Sunday, January 30, 2005


I just can’t escape it
It’s all around me

No matter where I look I find some

Step outside – my, look at those stars!
And the moon. Sigh.

Even on the ground I see
Sparkling like little spider’s eyes in my headlamp
Tiny bits of mica? Gold? Who knows what

Morning clouds suffused in a salmon glow on one side
And clothed in soft gray shadows on the other
Against a background of the deepest blue imaginable

Flowing away from the sun
Like the long pleats of a fan
Gently held in a lady’s hand

Wednesday, January 26, 2005

American Hero (adapted from John Lennon's "Working Class Hero")

You drive around town in your new SUV
Put a flag in the window and think you are free
But we are slaves to oil as far as I can see
An American hero is something to be (x2)

Thousands of hours of your life it will steal
It tells you what to buy what to think and how to feel
Till you can’t hardly tell what’s TV and what’s real
An American hero is something to be (x2)

“Be very afraid” they will keep telling you
The terrorists are coming but there’s nothing we can do
Except to keep shopping and wear red, white, and blue
An American hero is something to be (x2)

You walk into a church and they teach you their creed
For salvation they say their faith is all you need
Never mind how you live in your word and in your deed
An American hero is something to be (x2)

Republican, Democrat, it’s all the same
Just politicians playing in the big money game
They call it democracy I call it a shame
An American hero is something to be (x2)

No risk to themselves so they send us off to war
Each day we are killing and dying some more
But they get to choose what we’re fighting for
An American hero is something to be (x2)

Imagine how different our lives could all be
Living in peace in a world community
Just open your heart and your mind and you’ll see
An American hero is something to be
An American hero is what you could be

If you want to be a hero then just follow me
If you want to be a hero then set yourself free

Tuesday, January 25, 2005

No Turning Back

If I had really wanted to go,
I could have volunteered, don’t you know.
But now there’s no turning back,
I’m on my way to Iraq. Ohhh…

Left my life left my home,
Feeling so sad and alone.
Knew it right from the start,
To say “goodbye” would break my heart. Ohhh…

I didn’t want to come here,
And leave my family so dear.
Still there’s no turning back,
I’m here in the sands of Iraq -

But I’m still part of the team,
Still claim the title “Marine.”
With my brothers in arms,
Together we’ll come to no harm. Ohhh…

This day soon will be past,
Forever it will not last.
Many tomorrows will come,
And soon there will be only one –

One more day left to go,
I’m gonna leave soon don’t you know.

Now that my time is through,
And I’ve come back home to you.
I will not turn my back,
On those who are still in Iraq.

Sunday, January 23, 2005

Who's New at Kalsu

Even in a place where every day is Monday, some things do change. Of course there are the cycles of light and dark, the waxing and waning of the moon, hot water and no hot water, rice and no rice… But real change is also in the air - there are some new faces here lately.

On a recent morning as I was walking back to my tent after eating breakfast, I stopped to admire the sunrise. There were dozens of puffy clouds, suffused in a salmon glow on the east, and clothed in soft grey shadow on the west. They seemed to be streaming from the sun, which was rising redly from the morning haze. All this, against a background of deepest blue, made me stop and look. As I was standing there gaping at the sky, two civilians (who I had noticed are living in the transient tent opposite mine) came up and started teasing me about not being able to find my tent. “I know I left it here somewhere – let’s see, it’s big and green…” After laughing at their joke and agreeing about the beauty of the sunrise, we made our introductions. These two men, David and Tom, work for CBS on the television news program “60 Minutes.” Tom, a producer, and David, a cameraman, are here doing a story about Colonel Johnson, the Commanding Officer of the Marine Expeditionary Unit here at FOB Kalsu. Dan Rather is coming out this weekend to do the main interview. The others in the crew (that I know of) are Manny, the sound man, and Kirk, the “fixer.” He is a print journalist whose years of military experience help smooth the way for the whole team’s interactions with the Marines.

It was of course interesting to learn that little old Kalsu would be in the media spotlight, but it was also interesting just to talk to these journalists. Both of them have been here to Iraq half a dozen times or so, and have likely seen more of the country, and more of the war and occupation, than I have. We talked a little bit about the book I had recently read, “War Is a Force That Gives Us Meaning,” by Pulitzer-prize winning journalist (and UU) Chris Hedges. David had read it (or at least heard of it), but Tom had not, and David agreed about the “narcotic of war” that keeps people coming back for more. Tom was not so sure, and didn’t really say why he was here for the sixth time. Perhaps he just sees it as part of his job.

In a later conversation, David told me about his experience flying in a Huey helicopter on a counter-IED patrol, which he says got a little bit exciting. The door gunner noticed some Iraqis “throwing things on the road, and the crew went into full anti-IED mode.” He didn’t elaborate much about that, other than to say the pilot was banking the helicopter up on its side, with his side down. I think he got a little more excitement than he bargained for.

Some other new faces around here belong to Army National Guard soldiers from Mississippi. They have been trickling in here over the past few weeks, and I’m seeing more and more of them in the chowhall and gym, and fewer and fewer Marines. It’s easy to tell Marines and soldiers apart: we Marines have our own “special” design of camouflage utilities, called Marine Pattern (MARPAT) “digital” desert cammies, while the soldiers wear the standard “chocolate chip” desert cammies. Even in the gym we dress differently – Marines wear “green on green” and the Army wears “gray on black.”

There are many cultural differences between the Marine Corps and the Army as well. One night while taking a shower, I was trying to explain our water conserving shower technique - known to sailors and Marines as a “Navy shower” – whereby one gets wet, turns off the water, lathers up, then turns the water back on to rinse off. Of course the soldiers don’t know about “Navy showers,” but they do know about “field showers.” Aha. It’s just a matter of finding the right terminology.

And then there’s Hoo-ah. I don’t know its origin, but it’s the Army’s all-purpose word for “yes,” “outstanding,” “I agree,” and “I’m so motivated I don’t know what to say!” During my conversation about saving water in the showers, the soldier used Hoo-ah more than any other word. At least he was being agreeable.Of course Marines are much more eloquent than that. We have our own language for many things, and much of it is borrowed from the Navy. We swab the deck, not mop the floor. We secure the hatch, not shut the door. And no Marine would ever say “hoo-ah” to indicate agreement, enthusiasm, or motivation. No, as in those other cases, we have our own terminology, whose origin is similarly obscure - Marines say “OOH-RAH.”

Wednesday, January 19, 2005

UU and the Military

We, the member congregations of the Unitarian Universalist Association, covenant to affirm and promote: Acceptance of one another and encouragement to spiritual growth in our congregations.

- Third Principle of
Unitarian Universalism

In the summer of 2003 I attended the Pacific Coast District (of the UUA) Leadership School in Alamo, California. It was a fantastic experience, during which I learned a lot about myself and relating to others in a cooperative, collaborative setting. I also began to see another side of the challenge of being a military UU.

Early on in the week-long school, I met a woman who was quite enthralled that I was a Marine. She was so taken with it, in fact, that she started referring to me as “the Marine” whenever she saw me. This began to really bother me, as I did not want to be “labeled” for my military career, but met and known as another human, UU, and student.

That night during Closing Circle, I requested that people not identify me by my career, anymore than they identified Tom as “the doctor” or Julie as “the body shop owner.” Afterwards, one of the other students came up to me and said “I think it’s funny that you had to ‘come out’ as a Marine, but in this crowd, my being a gay man is totally accepted and unremarkable.” He was right – it was funny. At the same time, however, it is also revealing of the inherent prejudices and opinions of many UUs.

I have found that a lot of older UUs – typically those who lived through and participated in the peace movement in the 1960’s and 1970’s - initially tend to be less accepting of me when they find out I’m in the military. Just as I am a black sheep as one of the very few UUs in the Marine Corps (less than 100 out of 178,000), I also often feel the same way as one of only about 500 active duty military members among 100,000 or so UUs.

Thankfully, I have never encountered any outright hostility from other UUs because of my military affiliation, but there have been some uncomfortable moments when I can see the “barriers of stereotype” come up between me and a person who has just learned I’m a Marine. Others’ reactions in such a situation typically vary from mild surprise to incredulity, and there are always questions about when and why I became a Marine, how long I’ve been a UU, and how that affects and is affected by my identity as a UU.

In particular, I can remember three specific times when I’ve met another UU who discovered that the person I am when she got to know me did not match her stereotyped preconception of who I would be as a Marine. One was a woman in my first congregation who is now a very dear friend, the second was a member of my Covenant Group at General Assembly (GA), and the third was the Starr King seminarian I wrote about in a previous post, “Words.” In all three cases, once these ladies were able to put aside their preconceptions about my attitudes, beliefs, and values, we were able to connect as humans and individuals sharing UU community, and it was enriching on both sides.

Being a military UU is not easy. I have been engaged in an ongoing search for reconciliation between my values and my profession since I became serious about Unitarian Universalism about three years ago. Think of the issues surrounding UUs and the military as two sides of a coin. On one side lies the internal challenge of personal reconciliation and integration – call it “the UU in the military”. On the other side of this coin is the closely related, external institutional challenge of how military UUs are perceived and accepted in our congregations, or “the military in UU.”

If our UU congregations are to be truly welcoming and accepting spiritual homes for all comers, then we as a movement should examine how we deal with military UUs. Do our congregations welcome military members? Are our congregants aware of the challenges facing military UUs? Are we willing to support our military members in their search for reconciliation of values and profession as well as a personal search for truth and meaning?

I have been fortunate to belong to two congregations with a tradition of military-affiliated members. Neither congregation has many active duty members, but both of them enfold many retired or former service men and women and DOD civilian employees. This tradition has set the stage for my acceptance by both congregations. From my brief experiences with other congregations and many conversations on the topic, however, I am concerned that this level of acceptance is uncommon, and in general awareness of military UU issues is low.

Fortunately I am not alone! At GA last summer, I was very fortunate to meet and bond with a small group of fellow military-affiliated UUs: Nancy, a Navy spouse, like me called to UU ministry; Ann, a DOD employee I know from my first congregation; and Dave, a Marine reservist who is going back to school. Ann had the tremendous idea of creating a GA program about these issues, and with a little bit of hard work, we are making her dream a reality for GA 2005. Our program will bring an active duty member, a UU chaplain, a UU military spouse, and a UU DOD civilian together as a panel to share their stories from both sides of the coin of UU and the military.

This GA program is just a starting point for other military UU’s to join in the conversation, and an outreach opportunity to increase the general level of awareness of military members in our congregations. In keeping with the ideal of using education to combat oppression, we see this effort as a first step toward full acceptance of all military UUs as individuals within our congregations.

Monday, January 17, 2005


The other day I was working out at the gym, grinding away on an elliptical trainer. On the machine next to me was a female soldier, whose steady stream of foul language caused me to cringe internally. I am accustomed to being around men who swear all the time, but for some reason (perhaps a cultural expectation of how a “lady” ought to behave?), this woman’s words really got my attention. I was reminded that although they may “just be words,” their careless or unmindful use can cause unintended offense, pain, and suffering.

This episode reminded me of when my wife was pregnant with our son, while I was a flight instructor in a Navy jet training squadron. In anticipation of the birth of our first child, I had decided to stop swearing so much. I wanted to reverse the effects of having been in the military for my entire adult life. This personal effort to clean up my own language made me very aware of how the people around me talked, and I noticed that there was one other instructor pilot in particular who used the “f word” very frequently. I have to give him credit for creativity, for he was able to employ this Anglo-Saxon monosyllable (with minor variations) as a noun, verb, adjective, and adverb. One day he was briefing and leading a flight I was also part of, and during his brief I started counting how many times he used this word. I had to quit at 50, because it was so frequent and so distracting that I wasn’t paying attention to the brief!

Over seven years later, I am still struggling to limit the presence of these crude words in my vocabulary. I have been reminded on several occasions that “little pitchers have big ears.” When my son was about 18 months old, I was walking along a street in Old Town Yuma, Arizona with him on my shoulders. We were approaching a “glorietta” or traffic circle, and the only traffic on the street was a truck traveling parallel to us. When the driver reached the circle, he should have gone around it clockwise to make his left turn; however, presumably because there was no other traffic, he cut across directly to the left. Observing this, I commented under my breath, “nice job, jackass.” At which point my dear little son shouted at the top of his lungs, in his clear, piping voice, “jackass, jackass!” As if that weren’t bad enough, the driver’s window was down and as his head snapped our way in astonishment, all I could do was wave and grin sheepishly.

As a Plebe at the Naval Academy, I was required to memorize the 24 verses of the “Laws of the Navy.” The second half of the 17th verse reads:

They prosper who burn in the morning,
The letters they wrote overnight.

The modern equivalent of this admonition is to leave outgoing e-mail in the “Drafts” folder for a few hours or days after writing, and then carefully consider the words used and their effect on the reader prior to clicking the “Send” button. Modern communication technology now allows us to offend, inflame, and hurt each other almost instantaneously – even from halfway around the planet.

I experienced this (on the receiving end) recently, when I received an e-mail from a first-year seminarian at Starr King School for the Ministry, the UU seminary in Berkeley. After having been given the URL for my weblog by a mutual friend, she had read some of my posts and written me with some questions. She wondered how a person could believe in “UU values,” such as the inherent worth and dignity of every person, and still be in the military, whose ultimate purpose is killing. This is an excellent question, one that I have pondered almost ceaselessly for the last three years!

The main thing that struck me about this message was her use of language. I found her approach confrontational when she asked me to “justify my career as part of an organization whose purpose is killing” and labeled me a “career militarist.” To her credit, she realized that I might take her approach to be rude or provoking, and apologized in advance if I took it that way. Perhaps this was one of those messages that should have stayed in the Drafts folder for a while.
I read her e-mail several times, trying to keep an open mind. I decided that although my initial reaction was to take offense, my mindful response would be to lift up the effect of her choice of words, and to ask her for more information about her background and perspective so I could mindfully choose my words to answer her questions. This give and take has resulted in a very enjoyable dialogue, and introduced me to a wonderful new friend.

From swearing soldiers and sailors to swearing toddlers, from Plebe rates to e-mail, lessons in mindful communication are everywhere. All we need to do is pay attention.

Wednesday, January 12, 2005


Anger is like a fire - it can smolder for days, weeks, or years, and then suddenly burst forth with heat and fury, leaving chaos and destruction in its wake. Like fire, anger can also be controlled and extinguished before it causes damage. It’s up to me to be the fireman.

I have experienced a lot of anger in recent weeks. Much of it has centered on sleep - seven days out of ten of interrupted sleep left me tired, cranky, and lingering on the edge of another cold. It is a vicious cycle – I don’t get enough sleep, so I am angry, but because I’m angry, I have a hard time sleeping.

I have been angry with my tentmate Bob. I have been frustrated in trying to communicate with him and angry with his lack of consideration. I have wished to live somewhere else despite the fact that we interact for less than an hour a day. I have let my irritation at some of his personal habits grow into anger at him as a person.

I have also experienced anger at my overall situation. I was very frustrated to be in Iraq during the holidays rather than at home with my family and friends. I am angry that we are still embroiled in a violent occupation of this country with no end in sight. I am very tired of smelling burning garbage, cigarette smoke, and onion rings so much of the time. I long to use a normal toilet rather than a porta-john. I want to sleep in a comfortable bed in a snug house instead of in a drafty tent.

It is important to me to take responsibility for this anger. I need to “own” it – acknowledge that it is mine – for then I can deal with it. I try to be mindful in expressing my anger, using the expression “I am angry about ____” rather than “____ made me angry.” It is MY emotion and I am the one feeling the anger. To some degree I have control of my emotions, so in effect I make a choice to be angry with a person or a situation. Once I take responsibility for my anger, I can accept it and express it, rather than denying or suppressing it.

Suppressed anger can cause all sorts of problems, such as ulcers, chronic sickness, and depression. It can flare up without warning and hurt the ones I love. My suppressed anger typically comes out when I am frustrated by minor things. For example, the computer is a wonderful invention, but it can turn grumpiness into raging anger in a matter of seconds. I curse and swear at this vile machine, Microsoft, Dell, and Bill Gates. Oddly this seldom makes me feel better. However, it is a good impetus to look for the REAL cause of my anger.

The most destructive kind of anger is suppressed anger toward another person. Left to fester, it can lead to unmindful speech, rash acts, regret and sorrow, and more anger. It is very easy to jump from frustration with another person’s behavior or actions to anger and ill will toward the person herself. If I become frustrated or angry with something another person does, I need to separate the person’s actions from the person, own my anger at the actions, accept it, express it, and then let it go.

There are many root causes of anger. Three that I see in my life are frustrated or conflicting personal interests, feelings of impotence or lack of control, and unrealized expectations. When anger arises, I want to identify and respond to its cause rather than blindly react to its symptoms. What are my interests that were frustrated or blocked? How do I reconcile them with the situation? What are the circumstances that make me feel out of control? Is there anything about the situation I can control? What were my expectations that were not met? Can I let go of outcomes and expectations and concentrate on process?

Although unpleasant, anger is part of my continuum of emotions, so I must be able to accept it and find its positive outlet. Feeling angry is normal and natural, but it is very important to express it healthily. I find myself writing page after page about my angers and frustrations, and “venting” to my friends. One day, however, I was so angry about being awakened by explosions and not being able to go back to sleep that I couldn’t even write about it – I just had to DO something! I found great relief in the gym, tiring my body so that the anger was not so all-consuming. I was able to accept the anger, meditate on it, and let it go.

Will I get angry again? Of course – I’m human. But if I try to live mindfully, I can learn to own my anger, accept it, express it, and let it go. I can choose not to let my anger consume my life, inflame my emotions, and poison my relationships. I can live in the present, leaving anger’s control of me in the past.

Sunday, January 09, 2005

Who's Waving?

The following poem was originally published as “From the Shore” by poet, UU Minister, and prostate cancer warrior Ric Masten. I was reintroduced to this work in an article in UU World Magazine. To me it evokes the human condition and the perils of unmindful communication.

I ain’t waving babe, I’m drowning
going down in a cold lonely sea
I ain’t waving babe, I’m drowning
so babe quit waving at me

I ain’t waving babe I’m crying
I’m crying, oh why can’t you see?
I ain’t fooling babe, I ain’t fooling
so babe quit fooling with me

this ain’t singing babe, it’s screaming
I’m screaming that I’m gonna drown
and you’re smiling babe, and you’re waving
just like you don’t hear a sound

I ain’t waving babe, I’m drowning
going right down in front of you
and you’re waving babe, you keep waving
hey babe, are you drowning too?


Ric Masten, from Let It Be a Dance: Words and One-Liners
© 2004, Ric Masten and Carmel Publishing

Wednesday, January 05, 2005

Mindful Consumption

Aware of the suffering caused by unmindful consumption, I vow to cultivate good health, both physical and mental, for myself, my family, and my society, by practicing mindful eating, drinking, and consuming. I vow to ingest only items that preserve peace, well-being, and joy in my body, in my consciousness, and in the collective body and consciousness of my family and society.

-The Fifth Precept (excerpt)
from “The Blooming of a Lotus”
by Thich Naht Hanh

Ours is a culture of wide-screen televisions, fast-food restaurants, big box stores, SUVs, shopping malls, and enormous houses, all fueled by the non-stop assault of advertising. The message from business and government is buy! buy! buy! More! more! more! Cars, houses, and our appetites grow larger by the year, while we lose all sense of the true cost and consequences of our unsustainable level of consumption. How much is enough? When is it too much? The practice of mindful consumption can help restore awareness and balance between needs and wants, and provide an escape from our unhealthy culture of consumerism.

I try to practice mindful consumption by being intentional about the things I eat, drink, and buy, and maintaining an awareness of their origins and path to my door. For example, where were my new shoes made? Were they produced by sweatshop labor? Were they produced using sustainable materials? Did their production create unnecessary pollution? Does my purchase of these shoes preserve “peace, well-being, and joy…in the collective body and consciousness of…society?” I can ask these questions about anything I consume.

Unfortunately, our advertising-driven consumer culture encourages impulse purchasing and brand loyalty rather than responsible consumption. It can be very difficult to discern the origins of the clothes I wear, the food I eat, and the toys my children play with. I may be able to see from the label that something is “Made in China,” but how do I know about the working conditions in the factory? How do I even begin to find out? Mindful consumption of consumer goods can be very challenging.

Some ways to practice mindful consumption is to do without, use what I have more efficiently, or purchase goods that I know are made locally and/or sustainably. I can ask myself if I really need a new pair of shoes. Perhaps I can take my old ones to the local cobbler and have them resoled. Do I really need to drive my car to work every day? Maybe I can carpool with a coworker, take public transportation, or ride my bike two or three times a week.

Mindful consumption of food is a bit easier, and it can begin with joining a local organic cooperative or shopping at a local farmers’ market. It is also possible to find organic and natural foods in most grocery stores, but they might have been transported long distances (which consumes oil and causes pollution) rather than being locally produced. When buying meat, chicken or fish, I can insist on free-range, humanely raised animals free of antibiotics and hormones. I can refuse to support factory farming and its cruelty and pollution.

Mindful consumption is a concept whose timeliness cannot be overstated. Our economy, society, and our very way of life are based on a capitalist model of every-increasing consumption that is unsustainable even if it were capped at its present level. Americans comprise 5% of the world’s population, yet consume about a quarter of its resources. Something is going to give - the situation will become critical within the next 50 years, if not sooner. My grandchildren will live in a completely different world – either one in which the human race has wisely chosen a new path toward sustainability and long-term health of the planet, or one in which famine, scarcity, and environmental disaster are commonplace. By practicing mindful consumption today, we can leave the legacy of a brighter tomorrow for our children.

Sunday, January 02, 2005

Carpe Diem

In the movie “Dead Poets Society,” Robin Williams’ character advises his students to “seize the day and suck the marrow out of life.” I have thought back to a week in September and have been very glad I did just that.

The week before Labor Day, both of our children were out of school and camp, and I knew my wife would need some relief if they were around the house all day every day. I decided to take a few days off during the week so we could do fun family stuff.

On Monday we went to the Baltimore Aquarium, which is a wonderful place. Our son is particularly interested in animals and nature, so he loved it. Our little daughter enjoyed herself too. The highlight of the visit was seeing the Dolphin Show, especially the part where the dolphin leaps about ten feet out of the water. They are truly amazing creatures. We finished the day with tours of a lightship and a submarine and then a pizza dinner, waiting for traffic to subside for the trip home.

The next day I took the kids camping to give Mom some much needed kid-free solo time. We had a delightful time – we went hiking, played in a meadow, and rode our bikes around the campground. Actually my son and I rode our bikes, and my daughter rode in her “buggy” behind me. We had fun snuggling and drinking cocoa by the campfire, and slept all cozy together in our big sleeping bag.

On Wednesday, after going home and unpacking the van, we decided to take advantage of the weekday and the weather to go to the water park. Once again it was just Dad and the kids, and we had an excellent time. My son was chafing a bit because I had to be with little sister all the time, but once we found the little kids’ area she was safe and happy and I could give him more attention.

I was supposed to go back to work on Thursday, but instead I decided to take my son to the water park by himself so he could have my undivided attention. I called my office and extended my leave by a day, and once again we were off to the water park. We had a wonderful time together, going down the slides, playing on the “big toys,” and swimming and roughhousing like we couldn’t when little sister was there. It was a very, very enjoyable day, and a wonderful end to my vacation at home.

This account might seem mundane and ordinary, but it was one of the best weeks of my life – taking a vacation from my daily routine without really going anywhere, and devoting myself entirely to my family. In fact, when I found out shortly thereafter that I was being sent to Iraq, one of my first thoughts was “I am so glad I took that time off to go camping with the kids.” My fond memories of that week have helped sustain me during my time here, and given me much food for pleasant anticipation of the fun we will have together as a family when I get home.

Seize the day – live in the present. You never know when your life will be turned upside down, so live your life with your loved ones now. Someday you will need those experiences and memories to keep you afloat.