September 2012


Fly on fallen contour feather

Today I read an article on CNN about smartphones and the so-called death of boredom. The idea behind the article is simple enough: in an age when we can carry the entire Internet in our pocket, quickly sending texts, checking email, and surfing the web whenever we have a spare moment, have we lost our capacity to be quietly unoccupied?

Rain on leaflets

I remember asking a similar question several years ago as I walked through Boston’s Public Garden, alone. It was a beautiful day, and everyone around me was either walking in pairs, talking, or walking alone, talking on a cell phone or listening to an iPod. Everyone but me, in other words, was somehow filling the silence of a sunny day with some sort of sound: if you weren’t talking with someone, you were listening to something. Even a homeless man pushing a shopping cart full of tattered belongings had a battery-powered boom-box perched atop of his possessions, blasting music. What I realized that sunny day in the Public Garden is that very few of us have the time or inclination to listen to our own thoughts anymore. Why bother with the boring monotony of silence and solitude when you can give someone a call or crank up some tunes?

Rain on leaves

That was in the old days when people actually talked on their cell phones. I’ve written before about J’s and my conscious decision not to buy smartphones: when I step away from my computer, I want to be able to “unplug” entirely. J and I are, however, in the distinct minority; as that CNN article noted, “More people now own a smartphone in the United States — 45% of adults — than own a traditional cellphone.” This means a huge number of people have games, music, and the allure of the Internet close at hand whenever they find themselves unoccupied. Stuck in a long line? Play “Angry Birds.” Waiting for the bus? Check your email. Awkward conversation lull? Send a text.

Rain on spiderwort leaves

I don’t want to vilify smartphones: if data plans were cheaper, there would be countless ways I’d use a smartphone in my daily life. It would be convenient to have an up-to-date weather report, the latest news, accurate directions, or the answer to a nagging trivia question easily available at the tap of a touch-screen, and it would be helpful to be able to check my online classes even when I was away from my laptop and wifi. But just because smartphones, tablets, and other gadgets make it possible for people to fill their spare time with email, music, and the Whole Wide Web doesn’t mean that filling every spare moment with such things is a good or desirable thing.

Raindrops on spiderweb

When I was a graduate student working on my dissertation, I had a PDA (remember those?) with a program that allowed me to read and edit word-processing files. I kept a folder with all my dissertation files on this device, and whenever I found myself with a spare moment at the doctor’s office, in traffic, or waiting in line at the store, I would take out my PDA and start tap, tap, tapping on my dissertation.

Raindrops on leaflets

After years of making good use of every spare moment—after years of carrying my damned dissertation with me EVERYWHERE, as if it were an unavoidable albatross slung around my neck—one of the most delightful aspects of finishing my degree was finally having the luxury of doing nothing. When traffic snarled to a stop, I could admire the surrounding countryside rather than reaching for my PDA. Waiting in line at the grocery store, I could make faces at the cute toddler in the cart ahead of me rather than burying my nose in dissertation edits. Sitting in a doctor’s waiting room, I could read whatever trashy magazine a previous patient had left behind rather than milking every last second of productivity out of the occasion. Sometimes, being productive is helpful, but other times, being productive is tiring. Is it any wonder that many teenagers are chronically sleep-deprived given how many of them sleep with their cell phones under their pillow, just in case anyone calls or texts them during the night?

Contour feather

As I write these words, I’m sitting in my office at Framingham State: a quintessentially blank, boring space with a large, airy window overlooking the main road bisecting campus. After having spent my office hour answering student emails, I switched off my email notifier when I opened this file, hoping to pound out a post without distraction. It’s taken me longer than you’d think to write these lines, mainly because I’ve stopped occasionally to think, staring out my window at the students slowly ambling past, clad in the hoodies, jeans, and sweatpants that are a college student’s official autumn uniform. Some of these students walk in pairs, chatting; others walk singly while checking their phones or fiddling with their iPods. Are any of them bored? I can’t possibly know by looking at them, but I do wonder: when is the last time any of them sat quietly in a blank room looking out a large, airy window, doing nothing more productive than thinking about the slow crawl of their own silent words?

Margaret C. Ferguson Greenhouses

Every time I pass through our dining room, I see it: a rugged and irregular brick-sized rock, slightly oblong in shape with jutting angles and edges, that we keep on a shelf along with other knickknacks. Years ago, when he first moved into the house we now share, J found this rock in what is now our backyard dog-pen, half buried in the acidic, pine-needled soil. J unearthed, cleaned, and then brought into the house this otherwise ordinary field stone—a rock among rocks—because of what was prominently written upon it in white paint: “Sylvia Fish, Died October 1949.” This curious artifact is now displayed on our dining room bookshelf, in a sheltered spot where the dogs won’t soil it and we humans can frequently see it: a tombstone among tchotchkes.

Margaret C. Ferguson Greenhouses

It’s eerie to think of the ground we walk upon as being potentially haunted—our backyard a burial ground—but what footstep of earth isn’t overshadowed with grief? Wherever we live, others have lived before—there’s no escaping the inevitability of history—and wherever others have lived, others have suffered, too. What kind of innocence, ignorance, or naivety would insist that one’s own heartaches are the first to have transpired in this house, this neighborhood, this earth or universe? It’s a simple empirical fact—one supported by ample evidence—that whatever basic human emotions I experience today have been experienced countless times by others. There’s nothing new under the sun, and that most certainly applies to love, heartache, gratitude, and loss.

What was once a beloved pet’s final resting place is now a pen where our two dogs run, sniff, and relieve themselves. This fenced area is a bare, weed-studded patch of soft soil fringed with tall pine trees: nothing special. Several years ago, it was the enclosed nursery for at least one nest of cottontail rabbits, each one of three babies finding their individual way into our beagle’s mouth before J was able to tell her to drop it; it is also a space where our Labrador retriever regularly bounds after birds and squirrels. We occasionally hear great-horned and screech owls calling from this unkempt border of our backyard—predators presumably passing through on their way to larger, lonelier patches of pines—and in the morning when I watch our birdfeeder, I occasionally see a red-tailed hawk zoom through, looking for careless squirrels.

Margaret C. Ferguson Greenhouses

If this humble corner of an otherwise unremarkable suburban yard harbors the graves of the dearly departed, what else lurks without our knowledge in our backyards or under our feet? Are even our own yards a mystery, the Great Questions camping without invitation right outside our door?

I find myself wondering not about Sylvia Fish herself but the nameless child who loved her enough to insist upon a proper burial. Sylvia Fish died in October, 1949: more than sixty years ago. Sylvia Fish has long since disappeared, her flesh and fins transmogrified into silt and soil, and the unknown child who named and then mourned Sylvia is herself old now, too. Who was this child who loved then mourned a goldfish some sixty years ago, and does she have any recollection now of what may have been her first initiation in the human fellowship of grief? Is there anyone who remembers and still grieves over Sylvia, or was her life as cheap and insignificant as the price tag on a goldfish tank would suggest?

Margaret C. Ferguson Greenhouses

Goldfish are not long-lived creatures, but we give them to children, thereby inuring them to loss. Giving a child a goldfish is like giving a child a balloon, a soap-bubble, or something similarly short-lived: it is a guarantee of heartbreak. One of my most vivid memories of childhood involves me crying in my parents’ front yard after a helium balloon my father had tied to my wrist came loose and floated away, leaving me nothing but a limp string. If a child can love even an inanimate object with all her heart, why give that child a thing that is guaranteed to float away? Why not give her a more durable plaything: when asked by a child for bread—something perishable and prone to staleness—why not give instead a stone that will endure beyond even her recollection?

There is something in our human nature that clings desperately to things that are both fragile and ephemeral. This is the cause of human suffering, but it is also the seed of human compassion. Imagine a world where we fully recognized the impermanence of all created things and responded accordingly, refusing to become attached to creatures who will invariably grow old, sicken, and die. This would be a world where we didn’t fall in love, didn’t cherish children, didn’t adopt pets, and didn’t acquire souvenirs with mere sentimental value. This would be a world where children didn’t name their goldfish and teddy bears, and a world where adults didn’t name their cars. It would be, in other words, an unthinkable place: a place entirely unlike our own world because it lacked both sorrow and joy.

Margaret C. Ferguson Greenhouses

We give our children goldfish not despite their short life spans but because of them. Taking care of a goldfish teaches a child responsibility, and grieving a goldfish teaches a child compassion. As goes Sylvia, so goes the whole mortal world. Watching a news report focused on war, pestilence, or natural disaster, we see so many Sylvias, each one hastening toward her inevitable end. Our first experience of loss is an essential rite of passage, an initiation into the human race. If you can grieve a goldfish, then you’ve learned what it means to be human, to be mortal, to be part of the larger sentient family.

On a peg by our back door, J has collected the collars of cats we have lost to old age: first Boomer, then Tony, then after him Shadow. Upstairs in a drawer, I have Reggie’s collar carefully tucked away with his leash, a curling wisp of fur still clinging to his dog-tags. Keeping the collars of dead pets is both a sentimental act and a quintessential kind of clinging, and I wouldn’t give it up for anything. Does a creature who is fondly remembered ever truly die? Does some part of a beloved pet rise again when you revisit their mementos, and does some aspect of Sylvia Fish swim on whenever I see her stone and subsequently remember her, a testament to a world where we care for and mourn even the most insignificant creatures?

Today’s photos of goldfish come from the Margaret C. Ferguson Greenhouses at Wellesley College, which J and I visited last March.

Resting

One morning last month while I was standing at the kitchen sink doing dishes, I saw a female ruby-throated hummingbird hovering around our backyard bird-feeder, confused, wondering why a red feeder should hold birdseed rather than sugar water. Hummingbirds are lightning-fast and iridescent, so it always feels like an unexpected gift to see one: a sudden spark of motion and color that zips into view, pauses, then darts away, an elusive apparition that already seems like a memory even before it’s gone.

Ruddy duck

It still seems strange to watch our backyard bird-bath and feeder while doing the morning dishes rather than spending that time watching for Reggie. It’s been over five months since Reggie died, and my morning ritual of watching Reggie in our backyard dog-pen while I did dishes before our morning walk—my glances to make sure he wasn’t pacing and whining at the gate, or to check that he hadn’t fallen into a tangled heap somewhere, unable to get up—was such a staple of Reggie’s last year, it seems strange to no longer do it.

Resting buffalo

I think of Reggie most often in the mornings when I do dishes, as there are many reminders of him then: not just the dog-pen in easy sight from the kitchen window, but also the digital photo frames that show a random history of J’s and my life together, including many photos of Reggie in various stages of his prime, middle age, and decline: images appearing occasionally and at random, as if reminding me of experiences I can never forget.

Colobus monkey

There are also all the memories I have of standing at the sink in Reggie’s final months and weeping as I watched for him—mornings when I knew his end was near and that someday I’d look back on those hours as precious, simply because back then, Reggie was alive. “Anticipatory grief” is the official term for this process of beginning to grieve before you’ve actually lost something, as if grief were a task you could get a head start on: a full, heaping serving you could eat bite by bite, over time, rather than swallowing in one choking gulp. Regardless of when you start grieving, whether your experience of loss is gradual and anticipated or sudden and surprising, you can’t digest it beforehand: when the actual moment of “goodbye” arrives, there’s little your anticipation can do to prepare you for what is to come.

Red wolves

These predictably bittersweet morning moments at the kitchen sink aren’t the only ones when I remember Reggie, however, as his memory comes to me, unbidden, at random, unforeseen times. Sometimes it’s the sight of a dog who looks a bit like Reggie—one of the dogs who barks behind a chain link fence beside my parents’ house in Columbus, Ohio, for instance, or a Reggie-colored dog walking with its owner on a wooded path. In each case, there is something about This Dog that reminds me of That One, and the spark of recognition is undeniable, my heart hearkening with a start: “Oh!” It’s often a recognition only I see: the other dog doesn’t really look like Reggie, but an awareness of resemblance appears because such a large part of my heart still looks for Reggie, expecting him naturally to be in any of the places where I am.

Walking moose

A month or so ago, for example, a friend and I walked around the lake at Wellesley College on a beautiful Sunday afternoon when countless families and dog-walkers were enjoying the sunshine, including one woman who sat reading in a beach chair beside an elderly keeshond who reminded me so much of Reggie, I could barely speak. This dog was sprawled comfortably on the grass while the woman read, resting and showing no desire to go wading into a lake where every other passing dog had hurled himself with great, splashing enthusiasm. This dog was midsized, gray, and irrepressibly fluffy, lolling with such an expression of quiet happiness, you’d think there was no greater joy in the world than simply lying in the grass next to a lake on a sunny, late-summer Sunday afternoon.

Swan

As the woman packed her things to leave, the dog still lay there quietly, happily indifferent, refusing to heed her calls to come, get up, and follow, ultimately tugging back on the leash when the woman tugged to stir him. It was exactly something Reggie would have done—a mischievous stripe of stubbornness tempered by the mellowness of age. There was no anger or aggression between the woman and dog, just a quiet refusal on the dog’s part, as he refused to be tamed even in old age. When the dog eventually stood up, his motions were slow and obviously achy, a second stab of recognition. Creaky and arthritic, the fluffy gray dog got up and slowly hobbled away, shadowing the woman’s steps in a manner that was so eerily reminiscent of Reggie’s arthritic gait, it might as well have been him, reincarnate.

Mottled

“Enjoy him while you have him,” I wanted to shout, but I didn’t because the woman didn’t need my exhortations: she already knew. I could tell this in the way she’d knelt to the ground to kiss the dog on his snout, ruffling his furry mane, before urging him to his feet. This too was something I did, something that owners of old dogs do universally, the world over, I think. It’s a universal language that needs no translation.

Social grooming

You’ve surely seen the famous photo that made the rounds this summer of a man with a ponytail wading up to his neck in Lake Superior, his elderly shepherd mix floating beside him, the dog’s face resting with a blissful expression on the man’s chest. That dog, too, reminded me of Reggie in terms of his size and general shape; the blissful expression is one I recognized, as one of an old, arthritic dog finding a moment of peace.

Lounging kangaroo

When I first read about the man and his 18-year-old, arthritic dog, it brought grief over Reggie’s passing back as if no time had passed at all. Grief is a fruit that remains perpetually fresh, preserved in some hidden cellar of the soul. Seeing the photo, I wept as if Reggie had died only yesterday—wept because I remember how desperately I looked for ways to make him comfortable in his final months, and wept because I recognized that expression of trusting comfort that marked those elusive moments when I had succeeded. That blissful look, I think, is what Reggie had on his face when he died with his head in my lap, at peace at last: a look I would have done anything in my power to elicit.

Walking

There is another form of recognition that is even stranger—even more tenuous, and even more powerful—than these encounters with dogs who remind me of Reggie. For at random, unpredictable times, I’ll see things that are entirely unlike Reggie that nevertheless remind me of him—a bright eyed, inquisitive toddler exploring the world just beyond his mother’s reach, or an elderly man doddering on slow, achy legs down a grocery store aisle, or a friend’s hushed story of how his mother died while he sat watch over her, alone. These people are not like Reggie—it’s silly and even obscene to compare them—but there is this same sudden spark of recognition: “Oh, yes. This life too is precious, beloved, and destined to pass.”

Black swan

These lives, too, are like sudden hummingbirds which zoom into the receptive spaces of our soul, brightening everything with the quickening glint of their unanticipated coming, pausing, then flitting away: beautiful, enlivening, and ultimately ephemeral.

Click here for more photos from the Columbus Zoo, from last month’s trip to visit family in Ohio. Enjoy!

Daddy longlegs

It’s already late September, and a few eager leaves are starting to turn. The trees with their old, mostly green leaves look ratty: the oak tree outside my office at Framingham State, for instance, is so shabby, it’s difficult to find a leaf on it that isn’t insect-eaten and worn. It feels like nature is slyly shutting down, like when you linger late at a restaurant and the waiters start dimming the lights and putting chairs on the tables. Please, feel free to finish your meal at your leisure, they insist, but it’s clear they’re closing up shop.

Berry bush

There’s something about the light in late September, when it acquires a particular angle and color. The light this afternoon looked antique, like something leaning from gold toward bronze, a tarnished time. Already the days are noticeably shorter, and I wonder well ahead of time how we’ll weather another winter, starved for light. On brisk, brilliant, and deep-blue skied days like today, I resolve to absorb as much light as possible, while I still can.

Flowering fence

Is this the reason why autumn leaves are so precious, their brilliance and color filling in for sunlight lost? Right when sunlight starts to lean deep toward the twilight of the year, the turning trees switch on like emergency beacons, vanishing chlorophyll unveiling long-hidden fires. In summer, the sun illuminates our lives; in the fall, we rely on leaves. In winter, fresh snow will reflect what little light there is, then we’ll round the corner into spring, when chlorophyll itself will ignite every green fuze: the old year renewed.

Green pokeweed berries

Today I met with a new class of first-year writing students. As one of our first-day exercises, I asked my students to read Langston Hughes’ “Theme for English B,” which I’d included as the final page of the course syllabus. My students and I had spent part of our class time meandering around our classroom interviewing one another, trying to learn one interesting thing about each person present (myself included), so the poem Hughes’ speaker offers in response to his teacher’s prompt to write a page about himself seemed to be an apt way to conclude class. Given the opportunity to describe yourself in a single page, which details would you include, and which details would you omit?

Reddening

Before our next class, my students’ homework is to take the instructions in the poem and write their own page:

Go home and write
a page tonight.
And let that page come out of you—
Then, it will be true.

I’ve taught this particular course–Intro to College Composition–before, but only online, never face-to-face. Although I’ve read “Theme for English B” with first-year writers in the past, I’ve never asked them to try out the poem for themselves, writing a page that is “true” because it “come(s) out of you.”

Pink and red

This is, in other words, an experimental assignment: something I’ve never tried with a real live classroom of students, and it’s a writing prompt I’ve never even tried myself. Faced with the seemingly simple instructions in Hughes’ poem, what would I write? I’m not sure–I’m both excited and intimidated by the prospect of the blank page this assignment assumes–and this is why I chose to start the semester with it. Sometimes it’s interesting to try something completely new–something you’re not sure will work–something that actually frightens you a little.

Pink stems

I remember one of my own college instructors once making a distinction between “real” and “fake” questions. When a teacher asks you something she already knows, that’s not a real question: it’s a fake question, something designed to test your knowledge or even trick you. When a teacher asks you what you thought of Hughes’ poem, for instance, is she honestly asking what YOU thought of it, which she can’t possibly know unless you tell her? That’s a real question, because there’s no predicting how you might respond. But if a teacher asks you what you thought of Hughes’ poem while secretly expecting you to interpret the poem the same way she did, that’s a fake question. That teacher isn’t asking for something she doesn’t know; she’s asking for corroboration of what she already assumes to be true.

Insect damage

I honestly don’t know what kind of pages my students will bring to class on Thursday: this assignment is, in other words, a Real Question. Will my students bring poems? Lists? Song lyrics? Will anyone bring a resume? A personal ad? An ode or epitaph? Like any first-year writers on the first day of class, my students spent a lot of time today trying to figure out “what I want” from this and future assignments: how much do page lengths really matter? How much do I care about document format? How many points will I deduct for This, and how many points will I give for That?

As a teacher, I need to care about official course outcomes, policies, and other formal requirements, but as a writer, I want to say, “Surprise me.” Where’s the fun in reading a pile of papers that all give me what I want, as if I could describe exactly what that would look like? If I were given an assignment like the one I gave my students today, I’d be both terrified and a bit exhilarated, wondering just how creative my teacher wants me to be. Having given this assignment to my students today, I’m more than a bit excited, wondering just how creative they dare to be.

Step into my parlor

On Friday morning, the exterminator came as promised to destroy the hornets’ nest by our backyard dog-pen. After all the hoopla leading up to the occasion–a week of walking the dogs to avoid taking them to the pen, and a week of parking my car as far away from the nest as possible–the actual procedure was almost anticlimactic, with the exterminator arriving promptly at 10 am and taking approximately five minutes to spray the nest: quick and easy.

Spider web on shrub

Both J and I thought the exterminator would dress in protective clothing and spray the nest from a distance, using some sort of jet-sprayer or at least a long stick to pry into the nest from afar. But instead, the exterminator did the job wearing nothing but a company-branded T-shirt and work pants: no long sleeves, no goggles, and no face mask. (By comparison, I’d taken to wearing a thick fleece jacket when I took the dogs to or from the dog-pen, and to keeping my head down, with my face shrouded with my own hair, before I gave up approaching the dog-pen entirely.)

Spider web in sunlight

This, of course, is the difference between someone who knows how to do something and someone who doesn’t. The exterminator walked straight toward the nest, sprayed a tiny container of insecticide directly into the entrance, deftly leaped back while the hornets flew in an upset orbit around the nest, and then leaped toward the nest to repeat the process: leap in, spray; leap out, wait. It was almost like a dance, with the exterminator’s movements exactly timed with those of the hornets. The exterminator knew when to attack and when to retreat, and the industrial-strength insecticide he used was clearly effective, disturbing a small cloud of hornets that briefly circled the nest but quickly succumbed. In a matter of minutes, a task J or I might have done clumsily, ineptly, or entirely ineffectively was done definitively: the end.

Spider web on grass

Before he left, the exterminator said to leave the nest alone for a day or so, as it sometimes takes a while for individual hornets who were out foraging to return to the nest and die. By afternoon, however, J and I tentatively approached the still-intact nest to see if we could detect any activity in or near it, and it seemed silenced for good: no hornets flying around it, no discernible movement within it, and a few dead hornets scattered on the ground beneath it. In a matter of minutes, a thriving colony of creatures who had lived in our backyard for months was eliminated, their paper house standing as a mute reminder of what happens when you call in the professionals.

Spider web on grass

On Saturday, J disposed of the nest, clipping it out of the shrub where it had been attached then smashing it on the ground, emitting a puff of insecticide and a scattering of dead larvae before gathering the pieces into the trash. It seems strange that a threat I’d grown accustomed to fearing is suddenly gone. I still flinch when I take the dogs to or from their pen, my muscle-memory hunching my shoulders defensively as I instinctively keep my back toward the shrub where the nest used to be. How long will it be before I’ve forgotten the risk and can approach the dog-pen gate carelessly, no longer scanning the air for sunlight glinting off incoming insects?

Spider web with raindrops

The sense of hushed awe I feel after watching the exterminator deftly dispatch this nuisance nest is oddly similar to the sense of anticlimax I felt when we put Reggie to sleep. The injection worked so quickly and quietly–so easily–there was an element of disbelief running parallel with my relief. After all the hard work it took to keep Reggie alive in his final months–after how fiercely Reggie himself had clung to life, refusing to relinquish even his increasingly feeble grasp–could that strong, stubborn, and resilient life be snuffed out so quietly, so quickly, without even the merest hint of resistance or struggle? Is life truly so fragile–so tenuous–that it can be extinguished irrevocably with just the right dose of chemicals, expertly administered?

Today’s photos of spider webs come from this time last year, when our neighborhood web-weavers seemed particularly active.

In reverent memory

Some stories grab you by the throat, give you a shake, and knock the breath right out of you. I recently re-read Tim O’Brien’s “How to tell a true war story,” an oft-anthologized chapter from O’Brien’s emotionally eviscerating novel, The Things They Carried. People call The Things They Carried a novel because it’s book-length and loosely fictionalized, an account of the Vietnam War that seems to overlap with O’Brien’s own experience but which he never outright claims as autobiography. Sometimes the truest stories, O’Brien suggests, didn’t actually happen: sometimes you have to change the names, places, and other details–the facts of mere biography–to express a larger truth.

Decorated

In my first-year writing classes at Framingham State, we’re discussing David Finkel’s The Good Soldiers, this year’s common reading. Finkel’s book is “true” in a way that O’Brien’s book never claims to be. Finkel is a journalist who spent eight months embedded in an Army unit stationed in Iraq during the 2007 Surge: the exact point of American occupation when everyone had pretty much given up on the war. Finkel’s account of the 2-16 and their leader, Ralph Kauzlarich, is based on fact, as journalism is supposed to be. The names of the men in the 2-16 are real, as are the appendix photos of the 14 soldiers who were killed during their deployment. Finkel traveled with the 2-16 to Iraq–he lived with them at FOB Rustamiyah, a part of Iraq most Americans never see–and he made additional fact-finding trips to places like Fort Riley and the Brooke Army Medical Center to follow-up with the men he wrote about. Finkel, in other words, takes great pains to get his facts straight, as journalists are expected to do.

Flowers and flag

These facts matter, but they aren’t the part of the book that sticks with you. This is what O’Brien, for one, understood. Finkel gets his fact straight because history is built on facts, and it’s important to honor the legacy of those who fought and those who died. But when you walk away from a book like Finkel’s, those detailed facts are the first thing you forget.

At our first class session, I asked my students a seemingly simple question. Thinking back on The Good Soldiers, regardless of how far you got into the book, what do you remember? I didn’t quiz my students on names, dates, or other details (as they had feared) since I’m notoriously forgetful about those things, too. Walking away from a book like Finkel’s, I don’t remember the names or the dates: that’s why the names are listed in the appendix and why the date is listed at the start of every chapter. These details are important, but they aren’t what you remember.

Rose offering

What you remember after reading a book like Finkel’s is the same as what you remember after reading a book like O’Brien’s. You remember the stories and the scenes that moved you, viscerally. In Finkel’s book, my students remembered the same scenes I did: the part where a soldier shoots a man in the head, only to realize a terrified Iraqi girl witnessed the killing. The part where the soldiers’ Iraqi translator brings his daughter to the U.S. military base for medical treatment. The part where Finkel visits a young soldier who is hospitalized after losing multiple limbs and sustaining severe brain damage. The part where the soldiers try to figure out how to retrieve an Iraqi corpse floating in a sewage tank. My students and I remember these scenes not because we remember all the specifics: we forget the names of the people to whom these things happened, and we forget other factual details. What we remember, though, is an emotional response: a vivid, imagined sense of how we might feel if we were in a similar situation.

World War veteran

My students have been painstakingly schooled in a particular way of reading. According to this training, their job when they read is to find and memorize minute textual details, for these are the things teachers ask on tests and quizzes. What was the first name of the leader of the 2-16? What was the name of the first soldier to die? On what date did General David Petraeus visit FOB Rustamiyah, and on what date did the battalion finally go home? These are important details, and I’m glad David Finkel took great pains to get them right, because they’re in the book whenever I need to look them up. But when I walk away from The Good Soldiers, those details aren’t what stay in my head, because those details aren’t what matter to my heart.

Patriotic goose

What matters in my heart is that both Finkel and O’Brien, in their own, different ways, give me a viscerally vivid sense of something I have never witnessed myself. Reading either book, I learn that I don’t want to experience the things these men experience, and I don’t want anyone else to have to experience these things, either. Both Finkel and O’Brien describe events that are literally unimaginable: what does the rest of your life look like if you’re a young veteran who has lost multiple limbs and sustained severe brain damage, or what is it like to come home from war with your head full of nightmares? What remains after I’ve finished both Finkel’s nonfiction narrative and O’Brien’s novel is a clear, unassailable sense that war is entirely unlike all the pious platitudes we use to describe it. If you haven’t experienced war, you can’t really “get” it, but at the same time, it’s of vital, utmost importance that these stories be told, not so the tellers can “move on,” but so the stories themselves be remembered, emblazoned in our collective memory. It’s imperative that you know this is what happened, even if you can’t fully understand it.

Decorated graves

So, how do you read a true war story? You let go of your desire to remember all the dates and names. This isn’t a history class; these things will not be on the quiz. Instead, you read with an open heart and an inquisitive mind, allowing thorny, troubling questions to take full root in your consciousness. Why exactly did we fight this war? Why exactly do we fight any war? How are soldiers, civilians, and people who literally get caught in the crossfire changed by the experience? How can you tell the “good guys” from the “bad guys” in a scenario where everything seems hopelessly complicated and confused? How can we honor the sacrifice of soldiers who serve, and how can we provide them with the support they need when they come home, forever changed by experiences we can’t possibly imagine?

Offering

One of the scenes I remember from The Good Soldiers, for instance, involves a soldier who finally opens up to his wife about what he has seen, prefacing his remarks with “How much do you want to know?” In another scene, a soldier tries to describe to his family the kind of place Rustamiyah is–a place where people literally live in shit, the ground being covered with trash and raw sewage–and his grandmother walks away, unable to stomach his descriptions. Neither The Good Soldiers nor The Things They Carried is an easy, enjoyable book: given the choice to turn away and ignore the stories they tell, you might decide you don’t want to know any of this. But one of the morals behind both books, I think, is that these are stories that need to be told. How can you claim to be informed about the world we live in–how can you claim to be an informed American citizen–if you have no idea what has been done in our name across the world, both to our presumed enemies and to our own troops?

Twin flags

One of the points that O’Brien makes in “How to Tell a True War Story” is that a war story is seldom what it seems. The chapter tells a pair of horrific stories: in one, a soldier named Lemon steps on a booby trap that shreds his body and leaves pieces of his flesh hanging in a nearby tree, and in the other, a soldier named Rat–Lemon’s best friend–repeatedly shoots a baby water buffalo just to watch it suffer. O’Brien describes how audiences of well-intentioned readers invariably misinterpret these stories, fixating on the pain inflicted on the baby water buffalo–an innocent creature–and in the process missing the story’s real point. This isn’t a war story, O’Brien explains; it’s a love story. The moral isn’t that war causes people to do horrifying things, but that love does. If Rat didn’t love Lemon, there would be no need to shoot the water buffalo. The tragedy of war isn’t simply that it is violent and deadly, but that it is also the setting for profoundly life-changing relationships. War, O’Brien suggests, is both hell and heaven, filled with an inexplicable mix of pain and poignancy.

Two rows

One of the challenges in reading The Good Soldiers is advertised in the title itself: what exactly is a “good” soldier? If you’re fixated on memorizing the names and dates, you’ll miss that question: you’ll miss, in fact, the whole point of Finkel’s narrative. On the first day of class, I raised a question my students and I will continue to grapple with in coming weeks: why did Finkel write this book, and what does he want readers to get from it? This isn’t an easy question; the answer isn’t something you can locate in the text and then memorize. The people Finkel describes are a mix of good and bad, so it’s difficult to tell exactly who the “good guys” are. Opening each chapter with a quote from President George W. Bush that gives the politically-correct version of what happened during a given week in Iraq, Finkel then juxtaposes that scrubbed and sanitary account with what actually happened to the 2-16 at that same time. Given multiple versions of the truth, which one is “truly true”? Is Bush a bad president for giving the American people an optimistic and upbeat version of a deeply troubling war, or is Bush a good leader for trying to bolster military moral however he can, even if that means claiming victory when all the facts seem to suggest otherwise?

Wilted

Ralph Kauzlarich deeply cares for the men of the 2-16 but seems over-optimistic, naïve, or even offensively insensitive when he intones his favorite saying, “It’s all good,” even in the face of tragedy. Seeking to strengthen ties with his Iraqi allies, Kauzlarich befriends the leader of an Iraqi police battalion who fears retaliation from neighbors who resent his involvement with Americans. Whenever one of Kauzlarich’s men is killed by a roadside bomb, his loyalty toward his Iraqi allies is tested. Kauzlarich wants to help the Iraqi people, but he also finds himself occasionally hating the very people he is trying to help. If you desperately want to believe your involvement in the war is “all good” because you are making a difference in the Iraqi people’s lives, you’re going to struggle with existential doubt and despair every time you realize how intractable the problems you face truly are. Winning over the Iraqi people isn’t as easy as handing out soccer balls to local children; when you can’t accurately assess who is your friend and who is your foe, you’re going to respond to even the most innocuous encounters with suspicion, dread, and fear.

Memorial wreaths

I suspect my students think they were assigned to read The Good Soldiers so they could be better informed about the war in Iraq, and presumably that is part of the common reading’s purpose. But a good book, like a true war story, does so much more than merely inform. Given the pictures that both Finkel and O’Brien paint of war, what does either writer want us to “do” with that information? Once you get a vivid taste of what war was like for a particular group of soldiers at a particular time, how does that awareness change you as a reader and a citizen?

Many flags

A good book, like a true war story, can help you become better informed, but it also can (and perhaps should) make you a more earnest asker of questions. Forget about what happened in Vietnam or Iraq; instead, raise the question of why it happened. If there is a lesson to be learned in any war (or in any war story), what are those lessons, and have we learned them? Getting the facts straight is difficult enough; grappling with the trickier question of why is infinitely more difficult. The Good Soldiers is sure about its facts but not nearly as sure about its conclusions. Given a true war story, how to you make sense of it, and what do you do with that information once you’ve received it?

Click here for more photos from Newton Cemetery, shot this past Memorial Day.

If you’re looking for an eye-opening, nuanced account of the 2007 Iraq War surge from an embedded perspective, I’d strongly recommend David Finkel’s The Good Soldiers. If you’re looking for a novel about the Vietnam War that will break your heart time and again, I’d strongly recommend Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried.

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