Thursday, June 18, 2009

Get over yourself Ma'am

Senator Boxer* would like it if you would remember her station in life. In short, she got offended that an Army Brigadier General called her "Ma'am" instead of "Senator". The article goes on to explain in brief the Army protocol for referring to pretty much everyone as "sir" or "ma'am".

So let's look at what "ma'am" means:
I'm not sure how anyone can see any of those definitions as anything other than respectful, but that's not good enough for Senator Boxer.

"You know, do me a favor," an irritated Boxer said. "Could say 'senator' instead of 'ma'am?'"

She didn't say "You know, General, do me a favor". She spoke to a military general as if he was some punk kid disrupting class, and she demanded that he show her respect through her title, because his actions and words weren't respectful enough.

I am offended at her littleness. This is arrogant and ridiculous, and all because "ma'am" does not defer enough authority to her. Please. One day she'll just be a has-been, once-was ex-senator, and then she'll just be a "ma'am" again, unless of course she's in the company of the general public, where she'll be lucky to get that.

I did enjoy Gen. Walsh's response to her request:

"Yes ma'am."

Hooah, Sir.

*read the whole article.

Tuesday, June 02, 2009

All the things we carry

The average civilian carries around not only the trappings of their profession -- briefcase, laptop, purse, diaperbag -- but also the trappings of their mind -- worry, stress, guilt, shame. This is called "normalcy", despite a growing belief that such weights can be regulated in anti-depressants and vacations to Cabo or Maui. Each of us individually drags around our respective weights, and while what we carry is uniquely ours, it is by no means unique. Forgetting that we share the common bond of suffering is the most dangerous step towards apathy as well as cultural elitism. But today my focus is on the stuff we carry, not the effects of humping it around.

Tim O'Brien was a soldier and then an award-winning author. He wrote about his experiences as a soldier. His work of fiction "The Things They Carried" does a great job of putting a fine point on an often intangible thought process with regards to the Vietnam War. In the following excerpt, there is the burden on the reader of thinking about all that he says and all that he writes between the lines. Carry this around for a bit:

"The things they carried were largely determined by necessity. Among the necessities or near-necessities were P-38 can openers, pocket knives, heat tabs, wristwatches, dog tags, mosquito repellent, chewing gum, candy, cigarettes, salt tablets, packets of Kool-Aid, lighters, matches, sewing kits, Military Payment Certificates, C rations, and two or three canteens of water. Together, these items weighed between 15 and 20 pounds....

What they carried was partly a function of rank, partly of field specialty.

As a first lieutenant and platoon leader, Jimmy Cross carried a compass, maps, code books, binoculars, and a .45-caliber pistol that weighed 2.9 pounds fully loaded. He carried a strobe light and the responsibility for the lives of his men....

As a medic, Rat Kiley carried a canvas satchel filled with morphine and plasma and malaria tablets and surgical tape and comic books and all the things a medic must carry, including M&M's for especially bad wounds, for a total weight of nearly 20 pounds....

As PFC's or Spec 4s, most of them were common grunts and carried the standard M-16 gas-operated assault ifle. The weapon weighed 7.5 pounds unloaded, 8.2 pounds with its fulll 20-round magazine.... The riflemen carried anywhere from 12 to 20 magazines, usually in cloth bandoliers, adding on another 8.4 pounds at minimum, 14 pounds at maximum....

In addition to the three standard weapons -- the M-60, the M-16, and the M-79 -- they carried whatever presented itself, or whatever seemed appropriate as a means of killing or staying alive.... They carried all they could bear, and then some, including a silent awe for the terrible power of the things they carried.

They carried USO stationery and pencils and pens. They carried Sterno, safety pins, trip flares, signal flares, spools of wire, razor blades, chewing tobacco.... Taking turns, they carried the big PRC-77 scrambler radio, which weighed 30 pounds with its battery. They shared the weight of memory. They took up what others could no longer bear. Often, they carried each other, the wounded or weak. They carried infections.... They carried diseases, among them malaria and dysentery..... They carried the land itself -- Vietnam, the place, the soil -- a powdery orange-red dust that covered their boots and fatigues and faces.... They carried their own lives. The pressures were enormous.... And for all the ambiguities of Vietnam, all the mysteries and unknowns, there was at least the single abiding certainty that they would never be at a loss for things to carry."

Tim O'Brien carries the reader into his memories with this short story, and asks the reader to carry his burden with him for a few pages. Put down your Blackberries and your Mac's, push aside your mocha lattes and your Coldstone ice cream, and be quiet about your own complainings long enough to listen to someone else unload their burden for a bit.

We don't even have to walk a mile in someone else's shoes. We just need to carry his literal and metaphorical backpack around for a while.