Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Moon Poem

Another one from the reject pile, 2nd of 3 rejects in a series. A poem about betrayal in an enchanted setting. It happens. Notes following.

Moon Pie

He stole the moon from the sky wall, fetching darkness where there’d been light, saying the stars would take over the job or he’d give ‘em a kick if they didn’t.

She sat Indian style on the sea, on a skin so white, the color of frost, it made a ring of light, a ripple halo that throbbed with each bob of the boat.

He set the moon in her lap, where it lit up her face and pressed a new weight on the insides of her thighs, the cushions of her calves, and the muscles of her heart.

Together they dug in, their fingers breaking the moon’s crust, scattering crumbs on the waves that set the sea aglow like a pool of fizzing stars.

But he took a bigger bite, swallowed more than half his share, so she was left with just the crescent, and its edges hurt going down.

When he finished he smiled, his teeth a row of glowing rays, his face bright as a bogus dime, a lamp of lurid self-delight.

He floated to the sky and took the space he’d made on the wall, where he hung himself like a clock, tocking pride for time.

Down below she stretched her body out, to match the shape of the piece she’d ate, and made herself into a boat with a bow at each end.

Now any crumb of light, any thing he deigned to drop, she’d catch and keep ‘til his teeth burned to black and his leer left the sky.

When the new moon came up, she’d float back to land, trade bows for legs, and leave the sea to the night as her payment for the meal.

She’d say thanks for dinner, moon, I’ll think of you with every piece of heartache, every slice of sundown, and share with you every waxing of my return. 

---------------------------------

Like the last poem I posted, this one got rejected after a few submission attempts. Rejection is nothing new to me. I get rejected a lot. A lot. I'm always disappointed by a rejection, of course, but I try not to take it personal. All writers experience rejection, and throughout their careers. So far all the editors who've rejected (or accepted) my work have been normal and professional about it, whether the rejection just comes with a form letter (most often the case for me) or with a few tepid words of encouragement. But with this poem I had one weird response from one editor even before they (I'm deliberately not using a gendered pronoun, for some privacy's sake) put it in the queue for consideration at their journal. Basically a message asking me if I'm sure I wrote the poem the way I wrote it and do I really mean it. Apparently the long lines threw the editor off, who called them "gigantic" and claimed they gave no chance for the reader to take a breath. In my response, assuring them that yes, the long lines were intentional for this piece, I pointed out those long lines come with punctuation that signal the reader where to pause or take a breath (as punctuation is wont to do). Alas, the editor still questioned my creative choices and gave me some condescending little spiel about technology and why poets break their poems deliberately. I was tempted to submit some Walt Whitman or Allen Ginsberg poems under my own or another name just to see if their long lines would entirely blitz the editor's brain and critical faculties altogether. (I didn't though--of course not.) Again, this was all before my submission was even admitted into the journal's sub system. 

Needless to say, the editor sent a form rejection about a week later (for this one and the Crow Crossing Sand poem). The only thing that surprised me was that it took them so long. If you're going to take the time to argue with a writer's choices before even reading the whole submission or putting a poem into a submission queue, then why waste your time and mine with an argument at all? Just go ahead and reject it to begin with. You don't like it, you don't like it. It won't work with your journal's formatting, it won't work. It doesn't fit this issue's theme, it doesn't fit. If it's trite to you, it's trite. If it's pretentious, it's pretentious. It's raunchy, offensive, juvenile, boring, sucktastic, stupid, it's hellbent for the reject pile. Tell me any of those things--just don't try and pick a fight with me about a pretty standard poetic choice that writers have been employing for centuries and lecture me about line breaks like I'm a class dunce who can't even construct a simple limerick.

I was actually relieved when this editor did reject my poems though. I would've been more embarrassed had an editor like that accept my work than reject it. To be honest, I also spent a couple weeks not writing anything and doubting myself more than usual--which is saying something, because I doubt myself about everything pretty much every waking minute. When I finally re-opened a document of a couple poems I'd written first drafts of before the line break debacle, I saw then what I had to do. I took one of those poems, a short one with very short lines, and changed the lines to long ones. I can't say whether it improved the poem or not--but damn if it didn't feel good. ;-) It's the petty victories that get us through the day. Here's that one, a two-for-Tuesday deal:


Fire Letter

A letter I wrote once fed a fire and the fire ate it and shrunk it to ashes
that emigrated to the earth and burrowed between the cracks in a rock dance floor.

The rocks grew flowers the following summer that fit themselves to their stems
like shoes to legs and every time the wind blew the shoes and legs stood fast
waiting for a music like the sound of gray clouds colliding with a red sun.

 

Friday, December 12, 2014

For The Day That's In It

Guadalupe shrine in Cuernavaca, Mexico
Today is the feast day of the Virgin of Guadalupe, the patron saint of Mexico. Actually, the patron saint of the U.S. and all the Americas. For this day, I'm sharing this pic of a little shrine to the Virgin in Cuernavaca, Mexico. This shrine was set up in a little nook or square cutaway in the wall surrounding the city's cathedral. It was in the part of the wall near the entrance to the Church of the Third Order of St. Francis.

There are at least three images of the Virgin in this shrine: the statue of her on the right, the picture of her hanging on the back, and a small image of her on the front of the vase holding the flowers on the left. If I'd pulled back the camera a bit when I took this pic (in 2010), there would probably be one or two more images of her visible, perhaps on the votive candle holders seen at the bottom of the photo.

The image of the Virgin of Guadalupe is all over the place in Mexico--in homes, in churches, in shops and restaurants, in parks, in the zocalos or plazas that form the center of Mexican cities and towns, in jewelry, on people's bodies, in graffiti, on tee-shirts and skirts and dresses, in people's hearts, in the history books and mythologies of Mexico and the Mexican people. The story goes that the Virgin first appeared to a peasant indigenous man named Juan Diego on December 9th, 1531, on a hill near modern-day Mexico City. She appeared to him 4 times over the next few days, asking him to have a church built in her honor on the site where she appeared. When Juan Diego took her message to the archbishop, he was asked for proof of the Virgin's appearance. So the Virgin healed Juan Diego's uncle and told him to gather Spanish roses from the hilltop where he saw her, even though it was December and Spanish roses didn't grow at the site any time of year. Juan Diego collected the roses in his tilma (a cloak made of rough fabric such as cactus fibers) and took them to the bishop. When he opened his tilma to show the roses, they fell to the floor and an image of the Virgin was visible on the inside of his cloak. The image of the Virgin on the tilma remains visible today, which can be seen at the Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe in Mexico City.

Apart from its miraculous origins, the image of the Virgin of Guadalupe is striking and significant for the ways her physical appearance differs from depictions of European madonnas. The Virgin of Guadalupe is darker-skinned and wears a mantle of turquoise blue--turquoise being a stone and color native to the Americas and well known to the Aztecs--rather than the traditional Marian blue of European art. Underneath the Virgin and the crescent moon she is standing upon, an angel with eagle's wings holds up her the train of her dress--the eagle being another native species to the Americas, a powerfully symbolic bird to the Aztecs, and a reference to the indigenous name of Juan Diego (Cuauhtlatoatzin, "one who speaks like an eagle").

I'm a fan of the Virgin of Guadalupe. I don't know if the story of her and Juan Diego is true or just a clever conversion story, or if the imaged tilma in the Basilica is the real deal, but I like what Guadalupe represents. I like her style. Even here in the U.S., her image is rather common, especially in communities with large Mexican populations like Chicago. There's a painting by one of my favorite artists, Kelly Vivanco, that reminds me of the Virgin of Guadalupe, though I'm sure there's no relation between the subjects. I also have a friend who is a teacher at a public high school in Chicago, a school in a Latino neighborhood with a large number of Latino students, and she told me a revealing story about an image of the Virgin. Across from the high school is a house with a garage door that kept getting covered in graffiti by some of the students. Every time the door got tagged with graffiti, the owner of the house would paint over the graffiti. Soon as his paint dried, it never failed--the door would get bombed again. Finally, the man (who was Hispanic himself) thought to place a poster or portrait of the Virgin of Guadalupe on his garage door. The kids never tagged it again. This is a woman who commands respect.

For English speakers who'd like to read more about the Virgin of Guadalupe, I recommend a book of stories and essays curated by Ana Castilo called Goddess of the Americas. It has some great pieces in there by Castilo, Sandra Cisneros, Richard Rodriguez, Octavio Paz, and many others (my favorite in the collection is Luis Rodriguez' "Forgive Me, Mother, For Ma Vida Loca"). The author Clarissa Pinkola Estes (of Women Who Run with the Wolves fame) also has a book about the Virgin called Untie the Strong Woman--the chapter called "Guadalupe Is a Girl Gang Leader in Heaven" is the best of the bunch.

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

The Booma Project

I love maps and I always have. I love them not just for their informational purpose or even for their beauty, but because I find them intensely revealing and meaningful. For me, looking at a map is like reading a person's private journal. Each and every map ever made reveals as much about its maker, about his or her point of view and sense of standing in the world, as it does about the world itself. For example, a map can be strictly local in outlook or global or universal, just as can an individual's way of thinking, like a map of someone's backyard versus a map of the world or a map of the Milky Way. A map can be evidence of human hope and adventurousness, such as a map of someone's travel itinerary, or of human hubris and greed, such as a map of a dictator's plans of conquest. Maps can be biased or prejudiced, drawn to favor one part of the world over another, as in many Western maps (even the ones in schoolbooks for many years) depicting Africa as significantly smaller than it really is, a representation of Western racism as much as a geographical lie

Even the rendering of a map says something about its maker, whether his or her choices were determined by time or artistic skill or purpose. A map can be vaguely drawn or highly detailed. It can be flat or round, textured and colored or plain black-and-white with shades of gray, strictly factual or wildly fantastical, mysterious, misleading, or mind-opening. A map can zero in on only one feature of a place--a map of the pubs of Dublin (a massive undertaking, no doubt), a map of all the gas stations in Peoria, a map of the stars' homes in Malibu, a map of literary landmarks in London (another daunting task).

I have an especial affection for the variety of maps that fit that last example--the literary map. Whenever you combine reading, books, travel, and maps, you got me. So a few months ago when I learned through the VIDA: Women in Literary Arts Facebook page that a new online project was looking for travel-loving writers who'd like to help map some books, I wanted to find out more and maybe even be a part of it. It was a bonus that the project's founder was especially interested in making sure works by women authors would be included and mapped.

The project is called Booma: The Bookmapping Project, and it's been up and running since June this year, with an inaugural "Daily Spot" entry that maps Robert Hass's San Francisco-set poem "The Harbor at Seattle." The mission of Booma is to map places in the real world that have been described so memorably by writers in their works. The project's interest is in reminding both lovers of books and travel how "the worlds of stories overlap with the real world," and it aims to "provide a platform for building and accessing the world's largest database of geographic information distilled from books." That sounds like quite a long, large, and ambitious project--but as most true bookworms tend to have long, ambitious lists of books they've read or plan to read, and most travel bugs are capable of thinking in long distances and making large, ambitious globe-encircling plans, the Booma project probably has the perfect kind of missionaries to accomplish its mission.


Booma's founder, David Herring, is a Tucson-based educator who explains the motivation behind Booma in his own comments on Booma's first Daily Spot entry. He writes:

"Robert Hass’s attention to location shaped my view of California long before I ever made my first trip to that storied state, and I specifically remember craning my neck to look for the steep side of Telegraph Hill as we drove through San Francisco years ago. More than with any other writer’s, Hass’s descriptions of place have unexpectedly bubbled into my consciousness during my travels and reminded me that I have known some places even before visiting them, which is at the heart of what Booma is."

So what kind of information does Booma provide for readers and travelers? Booma has so far mapped nearly 80 places and pieces of literature with its interactive Daily Spot feature. These spots each focus on a particular poem, novel, short story, play, or other piece of literature that notably describes a real world place. The named place may be the subject of the entire written work or may be just mentioned in one especially well-turned phrase or memorable chapter or paragraph. In any case, Booma's Daily Spot entries provide a relevant place-based quote from the work along with an interactive map pinpointing where in the world this place of song and story actually is. Booma users can also read a little bit in each entry about the written work (its overall plot, when it was published, or its initial reception by readers, for example) and the place in real life (such as how many people live there, what grows there, what famous events may have occurred there, and anything else that makes that place unique). For users who'd like to learn even more, links to where the written work may be purchased or read in its entirety as well as more info about the author and the place being described are provided. What's especially great is that in the 6 months since Booma has been live, places from all around the planet have been mapped (from Tucson to Tbilisi, from Nigeria to New York City) and writings from all throughout history have been featured (from Homer's The Iliad to Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter to Roxane Gay's An Untamed State and Cheryl Strayed's Wild). There are entries for lovers of Brit lit and lovers of Irish lit (yes, a chairde, there is a difference) and for lovers of poetry and lovers of non-fiction.

Along with the Daily Spots, Booma plans to be a digital resource for mapping longer pieces. Entire long poem and books will be annotated and mapped, such as Cormac McCarthy's southwestern American and Mexican-set novel All The Pretty Horses. Both fans of a book and teachers and students then can use Booma to enhance their study and research of a book or their understanding of and involvement in its story and setting. Herring himself has mapped entire books before, beginning with James Joyce's A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man.

As I mentioned above, when I first heard about this project, I thought I might like to contribute. So I contacted Herring back in July and have since contributed several Daily Spots, on works by John Millington Synge (Aran Islands, Ireland), Louise Erdrich (Turtle Mountain Indian Reservation, North Dakota), Toni Morrison (Michigan and the Midwest), Frank O'Hara (Manhattan), and Wendell Berry (Kentucky's Red River Gorge). I've really enjoyed writing these entries, as each one has given me the chance to learn more about some of my favorite writers and works and the places that served as their inspiration. I also enjoy reading all the other contributions, whether the subject is a piece of writing or a place I'm familiar with or not.

I also think Booma has the potential to be a valuable resource for teachers and students of creative writing as well as literature. Considering how much the importance of place has been a recurring theme in storytelling and literature--right up there with romantic love, death, and war--I think it's worthwhile to use maps and other information about places as a means to understand a text and the processes of writing and creativity. How does a real-world place serve as a door to creativity? How does the inspiration a writer gets after traveling through this town or looking at that mountain translate itself into words on a page? How do the sights and sounds of a place get successfully rendered in a story or poem, and what is the difference between a place that serves as a mere setting in a work and a place that almost comes to function as an emotion in the reader? Originality is another issue--there are lots of places in the world, but there have been far more people to write about them. In the case of "well-written" places (i.e., places that frequently get written about or chosen as a setting--say Paris or Chicago or the Mississippi River), how does one author navigate between the details of a place differently or more deftly than another? What role does an author's identity or sense of self or era play in how a place is portrayed or described? For example, Booma has a Daily Spot entry on Langston Hughes's poem about the Mississippi "The Negro Speaks of Rivers." How did Hughes, a black American writer of the 20th century, portray the Mississippi differently than Mark Twain, a white American writer of the 19th century who had a lifelong obsession with the river? And if these two men had been mapmakers rather than writers, how would their maps of the Mississippi compare? Whose map would I prefer to follow, if I had to choose one?

What I like about the idea of using maps as a resource for studying literature or for creativity is all the questions and possibilities. The concept of place may not be every writer's door leading into a poem or novel or essay, but it's one door that can lead a writer (and a reader) down multiple paths. (The poet Richard Hugo wrote, much more complexly and knowledgeably than I, about how the idea of a place can be used as a trigger for the imagination in his classic essay "The Triggering Town.") Moreover, in this age of talking GPS devices, text-speak, and 140-character limit thoughts, when there's been a lot of talk and fear about the decline of books and readership and the isolation and confusion that the Internet and technology can foster, any project that uses web technology to promote genuine interaction with literature and maps and encourage curiosity about the real, physical world and the creative poet types who've populated it is to be commended. Booma is a great project. I'm glad to have found out about it and proud to play a little part in it. Check it out at the website and Facebook page

Saturday, December 6, 2014

Crow Poem

Here is a newish poem of mine. I'll be posting three new poems in the next few days/weeks that got rejected by a few editors. This is the first. More notes after the poem.


Crow Crossing Sand

Crow is black and
black belongs here
on the beige beaches of the Midwest.

Crow comes back
sharper than ever like
the caws that hold his feathers together.

Crow struts like a stranger
who knows he’s salvation
who’s brought to town the cure for destruction.

Crow is a remedy
baked cold by the night
kicking sand in the eyes of narrow daylight.

Crow is a cave
shrunk and set free
he fits in a pail and sits on your knee.

Crow crosses beaches and
follows the clouds
he steals the sun and shreds it into shade.

------------------------------
This is meant to be just a simple sing-song kind of thing. I wrote it earlier this year while at the dunes in Michigan with my sisters. Crows are very common in my part of the country (Illinois, the Midwest)--or at least they used to be. The West Nile virus severely decimated the crow population in my area beginning around 2000. Growing up, I used to see crows all over our yard, all over the neighborhood. They were regarded as something of a pest, as very smart but rather aggressive birds. Then West Nile came along and they disappeared. In the last couple years the crow has been slowly returning to the area. But their relative absence is still notable. I used to see them every day. Now it might be once a week or even longer, in the spring and summer. I'll notice a couple hanging around a parking lot or a single one walking across a beach. Some of the other birds common to this area are robins, blue jays, cardinals, finches, sparrows, hawks, ducks, and geese--and after what happened to crows, I've learned not to take the presence of any other common birds for granted. Robins might seem a dime a dozen now, but something might come along at any time and wipe them out. And then suddenly you miss them. That's what the crows have taught me.

Thursday, December 4, 2014

A Clown On The Camino

Back to sharing some travel pics for a few posts. This is a photo taken in 2011 by a friend I met on the Camino de Santiago of another friend I met on the Camino. The picture was taken by a Canadian woman named Marie-Belle, who was traveling with 3 other Canadian ladies. The picture is of a young Italian man walking the Camino, named Andreas. Andreas was from Milan, where he was working as a clown and juggler for sick children. This was his second time walking the Camino in Spain, but this would be the first time he made it all the way to Santiago de Compostela. Here he is a bit earlier on in the Camino, carrying his backpack and a set of juggling pins that he brought along with him. He would carry the pins as far as Los Arcos, where he gave then away to some children. 

Andreas on the Camino de Santiago

I met Marie-Belle, the photographer of this pic, my first day on the Camino, while still in France, at the albergue in Orisson. I walked on and off with her and her friends as far as Estella, a village famous for a public fountain that pumps both water and wine. Andreas I ran into off and on as early as the village of Lorca, but actually met at a Franciscan albergue where we both stayed in Tosantos. We kept crossing paths for the rest of the journey, and in a mountain town called Rabanal el Camino he shouted out birthday greetings to me from up the road. He made it to Santiago around the same time as I did, at the end of October 2011.

I like this pic because it shows the individuality of the average pilgrim. It shows a pilgrim walking the Camino with his walking stick and a full pack on his back and a sleeping bag--with his own personal touch and calling card so to speak, the juggling pins. The Camino is a journey for people from all walks of life, people with all sorts of similar and different backgrounds. You hear the same stories over and over on the Camino, and you hear one-of-a-kind stories that you'll never hear the likes of again. You'll meet the same souls on the Camino, and you'll meet one-of-a-kind souls--you'll meet both in the very same pilgrim.

The Camino de Santiago was one of the happiest experiences of my life so far. I was blessed to meet great people like Marie-Belle and her friends, whom I've kept in touch with since, and Andreas, whom I've never seen since but who was one of the most memorable of my many fellow peregrinos.

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

A Veteran's Look At Wartime Korea

November 11th is Veterans Day in the U.S. My father is a veteran, and I thought I'd share a few photos that he took while he was in the army. Dad was drafted into the army in March 1951. He did his training at Fort Leonard Wood in Missouri. In September 1951 he shipped out to Korea to serve in the civil war there that began between north and south Korea and ended up with the U.S. getting involved on the side of the south and China intervening in the Soviet-backed north. The Korean War lasted until 1953. Death toll reports vary, but the war resulted in anywhere from 3 to 5 million casualties, about half of those being Korean civilians. The U.S. lost about 35,000 to 55,000 troops in the war. My father served there about 16 or 17 months.

My father and his mother soon after he was drafted. At Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri.
Dad at Camp Drake in Tokyo (?) during Korean War.
Most of the pictures he took while in the army are of Korea. There are a few of Japan as well, and of places in the U.S. where his service took him (Fort Leonard Wood, Washington D.C., Seattle--the port for the soldiers' homecoming, and Camp Carson in Colorado). In Korea, he took quite a few pictures of children. Here are a few of them:

Children in Korea during wartime.
More little cuties.
In Korea.
My father with two children in Korea.
My dad doesn't speak fondly of his days in the war or army, but he doesn't speak negatively either. Like most men of his generation, he's pretty silent about his life experiences and feelings. On the one hand he's proud to be a veteran--he's taken to wearing a Korean War vet hat the past couple years, he recently joined the American Legion, and he looks forward to the free lunch/dinner for veterans he gets every Veterans Day at the local Applebee's or Olive Garden (sure who wouldn't?). But he never wanted to join the army to begin with much less fight in a war, and being in a war certainly didn't change his mind on that. Among several men he was drafted and did basic training with, my dad was the only one who was sent on to Korea--the others got stationed in the U.S. or Germany. Because of his veteran status, my dad was able to take some night courses on the G.I. Bill at a community college after he married my mom in 1954. Before the army, he had never been able to afford college. Along with being a war veteran, my father is a lifelong liberal Democrat. Despite serving in a war, he's never supported any subsequent one over the years...in fact you could say because he served in a war he's never supported any one. Not Vietnam, not Iraq, not Afghanistan, not a one.

Women and babies in Korea.
My father and a local woman, Korea during wartime.

Korean women and babies, 1950s.
Recently though my dad learned of something called honor flights. The Honor Flight Network is a non-profit organization that offers fully funded trips for veterans to Washington D.C. where they can visit their national memorials and be honored for their service. My dad has signed up for one of these honor flights, but it may be some time before he gets his chance--priority is being given to vets of World War II and veterans who are terminally ill. In some states and cities where there are less old vets around, slots for Korean War vets have already opened up. But here in densely populated Chicago, the World War II vets are still taking their tours, and so my dad has to wait. I hope he gets his chance soon. He has been to D.C., but not since the national Korean War Memorial was (belatedly) erected. He donated to that memorial's funding (more than 80% of which came from Korean War vets) and it would mean a lot for him to finally see it.

I write all this about my dad because I think these days in America there's a lot of platitudes about "supporting the troops" with little attempt to really learn who the troops are or were--as men and women, as Americans, or as individuals and human beings. I think there are too many assumptions these days about what the political beliefs of American service members and veterans are, as well as assumptions about how and why people end up in the service and how they view that service after it's done. While traveling outside the U.S. I heard my fair share of assumptions and stereotypes about the American military, and I see those stereotypes reiterated in some form here in America too--on the news, in movies and songs, and every Memorial or Veterans or Independence Day. Sometimes the stereotypes and assumptions reveal very negative and angry points of view, sometimes well-meaning but sentimental and simplistic. A lot of the stereotyping and platituding, I've noticed, comes from people who have never been in the service themselves or who have never physically been in a war zone, as a soldier, a civilian, a reporter, a medic or volunteer, nothing.

Dad at Eta Jima in Japan, during Korean War.
Locals doing their washing in Korea.
Street in Pu-san, Korea.
Korean street.
Arriving back in the U.S., Seattle port, March 1953.
As for me, I've never been in the armed forces. As a woman I've always been exempt from the chance or fear of being drafted, and when I was young it never occurred to me to join up for financial reasons, for patriotic reasons, for whatever. An extremely lazy and unathletic kid (and adult), I always assumed I wouldn't be fit for the army anyway.

I've also thankfully never been in a war zone....or maybe I have. How do you define the situation in Northern Ireland in the 1990s? I went to work in a small town in County Down about 25 minutes drive from Belfast in the summer of 1996. That was the year the ceasefire of 1994 broke down. There were IRA bombings in England and the North that year and killings by the IRA and the UVF, and the summer's marching season brought standoffs, riots, and hostilities to even small, quiet communities like the one where I was living and working. As a foreign citizen, I wasn't a target in any way for the violence that re-surfaced in the North in 1996. But it would have been impossible to not be affected by it. While my experience was overwhelmingly positive, I have conflicting memories about my first impressions of the North right from my first day there. That first day, another American girl and I had taken a bus to the North from the Republic and were met at a bus station (probably Newry, but I can't remember exactly) by a representative from the work exchange organization we were involved in, and I have a memory of being in the car and heading toward a lovely looking city at the foot of some beautiful, majestic mountains. I was surprised when the representative told me that was Belfast--notorious, violent, bombed-out Belfast--in the distance. That evening, I went out to a nightclub in Belfast's city center with the representative's son and his friends and the other American girl. At closing time, as we stood outside the club trying to catch a cab, the other American and I were rather stunned to see British army tanks rolling down the street with soldiers patrolling all the young people leaving the pubs and clubs. Some of the drunker folks jeered the tanks, but most were too busy trying to navigate between the tanks, the soldiers, and the cabs. Even for someone from a city with a high crime rate and notorious police presence as Chicago's, army tanks on the street after a night out was a surreal and unsettling sight. But our host for the evening and his friends told us this was just how it was in Belfast, since as long as they could remember.

I have plenty of other surreal and unsettling memories of that summer. Military towers and checkpoints on the roads. Bored-looking British soldiers in Newry, holding rifles and leaning against the walls and buildings all over the city center. Roadblocks during the marching season that usually resulted in driving around in circles for hours before getting 10 miles in any direction, as well as painfully labyrinthine re-routings of local buses. Smashed-in store windows on the few Protestant-owned businesses in town during the marching season. Listening to a band one night at the pub around the corner from my flat, and getting the news that there was a bus on fire outside in the road; looking out the windows of the pub with a crowd of locals and seeing a smoking bus laying on its side diagonally in the street. (Some locals had apparently hijacked a bus and pushed it over, tried to set it on fire, and chased after the driver, supposedly a Protestant man, who fortunately got away--it was likely an attempt to retaliate the murder of a Catholic taxi driver in the area a few days before.) Being on a date with a local guy in Newcastle who told me the Northern Irish can tell by sight whether someone is Protestant or Catholic; as we drove down Newcastle's main strip, he pointed out who was who and which was which on the street based on what kind of car a person was driving, what clothes a person was wearing, etc., finishing off by pointing to a random dog in the street and saying, "And that there is a Protestant dog" (in fairness, he was joking about that last bit, waiting to see if I'd finally object). Nervously waiting for a bus at the station in Belfast, located right across from the Europa Hotel, the "most bombed hotel in the world" after nearly 30 bombings suffered there since the start of the Troubles. Cancellations of group bookings at the conference center I was working at for the summer. Agonizingly slow workdays after all the cancellations. Taking a chartered bus filled with other local twentysomethings and teens for a night out at the border town of Dundalk and being stopped on the way by some British soldiers; one soldier, fully uniformed and armed, got on the bus and walked up and down the aisle looking in at all of us in our seats before giving the driver permission to go on--the entire bus sat in silence as the soldier strode the aisle, when he got off the back of the bus erupted into IRA chants. A ceili in the countryside that seemed more like a republican fundraiser, with rebel songs playing all night and the dancing consisting of people jumping up and down and pumping their fists in the air. Sharing a cab driven by a maniac driver to that ceili with a group of local men, one of whom turned out to be a former IRA prisoner, and the men's laughter and undecipherable jokes (I was still very new to the North at the time and had trouble understanding the accent) at the look of fear and panic on my face the whole way to the ceili. Repeated (and needless) apologies from locals to me and my American roommate about all the problems going on that summer in the area, as if a conflict with roots going back 800 years was all their own fault. And tension--above all that summer, I remember the sense of tension.

I haven't told too many people about these particular memories of the North. Considering how silent my dad has been for the most part about his war experience, and the silence of lots of veterans and of many people who've experienced or witnessed other forms of trauma, I suppose my own silence about my more negative memories stems from some recognition that these memories are a little too close to the definition of traumatic to talk about openly. I've always figured that people don't really want to hear about it and maybe wouldn't even consider my experiences important or worth listening to. I've met too many people in life who would rather spout off their opinions based on what they read or heard second-hand than listen to another person's experiences based on what he or she actually lived through. And I worried about creating more misunderstanding about Ireland. I didn't want to give people outside the North, especially Americans, the wrong impression of Northern Ireland. It was for the most part a very peaceful place for me where I experienced the most welcoming hospitality I've ever encountered anywhere in the world (even more so than in the Republic of Ireland), and I always thought it ridiculous that so few tourists take the time to visit the North while traveling in Ireland. (I've written about my good times in the North here, here, here, and here.) Tourists avoid the North because they think they're going to get bombed or shot. Ironically, most American tourists come from cities and towns with far higher rates of violence and crime than anywhere in Northern Ireland. You're far more likely to be a crime victim in Chicago than you are in Belfast or Derry--take it from me.

Baby in Korea.

A Chicago friend of my dad's named Wally Langerstadt, in Korea.
I never took pictures of anything Troubles-related in the North either. I was told from the get-go by locals not to take pictures of the soldiers, that they'd take your camera away or stop and question you about why you're photographing them at the very least. I thought it wise to listen to the locals. I also thought it a little unsavory whenever I did see a tourist or visitor taking pictures of some bombed-out building or car, same as when I see tourists to the U.S. taking pictures of homeless people or "skid row" neighborhoods. Maybe that's harsh judgment on my part. Maybe I don't know if my insistence on only taking photos of pretty things like the Mourne Mountains and my friends and the Seaforde butterfly center and the Giant's Causeway and such was actually dishonest of me, or some form of denial of a truth about Ireland that I just didn't want to see. I saw myself as being more respectful, but maybe I was just being cowardly.

These days, the North is very different from what it was in the mid-90s. Where the ceasefire of 1994 failed, future ceasefires and efforts at peace were more successful. (Things would get worse though before they got better. In the summer of 1997 my friend's cousin, a 16-year-old Catholic boy, was killed in an especially horrific sectarian murder. In 1998, a sectarian-planted car bomb in Omagh, County Tyrone, killed 29 people and wounded over 200 more.) In the years since I first lived there, I've returned at least half a dozen times to the North and found the watchtowers dismantled, most of the soldiers and checkpoints gone, and a much more relaxed sense of being. In some ways it seems like a whole different place to me--and in a way it also finally, fully seems like the warm and welcoming, breathtakingly beautiful place I wanted everyone back home in America to see it as. Does that let me off the hook then, as far as staying silent about my memories of when things weren't so nice?

In Northern Ireland, Co. Down, fall 2011. IRA was written on the sign in spray paint and then crossed out. I didn't even notice the original graffiti on the sign when I took this pic, until a friend pointed it out.

Graffiti in Ireland on political prisoner status in the North--on a walkway in the South, in Galway City, 2013.

What of my dad's own quiet about his war experience? And what of the pictures he took? Are they too cheery? Dishonest? Depressing? One-sided? No-sided? His pictures hardly tell the whole story about the war in Korea, and they don't even tell his own whole story about his service there. That would be impossible. Does that mean they're not worthwhile then? They are to me, of course. Once I sat down with my dad going through the pictures with him, while he named the people and places he remembered or half-remembered in the photos, and that got him talking to me a little more about his experiences in the war. And when I look through the pics, I can see certain evidence of the personality I know him to be, like how much he likes children--small wonder for a man who would father 6 of them. But other than that, what value are they?

Straight out of a M*A*S*H episode.
At a replacement depot in Korea. Dad is in middle, just arrived.

Cleaning pots. In Fort Leonard Wood in Missouri, where my dad did his basic training.

At Camp Drake in Japan.

Dad in Montana after returning from Korea, on the way to Camp Carson in Colorado.

At a rice warehouse. Guy at far left is Keith Fairey from Charleston, 3rd from left is John Heiberger from Chicago. (Dad is not in this picture.)

Dad at Fort Leonard Wood in Missouri with a soldier named Joe Citti.

Dad with soldier named Tim Rush from New Jersey and two Korean workers.

At a soldiers' goodbye party in Korea. The Korean War was the first war in which American troops were de-segregated by race.

Shopping district in Korea.
Looking at my dad's pics, thinking of my experiences in Northern Ireland, and thinking of other people I've known who were somehow involved in war or conflict make me think of the stories and points of view of war and conflict that get filtered through the media...and the ones that don't. Why do some soldiers get their names in the papers or get the hero treatment on the news while others don't? Why do some get singled out while others--the majority of them, really--remain invisible? Why are some war survivors' perspectives told while others are ignored or even discounted? How do the media and the history books decide whose story gets told and whose point of view gets heard and taken seriously? In high school history class, we barely spent a day covering the Korean War. If it weren't for my dad being in it, the war wouldn't probably have meant anything to me except as the setting for that TV show M*A*S*H that my brothers liked to watch. After my summer in Northern Ireland, I read a few American news reports on the events in the North that summer and was surprised and dismayed at how much got left out and how simplified the reports were.

In the end, what I think is that it's not necessarily the victor's story that gets told, because the victor technically consists as much of the men and women on the "winning" side who did the actual fighting as the men behind the scenes pushing the war, yet the men and women who do the actual fighting rarely get a voice in the matter or the aftermath, whether they've "won" or not. What they get instead is a free dinner at Applebee's, a mattress or electronics sale on their day of honor, a serenade from Lee Greenwood, and a whole lot of "support" and "thanks." What I think is that the one whose story gets told is not the winningest but the neatest, the tidiest, the one that's easiest to package in one magazine spread or half-hour news special or 140-character Tweet and that best validates the public's sentiments about the troops or war. It doesn't even have to be a happy or uplifting story, or even true--just so long as some kind of moral can be slapped onto it. Anything more complicated than that--or more subtle, or even completely irreverent a la the hijinks captured in M*A*S*H--we don't want to hear. Not these days. Not when there are 140-character limits and clickbait to consider.

Beer night in Korea. Dad is 3rd guy sitting down at left.
Soldiers in Korea, just arrived, awaiting assignment.

Dad (on right) in Korea with troopmates.
Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri, before Korea. Dad in middle, about 22 years old.

My dad's pictures from the Korean War aren't visceral. Nor are they patriotic, posed, or heroic. What they are is rather mundane, capturing more ordinary moments among both the American soldiers' experience and the Korean civilians' lives. And sometimes I think the mundane in war is what gets filtered out the most by our media. I don't think we are as disturbed by the visceral or as roused by the patriotic as we like to think we are. In my Facebook feed for example, I get dozens of graphic war images from activist friends and dozens of pro-troops/pro-USA images from patriotic friends every week. They do bother me, but the fact that they're so commonly shared tells me the graphic and the flag-waving are not what people have a hard time confronting. It's the more mundane. The idea that war sometimes looks a little like peace (and that "peace"--or what's sold to us as peace--often looks a lot like war) might be too uncomfortable for many people to acknowledge. So is the idea that war can be at all boring, though it's been said and shown many a time throughout modern history (here, here, and here for example). There's a similar sense of confusion with images that show how ordinary the lives of the people we are fighting against are alongside how ordinary the lives are of the people doing the fighting. In my dad's pictures, the soldiers' and locals' dress and language may be different, but what the soldiers and locals do in the pictures is all pretty much ordinary and the same: shopping, eating, drinking, smiling, playing, standing around, washing stuff. Poverty is evident in some of the pictures in Korea--to my dad, who grew up in poverty in Chicago during the Depression, what he saw in Korea might have been more familiar than eye-opening. And in some of the landscape shots, you can't even tell much difference between Korea and Montana, or Japan and Colorado. If the lives people lead on the other side of the world are really more alike ours than dissimilar, then what's the problem--what are we fighting over? And how easy is it to take sides in the face of greater similarity and shared ordinariness than difference? Taking sides requires contrast, after all--an us versus them mentality.

Korean shopping district.
Tent camps in Korea during the war.

I know for some people it's easy to take a side. It's easy for me to take sides in certain issues too (namely, I stand with victims and accusers in all cases of rape and sexual assault, and I could give a damn if the accused happens to be your favorite athlete, movie director, comedian, French socialist, Australian hacker, parish priest, or U.S. soldier). It used to be easy for me to take a side in the conflict in Northern Ireland, and there are some opinions I had way back when that I still have today--I still support a united 32-county Ireland. But I have less sympathy for certain groups and public figures in the North than I used to. It wasn't so much living in the North that changed my opinion--it took far much longer than one summer to process everything I experienced there. It was a combination of time, travel, and the testimony of friends and strangers. The attacks against the U.S. on September 11th, 2001, did a lot to complicate my worldview and make me re-evaluate and wholly reject certain tactics of Irish nationalism. (Not incidentally I think, in the days and weeks after 9/11, it was my Northern Irish friends who extended the most support, understanding, and sincerest compassion and concern than any other international friends and acquaintances I knew at the time.) And I spent too much time in Ireland over the years to keep romanticizing the place. Ireland's is an old and complex culture, and I think such a country deserves better than romantic notions. (In fact I think all places do.) In Ireland, in both the North and South, I'd made friends with men who had been in the IRA, some of whom I thought were the loveliest people. In more recent years while traveling, I made friends with several men who were or had been in the British Army (one of these was Irish-born himself, another was stationed in the North of Ireland, not far from where I'd lived). They were all lovely too. Whose side do I take? Whose testimony do I accept or reject? Is that what I'm here for in life anyway, or what anyone is here for--to be categorized into sides for acceptance or rejection? Did I meet any of these people just so I can judge them or deny their own experiences and points of view? Does anyone think they've met me for that reason, that I've written about my experiences for that reason? Does anyone think that about my dad and his fellow veterans? Probably, hopefully not. But I suppose the difficulty of meeting and hearing from different people and different points of view explains all the stereotypes and platitudes people tend to fall back on. War is complicated, conflict is complicated, life is complicated, individuals are complicated, and stereotypes and platitudes just make the complicated more easy to digest.

Washing time in Korea.
Schoolchildren in Korea.
American soldiers shopping in Korea.
After returning home, in Montana on way to Camp Carson in Colorado.
Dad back home in Chicago after his service. At Belmont Harbor with his sister, June.
Dad with his parents at Belmont Harbor, Chicago, after returning home.
I'm sorry (not really) if the pictures and words I've put here do not validate anyone's opinions of war, the U.S. military, militaries in general, Veterans Day, the Korean War, Korea, Ireland, Northern Ireland, the IRA, the UVF, the U.S.A., or whatever else in this post that may have touched a nerve. I'm sorry (not sorry) if this post doesn't take a side--or the same side as yours. This post is to share some of my dad's experiences and some of my experiences. It's to get anyone who stumbles across it thinking, yes--and listening. If you wonder why people stay silent so often about extreme or unusual or traumatic experiences, why men come home from the war and clam up, why women come home from abroad and describe it all in cliches, why people can keep extraordinary testimonies to themselves for years or decades, think about whether you're ready to actually see or hear what others have to show and say--the good, the bad, the ugly, the irreverent, the boring.

This post is me asking readers to hear and respect my dad, myself, and everyone else who's had similar experiences. If you've read this far, thank you for listening.