Tom Clancy & I

Tom ClancyI don’t worry much about death. It’s probably a product of youthful stupidity and invincibility, but I figure we’re all going to die, so it’s not worth worrying about. In fact, it’s kind of a cosmic near-impossibility that we exist at all. That’s cause for celebration, if anything.

That didn’t stop me from nearly breaking into tears this morning when I found out that author Tom Clancy passed away yesterday.

Tom Clancy wasn’t the greatest American author or our greatest living author. He never claimed to be either of those things. He was, however, my most important author.

I read The Hunt for Red October in sixth grade. By the time I left middle school, I had read the rest of the Jack Ryan series, much of it twice. When we went to a relative’s cabin for my family’s only summer vacation, I put down the 1,028 page The Bear and the Dragon, Clancy’s last great novel, in just three days.

It’s not a coincidence that I began earning better grades around the time I started reading Clancy’s techno-thrillers. Tom Clancy didn’t teach me to read, but he did teach me to love reading.

IMG_0549So, Clancy won’t live to see me complete the hardcover collection I began last year. He won’t live to see me finish a second read-through of his novels to see if they hold up against the ravages of time. He won’t be around when I catch up with his most recent, co-written novels. I’ll never meet him and experience the ecstasy of meeting an author who dramatically impacted my life, like when my friend Kelly met Neil Gaiman.

But I suppose none of that is very important. What’s important is that I wouldn’t have the interests, hold the job, or be the person I am today without Tom Clancy.

My greatest goal in life is that someone – anyone – can say that about me when I die.

History Lives

One of the things that stuck with me most during my trip to London last year was the incredible diversity of the city. Anglo-Saxons, Indians, Sikhs, the whole nine yards. People from seemingly everywhere came to live or work in the English capital.

All of this makes sense for those who know anything about British History. Everyone comes to live in Britain because the British basically controlled everyone at one time or another. The Battle of Hastings in 1066 eventually led to Pax Britannica and an empire so large that the sun very literally “never set on the British Empire.”

That empire began to crumble when a war fought against Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan for the freedom of the world revealed the inherent contradiction between colonialism and self-determination. When the Japanese Army swept across Southeast Asia, it showed the world that Europeans were not invincible.

From this history of cultural imperialism and exchange comes the incredible diversity of London. There, I saw the impact of history. History walked up and down the streets. History took the Tube every morning. History stopped at Greggs for a terrible-for-you, but so-dang-good breakfast roll.

Somehow it felt like London was doing it right, or at least better than Minneapolis. Minneapolis is certainly diverse, but it also feels divided in ways that London did not. Continue reading

Numb

At times, I have been accused of being… umm, robotic? A potent cocktail of realism, sarcasm, and skepticism has led more than one person to believe that I have no feelings or that I lack empathy or that I am bereft of basic human compassion.

This fails to explain why I cry twice every time I watch Schindler’s List. It fails to explain why I tear up every time I listen to the soundtrack from The Pacific. It fails to explain the fog of emotion and reflection that swirls around me at the end of the Mass Effects, Bioshocks, or Spec Ops: The Line. Or why I can’t look someone in the eyes while telling them how important they are to me for fear of breaking down.

I am an emotional person. I just try very hard to control it and even harder not to show it. Thanks, German farmer upbringing!

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This is why I write the day after the shootings at the Washington Navy Yard. When I first heard of the attack, I felt… nothing.

No anger. No sadness. No anxiety. No righteous indignation.

Nothing.

And I hate myself for getting to this point. The point where I can go, “Meh. We want guns? This is what we get.” Or “The chickens are going to come home to roost when we ignore the factors that lead to violence.”  The point where the violent deaths of twelve people are less a tragedy and more an argument for the inexorable nature of trade-offs or cause and effect.

I want to be skeptical without becoming cynical. I want to question everything without giving up upon receiving the same answer over and over. Fundamentally, this is what cynicism is and does.

If I’ve fallen off Cynic’s Cliff on the topic of gun violence, is it possible to climb back up? I hope so. Cynicism feels so empty that I can’t help but hate the forces that pushed me off the ledge, but only almost as much as I am disappointed that I failed to put up a bigger fight.

But hey, at least I’m feeling again.

Island

(Editor’s Note: This is a guest post by friend of Nothing But The Rain and blogger extraordinaire Kelly of Adventures in Poor Grammar. I’d recommend checking out her blog post-haste.)

It’s been a weird day.

September 11th, 2013 finds me in church.

To be precise, September 11th, 2013 finds me in a Quaker Meeting House.

I like the Quakers. They don’t give a damn if you believe in Buddha, Baby Jesus or Carl Sagan. They’re just happy that you’re there. And they don’t ask anything aside from silence from you while you’re there. That kind of worship is perfect for an atheist who is, in fact, probably thinking about Carl Sagan while she’s sitting there.

It’s not unusual to find me in a Quaker Meeting. I try to attend when I can.

Something about today just made me need . . . what exactly? Community? God? Reassurance?

I can’t think of an American born prior to 2001 who doesn’t feel a tiny bit of dread as the September 11th approaches, but personally, my dread has less to do with what happened on 9/11/2001 and more to do with the past twelve years.   Continue reading

Change & The Shared Experience

At the end of the film The Fog of War, Robert McNamara shares a T.S. Eliot poem, one of his favorites.

We shall not cease from exploring,
And at the end of our exploration
We will return to where we started
And know the place for the first time.

The idea is that exploration teaches. It changes us and helps us better understand our world. Eliot’s stanza chokes me up, mostly because it has been so true in my own life. When I visited Colorado, the world beyond Minnesota opened before me. When I spent two weeks in London and Edinburgh, I gained perspective, the knowledge that all I am and all I know are a drop in the world’s ocean.

It is impossible to travel or learn without changing. There’s too much stimulus, too much that is new or foreign. Our brains must adapt to make sense of it. We gain a vantage point to reliably reconsider ourselves. We understand how we are all the same. And why we are so different.

When we explore with others, those relationships change too. It is inevitable. Meals are shared. Streets are walked. Drinks are had. Sobriety is lost. Minutiae are discussed. Life is discussed. Mishap occurs. And all of it is done in uncharted territory, where all you have are each other.

This is the power of the shared experience. When people go through a thing together, they become brothers and sisters. It is no coincidence that my closest friends are those I visited, or with whom I traveled, in Colorado and London.

Change is inevitable. And when positive change is shared, it brings people together in ways one would never expect. Or know, unless they climb out of their comfort zone and stare down the infinite unknown with their brothers and sisters.

How Do We Know When It’s Time to Leave?

When you promise the world, people expect the world. When you promise “light at the end of the tunnel”, people expect the end of the war. They don’t expect the largest enemy attack of the conflict. They don’t expect fighting inside the US embassy compound. They don’t expect this. They no longer believed a word you said. We left. And we did so “not as victors, but as an honorable people who lived up to their pledge to defend democracy, and did the best they could.”

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Every once in a while, I am reminded that fairy-tale romances are just that. It only takes once to shake any illusion to the contrary. As happy as things can be, it only takes one issue. My issue. She can try to help. She can do what she can. But if it’s not enough, who can blame her for leaving? I can be upset over how it happened, but that it happened? No.

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How do you leave a place you never should have been in the first place? Awkwardly, I assume. “Hey, guys. Yeah, so I guess there weren’t weapons of mass destruction or Al-Qaeda… uh, sorta like you said. So, yeah, sorry about the militias, the sectarian violence, and the 150,000 dead. I don’t know what else I can do, so see you round, I guess…”

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It’s not always my fault, though. Sometimes it isn’t. If you aren’t happy with something, do something about it. We can’t choose our trials. We can’t choose our tribulations. We can choose our attitude. We can choose how to confront life’s difficulties. Taking it out on me until I dreaded conversation probably wasn’t the best way to do it. In the end, there was just nothing left to talk about.

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Sometimes, there isn’t that moment. That instant where everything becomes painfully clear that this isn’t going to end the way we wished. Was it when we bombed that wedding? Or tortured that taxi driver? Or lost the police power? When you put it that way, it’s amazing we’re still there at all. But, come the end of 2014, we’re done.

Why? Just like any anything else: When you’ve done your best and you’re out of ideas, it’s time to leave.

How Much We Don’t Know

It was after a knock-down, drag-out political argument that my uncle said something profound.

We were celebrating Easter, and without any decent sports on television, our post-dinner conversation turned to politics. Even a moderate, much less a social liberal like myself, would have been the odd person out. Phrases like “those people” (Hispanics, Muslims), “that stuff” (Homosexuality), and best of all, “White people are the only minority left” were tossed around without reflection or critical thought.

I was too angry to be articulate and I failed to educate. Thankfully, one of my uncles saved the conversation, and my sanity, by saying that we’d all be better off “if everyone knew they’re not as smart as they think they are.”

On one level, that’s not enough. It’s too easy for someone to say “no one is as smart as they think they are” and believe that means that everyone is equally knowledgeable about anything. Neither my father nor I are as smart as we think we are, but that doesn’t mean our opinions on farming or social history are equivalent. They are not.

However, my uncle was right, assuming we take it the right way. Continue reading