Archive for July 2009
On Friday, August 14, I will be reading at the Northwestern University Master of Arts Graduate Reading. The event runs from 5-7, with a reception to follow. Please come listen to me read from Strategy, Innovation, and Ninety-One Meltdowns, a story I recently wrote about baseball Hall of Fame manager Earl Weaver. You can check out my 5-part metacognitive journal about the piece in previous posts under the title Earl and Me.
As an added bonus, you’ll get to see several other grads share their work. I know most of them as classmates and some of them as friends, and can vouch that they’re pretty darn good writers. It will be time well spent… and maybe there will be some post-reception drinks?
This will all happen at the McCormick Tribune Center forum, 1870 Campus Dr., Evanston. (The building is east of Kresge and north of Fisk Hall, the red-brown brick journalism building.)
Parking right on the lake is free; it’s a 2-minute walk to MTC.
I hope to see you there. As always, many of you have no idea how much you inspire and inform my writing.
I finished the story yesterday. It took two more drafts, two outlining sessions instead of one, a week of hemhawing around about it, a weeks worth of writerly angst, feedback from an NU classmate, two sessions of trying to frost the cake with a heavy, sweet frosting that would have ruined the delicately balanced tastes I’ve tried hard to elicit, and one A-ha! moment in the shower at my girlfriend’s parents house on Sunday.
The more I write, the more I’m reminded of Ray Bradbury’s advice to have fun writing the first draft, because drafts 2-9 are going to be hell. So, glad I had fun the first time around.
The key to getting this wrapped up was making the story matter for whatever reason. I knew that, but didn’t know how to make it matter. That was the sneeze that I couldn’t seem to coax out of my sinuses. The rough edges of the story itched and irritated me and even made me miserable with discomfort. One thing that helped me find why it mattered was cutting my direct involvement in the story in half. This story was already the one that features me the least… 2 paragraphs before the editing. It’s still two paragraphs, but they were born from 1 paragraph at the end of the story. I’m now using the paragraphs as bookends. I suppose in some way that this is good for my ego, and that’s fine by me. I’ve been making a conscious effort for the last two years to write less about myself anyhow. Maybe I’ve realized, too, that when I have a significant issue with a piece of writing I need to look at my own presence in the story first and see if that is the hangup.
I wanted so desperately to be done with this story that three trains of thought plodded through my head in the last week, each of which has its own name:
1. Leave this “pretty good” story as is and send it off knowing that it’s only pretty good and will probably get rejected (Surrender after fighting hard enough to win).
2. Give up and deal with the notion that I overestimated myself (I’m not yet ready to have the training wheels off my bike).
3. Try to rest comfortably on the soothing wisdom I give my high-school aged developing writers… The process of writing is what is most important, not the product (Drink the Kool Aid).
So I think this has an excellent chance of being published. It is the best thing I’ve sent to EFQ in light of what they like to publish. But I’m still taking a significant risk since theirs is the only outlet I’m considering.
Herb Ramlose retired in 2007 after 38 years of teaching English, and is now a full-time poet, musician, and traveler. He recently found time to reflect on the death of Michael Jackson and its context in our lives.
The death last week of Michael Jackson permeated all of the news media in Canada where I was vacationing, as I’m sure it probably did here in the States. The loss of icons in the world of music, particularly rock and roll pop performers, touches the musical roots of our souls, both individually and collectively.
Certainly we are touched by the loss of those significant people who have made their mark on the world and with whom we identify, but pop singers reflect the raw emotions in us established at an age in our lives when we are most susceptible and vulnerable.
I was 12 years old when Ritchie Valens and the Big Bopper and Buddy Holly died in the 1959 airplane crash. ‘Twas “the day the music died” Don McLean would later immortalize in his song “American Pie,” which spent four weeks as the number one hit on the U.S. charts in 1972. But at 12, I was just coming of age to the world of rock and roll: Jerry Lee Lewis, Fats Domino, Chuck Berry, Little Richard, and Bo Didley.
When I was 30, the King, Elvis, died. Although he had become a bloated Las Vegas caricature, his early days of “Jail House Rock” and “Blue Suede Shoes” resonated in another part of my rock and roll pop music life. Though more of my sister’s generation – she only two and half years older than I – of leather jackets, sock hops, drive-ins and the culture of Happy Days and the Fonz, I realized the tremendous impact of the loss of another musical icon.
But the jaw dropping “I can’t believe he’s gone” moment that really touched my life was when I was 33 and John Lennon was assassinated, the first of the Beatles to die. George Harrison’s death 21 years later seemed anti-climatic after the fall of the first of the four gods.
The Beatles spoke to me, my age of contemporaries, and to a movement of hope and change in the universe. Whether through flower power or the anti-war movement or free love, the generation of “Give Peace a Chance” and Hair suffered a loss of unbelievable dimension.
And now the loss of the King of Pop. Though Jackson, like Elvis, suffered from a like state of caricature later in his career due to any number of weird behaviors and immoral allegations and Neverland existences, the star of Thriller, the moon walk, the white glove and sox, the black top hat, and Sgt. Pepper-like jackets touched a generation that now mourns him as I did John Lennon.
An unexplained, sudden, and profound loss. A part of one’s self has a hole in it that only memories may help heal. The memory of the music, where we were when it was played, and the tears and the laughter and the essence of our youth all reunited in our mourning.
Many of us will remember where we were and what we were doing when we heard of Jackson’s passing, the same as we did when we heard about JFK, Marilyn Monroe, Martin Luther King, Jr., Bobby Kennedy, and Princess Diana. Likewise for other rock icons whose loss didn’t affect me as much as others: Jim Morrison, Janis Joplin, and Kurt Cobain.
So once again, the clock stops briefly, the heart falls to the pit of the stomach, a lump is in the throat, tears swell in the eyes, and it is another day when the music has died.
Nathan Geist is currently serving as a Chaplain Assistant in the Army. He is a 2005 graduate of Zion-Benton Township High School, has studied for 3 years at Southern Illinois University, and recently appeared in the film The Promotion. Sgt. Geist has been a periodic contributor to The Seeker since last September as he fulfills a tour of duty in Afghanistan.
Welcome to Act II of this deployment. The characters have already been introduced, a few plot twists were thrown into the mix, and we are inching towards the curtain call. If you find yourself getting antsy already, don’t worry, because the second act is remarkably shorter than the first.
I returned from mid-tour leave feeling very refreshed, yet already looking forward to the moment I get back on the plane to Chicago. I left to go to war leaving my life behind, yet was so blessed to have the opportunity to thrust myself back into it for 15 days. Now, I intend on finishing my professional and personal missions here, and then I will return and make my fiancée into my wife and begin the rest of my life.
But, for the moment, I’m in Kabul, Afghanistan.
When I left to go on leave nearly a month ago, I was told that I would not be returning to Gardez ever again. In fact, when I left, I had to vacate my room and send all my stuff to Kabul, where I would report after getting back from leave. In Kabul, I would find out when and where I would be transferring, whether it be to Kandahar, Helmand, or Herat. And so, I left Gardez after saying goodbye to all of my Afghan friends, hoping and praying for the best for them.
Fast forward a month, and that’s where we are today. I am back from leave and have reported to Camp Phoenix in Kabul, Afghanistan. I was told that I needed to stick around for a few weeks here while some things are figured out, and that’s what I’ve been doing. In the meantime, I’ve been helping the chapel staff with their daily business, from conducting memorial ceremonies to helping with religious services. I actually detest staying at Camp Phoenix for a multitude of reasons, but for the moment, it’s where SGT Bandee and I have been re-located.
Speaking of SGT Bandee, just because he’s stuck at Camp Phoenix doesn’t mean he hasn’t been able to seek out his fair share of new adventures. And so…
“Since I’ve arrived, I’ve been able to go on missions of a different breed. Though they haven’t been as dangerous or intense as previous missions, they offered a new kind of adrenaline, and I thrive on adrenaline. The missions I’ve been on are considered Personnel Security Detail (PSD) missions, which is where you are to protect the bigwigs that are crucial to Task Force Phoenix. Essentially, the missions consist of being in an SUV, driving around the streets of Kabul while escorting precious cargo. In the mission, our car would be side-by-side with the vehicle that had our dignitaries, and whenever there was a potential threat of an Afghan car approaching our personnel, our car would speed up and cut off any access point to the personnel. Our whole mission was basically to take the hit if a vehicle-borne IED (VBIED) approached our dignitaries’ car to blow it up. In order to accomplish this, we often took up two lanes of traffic, weaving back and forth between the streets in an attempt to ward off any overly anxious Afghan drivers that wanted to pass our car and get near the vehicle we were protecting. For those drivers that didn’t get the memo, one of our passengers would flash a green laser into their car. Afghans know that means they need to back off. The laser has the power to temporarily blind humans, and in some rare circumstances, causes permanent blindness. Several times when the green light wasn’t enough to deliver the message, the driver of our vehicle hit the accelerator and nearly rammed an Afghan to send a message that they were being too aggressive of a driver. And while I’m certain that this annoys the Afghan people every now and then, they can’t understand how seriously we need to take the job to ensure the safety of whom we are to protect. In fact, there was one point where I was instructed to roll down my window and point my 9mm pistol at the driver of a vehicle that kept trying to catch up to the car in front of us; that is, the car we were protecting.
Initially, it didn’t excite me to have to do something like this. I could just imagine the situation: the car behind us was being driven by an Afghan who was late for work, and because money is so scarce in this country, this Afghan was doing everything he could to make it work on time. But every time he’d try speeding up, our car would swerve and almost force him off the road. Getting angry, the Afghan would keep trying to get past us, but eventually is met with my hand outside the window, waving a pistol at his face to let him know that he needs to seriously reconsider his efforts.
I drew my pistol and got ready to roll down my bullet-proof window, but by the time I did so, the driver backed off. The rest of the ride, I held the pistol in my hand, the tip of its barrel gently laying on the window’s automatic controls, ready to open the window so the gun could be outside the car in a moment’s notice. Though I came close to having to do this, I was fortunate enough to not have to point my gun outside the window this day.
One early morning the following week, I had a mission to climb the Ghar in Kabul, which is a mountain that towers 7,400 feet above sea level. It has 1,500+ of vertical feet. I was picked to escort some senior staff members who wanted to enjoy a climb to a rather scenic spot. Despite the fact that I had been up since 11:00pm the night before, I thought this would be a simple climb. After all, we weren’t required (or allowed) to wear any body armor like we had to on the mountain in Pirkothi. It seemed too simple… or so I thought.
We were in a group of over 15 people, one of them being our Task Force Phoenix commander, BG Huber. We drove to the mountain in the same manner that we did on the aforementioned PSD mission, and this time, I was the green laser operator. There were a few times I had to lase the car behind us, but, overall, there were no overly threatening moments.When we arrived to the base of the mountain at 5 in the morning, we wasted no time in climbing. At first, it seemed like a very straightforward climb: just keep walking upward. And truth be told, that’s all it required at first. However, the higher you got, the steeper it became (as with any mountain). But about halfway up, the “hike” turned more into a full-blown rock climbing adventure: it was no longer about finding the proper footing, but about finding ledges and cracks in the rocks that would allow you to pull yourself up just a bit higher. And every time you reached what you would think was the “top,” you’d find that there was more to go.
By 6:30, I had negotiated the entire mountain and reached its peak. I was the first of my group on top, and so I looked down at Kabul and took in the moment while the others arrived. I thought I had overcome the worst of the adventure; that is, climbing upward. I figured climbing down would be much easier. However, I was dead wrong.
I began climbing down after waiting for everyone else to reach the peak (though not everyone did get to the summit). And, just as I was the first one on top of the mountain, I was leading the way downward as well. But as I continued down, I began to realize that I wasn’t finding a path anywhere. In fact, the entire terrain I was was completely unfamiliar and didn’t look like it had been traveled very much. There was no dirt or grass, just jagged rocks that slid down the mountain whenever my feet would touch them.
I continued slipping and sliding down the mountain, unaware that there was nobody around me anymore. In fact, it was only when I looked down the mountain and couldn’t spot our vehicles that I realized I was alone. Not just “alone” in the sense that nobody was immediately around me, but that there was nobody else in sight or earshot. It was just silent. I was completely on my own. It finally dawned on me: I had gone down the wrong side of the mountain… the side that would be used for artillery practice in just over an hour.
I looked up at the sun and realized that I needed to hurry, or else it would get the best of me. The last thing that I needed was to be found unconscious on the side of a rock.
I continued down, though the route I was taking was much more painful and slower than the dirt path on the side of the mountain I was supposed to be on. Not to mention, whereas the other route offered some shade, I was right smack under the rays of the sun with the route I accidentally chose.
It wasn’t long before I started to feel dehydrated. My legs began trembling; I was exhausted from not only the lack of water and rugged terrain, but also from being up since 11pm the previous night. I had already drank a water bottle on the way up, and my second and final water bottle had only a few quarts left, and what was left was warm and unsatisfying. I decided to keep it for when I felt like I was really desperate for it.
Not long after, I pulled out the last of my water, finally desperate for just a little swig. I had about a mile left to walk, and so I hoped I wouldn’t need much more to drink, though I knew that was unlikely. As I drank, I asked God to give me the strength to get to the bottom.
I continued walking, but soon allowed myself to collapse to the ground to catch my breath. My heart was thumping, and I felt like I was slipping into a sub-conscious state that is the precursor to heat stroke. I got back up and started walking, realizing that every moment I wasted on resting was one more moment under the hot sun. I felt like just lying down and going unconscious, but refused to let that happen. Of all the things I’ve been through in this war, I wasn’t about to let a mountain be my demise. I eventually got back within sight of our parked vehicles, and estimated that I was only about a half mile away from being done.
My legs were screaming for a break, and my body was screaming for the water that was at the base. I could tell the soles of my feet were bleeding, though they didn’t feel wet. I continued walking, like a zombie, until I approached the base of the mountain. I grabbed a water bottle and went into one of the vehicles, which had air conditioning running already.”
As for the less daring SGT Geist, I have really begun to miss my “home FOB” in Gardez. And, more than anything about the east, I miss my Muslim friends. I don’t think I can explain how much I learned from them about Islam, nor the amount they learned from me about Jesus. I still recall my last night that I spent in Gardez… [insert trippy music to indicate a flashback sequence]
On that last night in the east, my Afghan friends threw a party for me in their hut as a final goodbye. When I went to the party to joke and dance and celebrate with my friends, I noticed that one of the interpreters was missing. As this would be my last opportunity to see him, I was a bit saddened and inquired of his whereabouts. It was explained to me that the Terp had traveled home to see his family. But, when he left, he took along an entire box of Dari Bibles and tried to get past all the checkpoints so he could show his family and friends what the Bible says about Jesus. However, instead of using the plan we had discussed before, he tried his own method, which was much more dangerous, yet much more effective if accomplished (because it allowed for more Bibles to be smuggled at once). NOnetheless, he safely made it past all the checkpoints and delivered the box of Bibles to his home.
So, it would seem that God certainly has been protecting my interpreters in their quest to understand Jesus. But, many of you have asked what God has done in the realm of me coming home early. Well, I’ll put it this way: I don’t know how God is going to work it, but He’ll work it. As of right now, I’m being told the same thing I have all along: don’t expect to go home early because it’s absolutely not going to happen. In fact, the other day, I sat down for lunch with a fellow chaplain assistant who began our lunchtime conversation by saying, “Well, we only have about 100 days left at this point.” But I shook my head and said, “It’ll be sooner than that.” He continued with a slight laugh, “Well, my sources say that we’re leaving in mid-September, and it’s a pretty good source… he’s the guy that is arranging all the transportation for our movement back home.” I responded with a smirk, “Yeah, but… I have some pretty good Sources myself.” And as for you, my friends, as far-fetched as it may seem, don’t doubt it: I’ll be coming home early. There will undeniably still be a war come this September, but I certainly won’t be a part of it. God is moving, even when we can’t see it.
You know, I hear that “freedom isn’t free.” It makes me wonder, what makes a cliché a cliché? Just a month ago, I was freely driving on the paved roads in America, feeling the breeze glide across my face. I remember driving around one specific night and thinking to myself, “Wow, this feels great.” But then I couldn’t help but think: How did I get this feeling? What made it possible for me to feel a moment as free as this? Did I earn it? The roads I drive on in America were paved by the efforts of my ancestors. I didn’t earn these roads of freedom. They did. I’m simply taking advantage of what the heroes of the past earned. And, that’s when it dawns on me, the inescapable and trite truth that I’m always so eager to overlook: freedom isn’t free.
Being in Afghanistan, the phrase doesn’t seem as much a cliché. After seeing and feeling firsthand the sacrifices that are made in order to make that single sentence so overused, I can’t help but value it, even if it’s a cliché. Ask anybody who has felt the shock of war if the phrase is just a cheesy cliché. Ask the family of 1LT Southworth, my friend who fell this past February. Or ask the widow of SSG Josh Melton; she’s the wife of a soldier who was killed last Friday that also belonged to my home unit in Illinois. Or ask any soldier from my unit, HHC 2-130th Infantry Battalion out of Marion, Illinois, who had to process the news that we lost yet another one of our own. Or ask me, the chaplain assistant who approached his fellow soldiers from that same unit and had to break the news to them. When I found out about SSG Melton’s death, my first instinct was to inform my buddies, and so that’s what I did. I remember notifying my administrative officer. He had been unaware of the situation, and so I found him in his bunk and broke the news, saying, “It’s Melton. He’s dead.” He looked at me blankly, trying to process what I had just told him. By the time he finally took it in, I could see he was fighting back tears. I wanted to comfort him, but what could I do? I was struggling to fight back my own tears. Besides, isn’t that what’s supposed to happen in war? Leaving your home, hoping none of your team is going to die, secretly knowing that some of them will, praying that it won’t be you, eventually finding out who it is that does die, pretending that it doesn’t bring you to tears, finally accepting that it’s okay to cry, and thereafter carrying on your buddy’s legacy: that’s the soldier’s cycle. It’s inescapable, it’s tragic, and it’s reality. And that’s just that.