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Jan/Feb 2005 Salon

Lessons Learned

by Tom Dooley


The following are the author's opinions and do not reflect the views of anybody else associated with this publication. In fact, it's a total coincidence if anyone else in the world feels this way.

Esquire Magazine has that really cool feature where they ask folks like Donald Trump what they've learned over the course of their lives. Given the unlikelihood that Esquire will be calling me anytime soon, I've decided to do my own version right here. Plus, I've got some bitching to do, it being the new year and all. In fact, I've got so much to talk about that it's hard to know where to begin, where to go with it, what to conclude. Begin I must, though. It's the middle of February, for Pete's sake, and if I don't get this thing posted, I'll already be late for the next issue. To that end, I'm committed to cranking it out tonight. I've got Johnny Cash singing "Damn your eyes," it's after ten pm on a Sunday night, and it's go time.

What I've Learned #1: I don't look good in red.

Not a lesson I expect will have much bearing on anything of note, but something with which I'm still coming to grips. I'll never play professional basketball or wear dreadlocks either, dammit.

What I've Learned #2: Environmentalism only works as an up sell.

For a while now, I've been telling anyone who will listen about my first car, a 1976 Chevy El Camino. A great, great car. There was never any doubt in my mind before I actually bought it that my first car would be an El Camino. I couldn't tell you why. No one else within a hundred miles had one. It had a 350 "4-barrel" and an automatic transmission though, and until I drove it into early retirement, provided plenty of horsepower at about 25 mpg highway. In the city, or what passed for stop and go driving in rural Alaska, I could eke out over 20 mpg, so long as I didn't mash the gas and open up those two extra carburetor"barrels."

That was 1976 technology, technology that today is almost thirty years old.

Think of how much has changed in the past thirty years. A computer that in 1976 would fill up a good-sized living room and require a congressional budget appropriation to purchase is now small enough to fit in one's pocket and costs about as much as dinner for four. Today's cars are so technologically advanced that my old El Camino—a ridiculous automobile even in its own day—might as well have been a covered wagon in comparison. And yet inexplicably, and I would add inexcusably, a mid to full-sized vehicle coming off the line in 2004 gets no better gas mileage, and in many cases worse, than my old bomber.

Of course, if you'd like to pony up an extra five grand or so, you can now buy a hybrid, a somewhat goofy looking car that runs off a combination of gasoline and battery power. It'll get fifty miles to the gallon, or about what a Volkswagen bug did four decades ago, or what a Geo Metro did two decades ago. That's progress, I guess.

What I've Learned #3: Life is full of strange coincidences.

My wife's first car was also a 1976 El Camino.

I've not figured out exactly what to do with this knowledge—does it prove God's existence, for instance?—but I try to pay attention to such strange coincidences. The stranger they are, the more portentous I assume them to be. Whenever possible, I use them as guide posts. It's my way of fabricating a comforting kind of logic out of what is otherwise a totally illogical existence. Doing this gives me the sort of comfort I assume some people get from organized religion. I'm not saying I married my wife because she had a 1976 El Camino, but I did welcome the coincidence as a sign. Why the hell not?

What I've Learned #4: When it comes to humor, context is everything.

The other day, I was half-listening to the radio in the car. An advertisement came on for Hyena, a Tony Award-winning musical and "grand love story" by Elton John. "Hyena" struck me as an odd name for a Broadway musical, but I was in a stop-and-go-driving-induced reverie, and my thoughts were playing at a low volume in the back of my mind. The ad went on for another minute, praising Hyena as critically acclaimed, heartfelt, filled with some of the most beautiful music in years. The whole time I'm vaguely wondering how Elton managed to get this thing made with a title like that. What, I'm thinking, could be the connection between the title and the story—or worse, the music? Then I listened closer and realized they were saying Aida.

What I've Learned #5: Fuck 'em if they can't take a joke.

I had a roommate in college who frequently applied this statement, almost as a life philosophy. Mark drove a monster truck he had built himself—a Chevy Silverado with four-foot tires and everything custom made, from the overhead consul stereo system to the stainless steel, engraved kickboards. He drove around on sunny afternoons with Tesla blaring and his tinted windows half rolled up, counting the number of girls who turned their heads. "That was definitely a look," he'd say. And if people appeared to turn up their noses at his vehicular display, he'd say, "Fuck 'em if they can't take a joke."

I've come to believe that the dividing line between sanity and neurosis resides in one's ability to say this in all manner of situations, really mean it, and at the same time hope that "they" can indeed take a joke.

What I've Learned #6: When the pressure's on, clip your fingernails.

This came from an Alaskan master guide and bush pilot, and mostly it had to do with playing pool. I learned the game in a smoke-filled roadhouse bar called Duffy's Tavern when I was a little bit taller than the table itself. Bill was born of dirt-poor Texas sharecroppers, and by the time he was thirteen, he already had a son and a job as an ironworker, building skyscrapers without a safety rope. By the age of sixty, he had been everywhere and done everything. Bill was the personification of John Wayne, only shorter, more wiry, and, if necessary, a lot meaner. He always wore a .38 snubnose on his belt the way people ordinarily carried a pocket knife. When I was older and good enough to compete at the pool table, I still couldn't come close to beating him. One night, he asked if I had clipped my fingernails. He meant the question literally, but he wasn't just talking about fingernails. He led me to understand, with just that one question, that performance in life has as much to do with the tangential as it does with the obvious.

What I've Learned #7: A man is only as good as his word.

My mom went to great pains to instill this lesson in me, and while I've come to understand that there are other forms of goodness in this world, and I've come to realize that subtlety and tact are virtues as well, I'm still thinking she was right. The truth will set you free. Sometimes, setting you free means chewing through the leg you have caught in a bear trap. Sometimes, freedom comes at a painful price. But it's still freedom.

What I've Learned #8: Apples and oranges are both fruits.

It never fails, when I'm arguing with politically conservative people. They say, "You're comparing apples to oranges." These people just don't like creative analogies. They want to compare apples to apples. They fail to appreciate what apples and oranges have to say about each other. How they're so different, for instance, yet both acidic, both sweet.

In 1994, as dramatized in the recent movie starring Don Cheedle and Sophie Okonedo, three-quarters of a million Rwandan Hutus were hacked to death by their machete-wielding, Tutsis countrymen. George Clooney did not organize a telethon. In fact, the western world pretty much ignored the incident. Last month, a tsunami killed upwards of 170,000 people in southeast Asia. A terrible tragedy, and certainly an apple to Rwanda's orange, but isn't it worth considering that one tragedy resulted in roughly a fifth the cost in human life but easily received a thousand times the relief money, media coverage, and political hoopla?

In 1995, OJ Simpson was acquitted of murder, ostensibly because a predominantly black jury felt that LAPD having anything to do with his arrest was reason enough for reasonable doubt. A few weeks ago, thirteen year-old Devon Brown was shot to death by an LAPD officer. Brown had been joy-riding in a stolen car after curfew, and the officer fired after Brown rammed a police cruiser. A placard put up at the site of the shooting stated, "LAPD ... Thank you for giving us yet another reason to dislike your services. You are a cancer to the community."

The stories of OJ Simpson and Devon Brown may be worlds apart, and yet what do they say about personal responsibility, justice, racism, socioeconomics, and a million other aspects of human existence?

Comparing apples to oranges may not provide any clear answers, but that's okay. Clear answers pre-suppose clearly defined problems, and whether the prevailing political winds will admit it or not, there are very few problems not requiring a whole lot of nuance to make any real sense of them.

What I've Learned #8: Accountability is for chumps.

It's not a lesson I want to internalize for myself, but recent political events sure seem to have driven the point home.

Not long ago, when Japanese businessmen, politicians, or soldiers presided over a colossal defeat, scandal, or disaster, the honorable thing was to fall on their swords, literally. It may have been an extreme reaction, but at least it involved taking responsibility. Not the way we do things here in America anymore. Taking responsibility, that is.

Recently, George W. Bush awarded the highest honor in the land, the Presidential Medal of Freedom, to three men: Tommy Franks, George Tenet, and Paul Bremmer. Franks, reportedly the only general willing to sign on without reservations about details like insufficient troop strength, led the U.S. invasion of Iraq. Unfortunately, the invasion failed to anticipate what would happen once the real conflict began, when poorly trained, ill-equipped, out of shape, highly disgruntled national guardsmen in their thirties and forties would be called upon to die on a daily basis from roadside bombs, ambushes, and mortar attacks. Those guardsmen quickly welded refrigerator doors to their unarmored vehicles, rose to the occasion, and became the heroes that American fighting men have always become, regardless of the short-sightedness of the men who send them into harm's way. Their efforts and the speedy fall of Saddam's statue notwithstanding, no one can reasonably argue that the invasion of Iraq was planned much beyond the invasion itself, or if it was, that it wasn't planned badly. In the crucial days following the fall of Baghdad, U.S. forces were unable to prevent looting, sabotage, and insurgent attacks. The U.S.-installed provisional authority even had to hire mercenaries from South Africa for security! For his association with this military myopia and his willingness to endorse it when other military leaders balked at its short-sightedness, General Franks was awarded a Medal of Freedom.

Next up, George Tenet headed the CIA during the greatest intelligence failing in the history of the United States. It may or may not have been his fault, but he was in charge of intelligence, and while people from his own agency knew there were terrorists getting pilot's licenses so they could crash planes into big buildings, the U.S. was still caught completely by surprise when they actually did it. Later, as an encore, he was in charge of the same agency when it provided "intelligence" about weapons of mass destruction in Iraq in order to justify the aforementioned invasion of that country—intelligence we now know was complete, politically-driven hogwash. For his part in these two events, or perhaps in spite of it, George Tenet was awarded a Medal of Freedom.

Rounding out the trio, Paul Bremmer administrated the liberation/occupation of Iraq. In that capacity, he oversaw a shift from Iraqis celebrating and cheering in the street to widespread resentment, demonstrations, and sympathy for a brutal insurgency that has cost well over a thousand American soldiers and Marines their lives since mission success was declared (not to mention tens of thousands more who, thanks to the body armor they may have received from Mom and Pop back home, didn't lose their lives so much as lesser things—like limbs). For his association with an administrative disaster of the highest order, Bremmer, too, gets a Medal of Freedom.

In keeping with this pattern, it should come as no surprise that Alberto Gonzales, the author of the so-called "Torture Memo," the man tangentially responsible for the prison scandals at Abu Grebe and Guantanamo Bay, has now been confirmed as our new Attorney General, even after he brazenly refused to give straight answers to the congressional committee in charge of his confirmation. Or that Condoleeza Rice could claim some kind of moral high ground, pointedly asking members of her confirmation committee if they were questioning her character, when in fact they were asking about a documented, bald-faced lie she told congress regarding Iraq's so-called nuclear enrichment tubes. Or that Donald Rumsfeld's twice-offered resignation was brushed aside, resulting in his sticking around when most of Bush's cabinet was shown the door at the end of the first term.

In fairness to all the individuals mentioned above, they are no doubt good people who did the best they could under the circumstances they faced. In many cases, they were in no-win situations, just following orders, or dealing with inherited problems. Accepting nuance in these cases, though, means giving Condoleeza Rice and George Tenet the benefit of the doubt—not the benefit of medals and promotions. Rewarding people for failures and embarrassments that happened on their watch, even if it wasn't their fault, is just plain arrogance.

Of course, lack of accountability isn't a condition restricted to the current white house administration. It's something that permeates every aspect of our society. Consider the business executive who protested the other day that WorldCom board members shouldn't be fined for their part in that corporation's scandal. He said fining them might make people less likely to serve on boards in the future. Really. He meant that members of the extremely inbred power network running this country will be hesitant to serve on boards if they can't act with impunity while they're there. It's not enough that in most cases they get paid to be on these boards. It's not enough that in most cases their positions on these boards give them influence, which translates into even more money for the other interests they represent. Now, if they know they can't break the law or engage in completely unethical behavior without taking a hit on their personal finances, they might all refuse to serve.

Then there's the story of General Fiscus, the head JAG lawyer who court-marshaled and in many cases jailed members of the Air Force for sleeping with each other. For example, Fiscus was involved in the prosecution of a decorated combat pilot who served several months in the stockade for having sexual relations with a subordinate. Neither of them were married, so the problem wasn't that they were committing adultery. Now it comes to light that in the past ten years, Fiscus himself, who is married, engaged in 24 instances of sexual misconduct with subordinates—officers, enlisted, civilians—many of whom were themselves married. Given his role in enforcing the very rules he broke, not to mention the sheer abandon with which he broke them, one might expect Fiscus to face even harsher penalties than the people he prosecuted, but instead, he was only demoted to colonel, allowed to keep a retirement at that rank, and spared any jail time.

How could this be? The answer is that Fiscus may have been able to negotiate a lighter sentence in exchange for going quietly. Turns out he was the key voice who brought the torture methods at Guantanamo Bay to light. Fiscus may have been spared to avoid the appearance of retaliation for daring to challenge Rumsfeld and the administration on the treatment of prisoners. And in his position as the top military lawyer, Fiscus may have had some dirt he could fling if the powers that be didn't go easy on him. Apparently, accountability only applies if one has pissed off the right people, and only to the extent that one can't take them down with one.

What I've Learned #9: Automobile expression is almost always annoying.

I've never understood bumper stickers that proclaim, "My child is an honor student at such and such Middle School." Why do people feel the need to announce this to complete strangers? I guess they think it's important everyone else knows their kids are applying themselves. Maybe they're thinking Little Johnny will know his parents are proud of his achievement, now that they've gone and defaced the family truckster. Or perhaps they believe little Jane's accomplishments will serve as an inspiration to the other, less motivated middle schoolers riding slack-jawed in the car behind them. Maybe it's supposed to function as an icebreaker: "Hey, my kid is an honor student, too!" I'm thinking, though, that there is just no good reason to affix one of these cheap placards to one's vehicle. It's either going to piss people off, bum them out, or at best, leave them ambivalent.

Frankly, I find Bush/Cheney and Kerry/Edwards stickers a big bummer, too. I'm of the school of thought that electing one's political leaders should be informed not by primary colors, branding, and hackneyed campaign slogans, but by a reasoned survey of the issues and the opposing candidates' stances on them. If people's votes can be influenced by a critical mass of bumper stickers and lawn signs, then I'd rather they just skipped the trip to the voting booth and watched re-runs of Trading Spouses.

A couple weeks ago, I conducted an unscientific survey. For about ten minutes at a busy intersection in Racine, Wisconsin, I watched cars go by and counted how many of them sported those magnetized "Support the Troops" ribbons. It came out to roughly one in four vehicles. And if a vehicle had one ribbon, there was a good chance it had two or three more for good measure. Because of course, there are all different kinds of Support the Troops magnets now (not to mention Support the Environment, Support God, etc.).

If those numbers can be extrapolated to the American public at large, that's a pile of ribbons, to the tune of two to three dollars per. Where is all that money going, I wondered. Turns out, half of the proceeds from troop support magnets, most merchants claim, goes to the USO (United Services Organization). The other half?

This is a capitalist, not to mention childish, poorly educated, and crass society. See, we could really support our troops by taking a keen interest in the politics that are putting them in harm's way. We could support them by finding families with loved ones in Iraq who live in our own neighborhood and helping them directly. We could just send two bucks to the USO, if that is really what we're about. But no, we want to put a magnetized ribbon on our car to let the world know just how patriotic we are. For us, it's not about grieving widows, kids growing up without a parent, marriages torn apart. It's about a sticker! We aren't at war; we're participating in one big tailgate party. Go team, go!

I love that people support the troops. I just wish they would find a more dignified and useful way to do it. The men and women who are actually fighting this war are paying with their lives and limbs. A sticker just doesn't cut it.

What I've Learned #12: To know which side is right, look at why they're fighting.

A good example is the drive to reform social security. Who benefits if everything goes as Bush hopes it will? First, Bush will have padded his legacy—something he's made clear is important to him. Second, right-wing ideologues will be happy to be rid of what they perceive as "the soft underbelly of the welfare state." Third, some influential people on Wall Street and everyone associated with their branch of the food chain are going to get impossibly rich (richer) handling taxpayers' retirement funds. Fourth, and this is just a pipe dream, since even by the administration's estimates these reforms will cost more money, not less, for the next forty years or more, there's the theory that government can spend less on old people, widows, and the disabled, thereby reducing the tax that Americans (wealthy Americans, mostly) will have to pay.

What does the left hope to accomplish by keeping social security? Not, I hope, a feel good entitlement program that gives all Americans a lengthy, paid-for vacation in their twilight years. It's supposed to be a mechanism by which society ensures there aren't millions of people living in abject poverty and creating a big mess with their unsightly poorness. It's supposed to prevent the conditions that might lead to uprisings, riots, revolution. Because if you shit on people long enough, they will rise up. Even if you don't shit on them, but you let them fester in their own shit long enough, they will rise up. It happens in countries all over the world, all the time. It has happened here in Los Angeles twice in the last fifty years.

What I've Learned #13: Democracy ain't pretty, but it is beautiful.

The beauty and strength of a representative democratic capitalistic republic like the United States lies in our capacity to disagree, to be hypocritical, to be messy and imperfect. All of those things are glimpses, necessary ingredients, symptoms of freedom.

During the aforementioned televised Tsunami Hope fundraiser, unlikely bedfellows including former presidents Bush and Clinton, George Clooney and Bill O'Reilly, Josh Groban and Nelly came together to help people in need. What makes this country so great is not that we're perfect, but that we're so wonderfully flawed. With all our shortcomings, feel-good stories are just about everywhere. There's always some conflict to resolve, some behind from which to come, some underdog to crown, some unlikely triumph to celebrate; just as there's always a price to pay, a bad that comes with the good. This year, the Boston Red Socks played themselves into living metaphors for beating the odds, even as drunken Red Sox fans soiled the occasion with hooliganism that left a college co-ed dead.

In Orange County, California, a man who wears an ear-flap hat, runs a website claiming Andy Kaufman isn't really dead, refuses to be photographed or recorded, and promises to use his position to fight "the partnership," was elected to the school board—a body overseeing a budget of over a billion dollars and thousands of employees. He beat the incumbent, a well-respected and long-standing member of the board, because voter turnout during the presidential election was greater than usual, and voters who did not know anything about the candidates made their decision based solely on the candidates' occupations. The ear-flap guy had, in the last two years, worked three days as a substitute teacher. He registered himself as "educator." The incumbent, unfortunately for him, was a park ranger.

That's democracy in action. That's the sort of democracy we saw fit to invade another country of over 20 million people on the other side of the globe to install. It's the democracy over fifty thousand Iraqis have died for. It's the sort of democracy that may very well elect a fundamentalist Islamic government in Iraq that curtails women's rights, aligns with Iranian hardliners, and rejects America and all we stand for. And millions of Americans, myself included, are willing to fight, die, and kill people to preserve just such a democracy. If that isn't a beautiful, paradoxical mess, what is?

What I've Learned #14: How one leaves this world speaks volumes about one's character.

The past twelve months, like any set of months, have seen the passing of a great many people. Natural disasters like the Tsunami in Southeast Asia took a terrible toll in human life. Smaller tragedies, like the mud slides here in California, may have touched fewer people, but their effects were no less devastating to the families involved. Consider the father who went out for Starbucks and returned to find his wife and children buried under tons of mud, not knowing if they were still yet alive but knowing he would never see them alive again. Armed conflicts, not just in Iraq and Afghanistan, but in Africa, South America, and the Middle East, claimed many lives, often civilians. Each and every one of these deaths had its own story. Some stories, the world came to know through the media. Some people, like Johnny Cash and Johnny Carson, the world had already come to know, and so we mourned their passing with a greater understanding of what we had lost.

And then there were the people in our own lives—people we knew, friends, family members. These were the losses that affected us deepest, because they were our losses. Regardless of one's religion or philosophy, one can't see death as inherently bad, when it is all around us, when we ourselves will partake of it sooner or later. But the loss visited upon the living when a loved one passes is undeniably terrible and sad. Whether or not there is a heaven, whether or not we'll see them again in the afterlife, the finality of death here on this plane of existence—not ever being able to hear someone's laugh or share a meal with him or her—justifies real grief.

This year, our family is grieving the loss of my father-in-law, who recently succumbed to a degenerative heart condition he had been fighting for a long time. The last several months were particularly hard for everyone involved, but through it all, he showed the kind of gentle courage, kindness, and sense of humor in the face of his own mortality that is the stuff of heroes. Dying must surely be hard enough; to then help loved ones whom you're leaving behind cope with your passing strikes me as the highest form of altruism. And if how he left spoke volumes, so did what he left behind, in terms of the good he did, the children he raised, the lives he touched, and the void his absence has created. Jim was a great man. I will treasure the time I knew him.

Editor's Note: One more thing I've learned about myself is that I'm not really good with details sometimes. To illustrate the point, I'll just leave the numbers the way they are...

 

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