Isolation

This is the last of a three post series on friendship. While not the end of my writing on this subject, this marks the conclusion of what I’ve built up in my previous two posts. Today we strike the hot flames of comradeship into cold steel of isolation and doubt. Exposing myself emotionally is not easy. I have a large T&T on hand for an assist, but there’s no way around how terrified I am as I write.

To write this I need to dive into some darker places that I’ve work hard to crawl out of. Introspection is healthy – that doesn’t change the fact that it’s uncomfortable to do, much less share in such a way. I am encouraged by the fact that my last post seemed to be my most well received. So maybe you all really are interested in this.

OK, no more stalling. Here we go.

June 2011, I begin terminal leave and we move to western New York. Intending to settle down near Buffalo we are flush with confidence. We know that there will be an opportunity for me. We know that while it’s not a cake walk we will be able to find a suitable life and be near family and friends. We just know that everything is looking up.

Weeks go by with no job, barely any interviews. We are in a bind because our household goods will only be held for 90 days. Living with my parents for a short period while we get working and find a home stretches longer than we expected. The first chip. Pressing up close to that 90 day mark and still without work our best option seemed to be to rent the house next-door to my parents. I begin living out ‘Everyone Loves Raymond’.

Could be worse though. I had no idea just how much.

Living in the same town I grew up in again. The same town I worked so hard to get out of. The same town I hated with every fiber of my being by the time I was 18. Another chip.

There are lots of relatives nearby and even some people I went to high school with that I got along with are still around. I never see them though. Everyone is busy with their own lives. When we do get out I feel alone. There are only a few bars in town, and not much else to do besides work on liver cancer. Occasionally I’ll see someone to shoot the shit with but it always ends in frustration. I really don’t have many good things to talk about. Just another one of the failures in town struggling to get by.

Drinking at home or at the bar feels about the same. Just one is easier on the wallet. Either way I’m trapped in my head. Obsessing over all the things going wrong. Anxiety builds over homework, my dickhead bosses at the bank, the pointlessness of my work, the feelings of going nowhere but deeper in debt.

And all of my friends are several states away. Anyone I would really want to spend time with. Anyone who could really help me pull myself together is so far away.

Deeper and deeper down that rabbit hole. Chip after chip after chip to my pride. Confidence gone, I’m wracked in self doubt over every decision I’ve made. Some great leader you turned out to be. Just another schmuck who couldn’t hack it as a civilian.

And now nobody wants anything to do with you.

One night in that first year out I had a complete break down. Stress overcame me. My body shook from frayed nerves and I began to bawl. I had to bury my head in a pillow as I screamed as loud as I could. Everything was just too much. I had completely failed and ruined not just my life but my wife’s too. It was the sobbing of a man completely broken. After this passed and I went back downstairs I found my brother had stopped over. We awkwardly ignored my breakdown but later that night I got a phone call from my  mom asking if I was alright. Awesome.

That first year sucked. But at the end of it we bought our first house, the house on the OTHER side of my parents. It seemed to make sense as it cost less to own than to rent and our lease was ending anyway. The house looked a bit trashed from a couple years of not enough maintenance, but nothing worse than cosmetic. Wrong again. Within a couple months of moving in the insurance company notified us that a new roof was required within 30 days or we would be dropped. Our savings had already been drained and we had no way of doing this.

Luckily I was able to convince the insurance company that putting a new roof on a house in NY in November was a bad idea and got an extension on our deadline. That emergency abated, others kept following. Detailing them here would be mundane, so let’s just say something similar to the roof fiasco seemed to happen about every few months for the next few years. Pro tip: never buy a house built in the 19th Century.

The point is that these stressors kept building up. One hole in the ship got patched and two more sprung. These things added on to my social isolation. I couldn’t connect with anyone in town. I had a few friends at work, but they all lived an hour away from me so I didn’t see them outside of the office and never really got too close. School was like being on an educational assembly line. Nobody was there to make friends and I certainly didn’t find much common ground with anyone.

That’s not true. In the final few weeks I found that most people shared my hatred for a classmate who was the son of a local real estate ‘magnate’ (dude, it’s Buffalo). In the last few weeks there was an opportunity to catch a drink with some classmates (during lunch) and I wish it had happened earlier.

Floating through life. Anxiety dialed up to 11. Pulling financial gymnastics to stay afloat. Grad school being an all or nothing, cannot fail endeavor – which was great when I did fail Management Science and had to retake it.

All of this compounded and distracted me from just how badly my social isolation was harming me.

Years went by and I only became more isolated and distant. I became an awful person to be around, which again compounded the isolation. I hated everyone. I resented the world for abandoning me. I was humiliated for falling so far from the prestige and financial security of being an Army officer.

At the core of it all though I was just afraid. I was afraid that I peaked at 23, that everything was bound to be worse for the rest of my life. That I wasn’t living up to my own standards and never really was anything of consequence. Nobody seemed to care about what I had done in the Army, nor were they impressed. I vacillated between hating everyone else and hating myself. Life became pointless, just something to tolerate until death’s merciful release. Why wouldn’t it just hurry up already?

I was in deep. Angry at the world and ready to lash out at anyone. Sometimes I did. And I hated myself more and more for it. For being weak, for lacking resilience, for not being the man I used to be.

This is where the therapy became necessary. I hadn’t really grasped what was going on, but I recognized there was a real problem, even if I couldn’t see its depths.

I had lost my tribe. I had no sense of community or belonging. My strongest identifiers were in my past, never to be again. Slowly I began to understand this all. Reading Tribe by Sebastian Junger opened my eyes a good deal.

(Oh that was a big swig of gin)

Lacking my tribe I was a listless person. The problem is, I’m not into hanging out at the Legion and talking about how great all us heroes are. I tried getting involved with my local American Legion right after moving back. It was a total crash and burn.

Being able to identify the problem was a major breakthrough for me though. Slowly things started to dawn on ol’ Mongo and over the span of a couple years I found my way to Stoicism.

I’d like to tell you “And that’s where my life completely changed!” That would be a lie. Major change in mentality, sure. Stoic teachings have helped me to reframe my problems, but it’s still a gradual process of making real changes. And I still have some lingering issues dealing with isolation. I’ve made some friends in the past couple years. Even went to a Bills game socially….. in mid-December! I also reconnected with friends that I had not seen for years. All these things happened in the last three months, just to give some frame of reference.

(More gin was needed at this point)

Really, I just nicked the surface of these struggles (it’s a blog post not a full chapter). Anger and alcohol abuse left me incapable of recognizing myself. I lost my way. With help I started clawing back. Integrating Stoic teaching and practices have helped me continue making progress. In 2017 I began reading and learning. In 2018 I’ve begun more actively journaling (including this blog), making time for morning meditations and evening reflections, putting more structure to my days and holding myself accountable.

That still leaves me with no more friends or social connection. But now I am focused on what I can control and maintaining right action rather than feeling like a victim and resenting the human race. In my control – staying more connected with the people who are important to me. Disconnecting from trivial things like social media. Taking time to write. Recognizing the beauty around me and how fortunate I am to live where I live. My hometown may not have much, but we live 500 meters from Lake Erie. The sunsets are amazing, and I can take my dogs to the beach whenever I want.

Finding every single joy in life, everything to be grateful for, is what maintains me now. It’s a battle of light and dark. As much as I’d love to Force Choke mofos every single day it’s so much better focusing on the light.

I’m a work in progress (there’s always WIP). It’s been a much better ride lately. I’m grateful you’re reading this and for anyone who has taken part or will take part in this literary adventure.

Until we meet again.

Chingu, Habibi, Friend

After a brief holiday break it’s nice to be back with you. Hope you had a great time whatever you celebrated. My wife and I took off for Nashville for the NYE Jimmy Buffett show. Absolutely fabulous time with a couple of highlights that I wanted to share here. One was getting accosted by religious zealots outside of the Bridgestone Arena, the other was getting to see two friends that I hadn’t seen in over 10 years. Before I dive into today’s story I just want to take a moment to express my gratitude to my wife for dealing with my insistence to drive from WNY to Nashville in one day (then go out to see The Dead Deads at the Lipstick Lounge that night) and for her graciousness in meeting my friends whom she did not know.

This was my first time being the subject of someone’s religious protest, so chalk that one up for the record books. I had always seen some ‘End-of-days’ types with their John 3:16 signs at Bills games, but they were friendly. These folks outside of the Buffett show were the real ‘fire and brimstone’ types, vacillating between warnings of going to Hell for our sins and then condescending mockery of how the concert-goers were stupid, immature, and acting like teenagers (because teenagers are all evil of course). It was truly a sight to behold in the single digit temperatures. Add to that a security back-up that had 300 foot long lines taking an hour to get inside and the folks in line were getting agitated.

Now, people can pretty much say what they want to me and I can brush it off. I just shook my head at how these Christians were acting like anything but, and the irony of someone standing in the cold to shout a message nobody cared about which included telling the Parrotheads that they were wasting their lives was a bit much. Almost past the group of Westboro Baptist Church wannabes I was stuck with one of them in front of me, blocking my free movement just enough for me to let an elbow jut out, meeting the pudgy proselytizer in the ribcage. While this gave a measure of quick satisfaction I immediately cursed myself for giving in to the easy temptation. For the record, I was not intoxicated, this was a clear-headed choice. I knew by jabbing my elbow in his ribs that this guy would feel vindicated and righteous. Still, he was blocking the free movement of people peaceably assembling. I stood there wondering which was the greater Constitutional infringement, my elbowing a protester exercising his religious freedom (misguided as it was) or this man’s infringement upon the right of people’s freedom of movement and right to enjoy themselves at a concert? I did know that my reaction was anything but Stoic. Certainly I was not being materially wronged or harmed and should have simply ignored these zealots and continued on my way.

So this was an opportunity to practice some Stoic self control and I failed. Reflecting on this though, I realize that a short time ago I may have been much quicker to throw that ‘bow, or to go even further. That makes me sad and also gives me some satisfaction that sticking with regular therapy sessions and devoting myself to Stoicism has been helping. While I could brood on my failings in controlling my emotions and taking right action I know that the proper thing to do now is to recognize and accept my failing, learn from it, and do better next time. This is important not just for the sake of being a good human, but also to be a credible voice. It’s one thing to sit here writing a lot of lovely things, but if I fail to live up to these words and then fail to change my ways I am nothing but a hypocrite. We all fail, getting back up and doing better, rather than maintaining the status quo, is what separates people. I will do better.

Now, the other topic I want to delve into is a bit of a set up. Journaling at the hotel room in Columbus, OH it became clear that I have only a partial thought. Still, discussing meeting up with old friends has something important to it, and rather than waiting for the thought to mature before writing about it I want to share some thoughts with y’all and let the writing develop the thought.

One thing people often point out as a uniqueness of the military, or at the least one of the benefits of the military, is the strong sense of camaraderie. This is something that I have had a hard time with, but after years of thought I believe my cynicism may have been the result of unfair expectations. I often felt let down by the Army and lied to. In hindsight this was probably as much my own fault as the Army’s. My lack of controlling my emotion added to the feeling and a negative feedback loop of jadedness followed. I never belonged to a unit where it felt like everyone (or even most people) got along. I was never in a unit where people would spend their weekends with the same clowns they spent their duty days with. Korea was an exception, but even there the unit I was in lacked compared to other units on Camp Casey.

The expected camaraderie just didn’t exist. This was difficult to accept, but some years later I think I’ve finally realized what that unique camaraderie really meant. While units were not filled with friends, I left every unit with a couple of really close friends. These were people who did become family to me, people who I would still rush to help at the drop of a hat. Having spent six years in different civilian jobs now, I can say that I’ve never met a friend at any of those jobs who I felt an equally strong bond with. Now, that’s not to say I think everyone I’ve met at my civilian jobs is a schmuck, I’ve met some people that I really like and hang out with from time to time. I wouldn’t drive 1,000 miles to see them or go out of my way on a road trip just to have a meal with them though. And there’s the rub. That camaraderie I wanted so badly did exist, and I couldn’t see it until it was gone.

On our recent trip my friend Remington Vandergriff drove to Nashville from Clarksville to have dinner with us. We spent a few hours sharing drinks, food, and good stories. We got to catch up face to face for the first time since June 2008. We text and call each other frequently, but it still struck us that it had been so many years between hugs. That being said, we picked up right where we left off. We had lived and worked together at the ADA OBC and then in Korea. We travelled to Guam and all over Seoul and Busan together. We had some really great nights out in El Paso. We’ve saved each other from dangerous situations more than once.

Driving back to NY we decided to split the drive over two days. This allowed time to stop on New Year’s Day to visit another friend, Zach Morgan. I met Zach at LDAC in the summer of 2005 and hadn’t seen him since. Again, Zach is a friend I am in fairly frequent communication with. He’s also one of the friends who partnered with me on the Band of Bards project that I wrote about earlier. Our mutual affinity for history and common world view made us fast friends. Driving some backroads just northeast of Louisville, I commented that we could’ve been anywhere in WNY by the looks of things. As big as America is its continuity is a marvel. We arrived at Zach’s home in time for gumbo, sharing dinner with Zach, his wife (who I’d never met), their children, and two of their friends. We were welcomed like family, conversation striking up as if we met for dinner every week. Sadly, it was a sort of dine and dash as we only had a couple hours to spend and another 3 plus hours of driving before reaching Columbus.

As I drove through Ohio I started to think over these reunions. I couldn’t help but wonder how common it was to meet people like Remington and Zach. I could name a half dozen or so others that I met over 5 years in the Army who I could have similar experiences with. The longer I though the more it seemed that this was probably a high number of close friends to make over such a period. I wondered what other people experienced in their first 10 years out of college. There aren’t many people that I went to high school with that I still keep in contact with, let alone consider such close friends. The same for college. So is that just my isolated experience, or can this be confirmed? Did the Army really leave me with truly unique, life-long friendships that people in other industries don’t experience? This is something I’d like to explore some more. This could be one of those civil/military divide aspects that deserves more attention. When people ask why anyone would go into or stay in the military it isn’t uncommon for someone to respond that they did it because of the people they met. Maybe the friends you make in the military really do have a uniqueness to them that is much harder to come by in the civilian world? We’ll only find out by asking.

So here I need your help, True Believer. What’s your take on this? Leave some comments and let’s get a conversation started. I’d really like to get some opinions from both sides of the room on this one.

Until we meet again.

Civil/military relations of The Punisher

There was a great disturbance in my life this past week. As if millions of my hopes cried out in terror and were suddenly silenced by Rian Johnson. When I say this aloud I realize how sad it is, but my disappointment after seeing The Last Jedi on Thursday put me in a real funk for a few days. I’m not going into that here, but I wanted to at least take time to acknowledge this, how silly it is, and to bear some Star Wars fanboy soul.

With that out of the way, I actually want to talk about a different Disney property that has yet to fail me and how it got me thinking about how veterans are portrayed in popular media. By that I mean all sorts of media – TV, radio, movies, the news, fiction, non-fiction, etc. I binged a bit on Marvel’s The Punisher yesterday and it struck me for how it dove into the issue of veterans transitioning out of the military with a uniquely authentic tone. The show is not glossing over the issue, it’s not playing up any stereotype in a superficial manner, and it is not hiding or shrinking from the topic. If you have Netflix, check out the show.

If you’re not familiar with The Punisher, Frank Castle is (in this installment anyway) a former Marine officer. His last assignment was a deployment to Afghanistan in which he was on an off the books team of various special operations types doing a lot of really dirty work (war crimes) under the direction of a CIA spook. As it relates to this blog post, this storyline leaves Frank with a bunch of messed up memories. The show also features two of Frank’s fellow teammates from that deployment, one of whom now runs a private security firm (Blackwater, anyone?) and another who we see running a support group for veterans. The scenes with this support group offer a chance for the show to take on some other supporting characters that do not require much screen time while still being able to introduce a whole gambit of veterans with varying degrees of success in post-military life.

This interests me as it’s not totally necessary to advance the main plot, but it adds a degree of depth to the show for a character who is typically just thought of as a knuckle-dragging, ball of rage, revenge machine with a value system that is so diametrically clear cut it is hard to introduce much subtlety.  Now, I am not a finesse guy. That’s why The Punisher always appealed to me. So getting this sub-plot of ancillary characters to introduce some moral ambiguity is a great shot of complexity. I think that the writers are treating the subject of post-military life with a fair level of seriousness and also present some different views in a way that respects the topic while not playing soft.

One of these chaps is a young post-9/11 vet who is struggling to adjust to civilian life. He is angry, a bit paranoid, vulnerable, and just cannot find meaning out of uniform. He’s also not a caricature of these themes, he presents these real world problems in a very authentic manner. We see Louis fall deeper into himself and withdraw from the group. He is preyed upon by another older vet who attends the support group. This character presents the antagonistic force to the group leader. He openly tells the group that he shows up just to ‘tell the truth’ to the rest of the group. He’s the angry old vet (and we find out later that he’s a stolen valor d-bag) who insists that the country doesn’t care about us, that he was spit on and treated like garbage. He is the self-entitled, ‘your welcome for my service’ kind of guy. This is of note as we do not often see this side presented in media. The ugly vet is a difficult topic to take on for a movie or TV show, with lots of potential backlash. The fact that The Punisher takes this on and does so well with it warrants mention and serious propers.

Louis also got me thinking about myself. I struggled with all of the same things as this character does. Finding purpose was the hardest thing (still is) and the underlying anger that goes along with drifting through life can eat you up. Looking around at the rest of the country, the country that exists outside of the bubbles around military bases, and recognizing that people don’t care about the wars or the military as you do. Feeling betrayed by the fact that their lives go on, blissfully ignorant of the sacrifices being made on their behalf. Resenting your peers for having a leg up on you with their civilian careers even though you’ve done way more impressive and important things. Doubting yourself more and more as you continue to struggle to adjust and just be a normal fucking person. Everyone else has an easy time doing it, why can’t you!?

I remember being out at a local bar one night after finishing up Sebastian Junger’s War. It started out alright and I was enjoying being out and around people. At some point though I realized I was clenching my hands into fists, looking at everyone with a spiteful eye. I hated these people. These pathetic wastes of life who didn’t deserve to be out enjoying themselves while others were still dying on the mountains of Afghanistan. How could they live with theirselves, going on with such trivial and meaningless lives? They didn’t care that Resrepto got wasted. They didn’t care about anything except drinking cheap beer and trying to get laid.

Talk about being full of yourself. I hadn’t been any different than everyone else in that bar not too long ago. There was no justifiable reason for me to feel the way I did that night. Luckily I went outside to get some air, quickly started feeling like a weirdo, and then walked home without incident. This happened only a couple years ago, more than 4 years after separating from the Army. Clearly I still needed more help. I had done some therapy sessions at my local VA clinic but stopped because of changing work schedules. Around the same time that all this happened I got back into regular sessions at an office outside of Buffalo. It’s really hard to see myself having the same reaction today, but to think that some of those feelings aren’t still lingering would be a lie.

The therapy has helped, and I truly think everyone would benefit from checking in with a therapist from time to time. What helped me turn a corner of sorts was stumbling onto Stoicism. I read that Stoic philosophy was a cornerstone of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, so it seemed sensible to learn more about it and how the two related. Well, this was a lightbulb-switching-on kind of moment for me. Stoic teachings overlapped with many of the values I learned in the Army and still cling to. The importance on acting like a good person and putting your philosophy into action, rather than just going through an academic exercise of thinking about what makes a person good, was something that attracted me. Deeds over words. This was something that I understood.

Admittedly, I had been floating in the wind when it came to religion/spirituality. Catholicism and me split ways long ago. While I still have great respect for Franciscan teachings, monotheism just doesn’t do it for me. That obvious conflict left me with a bit of a void. Stoic philosophy helped to fill in the gaps and give me something more tangible to grasp. More lightbulbs went off. I learned that much of that anger was just my own incorrect perception. I learned to accept that other people are not going to care about the same things that I do, or if they do it won’t be to the same extent that I do. It finally dawned on me that this isn’t because those people are of poor moral character, but because they have their own lives with their own worries. I started to sort out these toxic ideas that I had carried with me for years. It’s still a work in progress, but the impact of practicing Stoicism was substantial and swift.

The lesson here is that bridging the civil/military divide helps both the civilian and the veteran. Both parties need that to happen as a way to heal individually, and collectively. We each share in the moral burden of our country’s wars, we each have something to learn from each other. I hope you’re finding value in what I am sharing. This blog is certainly helping me. And, after all, you’re here, and I’m here, so isn’t this really OUR blog?

Until we meet again.

 

Bob Ross as a spiritual guide

Indulge me if you will. This will be a meandering missive, but I promise a few gems (not the Infinity kind). This has been a week full of frustrating news and to counter this I turned to an old friend, Bob Ross. Amazon Prime now streams seasons 10 – 31 of The Joy of Painting, and it really saves my mental health some days – thanks Bezos. Sometimes I just put it on for background noise, Bob’s soft voice never fails to return positive vibes. As a kid I would watch Bob whenever I was home sick, now I make it a regular part of taking care of myself. There is something so pleasing about the sound of a fan brush striking canvas to make happy little trees. Or the sharp scrape of a painting knife scratching in some happy little twigs. All these audio stimuli combined exude calmness, serenity, tranquility.

As I binged on Bob a couple nights ago I was struck by how many of his witticisms, which can seem goofy at first, are very much like the lessons I’ve been learning from my dive into Stoicism. I started jotting down different Bob sayings, ideas, and other lessons to be gleaned from this gentle afro-grandpa. By the time I finished for the night I had 14 separate bulletized notes. For ease of reading I’m putting my notes in quotes to distinguish them from the rest of the post’s content (suck it, grammar). Here. We. Go.

“You need the dark to see the light” – This of course was always in reference to creating contrast in his paintings, but Bob would occasionally point out how this applies to sorrow and happiness. During the life of The Joy of Painting, Bob lost his mother and his wife, yet he kept bringing light to all of us. At times it seems like creating paintings to share and seeing others experience the joy of painting is what kept Bob going. Taking the sorrow and using it to create happiness for others brought light back into Bob’s life. That’s powerful.

“On the canvass you control all. But nowhere else, so don’t stress over what you can’t control” – A major teaching of the Stoics was that to be happy we must recognize what we control, accept what we do not control, and only concern ourselves with that which we have control over. Bob would joke that when he left the studio and went home all he was in charge of was taking out the garbage, but when he painted he had absolute control over that world. Painting provided a medium to channel frustrations with the outside world, to enjoy having control over something so that he could accept the things he did not control. How much more joy would we all have if we all practiced this in our own way? Lately it seems many people are consumed with their anger, often with things outside their control. That is sad and dangerous. What I can do is to refuse to live like that and share these thoughts with you all in hopes of spreading these ideas.

“Give voice to your thoughts – sounds, naming anything, it’s why we write!” – OK, this is slightly disjointed, but hey, it’s my notes! The lesson here is that the quirk Bob had of putting voice to what he was thinking, even down to making his own sound effects or naming inanimate objects, is healthy and spurs our creativity. My wife will often ask me ‘Are the sound effects really necessary?’ Well, yes. Maybe all those hours of watching Bob when I was a kid is what formed this habit in me. Try it out sometime. Being a weirdo is essential to personal freedom. Keeping everything in your head all the time will take a toll on you, share your thoughts and ideas with the world. We all have something to add.

“No mistakes, only happy accidents” – Possibly my favorite Bob-ism. It’s pretty simple and carries so much power. If you screw up, there is always a way to make something positive out of the situation. It can be difficult to see how or what good can come from some of life’s bumps, but there is opportunity for good in every bad situation. This too is strikingly Stoic. The idea that our perception of an event, rather than the event itself, is what is good or bad was often talked about. It is challenging to live this every day, but that’s the point! The more we are able to live out this idea the better person we become.

“Importance & impact of a gentle touch “2 hairs & a whisper”‘ – Some elements of Bob’s painting technique (wet on wet) required a very delicate touch. He would say “2 hairs and a whisper is all you need” to emphasize just how little pressure was needed at times. To me this also speaks to how our own small, seemingly insignificant actions can make a profound impact. We all face adversity in our lives all the time, often not sharing it. Suicide prevention is a hot button issue for veterans, and really the US as a whole. ‘Check your buddy’ is pounded into your head in the military, but really it’s just a good thing for all of us to do all the time. So be kind to each other. You never know when a gentle word or a random phone call will save a life.

“Aggregation of many small things, that on their own are indistinct, make something beautiful” – Bob’s paintings usually looked like a toddler’s scribblings until about half way through. Then, all these weird, ugly smudges and criss-crossing brush strokes started to coalesce into a gorgeous landscape. The jumbled up picture in Bob’s head (he also had a model painting off camera to his right) would develop and give us all something to marvel at. Bob would say we all have that ability, and it’s true. The greater point here is that all of our small actions eventually add up. Make your actions good and just, take care to do the small things right and the big picture will take care of itself before your eyes.

“Caring about all life. Equanimity to all.” – Bob loved nature and would often show off some birds or squirrels that he and his wife would care for until they were ready to go back to the wild. Peapod the Pocket Squirrel was a favorite. Even after being let loose to nature he would return each day to Bob’s house for a visit. I try to emulate this with bird feeders and putting out food for the squirrels in my backyard. Now that winter is setting in here in NY the visits are less frequent. Spring and summer bring so many different creatures to my backyard zoo though, and it’s a great joy to just watch them. It’s a great way to develop compassion and empathy, things I’m sometimes lacking. Each day is a new opportunity to work on this and to live up to the Franciscan ideals of serving all.

“Believe that you can do it and you will” – Bob loved the wet on wet technique for its ease and mass accessibility. He believed anyone could make paintings just like his. Knowing that people still felt intimidated or uncertain, he frequently reminded us all that it is possible and that the first step is to simply believe in ourselves. Attitude is everything, right? Having the confidence that we can succeed is more important than any natural talent. I have struggled with this so much in my transition to civilian life. It’s easy to remember my failings. At one point I counted up 14 different things I had tried and failed at, or just quit, since leaving the Army. It may have taken longer than I wanted, but I’m here writing this blog now. I’m building up towards this goal of writing a book, post by post.

“Spreading joy/goodness is self-reenforcing” – Another concept that has been explored pretty broadly. For as much as this is talked about it’s odd how often we fail to follow through on it. We all know it, when we make someone else happy we also gain some happiness. Certainly something I need to keep in mind and live up to much more.

“All of us need a creative outlet” – Touched on this a bit earlier. Finding a constructive outlet for our emotions is essential. We’re still in the early days of this blog, but I immediately recognized the benefits of getting back to writing. One day I will try painting, when I have the space to dedicate to paint flying everywhere. For now this bit of writing that I am sticking to is helping me to focus my thoughts, get the noise out of my head, feel productive, and make tangible steps towards a big goal. I’m thrilled whenever someone reads my posts or leaves a comment, but first and foremost I’m here for myself because it’s good for my mental health.

“Dissatisfaction with your painting is a blessing. If you ever make a painting you’re completely satisfied with you might as well stop painting because you have nowhere to go if there is no more improvement to be made” – This is one of those needing dark to see the light things. If you achieve perfection, why continue? Don’t be upset at yourself for having shortcomings, look on them as chances to keep improving yourself. Again, we run into that Stoic idea of our perception, rather than the situation, bestowing value. We are human, by nature we suck. Embrace that and find ways to be better. Maybe, just maybe, that’s the meaning of life?

“Don’t be afraid to make big decisions. They can always be altered with some effort” – Bob would reach a point in his paintings where it was time to ‘make a big decision’ or that it was ‘time for your bravery test’. This would mean that he was about to put a large tree in the foreground, or begin to set the peaks of a mountain range. These were essential elements to the painting, pieces that would draw your attention and provide something dramatic to admire. In the world of that canvass, these were life and death decisions, something to terrify the inexperienced painter. Bob’s way of helping us get over the anxiety was to remind us that if something didn’t go as we wanted it to, there were ways of fixing our happy accident. There is always a way to mend what we foul up. It may be difficult, it may take time, but we can always turn the bad into good. So don’t be fearful. Don’t let your anxieties paralyze you into inaction. Make the best decision you can, have faith in yourself to see where you can do better and know that you will.

“Everyone needs friends, even trees” Bob gave everything in his paintings friends. No tree stood alone, not even fence posts were solitary. While we must find the strength to do right within ourselves, we all need support. We all need help and to have good people around us. Humans are social creatures, and while we might not all want tons of friends or to even be around other humans very often, we do need friends. They help us grow through life, they are there when we need support or even just to help us work through a problem. Don’t forget to be a friend, and remember to say “thank you for being a friend.” (You just sang that, didn’t you?)

“If what you’re doing isn’t working change your technique/approach” My last note! Bob would mention, from time to time, that he originally tried to be a traditional painter. The wet on wet technique that he became known for was derided as amateur. It was looked down on by critics because it was easy and for the masses. If art isn’t exclusionary then what’s the point!? Well, the point is to express yourself and to enjoy the practice. Ignoring the critics, Bob embraced the wet on wet technique and found his niche. I think we all encounter this dilemma in our lives. Don’t be afraid to change course, and don’t let yourself be anchored to any dogma. I tried several times to start writing a full length book from start to finish. That never worked for me, for many reasons. I changed up my approach though, and progress is being made.

There you have it. The wisdom I gleaned from a night of bingeing on Bob Ross. I hope you liked it and can see why I view Bob Ross as a spiritual guide in life. If you’re still wondering why I love Bob Ross so much I suggest watching this and this. Hopefully I’ll do a better job of living up to everything I just wrote! I’m certainly glad you joined me today. Bob would end each show by saying “Happy painting, and God bless”, this wouldn’t make sense for me to say. So instead I’ll just steal from another artist I admire and leave you with “Be good and you will be lonesome.”

 

I always wanted to drive a big truck

Today I’d like to move along the plot a bit and share a comical story. At the time, this was more of a disaster story, time has changed it into a fairly funny tale. Time’s a crazy thing like that. A couple different twists and this soon to be told story could have taken a drastically different road. When I look back on this particular day a flood of conflicting emotions still rush through me. Let’s explore that.

December 2009 – I’m in Basrah, assigned to a Border Transition Team. This was similar to the Military Transition Teams fielded after the Surge but we were partnered with the Iraqi Border Police instead of the Iraqi Army. BTTs were generally 12 man teams composed of various specialists from across the Army, cobbled together and put through a 3 month school designed to turn us into military advisors. For us, we got a special week of training in El Paso with the US Border Patrol and US Customs Enforcement so that we had some kind of idea about border enforcement. With that I, a fresh captain with 3 years in the Army, was supposed to mentor an Iraqi colonel who had served 28 years in 3 different branches of the Iraqi military (yep, he fought two wars against us). My counterpart was in charge of doctrine for the 4th Region Border Police Academy. Yep, I had no business telling this guy anything, and we both knew it. With that in mind we had a pretty friendly working relationship, exchanged some gifts, and made the best of the situation. He struck me as a person who wanted to do something good for his country and just live in safety. I hope he is still well.

Now that there is some context, let’s get to the LoLz.

So my team lived remotely, not on the large US base COB Basrah. We were at an outpost called Camp Savage. It was a tiny cluster of storage containers used for living and working surrounded by HESCO barriers (think of large sandbags about 4′ tall and 3′ around). Camp Savage was located within a large Iraqi Army base that used to be an Iraqi Air Force base. This base also contained the BP Academy. Camp Savage was a few dozen miles from COB Basrah with only 3 different routes for us to take, each with only minor variation. No matter what the drive would take 45 – 60 minutes. We were equipped with one of the newest MRAPs, Caimans (pictured above). Talk about a gas guzzler!

Once a week or so we would make a run to the COB for all the typically mundane stuff – get resupplied, pick up mail (one of my extra duties!), stop into the COB HQ to touch bases with counterparts, visit the other BTTs based out of the COB, and whatever other team business we might have. We liked to get out of there with enough daylight to get back to Savage. The routes always took us by some vulnerable areas, trash dumps (easy to hide IEDs), tight curves (Caimans rolled over at a 30 degree yaw), overpasses, and we would always lose radio contact with the COB once we got within a few miles of Savage.  Our SOP stated that if we ever reached a destination with half a tank of gas or less that the crew was supposed to get it topped off before departing again. Pretty simple stuff, certainly not a challenge for a team made up of senior NCOs and officers. (Did I give away the surprise yet?).

This day our team was down to 11 as our team leader was home on his 2 weeks of leave. With three vehicles that each require 3 people (driver, TC, gunner) that only leaves 2 extra bodies, so one vehicle has no spare dudes. We leave the COB later than we should have, a couple miles out from the gate we exited the highway to take a sharpe turn onto an overpass which would have left us with a straight shot back to Camp Savage. This route was nice for it’s clear sight lines and simplicity. The turn and overpass at the beginning were the only real choke points. This turn had one of those large trash dumps right beside the road. I always got nervous going by this place because there was a large pipe sticking out from a pile, about 20′ long and 4″ or 5″ in diameter. It was the perfect place to plant an EFP which was one of the few things we had to worry about with our Caimans. Bonus, this fucking pipe was at such an angle that it seemed to stare right at me each time we passed it. With the turn being so sharpe we really couldn’t speed by the spot or even alter speed much. Driving through this spot made my mouth go dry every single time. After getting past that pipe I may or may not have, on occasion, reached down to grab my balls out of thanks that they were still there.

OK, so we got by that bit of the road, just get over the bridge and we’re on easy street. Expect for some reason, on this day, we ground to a halt with all three vehicles on the bridge. For anyone not following at home, this is one of the most vulnerable positions we could have been in with these vehicles. We’re sticking out like a sore thumb. There’s an Iraqi Army checkpoint right beneath us, and some other small utility buildings to the rear and off our right. Either one of these could have had an insurgent spotter in them calling in his buddies to let them know they had easy pickings. I’m the TC (commander) of the trail vehicle, all I can see ahead is the second Caiman, I’ve got no eyes on our lead vehicle. My driver, my gunner, and I are all thinking “Why the fuck are we stopped? What the fuck is going on?” I squeeze the radio mic and ask the other two TCs what’s going on. Silence. The radio traffic comes through speakers in the vehicle, so everyone can hear what’s being said (or not said).

You may have heard someone describe their blood running cold, feeling their butthole pucker, or feeling their balls in their throat. Yeah, all of that at once. We were about to have a very bad day. The TC from vehicle 1 called back to me asking what I was seeing. We realized the TC in vehicle 2 must have a dead radio or headset, and I was the only one who could relay what was going on. All of a sudden we (vehicle 3) see the driver and TC doors of vehicle 2 opening and out pop the driver and TC. This happened to be the one vehicle without a spare crew member, so the TC had removed his radio headset and not told us what they were about to do. They both head to the rear of their Caiman. Seeing this my gunner said “Oh no, they’re not doing what I think they’re doing, are they? Are they seriously going for the gas cans?” Better believe it. Atop the bridge, balls flapping in the wind, the driver is pulling off the spare gas cans and dumping the fuel into his truck while the TC watches his back. The biggest mouth on the team forgot to fill up before leaving the COB and now we were all sitting around waiting for an IED to go off or a barrage of RPGs to fly our way. Completely stunned I got on the radio to let vehicle 1 know what was happening. Amazingly this joker finished up, secured the empty gas cans, mounted back up, and we took off. Back at Camp Savage we all topped off our trucks and then the team had some, uhhh, lively discussion and decided to never speak of this once our team leader got back.

I can laugh about this story now. At the time it caused a lot of anger and tension on the team. For years afterwards I would think of this day and start ‘what if-ing’ every possible bad scenario that could have happened. The anger would flood back. I had a hard time getting over some of these stupid things, obsessing over what could have happened and why they didn’t. Eventually I grasped just how toxic this behavior was, I found some peace with my hangups. What is important is that the bad shit that could have happened didn’t, the ‘why’ doesn’t matter. What matters is that, for me, things turned out for the better. I am here, I am thankful, and I focus on the present moment not the past which cannot be changed.

This was easily one of the top 3 most fucked up days of my life. Nobody died though, everyone made it back home, so really, how bad is that? I learned a lot from this day, but it took years for the lessons to sink in. These 1500 words can best be summed up by Marcus Aurelius “Every event is the right one. Look closely and you will see.”

Pax et bonum

Getting back up

“Why do we fall, Master Wayne? So that we may get back up.” Possibly the best line in the Christopher Nolan trilogy of Batman films. Yes, I’m a big comic geek and we’ll talk about that much more. Today I want to use that as a starting point for my reflection. Tomorrow is Veterans Day, but it is being celebrated today. I could write many different posts related to this holiday, but this too is something that we will talk about much more.

Today I am writing about the convergence of the two ideas above. Today I want to talk about one of my own failings, one that has led me here to this blog. I had made up my mind yesterday to write this post, and through a twist of irony I read this morning Seneca’s 28th letter to Lucilius. In each of his 124 letters to Lucilius, Seneca ends with a piece of advice to the younger man. In letter 28 Seneca offers a quote from Epicurus “A consciousness of wrongdoing is the first step to salvation.” If we are unable or unwilling to see our own faults we will never improve ourselves. With that, I present one of my failings and how I am trying to make it right.

Last year I bit off more than I could chew and tried to start a non-profit called Band of Bards. The goal was to to collect oral histories from fellow veterans and turn them into graphic novels that would be published online. This was an effort to preserve some bottom-up style history and to help bridge that civil/military gap by making many more stories much more accessible (and entertaining). I brought in two friends and started forming an advisory board. We had a good plan that identified and addressed weaknesses of talent as best we could. This was still a really big undertaking. Anyone who never thought of what goes into making comics or graphic novels would be blown away by the amount of labor involved. Undeterred we pressed on. Until it came time to file paperwork to register our business with the state of New York.

The packet was not terribly difficult to put together, but it went off into the mail (no online option) and nothing ever came back. Now, it’s typical for a response to take up to 90 days. So I waited impatiently, wondering if the state ever got what was sent out. Eventually I fell into a bout of depression. I started doubting myself, chastising myself for being overconfident and thinking I’m smarter than I am. “You can sure talk a big game, Tim, but when the rubber meets the road you suck!” I felt I had let down my two friends, as the administrative side of this venture fell to me. My anxieties got the better of me and the wheels fell off. Depression and anger derailed what I was trying to build and put a strain on two friendships that I valued. I felt embarrassed that I had made such a big deal of this effort, had started a Facebook page and even got my alma mater’s alumni magazine to publish a blurb about it in the ‘what everyone’s up to’ section.

Failure. Big time failure. It could be my most spectacular failure for the simple fact that it was so out in the open. I kind of just ignored it and didn’t want to talk about it. I tried to forget it, but Facebook likes to remind me now and then that I haven’t published anything on the Band of Bards page. Squarespace recently sent me an email notification about the auto renewal of the domain name. I could have canceled that, but I didn’t. Something about that seemed like absolutely giving up.

So I fell down and stayed down for a while. Now, it’s time to get back up. Band of Bards might be too much for now, but I can start with something more manageable like this blog. Owning the domain name allows me to keep it in the background and possibly go back and try again. For now I will put effort into this blog. If you’ve read the About section here you know that the end goal is to write a book. Gradual, incremental, manageable steps. Stand back up, dust yourself off, see what your faults were, and then correct them. Rick James said that cocaine is a hell of a drug. I think redemption is a hell of a drug. Building victory from the ashes of our failure and proving, most of all, to ourselves that we are good enough is a beautiful thing.

So friends, take time to reflect on some failure. Small or big, we can always improve something. All those small fixes add up. That’s what I am doing here. Many small fixes and improvements to build something large.

Thanks for stopping by. Happy Veterans Day (I’ll post more on that tomorrow).

Pax et bonum

My first blog post, be gentle

Here we go. My very first ever blog post. No pressure. It’s not like this has to be absolutely perfect, share world changing insights, or lay the cornerstone of my legacy.

Actually, that’s exactly right. This doesn’t need to be perfect, it can just be good or even decent. A post doesn’t need to change the world or blaze a direct path forward. These are things I’ve only recently accepted. See, for years I was stuck on the anxieties listed above. While in grad school I kept telling myself “you’re going to start a blog between semesters.” Well, three years of that went by and still no blog. It’s been another three years since graduating and I’m finally here. So what changed?

Over the last six months I’ve started to dive into Stoicism. By no means am I very well versed in the philosophy, but it did make an immediate impact. What got me to buy into Stoicism is  that it is a philosophy of action, not just a worldview of how to live righteously. Don’t get me wrong, I enjoy philosophy as an academic matter. Personally, I need a guiding philosophy centered around deeds not words. The actions are the philosophy, and in doing even small things to improve yourself each day you become a better Stoic.

OK, so what exactly does that have to do with starting to blog? Don’t go running, I’m not here to preach from a soapbox to you. As an exercise in taking small, incremental actions to improve myself and achieve a goal, this blog is a step along my path. The idea of writing a book has been on my mind since I was an undergrad. I majored in history and loved the writing that was involved in that study. I’ve often missed the exercise of writing but always struggled with finding a topic. And if I had such a hard time with just starting a blog, how would I ever write a book? That’s where the Stoic teachings come into play. I have a general idea of something I want to achieve. I even have some outlines.  The roadmap for getting to my destination starts here, with this blog.

What I’ll write about here will help me form the basis of said future masterpiece. It’ll even help me to accept that the book probably won’t be a masterpiece (Mark Twain, I am not). This is also a great way for me to engage in the Stoic practice of routine self examination. The cool thing is that you are a part of this too. By coming here, reading my brain dumps, and hopefully leaving some comments and engaging in discussions you will be helping me in my good journey. I offer my sincere and whole hearted thanks for that.

The photo below is a default picture from WordPress. I kinda dig it though and it seems like a somewhat fitting picture for what we are starting here. So I’m going to leave it.

Till next time, pax et bonum.

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