He's an Ox and he's a Moron

I don't know what kind of work they do but the side of their truck says, "We specialize in everything."

I wonder if they even understand why I find that funny.


No One Suspects the Spanish Inquisition!

When I was in my accident last year, the doctor attending my wounds had to conduct a test to see if I had ruptured my knee. Using a syringe that might have been labeled "ACME" and been brandished by an anthropomorphic coyote, he injected the interior knee with a silicate jelly to see if it leaked out.

It hurt, alot.

In retrospect, the words "searing, white hot agony" might sum up the experience, though they still fall far short of adequately explaining the sensation. The thirty seconds of this test might have been more painful than any other part of my treatment and recovery. It hurt a hell of a lot more than the accident did. This aspect of my treatment taught me one very important thing lesson:

It's really good that I'm not in the CIA.

If I were as spy and I was caught whilst spying, all the enemy would need to do is obliquely imply that that I might be subjected to that test and I would sing like a canary on amphetamines. I would give them the secret plans or the launch codes or the names of all the undercover agents in Romania or whatever the hell it is that foreign intelligence officers would want to torture out of any American operative. That's all it would take and I would tell them anything they wanted to hear.

Herein lies most people's misunderstanding of the current debate over torture.

The intelligence and defense community does not want the authority to torture prisoners in order to garner information. Any interrogator will tell you that intel acquired under such duress is, at best, unreliable and at worst, outright false. Moreover, torturing a prisoner cements their identity, instantly solidifies their conception of the torturers as evil, prevents them from ever trusting their captors and thus robs interrogators of a myriad of other methods of inquiry that are both more effective and more humane. The victim is thusly eliminated as a possible ally. Ultimately, there is very little useful information available through torture.

No, the purpose of torture is to intimidate the populace, to leave ordinary people afraid of the possibility that they, under certain circumstances, could be tortured. Stay in line or you'll be the one being waterboarded, thumb-screwed or sensory deprived. Moreover, pay extra attention to what you say, do and to whom you speak because your family and friends are at risk as well.

Once torture is an available option, other civilized concepts of law and ethics that would otherwise protect the innocent are obviously out the window. Our mundane concepts of individual responsibility, innocence and guilt cease to apply. Watch your friends and neighbors as well as yourself or you might find yourself under duress as the result of their actions. This is what torture does, it cements fear, divides populations and undermines faith in civilians' right to justice. The torture of a scant few can then be used as a tool curtail the rights of many tens of thousands.

The debate thus far has centered on the human rights of those being tortured and on the political credibility of the United States. While the infringement of the first and the loss of the second are both tragedies, they pale in comparison to the larger implications of what such a policy shift indicates.

The value of torture is not the information it extracts from those who are tortured but what information it conveys to those who are not.


Your Indignation is Beneath Me

Years ago, when my mother was a case manager for the State of Wisconsin, she had a wooden desk plaque that read, “Sheer 'd Phuk UP.” I'm reminded of this today because, for no reason I can divine, the whole world seems to be in a really crappy mood.

Did something happen today?

I mean, of course something happened today. All sorts of things happen every day but did something big and depressing happen today and somehow I missed the news? My neighbor, who was out working on his truck, was tight lipped and gruff in that leave me the hell alone kind of way. The barista at the coffee shop was snippy and dismissive. The guy at the table beside me snapped when I reached to retrieve his cigarette lighter when it was knocked to the floor. For the first time in six months I gave fifty cents to a beggar and he complained that nobody's given him a whole dollar today. The horn honking quotient is vastly above normal.

I can't understand it. By all accounts it's a fantastic day. It's Sunday, so most folks aren't pissed about work. The weather is fantastic; sky clear, temperature mild and comfortable, a perfect spring day. There's no major traffic or construction delays in my part of town. I looked at the news and there's no major national crisis so will someone please tell me what the hell is going on?

Who pissed in Atlanta's collective corn flakes? Is it national sourpuss day and I didn't get the memo? Does everyone around me have a close friend that I've managed never to meet who just died in a bizarre bee keeping accident? Is there some sort of radiation to which I'm immune? Is it a sports thing? Did some team I can't be bothered to care about loose? Did everyone get their hot water turned off on the same day? Did the price of gas shoot up to fifteen dollars a gallon and I haven't noticed? Did everyone just now realize that they can't buy beer on Sunday?

I've never been big on the everybody-be-happy school of thought but for Gods' sake, the weather's nice, major sports aren't on strike, there's no plague threatening to wipe out humanity and here in the USA we're not having to hide in our bathrooms every time there's an air raid. Can you people just count your blessings? Y'all are really killing my buzz.

Sheer 'd Phuck UP.


The Sleeper Must Awaken

I used to scoff at those perpetually bored types that felt the need to change aspects of their life, seemingly without reason, the people who would rearrange their furniture, restyle their hair or quit their job every so often because they “just needed a change.” I took this for childishness, the obsession with novelty that comes from a surplus of unmanaged energy.

I have to confess, I largely still feel this way. People obsessed with shifting bits of themselves about for no reason do tend to be those perpetually bored and disaffected types that constantly want the world to act onto them, that have trouble marshaling themselves for constructive purposes. On the other had I have come to realize the value of such things.

In the words of Frank Herbert, “Without change, something sleeps inside us.”

While constantly shifting one’s environs is a symptom of disengagement, failing to do so can disengage one just as much. Psychologists call this process habituation; it’s an intrinsic property of the brain’s wiring, observed even in newborns. Habituation is the brain’s process of getting used to something, an image, a sound, an activity, an environment. Once habituated to a particular stimulus, the brain no longer reacts to that input as it did when it first encountered it.

Do you remember the last song that floored you, the last tune to come on the radio and stop you in your tracks?* When you first heard it, it kicked you in the chest. It conjured vivid images. It prompted new combinations of emotions. It rang inside your head like the clapper in a storm bell. It evoked memories that you’d forgotten you’d forgotten. It was just so, so new. Now, however many weeks or years later, you’ve heard it dozens, perhaps hundreds of times. You recognize it at the first note, word or chord. You know the artist, the album and you’ve heard the live version and the club remix. You know all the words and can sing along idly whilst doing other things without dividing your attention. It still evokes, to be sure, but not the way it did the first few times you heard it. It has lost it’s novelty.

This is habituation. When the song was new to you, you brain was constructing new pathways and, much like construction in a major city can’t help but upset the older buildings nearby, in the cerebellum’s the forest of synapses, new branches can’t help but shift the old. Those new electro-chemical avenues cement themselves quickly. The song becomes familiar and that combination of beats and frequencies looses the ability to evoke new thoughts.

This is only one example. We habituate to everything in our daily lives. Without novelty, we have nothing but habituated experiences and the internalization of non-habituated information becomes more and more difficult. Herein lies the value of shifting things every so often, shifting so that we can see things differently, so that we might think new thoughts and re-experience old ones, so that we can see some small part of the world anew, so that our brains never have the chance to get lazy and so that we come to know a bit about what how much we don’t know.

Thing are changing for me, presently. I just did a gig that was entirely new for me. Next week I shift jobs within my industry. I’ve rearranged my furniture simply because I was too comfortable with the way it was. Finally, Badassbard is about to undergo a huge change to which I am quite looking forward.

Here’s to what’s next on the radio.

*For those interested the last song that floored me was Flogging Molly’s The Story So Far.


To Join the Black Parade

"Did you like that kind of life?" she asked.

"We were the best." I replied.

"That wasn't what I asked."

My tenth high school reunion was a few months ago. That four year slice of life has thusly come up in conversation these last few months much more than at other times.

I don't remember how we got onto the subject but I was commenting that our marching band, of which I was a member, practiced more than our football team. We had ninety hours of practice in the two weeks preceding each school year. For the eleven weeks of the season we practiced an hour during each school day, three hours after school each of three days a week. We'd come to school two hours early on Tuesdays and Thursdays for sectionals. Two or three times each fall we'd sacrifice our Saturdays for six or eight hours of practice. The five or six hours devoted to football games each Friday weren't to cheer on the team. They were to get audience experience, to prep for our own contests. In all we averaged more than twenty hours a week preparing for marching competitions.

The two hundred of us in the band thought of little else during those three months of the year. It dominated our free time, our conversations, our dreams. It took every minute of our attention and every ounce of our energy. And, we were very, very good.

"Did you like that kind of life?"

I don't know how to explain such things to her. Did I enjoy each minute, even a majority of minutes, no. Did I enjoy hours on the field in Georgia's driving summer sun, no. Did I enjoy the burning arms and aching back from all that time standing at attention, no. Did I enjoy the plastic lined uniform that made my skin wrinkle from the sweat when it was warm and that offered no insulation against the cold, no. Did I enjoy the sanctimonious repudiation for even the slightest of errors, no. Did I enjoy running laps, rising before dawn and investing over a thousand hours in something that never garnered me a position of leadership, a scholarship or even the respect of the rest of the school, no, certainly not.

What I did enjoy was excellence.

Drum corps and competitive band people are a peculiar breed. Like artists and artisans, they recognize superlative work instantly. When we would be called to attention in the presence of other bands and the clean, clear, full chorus of two hundred voices called "Uhn" in perfect unison, cutting the night air like a shot, you could feel the jaws drop. When our company front turned fore and our horns went to the box, when the flash of halogen lights was reflected from a hundred polished horns, when concrete stadiums vibrated with the force of our combined energy we could see our opposition biting their lips and shuffling their feet. I enjoyed that. I enjoyed the absolute and abject awe of my peers.

I enjoyed being there the first year that we swept our season, placing first in every single competition we entered. I enjoyed competing on the national level the following year. I enjoyed traveling half way around the world to demonstrate our skills. I enjoyed being a champion. More than all that, I enjoyed being part of something larger than myself. I enjoyed contributing to something beyond what I, as an individual, could accomplish. I enjoyed belonging to an organization that could say, without reservation, that we were among the best.

Did the grand total of ten or fifteen hours of joy and victory make up for the thousand of misery and labor? I don't know, I suppose they must, since I look back on those days proudly and fondly. Would I do it again, certainly not, but I would also not be the person that I am had I not.

"Did you like that kind of life?"

No, not really. That's not the point. If you only do what you like from moment to moment or from day to day, you're not likely to have much to be proud of.