Tuesday, December 6, 2016

Existential Terror, Radical Freedom & Taco Lust

Fear and Loathing In A Parking Lot

The other day I was sitting in my car outside my job. I didn't have to be clocked in for another twenty minutes, so I decided to smoke the cigarette I'd stolen from my brother earlier that day. I did it absentmindedly; rummaged for a lighter, lit it, took a long, deep inhale, and an equally long exhale. I hadn't rolled down my window. The smoke drifted against the windshield and back into my face.
This blog brought to you by Marlboro.
Marlboro: because real men get lung cancer!

I coughed. I thought about what I was doing: breathing in tar and poison, filling my fleshy lung sacs with cancerous vapors that tasted and smelled awful. I was doing this sitting in a metal box with an explosive device under the hood that propelled me forward by blowing up the remains of long-dead dinosaurs and other organic materials.

I was in my metal box because I was waiting to go into a hideously ugly building so I could sit in a chair for eight hours while talking to people about taking test drives in other metal boxes (better than mine will ever be, by the way). I was doing this (helping people test drive metal boxes) so someone would put numbers in my bank account; numbers that would allow me to purchase food to shove in my mouth so I'd stay healthy, but also to buy cigarettes so I could die faster.

I'd have to give some of those numbers to other people so I could continue to live in a large box made of dead trees and use my plastic and metal square that allows me to talk to other people I very often don't want to talk to (it also lets me look at pictures of cats, which I enjoy, even though I'd never own a cat because I actually typically don't like cats).

All of this is happening on a hunk of rock with an atmosphere, suspended in space, hurling around a gigantic nuclear fusion reactor also suspended in space, flying through the vast emptiness of a void that goes on forever and ever, that doesn't care about the numbers in my bank account or my metal box or the other human beings that live in my house or whether or not I poison myself slowly with cigarettes or eat healthy or just get it over with and murder myself in the parking lot. 

You'd watch this movie. Don't lie.
I guess this is the part where I could include a few "Fight Club" quotes to really drive home how edgy and nihilistic I am, but to be honest I'm in a real anti-Helena Bonham Carter phase right now so that wouldn't feel right.

What matters is my recognition that life is really void of objective meaning. Sure, there's stuff I care about, but I could just as easily not care about any of that if I really wanted. If I stopped caring about my job, my wife, my kid, my religion, my health, or what have you, there'd be plenty of folks who would condemn me, but their condemnation is as meaningless to me as sub-atomic particles randomly popping in and out of existence. 

In the universe, anything I truly desire is good. Of course, it might be in direct contradiction to desires of others: maybe I find meaning in killing Jews, whereas someone else finds meaning in saving them from me. Both of us are pursuing our subjective desires. Neither of us is 'good' or 'bad.' We just are, using our free will to do whatever we wish between the times of our birth and our death. We are ultimately responsible for the choices we make, but no one can say that those choices are objectively evil or righteous (because, in our universe, no such thing exists).

That sounds a bit frightening to a lot of people. We desperately want to find objective meaning. "What's it all about" is the question to ask. Problem is that there isn't an answer. The universe answers with howling nothingness, with dead rock and silent gulfs between stars, with gravity wells that can devour solar systems and obliterate solar systems light years away. Our own world might be destroyed by a supernova or pulsar at any moment. We wouldn't see either of them coming.

We feel terrified when we realize there is no answer. Recognizing the insanity of our world causes vast amounts of what Kierkegaard called angst and Sartre called nausea. We feel sick. We feel angry and shaken.

Sartre thinks that is ok; we're super free, and that means we can reinvent ourselves into whatever we want. It's a happy thought, but the fact that choosing to be Mother Teresa is as meaningful as choosing to be Hitler is not going to leave us. Camus thinks we just struggle on knowing full well that we'll never find meaning and in some way that makes it ok; that we look at the universe and say "screw you," and find some kind of meaning in that sense. This leaves us where Sartre leaves us; once again delving into subjective meaning.

Camus says that Sartre is taking the easy way out. Looking for meaning, even subjective meaning, is stupid. We should just sort of live with the knowledge of our impending doom and, like Sisyphus, find some happiness in the constant pointlessness of our lives. Camus thinks we can become "heroes of the absurd," even though he doesn't explain why, in a totally subjective universe, it's "good" to be a hero, and "bad" to embrace Sartre's existentialism (which he calls "philosophical suicide").

These two want us to climb up to the very brink of oblivion. Sartre thinks we might back off the brink a little in order to pursue our own desires, while Camus wants us to stand on the brink and just deal with it.

Kierkegaard, on the other hand, wants us to laugh at the sheer absurdity of it all, then take a flying leap off the cliff. The original existentialist thinks that there's something supernal lurking out there in the darkness, that will catch hold of us the moment we step out through faith. Without faith we'd be stuck on the cliff forever, but through hope we transcend  the insanity of our subjective existence, laugh in the face of existential terror and dread, and grasp something alien, unfathomable, and seemingly contradictory in terms.

I can haz teh transundunce?
It's Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, squeezing his eyes shut and stepping out onto an invisible bridge. It's opening your heart up to someone you love knowing full well they might reject you and bring your world crashing down. It's taking reason to its very limits, standing on the edge of the map and hurling yourself head long into the part that says "HERE BE DRAGONS." It's like a ballerina, jumping high into the air, knowing that if her partner does not catch her she will crash and burn and break her legs.

This transcendence is something we are free to grasp. The leap is there for all of us to be made, in some way or the other. It's absurd, of course; to live you first have to die. To be first, you have to be last. To defeat your enemies you have to love them and cherish them. None of this makes sense to our universe, because it doesn't come from our universe. It is a timeless intrusion made by a sublime Creator that is both awful and terrifying but completely, truly knowable.

The absurd sacrifice and resurrection of Jesus Christ (that the sinless One became sin for all humanity) is that intrusion, and the only answer to the mocking pointlessness of the human experience.

Free To Choose (Whether or Not To Eat Tacos)

I have a tendency to forget that I'm free, probably because being free actually kind of sucks.

I can't blame other people for my errors. I have to own up to my sinful choices. Every time I walk away from God,  every time I fail to live up to the example set by Christ, it's my fault. It's my choosing. I did this.

You know what's crazy? How much I love tacos. I love them more than cigarettes. Mexican food is by far my favorite of any kind of "food" out there. It kicks American cuisine's butt all day long and makes Chinese (well, American Chinese) food it's punk bitch even on Chinese food's best day.

It's kind of like my cigarettes though; I know they're terrible for me even though I keep eating them. The thing is, because I've grasped transcendence, I've got zero excuse for this idiotic behavior. I can't say, " Ah well it ain't my fault that I keep pigging out, i was just soooo hungry today!"

I eat because I freaking want to eat, because I choose to eat, because in the moment I want to eat. I'm not caused like some base animal: I am radically free, insanely free, touched by the Deity and capable of making effective choices.

I'm at fault for eating the taco. I cant blame anyone else. That kind of responsibility sucks. 
 There's that part of me that longs to lie to myself, to wrap myself back up in comforting fictions. It's not my fault. I did this because I was tired or emotional. No, I did it because I chose to do it, because I used the freedom at the essence of my being to make a choice.

This realization leads to another: at times, I am angry at God for giving me (and others) this freedom. I'm left without excuse. I have a nature, certainly, and some things might require more moral or intellectual effort than others, but that doesn't reduce my level of responsibility. Even in the case of my PTSD recovery, where literal biological issues influence my behavior, I make a choice whether or not to seek help or use the tools I've gained. Even there I am responsible. That produces a lot of anxiety...and a tremendous amount of dependence on God.

I'm haunted by freedom. I am, as Sartre says, condemned to be free, and I need to use that freedom to do something glorifying to God.

Wednesday, September 14, 2016

It's InfantryMAN, Not InfantryLADY!

Thoughts on Women In Combat Arms

It's been a minute since my last update. Labor Day got the best of me, and then going back to school got the best of me, and then laziness got the best of me, too. There's a whole lot of things getting the best of me, and on that note, here's a four minute loop of David Grohl yelling "the best."

One thing that kind of caught my attention the other day is the news that around 140 women will start training in combat arms jobs by 2017. That's a pretty big deal. It's not all that long ago that combat arms jobs opened up to females at all. 

Granted, women have actually been in combat plenty; the war on terror doesn't exactly have a "front line" or a "rear," so you might very well wind up having to defend your combat outpost from an enemy assault, or fight through an ambush while you're convoying a bunch of crap from one Forward Operating Base (FOB) to the next. On my second deployment, we were so short on male combat medics that female medics regularly accompanied platoons on patrol while their male counterparts were on leave (from what I understand, most of them didn't have much trouble keeping up).

I don't have any issue with the idea of women in combat arms. Yeah, yeah, they gotta pack some extra stuff in their hygiene kit, and there's always the chance that there might be some love-related drama (as there usually is when men and women are in close quarters for months at a time). Those aren't reasons to keep a hard charging American woman from getting a chance to shoot terrorists in the face, anymore than it'd be reason to stop a gay dude from serving in an infantry platoon. Those reasons are stupid.

I do have some issue with the military's execution of gender integration, however. Disclaimer: I might not have any clue what I'm talking about here (I mean I never really do, but especially not in this case). I've been out for a while. What's actually being reported in the news can be very, very different from what's actually occurring at the unit level. If you're active duty and you've got different information, please let me know. 

Equal, But Not Really

I present, for your viewing displeasure and in all its dreadful infamy, the current United States Army PT test.

Kinda hard to read, I know, but I'm not making any money doing this so whatever
Notice something? 

Yep. That's right. 


Female soldiers have to do way less than their male counterparts to get the same score on the PT test. Like way, way less. In order for a male soldier to pass the push-up event, he has to do a minimum of 42 pushups. 

How much does a female have to do? 19. Less than half. 

What run time does a man need to pass the 2 mile run event? A maximum of 15 minutes, 54 seconds

A female? 18 minutes, 54 seconds. A woman can be three minutes slower than a man and still pass just the same as him. In fact, the only event where they're held to the same standard is when it comes to sit-ups (passing sit-ups requires 53 repetitions for both sexes).

This test applies to everyone in the Army. Clerks and dentists take this the same as high speed infantry grunts. Women that are going into combat arms are, quite frankly, not held to the same standard as their male counterparts. It's assumed that they simply cannot do as well as men when it comes to running and push-ups. Women coming into the infantry don't have to be equal to men; exceptions are made for them. They get a pass, in a job where their friends will be relying on them for their lives, where the enemy really doesn't care what gender you are when he starts shooting.

That's pretty messed up if you ask me. It's just an example of political correctn...wait. Hang on a sec.

What the heck, man?! You're telling me that a 17 year old has to do more push-ups to pass than a 27 year old? That's garbage! I mean, sure, it isn't a huge difference (and seems kinda stupidly arbitrary when you think about it), but isn't it kind of important for a group of people going into battle together to all be held to the same standard? 
Why the heck should your age matter, right? Either you can hack it or you can't, end of story!

All sarcasm aside, the PT test has always had age segregation, so maybe saying that the problem of gender segregation stems from "political correctness" misses the point. Maybe the point is that the PT test isn't all that great to begin with.

It never made such sense to me. Why am I being judged on my ability to do push-ups, sit-ups, and run 2 miles in shorts and a T-shirt, when the only kind of fitness that matters is how well I can sprint under fire while wearing body armor (or how far I can ruck with 100 pounds of crap on my back)? All the stuff on the PT test seems irrelevant. It seems like exactly the sort of thing the Army would dream up; an easy-to-do test with zero empirical evidence to show that it accurately measures fitness, but allows you to pay lip service to the notion of standardization across the branch.

You know what else? Maybe it's time we just admit that it doesn't freaking matter if some people suck at PT. If you're a damn Army dentist or a supply dude, it really doesn't matter if you aren't a stud. Ditto goes for a fifty-something general that'll likely never actually be in combat. 

You guys can keep the current PT test. You can waste your time running and push-upping and sit-upping. Combat arms, on the other hand, needs a PT test that actually relates to combat. It cannot have separate standards for gender, or even age. Once you're over a certain rank you're unlikely to be in combat so you can just stop taking it (which everyone does now anyway, unless they're trying to put on a show of being "one of the menz").

I knew plenty of guys who scored low on the PT test, but never once fell out of a ruck march in Afghanistan. I didn't know any guys who scored high on the PT test that had as hard a time as some fat body, but a high score didn't always correlate with good rucking skills. 

Do I have a solution? Not really. I just like to complain. I guess I'd have the combat arms PT test be a long ruckmarch followed by a series of sprints in full body armor. That seems like something relevant to combat. No age segregation. No gender segregation. Either you can do it or you can't. That's it.

Now if you'll excuse me I'm going to do eat a pound of waffles dipped in melted butter for breakfast and then go back to sleep beneath my DD214 blanket.

Here's your stupid Anchorman reference. I know you were looking for it this whole time.

Wednesday, August 31, 2016

Netflix Horror Review: "They're Watching"

The Dawn of a NEW ERA

You've probably noticed that I try and update on Wednesday and Saturday. From now on, I'm going to make at least every other Wednesday a review of a horror movie currently available on Netflix. I'm going to steer clear of the ones that are really well known or have received glowing reviews; it'll be super easy for you to just figure out whether or not they're worth a watch just by checking out Rotten Tomatoes.

Nope, what we want is to explore some of the movies that got mixed reviews or no reviews to speak of. A lot of the time you can find hidden gems among the garbage, even if other folks have watched it and declared that it isn't worth your time. For that reason our grading scale is gonna be pretty simple: thumbs up or thumbs down, worth an hour and a half or not worth an hour and a half. 

Notice I said 'we?' That's right, because today I'm joined by my insanely hot and talented wife Candace. Not only is Candace half of the duo in terms of movie/book reviews and a fellow lover of all things horror, she is also in charge of our yet-to-be-announced horror project (so stay tuned for that). We'll go ahead and jump right on in with our review of "They're Watching," a Best Served Cold film released in March of this year directed by Micah Wright and Jay Lender. From the IMDB page:

"When an American home improvement TV show visits a remote Eastern European village, the young crew thinks the lack of mocha latt├ęs and free wifi will be the worst of their problems. But after their filming interrupts the superstitious villagers' private religious ritual, the situation takes a turn for the homicidal... and when the blood starts flowing, that's when things get really weird. With THEY'RE WATCHING, noted graphic novelists and animators Micah Wright and Jay Lender turn a classic horror premise upside down to create a fresh, funny, eye-popping twist on the genre."

I freaking love this movie poster. -Justin


JUSTIN: Alright, without any spoilers, the first thing you need to know about this movie is that it's actually really funny at the beginning. Yeah, it's a horror flick, and yeah, there's a decent amount of gore, but I still found myself laughing a lot. It's kind of self-aware wittiness was one of the first things I noticed.

CANDACE: First thing I noticed was that the chick from "Army Wives" is in it. Brigid Brannagh, she played Pamela Moran.

JUSTIN: I've never seen that show.

CANDACE: I know. Brigid is like the one bigger-name actress in the cast. Her and the boss character (I forget her name). She was on "Watchmen."

JUSTIN: I kind of enjoy that in a found footage film. It seems less real when you you immediately recognize all the actors.
We haven't watched the show in forever,
but evidently she's on "30 Rock" as well. -Candace

CANDACE: Oh, and I also recognized one of the actors from Chernobyl Diaries (since we just recently watched that). Aside from him and the two actresses that was it though; nobody from from really huge blockbuster horror movies or anything. That definitely helped pull me into the story a bit more even though this genre is done to death. 

JUSTIN: "They're Watching" managed to at least have an interesting premise though.

CANDACE: The whole HGTV crew thing was hilarious. More importantly, I think they managed to keep us guessing. I really couldn't figure out what was going on or what would happen. They didn't give away the ending within the first few minutes which was nice.

JUSTIN: The HGTV thing was an original hook and made for some funny moments, but I think that part of why it was so hard to figure out what would happen is because the movie took so long to get going. 

CANDACE: An extremely long time. Since we're talking about negatives, not only was there an unnecessarily long build up, but the climax was kinda meh. The effects weren't that great. They looked out of date to me. 

JUSTIN: For a film that builds up the way it does, it does kind of end on an unexpected note.

CANDACE: It's almost like it switches genres on you. It starts off as a comedy, but then seems like it wants to end on a straight up horror note. They didn't do a great job at sort of blending the two together. The ending would have been better if they'd just stuck with the comedic feel.

JUSTIN: Maybe I'm just stupid, but I felt like the title was kind of ambiguous. "They're Watching." Ok, who's watching?

CANDACE: I think it was referring to the camera crew, or maybe the townspeople. Maybe both. What would you call that, like a Chekov's Gun but with the title instead of an object? Just foreshadowing in general?

JUSTIN: Maybe it's like "The Pact" and it doesn't mean anything at all.

CANDACE: I think it has some meaning, especially involving the end of the story, but it really seemed like they wanted you to think that the title referred to the townspeople. 

JUSTIN: Aaaand now we're moving into spoiler territory.

CANDACE: Read with caution!

CANDACE: Anyway, they wanted the audience to think the title referred to the townspeople, who were kind of set up to be the antagonists. They show the camera crew interrupt the funeral for those dead kids, which makes everyone angry. Weirdly enough you never really hear about the funeral after that, or why the kids died in the first place. Would have been nice for them to have tied up that loose end.
Stereotypical East Europeans are stereotypical

JUSTIN: Kind of goes back to how long the movie took to get going. That would have been a good jumping off point for actual plot development.

CANDACE: Or if they'd actually referenced the witch in the woods more often throughout the movie. "Oh, al our kids are dead, it's the witches fault!" The townspeople got angry when one of the characters just called another a "witch." It was like saying Voldemort, you know; you know that something is scary because of the word being taboo, but that's not as effective when it barely ever comes up. You see the townspeople freak out once, but that's kinda it.

JUSTIN: They really didn't build up the ominousness of the witch at all, really. For the first half the movie you don't have a clue who the villain is, then all of a sudden they're stuck at the house and bam people are getting murdered. Even the romance between the two leads was a bit like that. It was portrayed pretty well, but that subplot seemed pointless by the end of the movie.
CANDACE: Ah yes, the classic tale of two young lovers slowly realizing their attraction for each other...and then he gets evaporated and she gets hit in the head with an ax.

JUSTIN: That's how 50% of all relationships end these days. Sad fact.

CANDACE: Very realistic. Also, and I just thought of this: there's the stereotypical crazy gypsy woman that's trying to warn the stupid Americans that they're in danger, but she never once tries to talk to the realtor guy with them who speaks her language! She just shows up creepily and stares at them.

JUSTIN: She knows what's going on, but she's also stuck in the role of "cliched harbinger of doom."

CANDACE: I give this one a thumbs down. It was kind of funny at first, but it took too long to get going and really wasn't worth the time we invested.

JUSTIN: I agree, I think the comedy couldn't make up for some of the cliched plot points and slow-to-develop storyline.


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Saturday, August 27, 2016

4:30 AM Challenge: The Update You Didn't Ask For

It's been eight days since I started waking up at the butt crack of the morning in order to spend more time writing and at the gym. The writing part has worked out pretty well; I've churned out 1000 words a day in my novel, and have completed two different short stories in the 5000 word range. The gym stuff hasn't happened yet; it's been insanely hard to get back to my daily regime after getting totally derailed last week. I'm chalking this week up as a loss, though I'm happy I didn't also totally throw healthy eating out the window along with Week 4 of 5/3/1.

What I've noticed more than anything is how much time I was wasting later in the evening. Before starting this whole 4:30 thing I was going to sleep at around 11 or 12pm. At least an hour of that was spent sitting in my bed staring at my iPhone screen. Now I'm ready to crash by 9:30, and am unquestionably racked out for the night by 10:30. I spend maybe five minutes on my phone in bed; once my head hits the pillow I'm just too tired to screw around with my "Brony Army Veterans" Facebook page.

When I think about it, a lot of the stuff I did later in the evening was a total waste of time. All my tasks are completed by then. The kid's asleep. The wife and I aren't going anywhere. We've watched a movie or listened to an audiobook or whatever. At that point I'd usually just absentmindedly play Fallout 4 or screw around with the games on my phone. Now, because I'm starting the day earlier, I get way more done. I've got more productive time in the early morning, though granted, the first half hour is spent blearily staring at my screen as I gulp down steaming hot coffee.

Speaking of, you wanna know who makes good coffee? Aldi.

ALDI: Where you save a buttload of money simply because they make you put away your own shopping cart.

Their little K-cups or whatever the knockoff generic is called are delicious. Not that it really matters; coffee is simply a vector for caffeine to reach my bloodstream. If there were injections I'd take it more directly. Regardless, it's nice to be able to buy a pack of K cups for under 10 bucks and have them not taste like coffee filtered through a homeless man's underwear.  

There's still a part of me that thinks I should get an old school drip coffee maker. I need a lot more coffee than just a single k cup. I've taken the next step of just automatically making two cups of coffee with my Keurig, but even that seems kind of inadequate at times. What I really need is a whole pot of hot, dark coffee, which is incidentally how I like my men. That should provide me with the caffeine burst I need to wake up with a jolt at 5:00 am and not feel sleepy until i crash for an afternoon siesta at around 11.

I'm really happy that I've been churning out so much writing. Writing is freaking hard sometimes. I'm committed to writing a 1000 words a day which means I do it no matter what, but on some times I can barely bring my fingers to press against the keys. I've got no clue what I'm doing with the plot; sometimes those 1000 words are un-punctuated gibberish that I'll have to seriously polish up later. That said, having that goal has provided me with  a lot of little daily short term rewards. Being able to put so many words on a page means it's fairly easy to move the plot forward and figure out what I like or don't like.

And that's all I got.

Wednesday, August 24, 2016

Nobody Curses On The Radio (And Four Other Things Media Gets Wrong About Combat)

I just got done working on my next military sci-fi short, "The Crawling Dark." It's the latest in what I'm starting to call the Hauserverse, since every one of the short stories I've written over the last two years takes place in the same universe (and typically involves Agent John Hauser of the ultra-mega-super-secret-squirell organization known as 'The Department'). Without going into too much detail, "The Crawling Dark" involves ole' Johnny on a move-to-contact operation with a team of fellow Department agents in an abandoned stretch of the New York City subway system. There's some kind of Ugly Nasty Dead thing down there and they need to kill it before it eats anymore homeless people.

Anyway, writing some of the dialogue where Hauser maneuvers his team over the radio got me thinking about stuff action movies and military thrillers often get completely wrong about small unit tactics. Just so you don't think I'm blowing smoke, I spent five years in the Army as an airborne infantryman, and somehow fooled a promotion board into thinking that I was competent enough to be promoted to the rank of Sergeant. Two of those years were in Afghanistan either lugging around an M249 Squad Automatic Weapon or commanding a squad of soldiers that were way smarter and more motivated than I could ever hope to be. 

Without further ado, here are five things military action and sci-fi movies/books get wrong about small unit tactics.

Nobody Curses On The Radio

Saw it in the title so I'll just get it out of the way. It doesn't matter if you're in combat or not: no professional soldier is going to drop F-bombs while communicating on the radio. The military has a very specific form of radio language that, while flexible, has some rules you cannot break, and one of them is that you can't waste anyone's time by being vulgar, especially if you're getting shot at.

I've got one specific memory that comes to mind for this. Back in 2012, my platoon was involved with "taking down" an American combat outpost on the KG Pass. We were turning it over to the local Afghan army, so all our equipment had to go. We worked well into the night packing up everything we could and shipping it a few kilometers down the road to the next nearest American outpost.

At around two in the morning, a call came over the company net that one of the platoons was in contact with enemy forces. The enemy initiated with an IED big enough to blast a huge furrow in the road. They followed up with some serious RPG and small arms fire from a fairly close distance.

I'll never forget the platoon sergeant's voice on the radio. He almost sounded bored. He informed the tactical operations center that they were in contact, gave a brief description of the enemy force, then went right back to talking to his platoon on their internal radios. Next time he came up on the radio he was informing us that the enemy had broken contact. His tone hadn't changed at all.

This was a situation where the bad guys had them by the short and curly hairs. One of their trucks was stuck, they were out in the open, the enemy had cover and concealment in the foothills, and on the other side of the road was a sheer drop of about ten feet down into a dry stream bed. This was not a good situation to be in...but you'd never know it from how chill their platoon sergeant was on the net.

People aren't going to waste time screaming and cursing. That's just stupid. Even if they're yelling at their gunner or driver, as soon as they get on the net they're going to be calm, descriptive and brief.

Nobody Waits Until You're 5 Minutes Out From the Objective To Tell You What's Going On

I love "Hellboy," both the comic and the movies. If you've read them and any of my work, you'll see how big an influence the B.P.R.D. is on the various organizations in the Hauserverse.

That said, one of the best examples of "telling soldiers what they're doing while you're literally on the objective" comes from the opening scene of the movie. Dr. Bruttenholm has accompanied an American strike force to an island off the coast of Scotland where Rasputin has built a portal to another dimension. While en route to the ruins where they're holed up, Bruttenholm decides to pass out crucifixes to the soldiers, as well as explain why Rasputin chose this location to who I presume is the commanding officer/NCO.

1.) Get a gun. 2.) Go to Nazi Witch Island. 3) ??? 4) PROFIT!

I understand why it's necessary for a movie to do this at times. You can't very well show the lengthy process that goes into planning a mission. There's a lot to it.  An Operations Order (OPORD for short) contains five different paragraphs:

Situation: Enemy forces, their most likely and most dangerous courses of action, friendly forces, civil and terrain considerations, etc.

Mission: What you're actually doing to Who, Where you're doing it to then, When you're doing it to them, and WHY you're doing it to them.

Execution: How exactly you're going to pull off all the crap mentioned in the Mission paragraph.

Service and Support: What's the plan for our casualties? If we take enemy POWs what are we going to do with them? How are we doing ammo resupply, food resupply if necessary, etc?

Command and Signal: Who's in charge of what, and how are we going to communicate if, say, our radios go down?

Showing all that would be pretty lame and mess up the story pacing. I get it. However, it isn't a huge change (in my opinion) to just show the commanding officer asking the doctor a question or two instead of having him just now finding out what they're doing on the island.

Professional Soldiers Don't Split Up

This is one of the things that cracks me up the most. You typically see this in B-rated action movies, since professional directors realize that it's idiotic and makes zero sense. 

The whole concept of modern warfare is to "shoot, move, communicate and kill." One element (whether it's your battle buddy, or another team, or another squad) locks the enemy in the place as a base of fire. Their goal is to murder everything that's on the objective. Meanwhile, the other element is maneuvering, getting into position to overrun the enemy position. 

It's impossible to move and communicate if you're by yourself. You're gonna wind up in a straight up frontal assault, even if there's only one other bad guy. You're extremely vulnerable to being maneuvered on yourself; while your attention is drawn to the front, there could be a couple zombie gunslinger pirates assaulting from your left flank. 

Guys who shoot things for a living don't split up. The absolute smallest element they'll be in is a fire team, which is around four soldiers. Maybe if the poop hits the fan they'll break down into what is informally known as "battle buddy teams," which consist of two soldiers, in order to maneuver better. The point is that you're not ever gonna have Private Snuffy rushing off on his lonesome through the abandoned Charms Candy factory to confront the squid monster while his sergeant and machine gunner take different routes. It's the modern equivalent of a Spartan phalanx deciding to split up and have the shield bearers go after one guy while the spear-men go after another.

Soldiers Aren't All Tough and Grizzled Looking

Here's a picture of me and some of the guys from my platoon on my first deployment:

Back when I could run a 13:15 2-mile (buuuut couldn't squat over 250).

And now some of me and my soldiers from my second deployment:

I wish my wife would let me start shaving my head again.

Please note that none of us have facial scars, none of us have beards, and only the Platoon Sergeant (the bossman of the Platoon) is over the age of 30. In fact, in that first photo, I was 20 years old. Some of the guys I was deployed with were only 19.

The fact that combat troops are often teenagers seems to be forgotten in both television and written fiction. Watch "Generation Kill." Watch "The Pacific." Even though there are some young-looking guys, for the most part the actors playing these roles are older (and it's noticeable).

Granted, if you're writing about a bunch of SF or DEVGRU guys that have served for twenty years, then yeah, they might fit that description. If you're writing about your good ole' fashioned groundpounder dogfaced infantryman-of-the-line soldier, however, odds are he isn't old enough to rent a car and had to a use a fake ID after deployment so he could sneak into the bar with his older buddies.

Nobody Takes Themselves Seriously

Want to know what we spent most of our time doing when we weren't on mission during my first deployment? Lighting ourselves on fire. Lighting each other on fire. Shooting each other with BB guns and blowguns. Running around the combat outpost on spring-loaded stilts (I was the one that bought those). We'd see who could drink the most RipIts and wind up puking all over the place. 


We talked constant crap on each other. We talked constant crap on ourselves. We whined and complained every second we got, and generally agreed that we were the biggest bunch of losers on the planet (while still taking immense pride in our platoon).

I got a taste of my own medicine when I took over as a squad leader for my second deployment. Now it was my job to wrangle together a bunch of twenty-somethings that wanted nothing more than to dip, watch porn and chow down on Otis Spunkmeyer cookies. Even though I was in a leadership position, I still goofed off with my fellow squad leader and platoon sergeant. 

What I'm trying to say is that at no point did we ever sit in our rooms, shirtless, with our dog tags on, sharpening our K-BARs and grunting. There was plenty of casual conversation between me and my soldiers. People only stood at parade rest when they were getting yelled at. No one ever randomly quoted the Infantryman's Creed or the Oath of Enlistment in order to inspire "the men" (well, ok, I did, but I also ran around yelling the lyrics to "Pepper" by the Butthole Surfers and "I Had The Time of My Life" from Dirty Dancing).

Did I know guys who acted like that? Sure. Like at any moment they might strut back into their rooms and emerge in a suit of gleaming armor, or spontaneously grow a skull-face bandanna and grenade bandolier from their very flesh. They existed, and we all made fun of them for being cheese dicks. We get it, you're a soldier. We're all soldiers too. Go eat some Cinnamon Pop-Tarts in the chow hall and chill out.

These taste like "the chow hall is out of any real food until tomorrow."

Alright, that's it, those are my thoughts. I don't have a clue how to wrap this up, so here's a bunch of Arnold quotes:

Saturday, August 20, 2016

Everyone Is Born Racist

I just wrapped up my summer semester at the University of Michigan (coughcoughDEARBORNcoughcough). It involved some of the more boring classes I've had to take for my major in psychology. I don't really give a crap about how heart attacks work, but evidently that's important enough in Healthy Psychology to warrant a paper and nearly twenty questions on a fifty question test. For someone not planning to be even remotely involved in health psychology, it's a lot like the Olympics (in the sense that it's boring and doesn't actually matter at all).

Earlier in the semester I took a class called "The Psychology of Prejudice." I took it specifically because I hoped I would learn more about how prejudice actually works and how to overcome those knee-jerk, stereotypical responses we all get sometimes. I want to work as a PTSD Readjustment counselor for combat veterans, and I've always thought of how much it would suck to not only have to be in combat but be in combat with dudes that didn't like you because of your skin tone. That obviously isn't as prevalent today, but I know there are black Vietnam vets who killed the enemy, protected their buddies, but still had to deal with being called "nigger" when they made it back into the wire.

I was in for a pretty rude awakening. Psychology of Prejudice refuted a lot of the common arguments or tropes associated with prejudice (be it racism, ageism, classism, etc). The class really helped me see how totally flat-out wrong the sociologist's approach to racism is, and how without understanding prejudice we're likely to continue suffering from its affects.

We've all heard people say the phrase, "No one is born racist. You have to learn how to hate." Hell, I've said that before. Sure seems right! Look, here's a meme of a black kid and a white kid, look at 'em hugging each other! Obviously kids are born good, they don't despise each other for no reason other than skin tone!

Unfortunately both babies and parents got into an insane fist fight
immediately after this picture was taken

The problem is, that's not at all how it works. From the moment we're born, we are looking at the world and trying to make sense of it. That's pretty important from an evolutionary standpoint; if it took us until we were older to categorize and clarify  we were experiencing, we probably would have died out a long time ago. As infants, we're quickly breaking the world down into groups: mom and dad vs other people, then later men vs women, safe vs non-safe, food vs non-food, etc. That's essential to our survival both as individuals and as a species.

"Ya'll act like you never seen a white person before!"
No one is teaching us these mental schemas. They occur as your brain automatically perceives and interprets incoming information about the world. You can no more control it than you can control your heartbeat. 

Let's pretend you're a little kid that has literally never seen white people before in your life. Your parents happen to drive you past a Whole Foods or maybe a Trader Joes. From the backseat window you notice a couple of Caucasian-Americans emerging from the grocery store laden down with white bread and craft beer. Before they even make it to the car they all stop to shovel mayonasse into their mouths. The men all have long, bushy, mayo-covered beards and are wearing plaid, while the women are all chugging Starbucks and singing lyrics from "Pitch Perfect."

You're just a child. This is the first experience you've had with white people. Your brain is going to automatically try to process and interpret this new information because that's what your brain does. "Alright, so it looks like people with white skin just love to drink crappy beer and stupidly expensive coffee. They like wearing ugly clothes from the previous century out of "irony" or something. They all really, really love mayonnaise." 

Is this correct of white people in general? Of course it isn't. Not all white people on the planet slam Starbucks like there's no tomorrow. Not even all white people in your country, or state, or even your city! In fact, most likely, the people you just saw emerging from Hipster Central represent a tiny segment of the total white people population! 

That doesn't matter to your brain, though. Your brain is interested in keeping you both alive and kicking. Your ancestors were the ones who survived the Eemian Era because they automatically identified anything with fur and four legs that made a growling sound as a potential threat. That ability to group things into schemas freed up a lot of brainpower for other stuff (like how to make fire in order to impress the hot Neanderthal babe a few caves over).

The point is that you come up with all this yourself. No one teaches it to you. No one sits you down and says, "Ok Billy, here are some prejudiced ideas about other people." That's your default setting, not just as a child but as a grown human being. Prejudice is 1.) completely natural, and 2.) happens automatically. We have absolutely no control over prejudiced thoughts; our schemas are automatically activated even if we know they're wrong.

That brings me to my next point. There's more than a few boot-licking cuck-fetishists on the far Right that love pretending that this gives them an excuse to be racist douchebags. I've lost track of the Trumptards on 4/chan or the Communism Kills Facebook page that insist racism is actually good because it's "natural" and shows that you "prefer your own tribe" to any other.

The only issue with that kind of thinking is that it's stupid and wrong. All kinds of cognitive processes are natural and yet still incredibly harmful. Every time you have ridiculously strong emotions that compel you into action you wouldn't normally take ("I'm just so angry right now I'm gonna punch a hole in the wall") you're experiencing automatic, natural thoughts that are beyond useless. Racism is the exact same way. We aren't running around fending off mammoths or saber-toothed tigers anymore. We aren't living in small family bands of 15 people surrounded by twenty square miles of barren wilderness. While we still have those adaptive processes that ensure our physical survival, we don't have to act on them anymore than we have to act on our emotions.

You can't control what pops into your head. That's what a lot of the social-justice types get wrong. If you wake up in the morning and think "don't think racist thoughts today," you're probably just activating the schema and bringing even more prejudiced stuff to the front of your brain. The only thing you can really control is how you deal with your thoughts and what behavior follows from that. Just because you see a Mexican and automatically think "that guy must love tacos," doesn't mean you can't immediately also think, "That's silly, I'm not even sure if that person is Mexican, maybe they're from some other South American country, maybe they hate tacos, who knows, stop assuming!" It certainly doesn't mean that you have to treat that person badly, especially since you should know that your assumptions aren't accurate!

Where do we go from here? If prejudice is the result of natural and automatic cognitive processes, what do we do about all the hatred in the world? We can start by admitting that we aren't ruled by our thoughts. This gets into some weird philosophical stuff, because when you think about it, that means there's a "YOU" passively observing the thoughts popping into your head. What that means is beyond me, and people have spent centuries arguing over it, but the fact that we're able to have these thoughts and then simply not act on them is evidence enough to convince me. 



Tune in next time for more annoying opinions, pop culture reviews and philosophical garbage!

Thursday, August 18, 2016

The 4:30 AM Challenge

Eat My Breakfast Too Dang Soon

I've never been one to sleep in, even before I made the stupid mistake of joining the Army. I'm usually pretty excited about whatever stupid, pointless activity I have planned for the next day, so as soon as six am rolls around I'm typically ready to tackle the morning.

I read an interesting article the other day about waking up at 4:30 am for 21 days. It seemed like an interesting idea; we're most productive in the early morning, and getting up at such an unholy hour provides ample time for content creation and actual editing (something I seem to never have time for). So here I am, sitting in my living room, staring blearily at my screen and nursing sweet, sweet Aldi's brand coffee, trying to remember why the heck I'm doing this.

Getting up early means I have plenty more time to waste doing absolutely nothing. I've tried to cut out the useless, addictive stuff from my life. I don't have any iPhone games, I don't really play video games (aside from the occasional binge in the Fallout universe), and I get bored really quick just cruising social media. At the same time, I've found myself engaging in the equally stupid and time wasting activity of debating politics and pop culture on the Internet, which can take up a surprising amount of my day. In order to avoid that, and make the most of the whole "wake up at a time when even the crickets are surprised to see me," I'm going to purposely choose to not play any video games or engage in any political debates at any point in the morning.

This does provide a better opportunity for me to get to the gym. I've been doing Jim Wendler's 5/3/1 powerlifting method for the better part of six months now. Combined with intermittent fasting and a generally healthier lifestyle, I've been able to lose about 25 pounds. My lift numbers have gone through the roof; I'm hitting 275 on bench, 210 on shoulder press and 450 on squat with no trouble (I stopped deadlifting a while ago; I know, I know, I need to get back into it). I really don't want to die of diabetes when my kid is 10, so having more time to work out and lose weight is important.

There's also the matter of prayer time. I love Jesus the way I love the gym; pretty consistently for a while, but then I forget what I was doing, wind up binging on sin/ice cream, and feel awful and sick and stupid for straying from the path of physical and spiritual gainz. I've got absolutely no excuse to not engage in prayer and old-fashioned Bible meditation now. I feel like giving God the first part of my morning is probably a good way to keep our relationship on the right track. The last thing I want is to lose sight of whatever destiny the Almighty has set before me after all I've already been through.

Speaking of....

Speaking of, have you heard this song? I can't post it here, probably for copyright reasons or whatever, but if you're into the whole Southern rock/Gospel genre, I can't recommend it enough. It's a great example of music inspired by the crossroads of faith and personal loss, which is IMHO missing from a lot of modern worship music. It's not always easy for me to relate to the lyrics and style of what I find myself singing on any given Sunday morning. My relationship with God has been violent and filled with all kinds of nastiness that just isn't reflected by a lot of the feel-good, upbeat stuff common in contemporary Christian music. That's not to say that those songs aren't good or edifying, of course; just that I generally identify more with worship involving the hopeless evil of the human condition contrasted with the perfect mercy, love and goodness of Christ.

That's where I've learned the most about God, really; in that hopeless, evil condition. I'm fond of saying that I didn't understand forgiveness until I did things truly worth forgiving. That's only partially true; even a kid can understand forgiveness. I just came to a greater understanding, once I was finished with two bloody tours in Afghanistan and had nearly driven my wife away from me with my anger, violence, depression and untreated PTSD. That's where God met me and truly revealed His power to me, at the very bottom of the pit I'd dug for myself.

The love of Jesus for me then was like the first gasp of air for a drowning man, or cold water after an endless march through the Afghani mountains. It's not always like that, but I try to remember that no relationship founded solely on emotions is going to last. I think that's a big part of our problem with relationships in general. Western society has sort of force-fed us this image of what a good friendship or marriage looks like, and that image says, "If you're not blissfully happy and feeling powerful emotions the entire time, something is wrong." Hey, are you "just not happy anymore?" Time for a divorce! Is your buddy daring to question your recent actions! Better "learn to walk away from a toxic person!"

That isn't helping us at all. That's not how things work in the real world. The entire point of commitment is to carry on even when you don't feel like carrying on. I'm lying to myself if I think I'm going to want to go to the gym every day, or be a good husband to my wife or father to my son every day, or a dutiful Christian every day, or work on my book every day. I do it anyway, though, because my temporary feelings don't represent my actual goals in the long run.

Hopefully I'll be throwing up some stupid videos of me stumbling around my kitchen in the dark while trying to make a cup of coffee so I can wake up. That would be way more interesting than anything else I might say, so stay tuned for that.