Sunday, November 29, 2009

Thanksgiving dinner with about 20 friends, and music and mayhem afterward: Motown, the Beatles...our guests ranged in age from 97-year-old Sylvia, in a wheelchair, who sat in the room with the instruments and watched her daughter play viola and her son-in-law on flute and organ with a big smile on her face, to 19-year-old Dylan who sat in on the drums.

I made vegetarian chili for the vegetarians (secret ingredients: Dijon mustard, black olives, red wine, fresh dill: recipe courtesy of Laurie Wagner,) and turkey for the omnivores (secret to a moist turkey: stuff it with garlic cloves, Meyer lemon slices chopped fennel, and onions rather than bread stuffing. The vegetable-lemon stuffing gives moisture, while bread stuffing absorbs it. I forget who taught me that.)

For the last two days we've been digesting, and eating leftovers, and going to the movies (The Messenger with Woody Harrelson--very good!) reading, writing, (me,) practicing music (C), and watching the climactic end of ROME (why did Cleopatra turn her ships around in the middle of the battle of Actium, thus sealing her and Antony's fate? Why? Why? Why?) And Saturday, Christopher took me on a long-awaited mystery a shooting range in Concord. Background story: I am writing a play about a combat veteran. I have never shot a gun. C arranged for his boss, a Vietnam vet, to meet us there and give us instructions in target practice.

What I learned: guns kick. Yes, they do. And they have sharp edges on them. If your thumb is in the wrong place, the kick can slice you. This is where the Band-Aid on my thumb comes from.

The noise when we first got there was unsettling, even with foam earplugs and head-phones. It was a beautiful day, clear as glass, but windy, gusting. At first I jumped a little every time anyone fired a gun close to us. Quickly I got desensitized. I can understand now how soldiers returning want to listen to really loud head-banging rock. And there was a smell of burned gunpowder in the air, smoke from all the other shooters' guns. Mingled in this smoke, the smell of a cigarette felt as if it belonged.

There is a festival in Berkeley called How Berkeley Can You Get, or something like that. The shooting range is at the opposite end of the spectrum, How Un-Berkeley Can You Get? I took a perverse pleasure in being as far away from my normal pacifist feminist Tarot-card reading improvised-dance, act-like-a-Redwood-tree hippie milieu as possible. Not that I want to live in a gun-toting veteran's culture either, but just that I don't want to be limited by ideology as to who I can hang out with or where I can find interest.

There is a whole etiquette and world connected to guns that I know next to nothing about. The people who are into them are really into them; they invest a lot of money and time and energy and passion in them. You can't be a casual gun-owner; you have to practice regularly if you ever have any intention of using one, because the muscle memory of marksmanship fades quickly without constant practice. I did hit the target a respectable amount of times for a rank beginner, although I didn't hit the bull'-eye. I'm pretty sure that "sniper" is not on the list of possible career choices for me, but at least I know what it feels like to hold a gun in my hands.

After two hours the wind and noise got to me and I went and sat in the car while Christopher continued to fire rounds with his boss. I turned the key in the ignition and there was a Bach CD. I sat and watched sunlight gild green grass and the wind riffle through it while listening to beautiful, orderly peaceful Bach punctuated by bangs and explosions from the firing range behind me.

The part of Concord where we were was relatively undeveloped: undulant green hills like breasts, peaceful, bucolic. I tried to think about beauty while I sat in the car: is there any beauty in war? A gun can be a thing of beauty. Bravery is beautiful. Sacrifice. Youth. I think of war as waste and tragedy only. But how does such an attitude feel to a returning veteran?

One veteran who served two tours in Vietnam (26 months) said he wouldn't trade his experiences in the war for anything. In the next breath he acknowledged that in some ways it had messed him up for the thirty years of his life following. You do not spend two years in combat without being changed forever by the experience.

I thought of Carla--I think of her every day, in every place. What she is going through is like a war in that it includes extreme physical stress, trauma, and the threat of death always looming over her shoulder. Even if she were miraculously cured tomorrow she would never be the same afterward. No one could be.

It's a war she never signed up to fight. She said at the outset that she didn't want to spend her energy battling ALS, she wanted to live her life to the fullest, every day, every hour that she could. And yet what that comes down to is a fight. How much of my energy have i spent fighting dumb things that didn't matter, straw men that I invented as a smokescreen for the bigger more important and scary battles? In the purest form of Islam, jihad is supposed to be a holy war which you wage against your own baser impulses: lust and greed and sloth. This seems to me to be the only war one can truly engage in with integrity. Yet sometimes--often--the outer world demands that we step up and do battle on behalf of something we believe in.

I didn't figure anything out in the car. Just let myself experience the sublime contradiction of gunshots and Bach, the car rocked now by high winds, now by explosions behind me, the illusion of safety and warmth inside, the storm outside. Eventually Christopher finished--he's tougher than I and was also wearing a warmer jacket--and we drove home to eat more leftovers (flourless chocolate cake--thank you, Debo!) I'm not sure how I can use all this material to help me finish the play but I'm glad I got to have new experiences. Thank you.


Anonymous said...

amazing stories you tell
the writing a wonder of sound, smell, taste

keep posting and
i shall keep reading

as always, thanks for the inspiration!

Colleen said...

What I am always struck by in soldier's stories is the intimacy -- not that they use that word -- that springs up between their mates. Even the injured long to go back to be with their buddies. However in the world are you supposed to go from this extreme place of adventure and loyalty and bravado and bravery and luck and pluck and disaster and shit, all with the soundtrack of heavy metal, to this boring world of domesticity and chores. That part of it I think I completely understand.

Alison said...

That's a good point, Colleen, thanks for the reminder...