i received a note from a friend

Ten days ago, as I was packing to go house-sit for my brother, I received a note from a friend.

That sounds so simple, so mundane. I received a note from a friend. But it wasn’t just a note. It was a hand-written note. Hand-written in ink. Written in ink with a lovely, idiosyncratic fist. Written in ink on fine paper — paper thoughtfully chosen, with a graphic that holds a personal meaning to me. Written in ink and posted in an envelope with a delightful and eccentric selection of postage stamps

Hand-written in ink. Think about that. When putting ink to paper, the writer has only one chance. There’s no possibility to correct a mistake in ink, so the writing must be exact. But perfect exactitude in writing usually feels mechanical — pretty, perhaps, but without any true sense of personality. So in order to write fluidly and expressively in ink, the writer must be relaxed but deliberate.

There’s a concept in Buddhism called mushin, which is generally translated as ‘no mind.’ Basically, that means emptying the mind of crap-baggage like ego and expectation and fear. The idea is that letting go of any concern about the end product allows you to be focused on what you’re doing with a level of intensity that wouldn’t be possible to achieve if you were consciously thinking about it. Mushin in writing is to write unencumbered by expectations, free of the burden of perfection, embracing imperfection, accepting the perfect beauty of the imperfect.

note and pear

I received a note from a friend. But he’s not a traditional friend. I’ve never met Fernando. I’d very much like to — but if I never do meet him, that’s perfectly okay. The internet, after all, has completely redefined the concept of friendship. It’s no longer limited by physical proximity; instead it’s grounded in shared interests. I ‘get’ Fernando. I may not always understand him, but I ‘get’ him. So yes, even though I’ve never met him, he’s definitely a friend. A friend made possible only through of the existence of the internet.

So ten days ago I received a note from a friend while I was packing to go house-sit. I read the note. Read it again. Knew I wanted to write about it, and set it on a table so I’d remember to take it with me. It was still there on the table when I got back home last night.

Here are the last two lines of the note:

There are just too few people one crosses paths in life that one can stop and make an effort to appreciate. (Their [something] is to be punished by trying to figure out my handwriting).

Fernando’s handwriting is…let’s say it’s free of the burden of perfection. And that makes it absolutely perfect.

without unnecessary conversation

Over the last couple of days I’ve been looking over the summary of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence’s report on the CIA’s ‘Detention and Interrogation Program’. It’s pretty appalling. It’s hard to single out the most reprehensible fact, but this certainly comes pretty close:

According to CIA records, interrogators began using the CIA’s enhanced interrogation techniques at DETENTION SITE COBALT a “few minutes” after the questioning of KSM began. KSM was subjected to facial and abdominal slaps, the facial grab, stress positions, standing sleep deprivation (with his hands at or above head level), nudity, and water dousing.” Chief of Interrogations [name redacted] also ordered the rectal rehydration of KSM without a determination of medical need, a procedure that the chief of interrogations would later characterize as illustrative of the interrogator’s “total control over the detainee.”

KSM is Khalid Sheikh Mohammed. And rectal rehydration — what, exactly, is that?

[T]he medical officer who subjected KSM to rectal rehydration, the officer wrote that, “w]hat I infer is that you get a tube up as far as you can, then open the IV wide. No need to squeeze the bag – let gravity do the work… [W]e used the largest Ewal [sic] tube we had.” The “lunch tray” consisted of “hummus, pasta with sauce, nuts, and raisins” which was pureed and “rectally infused.”

Again, there was no medical reason for this. It was simply used as part of the program to break Khalid Sheikh Mohammed. At least five detainees were subjected to rectal rehydration. Other detainees were subjected to rectal exams that, according to the report, were conducted with “excessive force.” Still more were threatened with rectal rehydration.

Some CIA defenders have suggested the rectal rehydration was medically necessary as a response to a hunger strike. That’s bullshit. Hunger strikes have certainly taken place (and, I believe, continue to take place) in Guantanamo, but there are ways of dealing with them that don’t require jamming a large-bore plastic tube up some guy’s ass. The Senate report describes how medical personnel “implemented various techniques to provide fluids and nutrients, including the use of a nasogastric tube and the provision of intravenous fluids” to insure hunger strikers received nourishment. In fact, one hunger striker, Majid Khan, even cooperated with that practice.

CIA records indicate that Majid Khan cooperated with the feedings and was permitted to infuse the fluids and nutrients himself. After approximately three weeks, the CIA developed a more aggressive treatment regimen “without unnecessary conversation.” Majid Khan was then subjected to involuntary rectal feeding and rectal hydration.

Without unnecessary conversation. Lawdy. Then again, I suppose if you’ve decided to torture and sexually humiliate somebody, what’s the point of chatting about it first?

But here’s the thing — under most state laws, what the CIA called ‘rectal rehydration’ would be considered rape. Federal law at the time these horrors took place still defined rape as “carnal knowledge of a female forcibly and against her will.” Under federal law, it was impossible to rape a man. Since then, the Department of Justice has changed the law to include men is victims. The law now includes the following in the definition of rape:

The penetration, no matter how slight, of the vagina or anus with any body part or object, or oral penetration by a sex organ of another person, without the consent of the victim. (emphasis added)

These men were raped. These men, while in U.S. custody, were deliberately raped as part of a program designed to break their spirit. They were raped by U.S. operatives in a conscious effort to sexually humiliate them. They were raped purely as a means to assert control over them, to demonstrate the ability of the United States to do whatever the hell we wanted, to impose our will on them in any way we wanted.

Rape, of course, is a crime. Systematic rape as a tactic in war is included by the International Criminal Court as a crime against humanity. The authorization of systematic rape is also a war crime.

And the Bush administration’s justification for this? We were afraid. The U.S. had been attacked on 9/11/2001 and we were afraid. We were afraid, so we tortured people and sexually humiliated them. We were — and still are — so afraid of terrorists that we allowed them to terrorize us into betraying ourselves.

A year and a half ago I said we’d become a nation of fear-biters. Not much has changed.

but… but… what if…?

That ‘ticking time bomb’ scenario? Total bullshit. There’s absolute no evidence that such a scenario has ever taken place. No evidence at all. Yet it keeps coming up in almost every discussion about torture.

“But what if we knew with absolute and perfect certainty that this guy has detailed knowledge of a bomb that’s going to detonate, and we knew with absolute and perfect certainty that it would detonate in a couple of hours, and we knew with absolute and perfect certainty that hundreds or thousands of innocent people would die — and what if this guy totally refused to talk. Would you still say torture was wrong in that situation?”

Well, yeah. It would still be wrong. The exigency of the situation doesn’t magically turn a wrong thing into a right thing.

Former CIA Director Michael Hayden, coward.

Former CIA Director Michael Hayden, coward.

“But what if we knew with absolute and perfect certainty that the victims included your family or friends? What if some of those victims were people you loved? Would you still say torture was wrong?”

Yeah, it’s still wrong. The identities of the potential victims aren’t materially relevant to whether or not it’s wrong to torture people. If it’s not okay to torture somebody to save a stranger, why would it be okay to torture somebody to save a person you know? Besides, there’s no way to be certain the torture would elicit reliable intelligence.

Former Vice President Richard Cheney, coward.

Former Vice President Richard Cheney, coward.

“But what if we knew with absolute and perfect certainty that torture did work, and that by using it we’d be able to save thousands of lives. Would you still be opposed to torture?”

Yeah. Torture would still be wrong. It’s not a question of effectiveness. It’s a question of national morality. It’s a question of who we are as a nation.

“So let me get this straight. You’re saying that if we knew with absolute and perfect certainty that torture worked, and we knew with absolute and perfect certainty that using torture would provide information that would save thousands of lives — if we knew all that, are you saying you wouldn’t use torture against one person to save the lives of thousands?”

No, I’m not saying that. I’m saying first and foremost that torture is inherently wrong and should be punishable as a crime. I’m saying torture doesn’t really work, that it isn’t an effective way to get information. But if I knew with absolute and perfect certainty that I could save a thousand lives by torturing one person, I’d do it. I’d torture the hell out of him. And I’d expect to go to prison for doing it. I’d be okay with serving a long prison sentence — or even a life sentence, or possibly a death sentence — in exchange for saving thousands of innocent lives.

Former President of the United States George W. Bush, coward.

Former President of the United States George W. Bush, coward.

What these jackasses in the CIA and in the Bush administration want is the power to torture suspects without any consequence. Fuck that, and fuck them. If they believe so strongly that torture is necessary, then let them pay the price for doing it. We see soldiers and police officers and firefighters routinely risk their lives to save people. We see ordinary folks all over the world risking injury or possible death by protesting against policies they believe are wrong. They know the risks and they’re willing to suffer the consequences of their actions.

If the CIA and members of the Bush administration really believed torture worked, if they really thought it was effective, if they truly thought it saved lives, then they should also be willing to accept the consequences. I don’t care if their intentions were good. If they’re not willing to own up to what they did and pay the price, then they’re just fucking cowards.

okay, yeah, that’s pretty weird

Let’s just acknowledge that everybody’s life is weird. They’re all weird in different ways, sure — but the weirdness is there. It’s built into the system; you can’t get around it. Most of the time we don’t even notice the weirdness of our own lives. It’s so much easier to see the weirdness of other folks.

Today, though, some of the weirdness of my life bled through. First off, it’s my birthday. That’s not a big deal and there’s nothing weird about it. Everybody has a birthday. The only thing weird about mine is that I happen to be house-sitting for my brother (who is larking about on the beaches of Puerto Vallarta), so I’m sitting here alone in a strange house that’s decorated with about a thousand snowmen. Not actual snowmen (nor those creepy-cool snowmen from Doctor Who), just holiday decoration snowmen.

me in the mirror

It’s also a little weird to get a lot of birthday greetings. The greetings themselves aren’t particularly weird (well, some of them are a tad weird), but as I read through them all I’m reminded that I have a pretty odd range of friends and acquaintances. Lots of writers, lots of artists, lots of librarians, some lawyers, some regular working folks, a few gun nuts, a few scientists and mathematicians, a former nun, lots of tech-related people, some folks who work as advocates for mostly lefty causes. There are more women than men, more liberals than conservatives, more straight folks than gay, more folks from the US than any other place, but all in all it’s a pretty eclectic group.

Most folks just say ‘Happy birthday’ and leave it at that, which is nice and simple and direct. I’m a big fan of simple. One person wants me to use the occasion of my birthday to ‘reflect on your life and this past year, and consider what it’s all meant.’ This person hopes I ‘gain a deeper understanding of what it means to be you’ and wants me to ‘examine what you’re feeling today and why you’re feeling it’. It’s very sincere and earnest and I appreciate this person’s concern — but at the same time I’m thinking ‘Don’t you fucking know me at all?’

Seriously, I can’t remember the last time I felt the need to try to understand what I’m feeling. I figure if I’m feeling it, that’s good enough. And a deeper understanding of what it means to be me? I don’t even know what that means. Don’t get me wrong; it’s sweet that somebody is concerned about my spiritual growth. If that’s what the concern is. But lawdy, I’ve been me my entire life — there’s not much new to learn, and frankly that makes thinking about myself as a person pretty dull. It’s more fun to think about other folks. I’m used to my own patch of weird; I’m a lot more interested in the weirdness of others.

That said, my patch of weird expanded a little today. I discovered that a few days ago I was featured on a website called Nail Art Design. I swear, I am NOT making this up. There’s actually a website about nail art, and there’s actually a photo of me wearing red nail polish and holding a snow shovel.

Let me just repeat that. There’s a photograph of me wearing red nail polish and holding a snow shovel on Nail Art Design.

Even I have to admit that’s a little weird.

threat assessment

Joseph Houseman, sixty-odd years old, staggeringly drunk, with a semi-automatic rifle over his shoulder, wandering around a busy commercial area, shouting obscenities, threatening revolution. Several frightened people called the police.

The police arrived, as they’re required to do when called by the public. They spent forty minutes talking Houseman down. Houseman eventually surrendered the weapon and was allowed to stagger home. The following day he reported to the police station, where his firearm was returned to him. No charges were filed. Michigan, after all, is an open carry state

Tamir Rice, twelve years old, playing with a pellet pistol in a nearly empty public park. One person reported “a guy with a pistol” at the park, telling the dispatcher twice that the gun was “probably a fake.”

The police arrived, as they’re required to do when called by the public. They shot Rice after approximately two seconds. They neglected to administer first aid. Rice died. Ohio, after all, is an open carry state.

What? You think race might have had something to do with the police response? Race? Are you crazy? How could it be about race? We have a black president. What, are you some sort of race-baiter? It’s about…you know…threat assessment.


We fucked it up again. As a society, we took yet another ‘teachable moment’ and we found a way to fuck it up. We fucked it up because we’ve abandoned the notion of a nuanced world. We fucked it up because we wanted Michael Brown to be a completely innocent victim, because we wanted Officer Darren Wilson to be a villain, because we wanted Michael Brown to be a thug, because we wanted Darren Wilson to be a hero, because we wanted Michael Brown to be a racist, because we wanted Darren Wilson to be a racist.

We fucked it up because we didn’t even bother to look at them as people. We immediately made them into symbols. For the most part we didn’t bother to look at what little evidence was available to us. When we did look, we only talked about the evidence that supported what we wanted to believe.

We fucked it up because we’ve become a society eager to be offended. Eager to be outraged. Eager to blame others. Eager to justify our own particular position and eager to malign those with whom we disagree. We fucked it up because we weren’t really interested in what actually happened, or why it actually happened. We fucked it up because we insisted on packing what happened into specific narratives.

Was Michael Brown a ‘gentle giant’? Yes, sometimes. Was he also a thug? Yes he was, sometimes. Was Darren Wilson a villain? Yes, sometimes. Was he also a hero? Yes, sometimes he was. Were they both racist? Yes, of course they were, sometimes. Because ALL of us are complex, because none of us is just one thing.

What happened in those few minutes in Ferguson was a cascade of spontaneous escalating events shaped by years of experience. What’s happened in the days and weeks following those few minutes has been shaped by people trying to wedge what happened into inflexible ideological storylines.

But there was a period — a few hours, maybe a couple of days, maybe even as much as a week — when it might have been possible for us as a society to try to understand Michael Brown and Darren Wilson. To understand each of them as people, not simply as symbols of what we fear. To understand why each of them acted and reacted the way they did.

We’ve had a lot of those ‘teachable’ moments in the last few years. We’ve fucked up most of them. We fucked them up because our immediate instinct is to polarize, to defend our position and vilify the other, to justify our view and make the other view illegitimate. We fuck them up because we refuse to acknowledge the possibility that we might be even partially wrong, because we refuse to accept the others may be partially right. We’ve fucked them up because we believe winning is more important than understanding

I’m pessimistic about the future of society. I’m also optimistic. (ALL of us are complex; none of us is just one thing.) I’m pessimistic because of Ferguson, because of Newtown, because of Ukraine, because of the mid-term elections, because of Syria, because of Ebola fuckwits, because because because of so many things. But I’m optimistic too, because same-sex marriage is now legal in 35 states. Because Dr. Matt Taylor made a complete and sincere apology for wearing a stupid, sexist shirt to announce a major scientific achievement. Because the guys behind Gamergate have failed. Because the Pope blessed a male stripper’s parrot. Because despite all the unrest, the Ferguson Municipal Public Library remains open today. Because as awful as things are, they’re not as awful as they could be — and because they’re getting slightly less awful all the time.

The failure to indict Officer Wilson is actually another ‘teachable’ moment. Most people have no idea how a grand jury works, or the purpose it serves, or why grand juries exist, or how they’re flawed. Maybe people in Ferguson can go to their public library today and learn about grand juries.

Of course, all across the nation library funding is being cut. Libraries are cutting hours, cutting staff, closing branches. That’s another ‘teachable’ moment we’re almost certainly going to fuck up.

The only good thing about all these ‘teachable’ moments is that each of them forces a few people to actually learn.

Did he have a flag on his lapel?

This morning I’m oddly pleased that Democrats lost so many of the mid-term elections. It’s not that I think the Republicans will govern well — or at all, for that matter. It’s just that President Obama, having been spanked so badly, has sort of been liberated. For far too long he’s moderated himself to placate timid Democrats who, for reasons entirely beyond comprehension, believed their re-election depended on appeasing conservative white male voters.

Last night the president gave the speech he should have given two or three months ago. Or two or three years ago. And, of course, Republicans are outraged and in an uproar. Sure, they’d have been outraged and in an uproar about something else if Obama hadn’t given the speech. Outrage and uproar is their default position. So this morning I decided to take a dip in the fetid sinkhole of conservative outrage and uproar: FreeRepublic.

King Barry Soetoro’s actions to accelerate the collapse of the United States may portend that the US will collapse.

This is really a classic example of FreeRepublicanism. It’s dismissive of the President of the United States, it’s mocking, it’s angry, it’s inaccurate, it’s badly-written, it’s misleading, it’s paranoid, it’s insulting, it makes no sense, it’s pretentious, and it’s profoundly stupid. It’s very nearly perfect. Ninety-five points.

What's that on his lapel?

What’s that on his lapel?

So King Putt, a well-known Islamic Marxist, has the audacity to reference the Bible to support his illegal agenda? CONGRESS MUST REIGN HIM IN OR THIS NATION IS DONE!!! What kind of country will we leave our children and grandchildren?

DONE!!! That’s what the nation is. So says the guy who doesn’t know the difference between ‘rein’ and ‘reign’. Also, King Putt. Get it? King Putt? You know, because The Bamz thinks he’s a pharoah like King Tut, and he’s an African and Africa is where Egypt is, and he likes to play golf while Americans are beheaded in Syria. So King Putt. Hilarious! You have to wonder how many hours of the day these guys spend trying to come up with clever names for The Bamz. So, points for ALL CAPS, points for clever name, points for the Muslim and Marxist bit, points for extra exclamation marks, points for fretting about the suffering of future generations, points for bad spelling. But low marks for style. Ninety points.

Not watching the end of America. O’Bola, rot in hell.

It’s totally the end of America, you guys! Those five million undocumented aliens will cause America to completely collapse now that they’ll have to get legitimate jobs and start paying taxes! Or something like that. Plus, they have accents and their food smells funny. Also too, O’Bola. Get it? Obama Ebola. See, it’s funny. So, points for the end of America, extra points for the O’Bola stretch, but this guy loses points for the absence of exclamation marks. Seventy-three points. Worthy effort.

He must be impeached now. A precedent such as this cannot be allowed to stand.

Okay, now he must be impeached. All those other times he must be impeached, they don’t count. This time, seriously, impeach. I’m sorry to say, this is a pathetic effort. It’s embarrassing, really. Sure, the precedent comment was a nice pump fake (since, of course, there are LOTS of precedents), but all around, pathetic. Thirty points, tops. I mean, c’mon…not even a clever name.

What the HELL is that...there on his lapel?

What the HELL is that…there on his lapel?

Don’t know, I am not watching the dictator. Cleaning my guns.

Oh, it was a nice start, that dictator business…but a sad failure to follow through. He’s cleaning his guns because…Mexicans are coming? Or The Bamz is planning to take them away? Or just in case Texas secedes from the Union? Or because there will be international race riots after that Ferguson police officer is indicted. Or not indicted. Or maybe he’s cleaning them because the Second American Revolution is just around the corner? Or maybe somebody is playing music he doesn’t like?  All of the above? Points for ‘dictator’ and guns, but significant loss of points for lack of gun-cleaning specificity. It could have been so good…but forty points.

On his lapel, it's sort of fuzzy, is that...what IS that?

On his lapel, it’s sort of fuzzy, is that…what IS that?

My loathing of the illegitimate, bisexual, Marxist Kenyan Muslim Usurper requires medication.

Now this is more like it. His loathing requires medication. Medicated loathing, you guys! Major stupidity points there. And bisexual? Big points. Usurper? Really big points, both for the term and for not understanding what it means. No exclamation marks, which is a shame., and let’s face it, Marxist Kenyan is a tad trite. We’ve all heard that before. But still, seventy-eight points for medicated loathing and Bamzish bisex.

Did he have a flag on his lapel? It didn’t quite look like one, it looked blurry on my tv.

That fucking Obama! There it is! No flag on his lapel! Impeach! ONE HUNDRED POINTS!!!

It's an America flag, you fucking idjit.

It’s an American flag, you fucking idjit.