinking and feeling.

Moreover, it was possible to imagine that in similar circumstances I might have been thinking and feeling along much the same lines, or at least processing the information in much the same way.

I don’t know the President, but playing the six degrees of separation game, I could probably hopscotch my way from the people I’ve met to the people they’ve met to connect my dot to Obama’s in half a dozen ways. I think is true for many of the people I know.

It is perhaps for this reason that I found myself musing, as I never have before, about what would happen to him when he took office. And the first thing I thought of was this: he is going to order that people be killed.

I could think of hardly any other job, except maybe a state’s executioner, in which that was guaranteed to be the case. Sasha and Malia’s Daddy was about to become, in effect, a murderer. (In fairness, almost all of us play some role in the deaths of other beings, in one way or another.)

Obama being Obama, I was fairly sure this would have occurred to him, too.

It took all of three days. On January 23, the world press reported that Obama had given military commanders the go-ahead to launch two missile attacks in Pakistan.

The New York Times cited senior American officials who “said the attacks had dispelled for the moment any notion that Mr. Obama would rein in the Predator attacks.”

Not that it seems reasonable to expect the president of the United States to be a pacifist, but I felt terribly sad about it.

Per Britain’s Guardian, “The first attack yesterday was on the village of Zharki, in Waziristan; three missiles destroyed two houses and killed 10 people. One villager told Reuters of phone that of nine bodies pulled from the rubble of one house, six were its owner and his relatives; Reuters added that intelligence officials said some foreign militants were also killed. “

In the second attack, according to the New York Times, “missiles struck a house near the village of Wana in South Waziristan, killing seven people, according to local accounts and Pakistani news reports. The reports said three of the dead were children.”

V.

A few weeks later, these missile strikes were already beginning to seem routine, and I felt myself fading into a familiar sense of disconnect with the human losses that might result. Had it not been for my sense of identification with Obama, I might never have paused to consider the killing capacities of the presidency at all.

On February 20, again looking at the New York Times, I found myself staring at a photograph showing members of Pakistani tribes at a funeral.

There was a long line of men lined up in front of a coffin, praying. Some were barefoot, some in socks. Most of them wore loose white pants and were wrapped in shawls.

According to Reuters, they were mourning the victims of a Valentine’s Day Predator attack on a training camp. It had killed 25 “al-Qaeda linked militants,” most of them fighters from Uzbekistan.

The men appeared to be a tight clan, but as a group they also looked alone in a vast desert. The Predator attacks function almost on the terrorist model, in sense that they are isolated assaults intended to produce maximum impact. Unlike the terrorists, the government has some interest in minimizing the publicity.

A few weeks later, I was reading in the New York Times about how IBM was laying off workers a few at a time, and the strategy sounded remarkably similar:

“Big companies also routinely carry out scattered layoffs that are small enough to stay under the radar, contributing to an unemployment rate that keeps climbing, as Friday’s monthly jobs report is likely to show.”

I wondered if the mourners in the picture, even if they were bound together in waging a violent holy war, ever felt lonely. My friends who have been laid off, at least during the current hard times, feel a great deal of comfort in knowing that they are part of a wave of other people who are suffering as well.

What does it feel like when a missile lands on your block, but nobody else’s?

I tried to imagine caring about these tribesmen. The truth is, these people didn’t look like my friends. The information I get tells me they’re the sorts of people who at the very least would like to see me wrapped up behind a veil, but at worst would prefer to see me dead.

At the same time, I remembered the photo of Obama wrapped in a white turban and tribal robes during a 2006 visit to Kenya, where many of his relatives live. The picture wasn’t a fake, but distributing it, as the Clinton campaign did, was a “smear.”

That picture scared me. It made me realize that when I voted for Obama, I would have to kiss my lingering, insulating assumptions that some people are “other” goodbye. I could see that the world was changing in ways that might mean that I could be “other” in some significant new ways myself.

We’re all links in a chain. That seems obvious, but it’s easy to forget that everyone joins the chain at a different link, and that one person’s retaliation is another person’s first strike.

Our sense of purpose as a nation seems to have shifted from vengeance to prevention. We may still dream of direct retribution for the attacks Osama bin Laden ordered against us on September 11, 2001, but after eight years the costs of our effort may be too great for any real savoring of revenge when it comes.

Increasingly we conceive of our attacks as preemptive, as a form of self-defense. To others, they are merely attacks.

I remember Obama’s comments during a visit to Israel in July 2008, months before that nation’s retaliatory bombardment of Gaza at the close of last year.

"If somebody was sending rockets into my house where my two daughters sleep at night, I'm going to do everything in my power to stop that," the candidate said.

It seems inevitable that the families of dead children and dead militants alike, no matter where they live, will feel the same way.

War or peace? Once the missile hits, there is no way to know where their thoughts and feelings or resources will take them next.

VI.


In the Cold War, as I understand it, we imagined dangerous but essentially rational superpowers facing off in a contest of Goliath versus Goliath. We can’t use the big weapons on the little guys. In this age of the democratization of both war and technology, we’re trying desperately to pick off all the Davids before they point a warhead our way.

According to that March 17 New York Times article, the number of Predators being flown by the air force is currently 195. The total number of military drones—including handheld models—has jumped from 167 in 2001 to 5,500 now.

Armed drones are an ideal weapon for a cash-strapped military, the Times points out—much cheaper than a $143 million fighter jet. Predators are “27 feet long, powered by a high-performance snowmobile engine, and cost $4.5 million apiece.”

Amazing. I began to wonder just how easy it might be to launch your own Predator.

It’s only about twice as long as kayak.

In the age of trillion-dollar bailouts, $4.5 million begins to seem like lunch money.

If all you need is a high-powered snowmobile engine, maybe Todd Palin could build it.

According to the Times, a third of the Predators have crashed—at least 70 of the ones that belong to the air force. I have visions of militants running around and picking them up. Then they’ll fix them up and shoot them back at us.

You don’t need to be a pilot to fly a Predator by remote. If I read correctly, anyone who could handle a video game can do it.

Of course, when I think about the added information in the Los Angeles Times article, I think perhaps it wouldn’t be so simple. There’s that whole Manhattan Project aspect. There’s whatever it takes to see through walls.

The technology allows suspects to be identified quickly. "All I have to do is point the sensor at him," said a military officer familiar with the system, "and a missile can be off the rail in seconds."

There’s that red dot again—a targeted individual in a constant state of anxiety and fear. In her book The Dark Side: The Inside Story of How the War on Terror Turned into a War on American Ideals, Jane Mayer makes the case that Vice President Dick Cheney might have been just such a person.

Way back in the 1980s, when he was still a member of Congress, Mayer writes, Cheney was part of a security program in which he was periodically hustled off to remote locations, where he was fed lousy food and asked to play the role of chief of staff to a president in hiding just after a nuclear holocaust.

Not long after September 11, anthrax came to Congress, and shortly after that the White House sensors went off, falsely signaling that the vice president might have been exposed to radioactive, chemical, or biological weapons.

Ten days after that, Cheney relocated to one of the bunkers built deep underground during the Cold War.

“The poor guy became paranoid,” the chief of staff for Secretary of State Colin Powell told Mayer.

Cheney became convinced that we would have to go to the “dark side” to survive—and this was the mindset that transformed the United States, after 225 years of existence, into a nation whose official policies condoned brutal acts of torture.

VII.


Once you start to think this way, the parallels between the supposedly good and the supposedly evil begin to seem endless. Here I was, experiencing weird spurts of sympathy for not only Dick Cheney but also the mujahideen. All these thoughts and feelings left me feeling vaguely wretched.

I was mushy-headed, spineless, and fatally empathetic. No doubt I’d have been trying to see things from Hitler’s point of view when the Nazis ran wild. And I will probably be bitterly sorry I ever thought about any of this when the next assault comes.

Of course we should bomb the terrorists. Of course we should try to do so in as targeted a fashion as possible. Of course there will be collateral damage along the way.

Yuck. I didn’t like that, either.

Since all lines of inquiry inspired by the Predators made me uncomfortable, and since I’m very fond of Buddhists, I poked around on the Internet to find out what Dalai Lama thought.

His views are not as straightforward as I had supposed. To my surprise, the exiled Tibetan leader is rather a centrist—or perhaps you could say he takes the Middle Way—as a peacenik.

War is violence and violence is unpredictable,” he has said, as well as: "Although your motivations may be sincere, violence ... easily can be out of control."

“Therefore, it is better to avoid [war] if possible, and never to presume that we know beforehand whether the outcome of a particular war will be beneficial or not.”

However: “Although I am deeply opposed to war, I am not advocating appeasement. It is often necessary to take a strong stand to counter unjust aggression.”

Nevertheless: “We can only judge whether or not a conflict was vindicated on moral grounds with hindsight.”

The Dalai Lama frequently cites a statement from Gandhi that goes something like this: “Peace is not the absence of violence. Peace is the manifestation of human compassion.”

The more I think about this, I realize that the dichotomies that concern the Dalai Lama may not be the ones I had imagined. For example: I no longer assume that the words “peace” and “nonviolence” are an opposing pair.

In fact, peace and violence can go together. I remembered those Buddhists monks of the Viet Nam War, the ones who made such a shocking statement by setting themselves on fire. I saw those pictures when I was a kid, and I never forgot them.

Self-immolation was a brutal and public form of suicide, but it didn’t come with bombing. It was a violent act that brought the horrors of war vividly to life without harming anyone, and that made it an act of peace.

The Dalai Lama believes World War II and the Korean War were justified, and he sees “a certain value” in the Cold War strategy of mutual nuclear deterrence (although the black market in all that old nuclear material is part of the reason why, in Obama's words, "the threat of global nuclear war has gone down, but the risk of a nuclear attack has gone up"). If I read the Dalai Lama correctly, he might express a qualified support for the Predators, too.

"It is difficult to deal with terrorism through non-violence," he said, in a January speech in Delhi, India. This is largely because the terrorists have closed their minds.

As the India Press Trust reported it, “he termed terrorism as the worst kind of violence which is not carried by a few mad people but by those who are very brilliant and educated.”

Once again, I felt the disturbing tug of a parallel universe. The Dalai Lama’s terrorists are not insane thugs. In the sense of having smarts gone wrong, they may bear some resemblance to high-ranking Nazis, or even to the “best and brightest,” the American academics and intellectuals who brought us the Viet Nam War.

These were people so caught up in their ideologies and technological abilities that they dissociated from the heartbreak on the ground.

I don’t think the Dalai Lama has any innate distrust of intellectuals; he has embraced scholars of all sorts. I think he is concerned with endless struggle between heart—which I suppose operates along a continuum from passion to compassion—and mind.

In the same January speech in which he decried terrorists, the Dalai Lama shocked his audience by proclaiming, “I love George W. Bush.” They were known to disagree on policy, so I wondered why. Perhaps it is because, as damaging and dangerous and unreasoning as I often believed him to be, Bush speaks from the heart.

VIII.

I’ve been thinking these issues almost nonstop since I made the decision to make a short comment about secrets of the Predator.

Can you have an active military and still practice peace? Do intentions matter? Obama seems to be firing even more missiles than his reviled predecessor did. Is there any possibility that he can use the same tactics as the Bush administration, but to a better end?

If we’re going to deploy the Predators, not to mention our soldiers, is there some way to mitigate the harm both to them and our enemies (violence) with assistance (compassion), in the ways that I believe Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has talked about?

I’m back, again, to the questions of heart and mind.

According to the scholar Bhikhu Parekh, Gandhi—one of history’s most powerful practitioners of nonviolence—believed that when “when the heart is hard and rigid, reason doesn’t work,” and “you must find ways of activating somebody’s heart, conscience, his moral universe, so that he is prepared to recognize you as a human being and then a rational discourse can begin to proceed.”

To a large extent, this business of activating our hearts, our consciences, and moral universes (so that reason can work) may be what Obama’s rhetoric is all about. He draws on the diversity of his own background to argue that we cannot dismiss or disown anyone.

In his remarkable speech on race, Obama demanded that we recognize the humanity of people all along the racial spectrum, whether we agree with them or not. I was deeply moved. Later, when he asked that I, as a gay person, listen respectfully to an inaugural invocation by the evangelical pastor Rick Warren, I didn’t like it at all.

I wish we could be challenged in this way about war.

Rather than trying to win others’ hearts and minds, perhaps we should think about what it would mean to engage our own, individually and as a society.

It might be useful to have at least one serious talk about the weaponry—what it is, how works, what it does to the enemy, or what risks it may pose to us.

Except we won’t talk about military actions, even more than we won’t talk about race, because what’s actually involved in the war is top secret.

The minds are on the inside, and the hearts are left out.

It may be too much to expect any given individual to balance heart and mind in the midst of waging a war. There’s so much pain involved, and the brain desperately wants to shut that out.

There must be enormous psychological pressures for those Predator pilots who shoot missiles that kill kids by day, and go home to their own children at night. How do you think about the target’s humanity and continue to pull the trigger?

And maybe keeping an open heart might be too much to ask of someone like Dick Cheney or the head of the CIA. Opening one’s heart, either to one’s own fears or to anyone else’s, might cripple one’s capacity to strategize and execute.

But this seems to be the benefit, in theory, of a democratic society. We are a diverse people with diverse perspectives and influences and experiences. We've got peaceful warriors and warlike peacemakers. We can invite the people outside to influence what goes on within.

There are those who’ve lived in the bunkers and drawn the scenarios and foreseen the worst, and then there are those who’ve been lucky enough to sing songs, smoke organic ganja, and dream of peace.

I imagine there’s some truth in all of it, both at the extremes and in the middle, and I’d hope there’d be some creative tension in hashing it all out. If we allowed the hearts and minds of our society to be each other’s checks and balances, perhaps we’d have some chance of finding the Dalai Lama’s middle way.

In the end, I changed my mind about Woodward. I reread his Larry King interview. “As a reporter, all my instincts say let's tell the story,” he said. But when he took what he knew about the secret weapons to the upper echelons of the military, “They said—it wasn't a matter of request—they said you can't write about this. This will get people killed.”

So Woodward tried to find a compromise. He wasn’t Daniel Ellsberg: he kept the military’s secrets, accepting its analysis that disclosure would put lives at risk.

At the same time, however, he attempted frame a larger context, one that might open the door for discussions that were far more difficult and truthful than the ones going on in the campaign. Was the surge really working? Would warfare really change? What would that mean?

That’s the kind of conversation we need.


Photos: Predator drone aircraft: Chad Slattery / Check6.com
Funeral in Pakistan: Reuters
Obama in Somali elder robes: AP

Saturday, April 4, 2009

Metta, Meet Mister Softee









O
n Thursday, I ventured to the Jaya Yoga Center to hear Sharon Salzberg, who was making a rare Brooklyn appearance. Salzberg, a big name on the Buddhist circuit, is best known for teachings on “metta,” or “lovingkindness,” and I enjoyed listening to her.

As Salzberg sat quietly in a chair beside her microphone, waiting for the event to begin, she was startled by the sound of a Mister Softee ice cream truck. The windows were open to a balmy evening; the truck was rolling slowly down Eighth Avenue, endlessly recycling its jangling tune.

(It would linger again at the close of her remarks—the evening’s bell of mindfulness.)

Salzberg threw back her head and laughed—at first, she said, because she thought that the jingle was on someone’s cell phone, and then because it brought back fond memories of a Manhattan childhood. (I had one of those, too—I seem to recall my father wishing he had a rifle, so he could go down and shoot Mister Softee with it.)

Like Pema Chodron and several other Buddhist speakers I’ve heard, Salzberg has a lively sense of humor. Unlike Chodron, Salzberg does not appear to favor the monastic life. She can make wry remarks about switching to “the metta channel” while in a fit of rising irritation over a slow line at Whole Foods.

Salzberg said many interesting things, but I liked her idea of meditation as a kind of skills training in both mindfulness and compassion.

She said—I think—that the scientists who are now busy wiring the brains of meditators have discovered that different centers light up with different types of meditation.

(Mindfulness meditation seems to mean bringing your focus to a single object of concentration, like the breath; compassion meditation involves exercises in which you send wishes for health and well-being to friends and enemies in ever-widening circles.)

Apparently the research is indicating that compassion can be cultivated.

Salzberg expressed surprise that this was news to the scientists, but for a long time it would have been news to me. I’d always imagined that compassion was something that arose spontaneously, not something you could work at.

With either form of meditation, you may increase the odds of taking a moment to examine the wisdom of your initial thoughts and impulses. As Salzberg put it, quoting a fifth grader, “mindfulness is not hitting someone in the mouth.”

Friday, April 3, 2009

O, joy!

Today, P., the yoga instructor, advised us to breathe like jellyfish!

Change in the Air

I once had a lover who told me that every time we had sex, we changed each other—forever.

I was head-over-heels enthralled and tried hard to pretend that the idea didn’t frighten me, but it did. I twisted into knots of terror at the very thought of being changed.

The other day, C., the yoga instructor, told us to think of our breaths as like the waves shifting sand on the shore. With every inhale, every exhale, we are subtly new.

I was surprised to realize how good it felt to hear this kind of talk again. I rejoiced in thinking of the breath as the ocean, just as I earlier had delighted in another teacher’s suggestion that we think of “om” as the wind.

I think I can welcome this vision for the mechanism of transformation: gradual, consistent, and with a lot less drama.