“There is no frontier between being and appearing.” ~ Albert Camus, from “The Myth of Sisyphus”
Tuesday late. No idea what the weather is outside . . .
Dentist appointment today. The kind of appointment that leaves half of your mouth numb, thereby ensuring that you will dribble liquids down the side of your face for all the world to see . . . Anyway, thought I’d share something with you that showed up on my tumblr dash a few days ago:
Peter Chinn, producer of National Geographic’s “In The Womb: Extreme Animals” series, makes incredible use of 3D ultrasound scans, computer graphics, and nano cameras to create breathtaking images of unborn animals. Click here to see more.
“The feeling of awed wonder that science can give us is one of the highest experiences of which the human psyche is capable. It is a deep aesthetic passion to rank with the finest that music and poetry can deliver. It is truly one of the things that make life worth living”
~ Richard Dawkins, from Unweaving the Rainbow: Science, Delusion and the Appetite for Wonder
Out in front of America’s troops, combat canines and their handlers lead the way onto the most dangerous battlefields on Earth.
By Michael Paterniti
Photograph by Adam Ferguson
Here is Marine Corporal Jose Armenta in his tent on the night before getting blown up in Afghanistan. He jokes with Mulrooney and Berry and the medic the guys have nicknamed “Christ.” He feeds and waters his dog, Zenit, a sable-coat German shepherd. He lets Buyes, who will be dead in three months, ruffle Zenit’s fur, for the radioman is crazy about the dog.
Then he takes Zenit outside in the waning light of this dusty, desert otherworld to train.
They’re happiest like this. Jose has Zenit sit, which the dog does obediently, and then Jose jogs 50 yards down and hides a rubber toy, a Kong, up against a mud wall, covering it with dirt. On Jose’s command, Zenit bursts forward, zigging in search of it, tail wagging. It’s an intricate dance. Voice commands met by precise canine action, always with the same end goal in mind—to find the toy. Tomorrow, on patrol, the objective will be finding not a toy but an improvised explosive device, or IED, one of the Taliban’s most brutally effective weapons against American troops here in what many consider the most dangerous province in one of the world’s most dangerous countries. And no dog can find every bomb every time.
For the past three months Jose’s been stationed at Patrol Base Alcatraz, at the edge of a town called Sangin in Helmand Province, without a “find.” Despite his optimism—the man always beams a disarming smile—the lack of finds is beginning to wear on him almost as much as the 100-degree heat, which feels even hotter rucking 75 pounds of gear.
As a Marine dog handler, Jose is a perpetual outsider, assigned to platoons that have been together for years, tight-knit combat brotherhoods that regard newcomers, especially dog handlers, with a high degree of circumspection. His job is to accompany that platoon, to clear a path through hostile territory for his fellow marines. But as thankful as they may be, Jose knows it’s natural for them to wonder: Is this guy any good? Will he fit in? How will he respond in that first firefight?
At this moment in August of 2011 the stated mission in Sangin is to secure the 320-foot-high Kajaki Dam, to keep the Taliban from blowing it up and flooding the Helmand Valley. The marines of Third Recon, in groups of a dozen or so, take turns disrupting the enemy, mapping active pockets of Taliban fighters. Jose and Zenit are asked to accompany practically every mission. Each time he and Zenit go out beyond the wire, they’re walking point along with a marine carrying a metal detector, making themselves the first targets as Zenit scours the area for any whiff of nitrate that might signal a buried IED. As exhausting as it is, Jose always says yes.
Maybe there’s a little chip on Jose’s shoulder, or maybe he feels there’s a lot to prove—to himself, to the marines of Third Recon, and to his family back home. Maybe he’s just doing his job, or maybe he needs just one find to allay whatever doubts he harbors about his—and Zenit’s—ability to do the job. In this place especially, the threat is palpable. Sangin is littered with IEDs and teeming with enemy fighters tucked behind thick mud walls. It’s where British forces, before pulling out of Sangin altogether in 2010, lost more than a hundred troops. It’s been a graveyard since for many Americans, and a place where numerous U.S. troops have received disfiguring injuries.
This is what a dog handler tries not to dwell on: the risk associated with the need to find bombs and with the possibility of missing one. On base you sometimes hear them go off in the distance, set off by a goat, an unsuspecting villager. Sometimes frantic locals will rush a bleeding kid up to Alcatraz for medical help. And the recent news about two fellow dog handlers, Jeremy and Jasco, in his deployment, has been bad. Both were blown up and lost their legs. Jose is clear about this: He’d rather die than lose a limb or some vital body part. He’d rather get waxed than be half a person. What you do to take your mind off the fear is just what Jose does now, as he has done for the past two years: You train your dog, do your job, leave the rest to fate.
The next morning, August 28, Third Recon knows that the Taliban have been busy. Alcatraz sits on a rise out in the cornfields, not far from a wadi, and intel has it that IEDs have been planted everywhere. “We knew someone was going to get hit on that mission,” Sgt. Ryan Mulrooney will say later. “Every day something was getting blown up. We knew going in there that it was a pretty risky movement.”
So for the first time since deploying to Afghanistan, Jose puts on his “blast briefs,” underwear made of Kevlar material to limit genital injuries, and he mounts his helmet cam hoping to document his first find. Then he puts an IV in Zenit to keep him hydrated in the heat.
The team moves out at 10 a.m. in ranger file, and Jose guesses it’s already 120 degrees. The marines work down the hill slowly, and when they hit the 611 highway, Jose feels a surge of adrenaline. His mouth goes cottony as he commands Zenit, orchestrating the dog’s every movement. The team veers through the corn to avoid the road, until they hit the wadi that runs parallel to the highway, eight feet deep and ten feet wide, empty of water.
Jose guides Zenit from bank to bank. Mulrooney, working the metal detector, calls out, “I think I got one here.” Jose approaches, looks at the humped, loose dirt with a wire showing, fixes Mulrooney with a smile, and says, “Yup.” The team leader is notified. Jose moves on, spies another device, and calls it out. Sensing a pattern, he sends Zenit to the far side of the wadi, where the dog freezes, tail wagging, nose suddenly working overtime. The change in behavior marks the spot. After nearly a hundred days out here, it’s their first IED as a team.
In his mind Jose throws an invisible high five and lets out a silent whoop. Trainers say, “Emotion runs through the leash.” Jose knows he needs to remain calm, to keep Zenit focused, but how can he not be excited? The team leader is notified again. Jose and Zenit continue down the wadi in the deathly heat. The sun blisters down on the men in formation slow-walking in each other’s footsteps, using shaving cream to mark safe spots. Just like that, three in a row. The riverbed is full of explosives—but where’s the next? With that question, Jose’s elation gives under the weight of duty. He and Zenit are the ones responsible for finding out.
Here. My spirit is here. My body needs to be here.
“Kindred headlands called The Three Sisters look to sea near Smerwick on the Dingle Peninsula. For the ambitious, country lanes lead past sheep paddocks to cities already bursting with job seekers.”—From “Ireland On Fast-Forward,” September 1994, National Geographic magazine
Photograph by Sam Abell
From a Country Overlooked
There are no creatures you cannot love.
A frog calling at God
From the moon-filled ditch
As you stand on the country road in the June night.
The sound is enough to make the stars weep
In the morning the landscape green
Is lifted off the ground by the scent of grass.
The day is carried across its hours
Without any effort by the shining insects
That are living their secret lives.
The space between the prairie horizons
Makes us ache with its beauty.
Cottonwood leaves click in an ancient tongue
To the farthest cold dark in the universe.
The cottonwood also talks to you
Of breeze and speckled sunlight.
You are at home in these
great empty places
along with red-wing blackbirds and sloughs.
You are comfortable in this spot
so full of grace and being
that it sparkles like jewels
spilled on water.
~ Tom Hennen
All images found on the National Geographic site.
Music by Martina McBride and The Chieftains, “I’ll Be All Smiles Tonight”
Another video, this one of the country itself: Ireland: Flying through the country, by Liam Ó Brádaigh
Abandoned Cottages in the Woods Overtaken by Animals
In a series titled Once Upon a Home, photographer Kai Fagerström captured the new residents of abandoned cottages in the woods. After residents had passed away or relocated, a group of feral animals took over the spaces. In a story published for National Geographic, Fagerström captured the “wild squatters” in a handful of derelict dwellings near his family’s summer home in rural Suomusjärvi, Finland.
“One comes to bless the absolute bareness, feeling that here is a pure beauty of form, a kind of ultimate harmony.” ~ George Mallory, from a letter to his wife Ruth during the 1921 Everest Reconnaissance Expedition
George Mallory . . . the only person to take part in all three British Everest trips of the 1920s, it was the opportunity of a lifetime. Since returning from the Great War he had become increasingly frustrated by the petty restrictions of a schoolmaster’s life and had resigned to join the expedition, with little thought of what he would do afterwards. He wrote prodigiously—to use one of his own favourite words—of his discoveries to his family and friends, revealing far more of his feelings than in his official expedition bulletins. Most of the following extracts are from letters to his wife Ruth.
28 July, to Kharta
I have been half the time in ecstasy. My first thought on coming down was that the world was green again. A month had made all the difference to the appearance of the hillsides. As we have come down lower, and nearer to the Arun valley, the appearance of greenness has steadily increased. We have crossed two passes on the way, and we have slept near two clear bubbling streams; and all that we have seen of snow mountains has been of interest, but none of that counts with me. To see things grow again as though they liked growing, enjoying rain and sun – that has been the real joy.
I collected in a beautiful ramble a lovely bunch of wild flowers. The commonest were a pink geranium and a yellow potentilla and a little flower that looked for all the world like a violet but turned out from its leaf to be something quite different; and there was grass of Parnassus, which I really love, and in places a carpet of a little button flower, a brilliant pink, which I think must belong to the garlic tribe. But most of all I was delighted to find kingcups, a delicate variety rather smaller than ours at home, but somehow especially reminding me of you – you wrote of wading deeply through them in the first letter I had from you in Rome.
Wonder of wonders! We had indication that the weather intended to change. We woke and found the sky clear and remaining clear, no dense white clouds drifting up the valley, but a chill wind driving high clouds from the north. I had a good walk yesterday with Morshead and Bullock and I started at 2 am to ascend a snow peak on the boundary ridge between this valley and the next one to the south. We had a glorious view, unimaginably splendid – Kangchenjunga and all the higher mountains to the East were standing up over a sea of fleecy cloud: Makalu straight opposite across the valley was gigantic, and Everest at the head of the valley – very fine too. But the snow was in bad condition and it’s not melting as it should; above 20,000 feet or so it was powdery under a thin crust and it was impossible to get along without snow shoes, and if it doesn’t melt properly on the glacier we might as well pack up our traps at once. In addition to this cause of despair, Morshead was going badly and I must admit to feeling the height a good deal. I’m clearly far from being as fit as I ought to be. It’s very distressing, my dear, just at this moment and altogether my hopes are at zero.
Pour out your pity, dearest, pull it up from your deep wells – and be pleased to hear that I read myself agreeably to sleep, and slept, slept bountifully, deeply, sweetly from 9 pm to 6 am and woke to see the roof of my tent bulging ominously inwards and a white world outside. It was easy enough to make out that conditions for climbing were entirely hopeless. Every visible mountain face was hung with snow, incredibly more so often than we last were there three weeks ago. The glacier presented an even surface of soft snow and everything confirmed what everybody had previously said – that it was useless to attempt carrying loads up to our col until we had a spell of real fair weather.
I ordered the whole party to pack up and go down. We were still pulling down tents and covering stores when the clouds came up with a rush and the sizzle of hard-driving snow was about us again. We sped down the hillside, facing wind and snow, down the long valley, dancing over the stones half-snow-covered and leaping the grey waters of many streams, and so at length to the humpy grass in the flat hollow where the big tents are pitched …
Just now we are all just drifting as the clouds drift, forgetting to number the days so as to avoid painful thoughts of the hurrying month. For my part I’m happy enough; the month is too late already for the great venture; we shall have to face great cold, I’ve no doubt; and the longer the delay, the colder it will be. But the fine weather will come at last. My chance, the chance of a lifetime, I suppose, will be sadly shrunk by then; and all my hopes and plans for seeing something of India on the way back will be blown to wherever the monsoon blows. I would willingly spend a few weeks longer here, if only for the sake of seeing Everest and Makalu and the excitement of new points of view. I would like to undertake a few other ascents, less ambitious but perhaps more delightful. And it will be a loss not to see again that strangely beautiful valley over the hills, and the green meadows dominated by the two greatest mountains.
Of the pull the other way I needn’t tell you. If I picture the blue Mediterranean and the crisp foam hurrying by as the ship speeds on to Marseilles or Gibraltar where I shall expect to see you smiling in the sunshine on the quayside – my dear one, when such pictures fill my mind, as often enough they do, I’m drawn clean out of this tent into a world not only more lovely, more beautifully lit, but signifying something.
My dearest Ruth,
This is a mere line at the earliest moment, in the midst of packing and arrangements to tell you that all is well. It is a disappointment that the end should seem so much tamer than I hoped. But it wasn’t tame in reality; it was no joke getting to the North Col. I doubt if any big mountain venture has ever been made with a smaller margin of strength. I carried the whole party on my shoulders to the end, and we were turned back by a wind in which no man could live an hour. As it is we have established the way to the summit for anyone who cares to try the highest adventure.
Music by Rod Stewart, “I’ll be seeing you”
For a compelling look at British explorer George Mallory, this Daily Mail article takes a look at why this WWI veteran risked his life again and again.
Coffee and cigarettes in a clean cafe,
forsythia lit like a damp match against
a thundery sky drunk on its own ozone,
the laundry cool and crisp and folded away
again in the lavender closet-too late to find
comfort enough in such small daily moments
of beauty, renewal, calm, too late to imagine
people would rather be happy than suffering
and inflicting suffering. We’re near the end,
but O before the end, as the sparrows wing
each night to their secret nests in the elm’s green dome
O let the last bus bring
love to lover, let the starveling
dog turn the corner and lope suddenly
miraculously, down its own street, home.
“why do you live in your body like you will be given another? as if it were temporary. you starve it, you let anyone touch it, you berate it. tell it that should be completely different. you tug at your soft flesh, wish it thinner, wish it gone. you fall in love with those who praise the way it sighs under their hands, but who praises the way it holds up your weight, even when you are falling apart?” ~ Warsan Shire, “Praise the Soft Belly”
Tuesday evening. Cloudy, high 50’s.
I woke up saying this sentence: “Tyler, I want a tin of bears and Oreos.” Don’t ask me what it means because I have no idea, but I was actually singing it as opposed to just saying it. I have such a very strange dream life.
Olivia, who is over today, is currently napping. I expect her to wake up any minute now, especially because I just sat down to write. I kept postponing, thinking that she would wake up, until finally I decided to hell with it. I’ll just start writing and see what happens.
I called my mom to let her know that Olivia was over here, and she came over for a visit. As my mother was holding Olivia, she was remarking on how fat she is (she isn’t). I won’t even delve into how upset that made me, but I just kept my mouth shut. Olivia is too young for the words to stick, but as I said to Corey after my mom left, is it any wonder I am the way that I am. Corey’s response was that she starts young.
“There is a theory of crying that tears are the body’s way of releasing excess elements from the brain. There is a theory of dreaming that each one serves to mend something torn, like cells of new skin lining up to cover a hole.” ~ Lisa Olstein, from “That Magnificent Part the Chorus Does about Tragedy”
So I finally finished the taxes and Brett’s FAFSA, at least for now. I still need to do Eamonn’s taxes, but those will be a piece of cake after what I just went through. I had to do an amended return for Eamonn because last year I somehow claimed him as a dependent on our return (legitimate as he was still in school full time), but when I did his return I forgot and gave him one exemption. The IRS sent him a letter saying that he needed to do an amended return. I have to say the 1040x is a stupid, overly complicated form, and I went through all of these steps to get the same amount that I had pretty much calculated in my head.
And that interminable wait to speak to an IRS person? She told me that she didn’t know a lot about the 1040x, but it sounded like I had it right. Then she offered to transfer me to someone who was an expert in that form, at which point I was told that the wait would be at least 15 minutes, this after being on the phone for 59 minutes, 54 of those on hold.
No thank you.
“Word by word, the language of women so often begins with a whisper.” ~ Terry Tempest Williams, from When Women Were Birds: Fifty-four Variations on Voice
Thursday evening. Cloudy and cold, 47 degrees.
By the time Olivia left on Tuesday, I had run out of things to say, so I never got back to this post. Yesterday, I was bedridden, nauseous, dizzy and weak. Too tired to read, even, better last night, but Corey and I stayed up until 5 a.m. watching season 2 of “Walking Dead.” It’s a highly addictive show, and we’re trying to finish season 2 and the beginning of season 3 before he is scheduled to ship out on February 16.
We’re in countdown mode again. He decided to sign on for half a hitch (45 days) since none of the companies in which he is interested have openings at the moment. Perhaps something will become available once he finishes this hitch. Neither of us are terribly excited about him going back, but we want to make sure we don’t get caught up in a domino effect again with our bills, and this is the best way to ensure that does not happen.
I think that I was in denial about it, telling him that I was fine with him going, and then I realized that I wasn’t fine, but there really isn’t anything that can be done. I just have to try to keep things together for six weeks or so. I think I can do that, should be able to do that, don’t know if I can do that . . .
“Into what waters do we fall when we leave, if time does not exist? What is the depth of heaven?” ~ Manuel Ulacia, from “The Stone at the Bottom”
Corey has spent the last five days cleaning fish. During his last trip he caught lots of fish, red snapper and other kinds with which I am unfamiliar. They were all frozen whole in garbage bags. So he finally decided to clean and fillet them. We had fresh fish twice in the last week. Not complaining. Everyone in the family loves fish. My dad used to cook fish all of the time, fried, baked, however, but he did not often fillet it, which meant fish bones. If there is a bone, I will find it.
I am reminded of something funny that my father used to do. If anyone was choking on a fish bone, he would pat their head in a circular motion. Apparently it’s some kind of Filipino wives’ tale: patting the head clears the fish bone. I can attest that it does not work. Actually, now that I think of it, I think he was pulling my leg . . .
So during this massive cleaning Corey has taught Brett how to clean fish, something he’s been wanting to learn. Eamonn, who knows how already, decided that he did not want to participate in the cleaning. Go figure.
Anyway, now that we’re in countdown mode, it seems that Corey is trying to get all kinds of things done before next week. We’re going to try to go to the movies one more time before he leaves. I had wanted to see Anna Karenina, with Keira Knightly, but I don’t think that it came to any theaters in this area, and if it did, it’s long gone. I think we’re going to see Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters, perhaps this weekend.
“Why am I afraid, I who am not afraid? Why must I pretend to scorn in order to pity? Why must I hide myself in self-contempt in order to understand? Why must I be so ashamed of my strength, so proud of my weakness?” ~ Eugene O’Neill from The Great God Brown
I’m very worried about Brett. He is unhappy with one of his classes and seems set on not going. I was really hoping that this semester would be a break for him, only classes he likes, 12 easy credits.
He’s distressed because he had originally signed up for a film class and then at the last minute changed it to a short story class. Now he hates the short story class and wishes that he were in the film class, especially because a friend of his is telling him what a great class it is.
Signing up for classes is often a crap shoot. If you don’t know someone who has taken the class or someone who knows the professor, you don’t know what you’re getting. I had more than my share of crap classes, but there’s really nothing you can do about it once you’re past that drop/add deadline, which he is.
What is worrying me is how focused he is on his perceived mistake. I know that I dwell, but he is completely fixated, to the point of obsessing over what could have been. I so wish that none of my children had inherited the family propensity for depression, but alas, was not to be. All of them, to one degree or another, suffer. But I’ve been doing this dance with Brett since high school, and at times, I feel so utterly helpless and useless that I just want to put my fist through a wall.
“So, now I shall talk every night. To myself. To the moon. I shall walk, as I did tonight, jealous of my loneliness, in the blue-silver of the cold moon, shining brilliantly on the drifts of fresh-fallen snow, with the myriad sparkles. I talk to myself and look at the dark trees, blessedly neutral. So much easier than facing people, than having to look happy, invulnerable, clever. With masks down, I walk, talking to the moon, to the neutral impersonal force that does not hear, but merely accepting my being. And does not smite me down.” ~ Sylvia Plath, from “Cambridge Notes”
How does the depressed aid the depressed? How does one who is herself in a free fall pause long enough to prop up one for whom she feels completely responsible?
Depression goes hand-in-hand with low self-esteem. One causes the other, and it is hard to say which is the precursor and which is the result. My youngest son suffers terribly from a sense that he is not good enough, that he cannot get it right, whatever it may be. And because I carry around enough guilt for a monastery full of self-flagellating monks, I fear that I have caused him to feel less than worthy somehow.
Depression and low self-esteem are a sharp knife, and the cuts may be invisible, but they are still there, and I hate that I know about the cuts but can do nothing to help them heal.
I am distressed that he has taken a dislike to this class so soon in the semester, and I don’t want him to take any action that may hurt his overall GPA. Yet at the same time I want him to do what will best help him as regards his mental state. I fear that the planned trip to New Zealand will not come soon enough, and I fear that it will come and he will go and not come back.
Why is life always so damned hard, even when it isn’t?
More later. Peace.
(All images from National Geographic Sense of Place are of local fishermen in Myanmar (Burma): The fish population in Inle Lake has dwindled as a result of overfishing, environmental waste, and invasive non-native species, and fishermen such as those in the pictures above are turning away from their trades, sustaining themselves instead by demonstrating traditional fishing methods to tourists. Local fishermen use tall nets to trap fish and then use spears to catch them. They are known for practicing a distinctive rowing style that involves standing at the stern on one leg and wrapping the other leg around the oar. The reeds and floating plants covering the lake make it difficult to see above them while sitting. Standing provides the rower with a view beyond the reeds and frees their hands for fishing. However, the leg rowing style is only practiced by the men. wikipedia)
Music by Tindersticks, “Sweet Memory”
Admonitions to a Special Person
Watch out for power,
for its avalanche can bury you,
snow, snow, snow, smothering your mountain.
Watch out for hate,
it can open its mouth and you’ll fling yourself out
to eat off your leg, an instant leper.
Watch out for friends,
because when you betray them,
as you will,
they will bury their heads in the toilet
and flush themselves away.
Watch out for intellect,
because it knows so much it knows nothing
and leaves you hanging upside down,
mouthing knowledge as your heart
falls out of your mouth.
Watch out for games, the actor’s part,
the speech planned, known, given,
for they will give you away
and you will stand like a naked little boy,
pissing on your own child-bed.
Watch out for love
(unless it is true,
and every part of you says yes including the toes),
it will wrap you up like a mummy,
and your scream won’t be heard
and none of your running will end.
Love? Be it man. Be it woman.
It must be a wave you want to glide in on,
give your body to it, give your laugh to it,
give, when the gravelly sand takes you,
your tears to the land. To love another is something
like prayer and can’t be planned, you just fall
into its arms because your belief undoes your disbelief.
if I were you I’d pay no attention
to admonitions from me,
made somewhat out of your words
and somewhat out of mine.
I do not believe a word I have said,
except some, except I think of you like a young tree
with pasted-on leaves and know you’ll root
and the real green thing will come.
Let go. Let go.
Oh special person,
this typewriter likes you on the way to them,
but wants to break crystal glasses
when the dark crust is thrown off
and you float all around
like a happened balloon.