Signs! Signs!

In which we examine the subtext of our expressions.

iu82DJHH9FOk, so you’ve put this sign up in front of your house. I can’t find anything to disagree with here.  That’s part of the point though, I know. It’s not terribly deep, the sarcasm implicit in the plain truth of the statements. If you don’t believe these things (and honestly, I’m still looking for someone who doesn’t), then you are The Problem.

It’s creepy how these signs act as ID badges, too, because what about your neighbors, who haven’t put up a sign? What are you saying about them? If I stand on the sidewalk and look first at their house, and then at yours, I have to make a judgment, don’t I? I’m obviously looking at two different kinds of households. At least that’s what your sign is telling me.

And what if your neighbor does put one up? And then the neighbor on the other side of you puts one up, too? Then everyone on the street follows suit? And then the coffee shops and dry cleaners? What am I to believe about the state of my world after a quick jaunt around your block? What can I believe about a world that needs signs like that? And so many? I can only believe that it is a hard, cruel place. That your house, your street, your hood, is the exception, not the rule. A tiny island of kindness in an ocean of violence and hate. Which is the opposite of the truth. The truth of our world, our country especially, is that we are a vast ocean of goodness, with (unfortunately but unavoidably) islands of despair. I would give anything to start shifting public recognition in that direction. But I guess that why I write poems. I digress…

These signs, to put it simply, are why the world seems meaner, not  kinder. Because of what they are saying, silently, about all the spaces where they aren’t. The accusations they are leveling at the world around them.

 

Side note, on the “Love is Love” part: I had a lit class a couple of yeas ago in which the going doctrine was that Shakespeare and his sonnets were gay (queer, whatever I’m given permission to say). Now, lawd hammercy, I can’t remember which sonnet, but the professor mentioned one of them that was popular at weddings. Her point was that, because it was Shakespeare professing his love to another man, it was hilarious that so many straight couples have had it read at their weddings. This of course revealed her to be kind of a bitter and angry person, enjoying the inadvertent embarrassment of others. But also I couldn’t help thinking:

It’s a love poem. If you believe that love is love, there’s nothing to laugh at.

The Hordes of the Invisible

It’s all leading to a mass grave of chickens and eggs.

I get a little thrown sometimes when I realize that I don’t know what things are like anywhere else. I don’t know the vibe in New York or the gestalt in Topeka. I don’t know what Floridians see when they walk down the street. I just don’t know much about how people measure their worlds outside of my own, and have to guard against the tendency to assume that what I know about my home applies everywhere.

I do know what it’s like here. And it’s strange. Seattle. It’s like touching something and not knowing right away whether it’s absolutely searingly hot, or skin-shatteringly cold, because there’s hints of both in the pain. We’re awash in activism. Utterly drowning in it. There isn’t a shop window that isn’t plastered with flyers for this march or that proclamation or that protest. Every author reading at every “local” bookstore – nota bene: everything is local, people. Absolutely everything. it only depends on where you’re standing – every reading is this cultural expression or that identity group’s response to something, or a statement of “this is me climbing proudly out of this miserable social/cultural prison.” In every instance it is billed, at least implicitly, in its subtext, as an exception. A rare opportunity. A victory over something. But you can’t have victory without competition, and you can’t have competition without an opponent, and so without realizing it, the movement itself ossifies the necessity of the opponent.

If you’re still listening to the subtext, you know that here it says that none who suffer do so as a result of their own failings. It is that whatever the nature of their suffering may have been – “invisibility” is a popular one, as well as the closely-related “marginalization,” and of course any word  with “phobia” trailing from its backside like some undigested serpent that can never quite be pinched free – whatever the suffering, these are people who not only are/were down, but were put there, intentionally and perniciously, and are now rising up in spite of “the dominant culture’s” efforts to keep them down. But this raises a question or two for me:

1. Who is the dominant culture?

As far as I can tell, they are. The sign makers, the book writers, the painters and poets. They’re everywhere. But if their claim is that they are resisting the dominant culture, who is it that’s putting them down? In light of their inescapable pervasiveness and influence, are they even down at all? If so, who is trying to keep them there?  Not the athletes and CEO’s – they’re all on board and applauding. They’re hosting fundraisers and lending their celebrity to “awareness.” (Show me, by the way, the unaware. There must be an odd colony of them somewhere that eats garden slugs and are too cut off from civilization to have heard of sexism or Old White Males or Macklemore). Corporations have more people in subcommittees working on fair hiring and balancing corporate skin tones than they have working on their actual bottom lines. Are the oppressors the shopkeepers and their customers, who block out the sun with their storefront virtue signals, and curse the planet-eating Republicans over cupcakes as they wipe pureed kale from their baby’s Che Guevara onesie? Can’t be the teachers and the principals (sorry “Heads of School,” as we can’t say “principal” anymore, and I honestly don’t know why), because they’re as helpful as can be. They organize days for students to leave school to protest climate and corporations (I always thought the protest was supposed to reflect the issue being protested. When I skipped classes, it was to protest school), they encourage multicultural literature and literacy, and are leading the way on efforts for diversity and inclusion. And of course the media and the universities, as well as the music and movie industry, they’re so obviously on the right side of this thing that I don’t need to say any more about them.

In short, every single representation of power and influence of any kind, is dominated by the spirit of charity, inclusion, and diversity. They are populated, organized, and run by people of, to quote Roger Waters, “every race, creed, color, tint, or hue.” So where are these oppressors? If the so-called “invisible” are not the dominant culture, then why are they the only ones I can see?

2. Given all this – given the undeniable momentum and power of movements towards fairness and righteousness and equality, given the ubiquity of this movement in every single aspect and institution of this city, how is it possible that it still feels like such an awful, intolerant, racist, sexist, Islamophobic, homophobic, anti-indigenous (sorry if I missed anyone) hell hole of a city?

The answer to that is actually pretty simple. The misery, the injustice, doesn’t exist in spite of all the social justice activism, it exists because of it. And truthfully, as my own subtext from the preceding paragraphs indicates, it doesn’t actually exist at all. The world, this city, as I walk around in it, is simply not in its actions a racist, sexist, homophobic, Islamophobic place. But my God it feels like it, and the activists (or the media, but I repeat myself) won’t have it any other way. What does exist, in a fetid curtain as thick as the sad salmon hauled from the poison Duwamish, is the idea of injustice. The haunting spectre of it. And they have all – high and low, black and white, gay and straight, on and on – risen up in their holy alliance against it, not realizing how adept they have been, all the while, at creating their own need for it. Students are rewarded for writing about it. They are given extra credit for attending poetry readings about it. Their social capital portfolios are almost wholly dependent upon the growth of it. Resist and you’re in. Don’t and you’re dead. It’s a sinister little perpetual motion machine, eating from its own toilet to survive, and knowing on some instinctive, subconscious (dare I say invisible?) level, that achieving its stated purpose would only eliminate its only fuel source.

How oppressed they would feel if someone took their oppressors away!

So no, maybe I don’t know what the rest of the world, or the country, or even the state of Washington looks like. But I do know Seattle. I’m in it on several levels every day. It’s a much nicer, much friendlier, much fairer place individually than the collective seems to want me or anyone else to notice. But I do notice. I certainly hope more people begin to as well. Because all this rallying towards disharmony creates the sensory confusion I mentioned in the beginning. Too hot or too cold? It’s impossible to know, because it encourages an ever-deepening degree of personal guardedness that prevents anyone from staying close enough to each other to find out.

Briefly, Your News

I’ve been looking at the news for a while now, trying to find something that happened somewhere but that’s like counting the grains of gunpowder in the bullet with your name on it.

There might be one in there that isn’t going to light when the firing pin strikes, but that’s not going to slow it down any.

All that mad space on the airwaves. A dozen papers a hundred websites a thousand articles a million words.

Each one distinct and identical and individual but fired all together from a three-letter casing that tries to hide its intent. It succeeds wherever we let it and it does what a bullet is supposed to do – it makes a hole in us.

Oh my god I just can’t do it.

I’ve been looking at the news for a while now, trying to find poetry, though I know I should have known better. By the time I had my breakfast all I knew was exactly what my opinions should be.

All I knew was that it was wrong to stereotype (except by voting preference)
and that it was wrong to discriminate (except by skin color and gender)
and which kind of prejudice would get me high fives
and that love is both love and a very oppressive weapon

and I am far more certain now that there are some very hateful ways to say that hate is a very bad thing.

I’ve been looking at the news for a while now, trying to find out who we are and it has become very clear that if everything we say we are working so hard to eliminate – the hate the prejudice the racism the sexism the violence

my God I think especially the violence!

if all of those things we march against and wave signs against and rally against and throw rocks at and beat people up over and lie to keep alive were somehow magically eliminated tomorrow

we would bring it back yesterday because we wouldn’t recognize ourselves without it.

If we won we would be lost.

I’ve been looking at the news for a while now, and my family still sleeps somewhere above me and I pray that when they wake up I don’t somehow take this all out on them
the way I see everyone else take it out on each other, every day, for love.

Out There

Thoughtcrime announces itself like a claymore.

I kind of didn’t want to write about this, because in a way I see it as marking me guilty of the same kind of enemy-making that I accuse our modern social justice movements of doing. Trampling the Good in the pursuit of the Right. Also, I remind myself that what’s missing from the discourse on contemporary social issues is generosity. If I cannot employ it where others don’t, then I should keep mum (but that sounds rather ungenerous itself).

In the end I have to remember that I cannot control responses or reactions. I can control my own words, and I can know what I am on about, but I cannot, in a single sentence or paragraph or essay, sharpen the distinction between statement and judgment, knowledge and belief, or especially reason and purpose, to the extent that someone untrained to know the difference will suddenly come around. I can only write (with very intentional capitalization), and endure misunderstandings, willful or otherwise. But I promise to work with you on them.

 


 

I made it to my first class of the new quarter yesterday. Encountering Intercultural Literature. Social narratives have been built, at this point, in such a way that we all know immediately that the word “intercultural” is why we’re here. And that’s because it has become evident over time that the word “culture,” especially when appended and prefixed to “intercultural,” is one of those many weaponized words that we’ve come to employ and discharge as we engage in our own inward-looking marches towards the eschaton (which will, of course, be televised tweeted). It is evident from that word alone that this will not be a simple compare/contrast of different literary styles or themes from various cultures during a particular historical period. It doesn’t work like that anymore. “Culture” is simply not allowed to stand as an innocuous concept that can be studied dispassionately. It is a battleground, where lines are drawn and sides are taken, and every statement is weighed for valuation of virtue tariffs.

Students – young students – get excited for classes with words like “intercultural” in the title because they are smart enough to know that in that class is an environment where other Good People are, who will say The Right Things. A place of unambiguous intent, where it is easy to know what to say without any measurable worry of incredulity. What they may not be keying into immediately is that it is a place where the ostensible material is the study of cultures across geography and history, but the real material is the concrescence of the ideologies of their own current culture. The ossification of the unbelievable strictures of right think, and a carefully designed backdrop against which thoughtcrime announces itself like a claymore. That they’re really studying or creating a gossamer version of their own culture which, incidentally, they don’t believe in. When asked, yesterday, what our definition of “intercultural” was, two students stated unequivocally that intercultural study must exclude the West. High school taught them that we are either too vile and criminal a thing to be considered alongside Noble Distant Others, or we simply do not pass the sniff test to qualify for the title of “culture” at all. It is immaterial, either way.

I try to remember to be a little careful in that class. Not because I look down my grisly nose at other cultures and am afraid my grade will suffer if I make it known. Rather, it is because people have utterly lost the ability to discern between understanding and support, such that if I question anyone’s understanding of the subject matter, I will be accused of supporting some Hateful Ideology. In the Academy – indeed, in the neighborhood, on the streets, on the Internet – you either say the Right Things, or you are the enemy. There is no room for general disinterest or passive acceptance. There is only the protest marcher or the cross burner, and your classmates, neighbors, and friends will not let you live between the two for long.

Yesterday, and for the next week or two, we are into Lieutenant Nun. Memoir of a Basque Transvestite in the New World. It’s a fun read in the adventurous vein of Don Quixote or Robinson Crusoe, and generally as believable as either of them (but I’m a born skeptic). Half an hour of discussion centered almost entirely on pronouns. What should we call…this person who is credited with writing the story? The consensus landed on “they,” to which I simply swallowed my objections about grammatical reality (you cannot pluralize an individual, credibly, popular usage be damned), as it’s hardly a hill worth dying on. And never mind the fact that, absent any knowledge about what the author herself preferred to be called, any modern day “consensus” is really just a small tyranny – a passive-aggressive instruction that this is the way we do things, here (there are few English phrases as pregnantly pernicious as “we have all agreed”). I only mentioned at one point that we could not continue to laud this as a piece of feminine literature if we could not agree to call the author a woman. The breathing reader will note the judgment-free logic of this. The Professor professed agreement, and nobody else commented. I sit in the front row, so I could not see if there were any looks of approval or disdain. But I speculate, because I think it is fair to do so in this case, that that simple logical clarification was enough to mark me as a Bad Person in a mind or two in that classroom. The subject matter of the discussion was transgenderism and I said something not explicitly supportive, which, if not quite the same as setting the cross ablaze, is at least as bad as walking towards it with a can of gasoline.

It would be one thing if I was sitting in that room (and this is really very much the case everywhere I go in the University, and in the city) as a true opponent to their causes. But I am not. Of course it is called Social Justice so that it can be said that you either agree completely or you don’t believe in social justice at all, a thing which is simply not true of any but the most ridiculously irrelevant wastrels of society. But the marches and the protests go on under the presumption of some powerful enemy amassed and assembled against it out there somewhere. And if you are not actively, conspicuously in the march, you are, by default, out there. They believe in the enemy far more than the enemy believes in them, because the enemy does not substantively exist. Except in the case of those wastrels, those marginal extremists (they’re called “extreme” for a reason, and it isn’t because of their teeming membership) who become synonymous with people like me by dint of the fact that I am not issuing high-fives and posterboard to the sign-makers and hat-wearers, the gender-includers and the intersectionalist line-drawers.

I would sit here and say that I am ok with things. That I will call you whatever pronoun you wish to be called, and will only object if your request begins to smell a little like antagonism. I would say that I have no ill judgments towards transgendered people or gay people or people of color or Muslims or of any protected class you can drum up. That I respect everyone equally until they demonstrate that they don’t deserve it. That I am every bit as tolerant as you, and in truth probably quite a bit more (just think of what you think of me right now, for instance). I would say a lot of things, but I am afraid they would not be worded strongly enough to pass for inclusion among the Good People who are on that ever-shrinking Right Side of History. Acceptance is no longer acceptable – it is deemed too flaccid a response to progress, and so the minimum expression of acceptance has become passionate vehemence. Neither is tolerance any longer tolerable – it is deemed too temporary and shallow a response to difference, so the minimum expression of tolerance has become celebratory self-loathing. If you doubt me on this, please come to class with me, where the students look around themselves and believe, passionately, vehemently, self-loathingly, that the only place they see a culture, is out there.

The Real Story is Down the Page a Bit

The importance of reading the whole thing.

The kids have story writing every Thursday. They’re given a writing prompt and some gentle help moving their work along. The Boy has said often that he doesn’t like it, but he’s a left-handed writer and I’m told that it is pretty normal for the lefties to be annoyed by the act of writing for the first few years, what with all the physical rebellions against  mechanical standards and procedures. And also the smudging.

The Girl generally says she does like it. She’s a natural speller and focuses well and has a head full of scampering whims and intentions, so she can sit down and churn out plenty without getting too bogged down. She is a bit literal and straight, though, and she moves between sentences like a bowling ball between pins. This will all be ironed out with practice and guidance. She has the unteachable knack of taking it very personally, too, so there’s a chance that writing can make her crazy eventually, meaning that she might be very, very good at it.

Yesterday’s writing prompt was “hope.” The Girl has asked me not to read hers. Too personal, too revealing. She can’t bear for me to know. Of course I’ll read it the first chance I get.

The Boy, on the other hand, said “Papa, make sure you go in tomorrow and read my story.” He is the self-promoter that I have never been. I strutted with them both through the hall this morning, cocky as all get out because I know I am a better parent than any of these people, and my kids are far more useful already than theirs. Before I entered the classroom, one parent had already told me that she loved The Boy’s story. In the classroom, both teachers said “I hope you’re here to read his story. It’s wonderful.” This was getting interesting.

I floated past the 1st grade scrawlings and pictures, passing Chloe’s and Connor’s and Vera’s and Milo’s (Meatloaf, he likes to be called, says it’s Spanish), and found The Boy’s. Atop the page is a sickly, uncomfortable red and black marker drawing of a big building that looks like a moldy hospital, but says Seattle University across it. Spelled properly, score. The first sentence said “I hope that I go to a great college.” This, it turned out, was the entirety of what all of these people thought was so exceptional. They may not have read past that line. To my eyes they looked like they were relieved, all these adults, made to feel safe by the thought that a 7 year old has already emerged from the great die-cutter, ready and eager to take his place in the procession that has produced everything that they put their faith in. And of course the most certain thing is that they all now think that, because he said he wants to go to college, he must have pretty good parents who are sitting at home and telling him the Right Things, because they are Good Persons, and no doubt on the Right Side of History.

He does. He has incredible parents, but not for those reasons. And he has an amazing sister who I already know will fight his fights for him until he is fighting hers. But that he wrote that he wants to go to college is nothing special. He sees what I am doing, and I talk about it, and like a good boy he wants to do what his dad is doing. If I was a drunk he would want to be a drunk, too. When the mother of one of his friends said “That first sentence is amazing: ‘I hope that I to go to a great college,'” I said “I just keep trying to make sure he knows he doesn’t have to.” Because he doesn’t. But if I don’t tell him that, it’s possible that nobody ever will. And if he eventually finds out that college is not his cup of Kool-aid, he’ll feel as smoked out and useless as I did when that happened to me. College isn’t everything. I’m only doing it now because it is free and I am missing some piece of self-determination that I thought going to college could help me pop the clutch on. So far it has been a raging success for me, but if I was in my twenties or a B/B- kind of student (or God help me, both), I would be miserable. Wasted for the future and needing another path. I will work hard to make sure that my kids don’t rest all their expectations on an artificially clean run through the Academy.

With his teacher standing next to me and sounding more like a proud parent than I did, I moved her attention down the page. “Here,” I said, “is the best part.” He has had a cold for a few days, was probably wiping snot with his sleeve while he wrote his story, and the sentence said “I hope this sickness runs from me soon.” He didn’t do it on purpose, of course, but it’s loaded with meaning, it’s rhythmically neat, terse and tidy, and it’s all grown up. Having built such a simple, direct sentence with a bit of anthropomorphism and the subtle flourish of metaphor, intentional or no, is a far more heartening indication of his innate potential than any sophomoric declaration of a desire for college.

We’re going on and on as we can only do. I’m starting to look at MFA programs and getting a little more serious about pushing my work around for publication. If all goes well the kids will eventually be able to see that college has worked for me because of qualities that possessed or lacked, not because of the infallible utility of the university itself.

They’ll be able to see, most importantly, that you don’t really know anything if you only read the first sentence.

The Ugliness of Books

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There’s the #bookstack for the quarter. One book is still missing, an anthology of Ottoman Lyric poetry. I don’t have nearly enough history in me to say anything funny about that, though it seems ripe for ridicule, for some reason. I’d go do some quick research on the Ottomans, find a reason to presume the quality of Ottoman poetry to be somewhere between Tay Bridge and Vogon, but I think I’ll just put my feet up and relax instead (do I still have to point out the #dadjokes?). And of course that doesn’t include Arabic. We don’t even use the textbooks for Arabic, but I lug a dictionary the size of a church pew to that class every day, except the 4 days per quarter that we actually open it. Every single time I look at it in the morning and think “I can leave it at home today,” we end up using it. About 3 people will actually have it with them, and the teacher makes us feel like naughty children who have disappointed her terribly. I love her. She bought chocolates for my kids and gave them to me after our final exam last quarter (don’t tell the kids).

Sometimes I feel (bear with me here), sometimes I feel like I don’t look all that cool, when I’m wearing my cardigan. Like I’m showing my age, as they say.

Anyone whose read David Foster Wallace can probably tell at this point that I’ve been reading David Foster Wallace. I have a terrific tendency towards style creep, and while I am universally incapable of reproducing the wit or profundity of any author worth selling in a nearly Amazonned-out-of-business basement-used-bookstore, I can certainly wrestle with them (wit and profundity) in a passably similar sentence structure and pacing scheme. I can sound just like Vonnegut, given a few chapters of reading him, without worrying you over any questions of my actual talent. The proof, I was recently reminded in an Alexa-driven round of Jeopardy!, is in the pudding.

He’s going on and on, Wallace is, in this part of Infinite Jest where he finally gets to describing the physical abnormalities of one of the characters. Mario. Mario has been talked about enough that the reader knows, and if the reader is honest wants to know how much, Mario is enfeebled. Wallace does not disappoint. He is as relentlessly visual about Mario as he is about everything else, and not a single word of it is flattering or careful in any way. The book was written in what, ’96, so I would have been too stoned  to know what The Culture was doing about honesty at the time, but it strikes me that a modern audience is probably aghast at Wallace’s being so derisively clear about someone born – how would we say it in the classroom – omnilaterally bio-intersectionally disadvantaged. Take this:

“…Mario had not so much club feet as more like block feet: not only flat but perfectly square, good for kicking knob-fumbled doors open with but too short to be conventionally employed as feet: together with the lordosis in his lower spine, they force Mario to move in the sort of lurchy half-stumble of a vaudeville inebriate, body tilted way forward as if into a wind, right on the edge of pitching face-first onto the ground, which as a child he did fairly often, whether given a bit of a shove from behind by his older brother Orin or no.”

It reminds me of parts of Something Happened by Joseph Heller, in which the main character is bluntly despondent about the toll he suffers because of his son, who is a special needs child of some sort (I cannot remember the details, years removed)(Here it is)( Found it):

“It is not true that retarded (brain-damaged, idiot, feeble-minded, emotionally disturbed, autistic) children are the necessary favorites of their parents or that they are always uncommonly beautiful and lovable, for Derek, our youngest child, is not especially good-looking and we do not love him at all. (We would prefer not to think about him. We don’t want to talk about him.)”

This is the truth. This is people exhausted by the gymnastics, with nothing left for the self-immolating obsession with seeing the best, no more blood to spill. He laments the time, the effort, the drain, the stress. And he blames the boy, because it is the boy’s fault.  The modern psyche cries “SELFISH! MONSTER!” but if it’s healthy, the modern psyche takes a moment to be refreshed by the permission to feel just as handicapped, though in this case by duty.

More about Mario:

“…together with the lazy lid-action gave even Mario’s most neutral expression the character of an oddly friendly pirate’s squint.”

His brother, for Pete’s sake, yanks down on his (Mario’s) eyelid “with that smart type of downward snap that can unstick a dicky shade.”

You’re not laughing. I mean, you are laughing, because you’ve pictured it and you’re hearing the cartoonish flapflapflap of the liberated shade, but you’re not doing anything wrong. You’re relaxing your sphincter for a moment, finally. Of course we don’t go around freely cursing every living thing that can’t be reasonably expected to go golfing or row a boat, and when you have a child or a sibling or someone very close to you who has some Serious Problem or another (here someone suitably progressive will tell me that my use of the word ‘problem’ is problematic) you do not curse his existence. You do not target him. Because if one facet of telling the truth is that it can be shit ugly and hurt worse than withdrawal, then another facet is the kind of intentional lying that shores up the holier parts of our nature. The looking at the Marios and the Dereks and saying, unbelievably, “He’s wonderful.” It may be flat-out false in all but the briefest and most accidental flashes, but so is epiphany, and thank God we have books that can say the ugly stuff out loud for us.

Just a Dog

 

Less than a year before I reported for duty in South Korea, two 14-year-old school girls who were walking along the road were somehow hit and killed by a US Army bridge-launching vehicle. I say “somehow” because that machine is something which very few people will ever see in their lives. I spent eight years in the Army and never saw one. It is uncommon and such a cumbersome giant that it can do nothing suddenly. To be surprised enough to be struck by it defies explanation, yet it found two children in rural South Korea and left them dead on the side of a quiet highway. Like so many of history’s dangers, they must have heard and seen it coming for so long that they had time to stop being afraid of it. By the time it was upon them it was too late to get out of the way.

That it was an accident should not even need to be said. But with all the politics and the jarring connotations of a foreign military being responsible for the death of local children, it was not just an accident. When the ensuing legal process ended in the worst possible way – with a verdict of not guilty – it strained relations between the US and South Korea until they were at the worst point they had been in years. Still, remarkably, and perhaps because enough time had gone by, the ongoing protests I saw as I passed through Seoul were rather perfunctory and tame. I did not feel unwelcome there. If nothing else, I wanted to get out of the other side of that year feeling the same way.

When I arrived with a few other soldiers at my unit in the southern half of the country, we were given briefings about being good visitors, good guests in a foreign place. We were handed booklets that introduced us to Korean customs that we might find odd or unsettling – proper ways to say thank you, different meal habits, and the fact that Korean men would often act in ways that an American would find decidedly feminine. But the death of the school girls was still fresh enough that we were reminded of it as much as anything else. It was an event that was still a functioning part of our relationship with our hosts, and the sort of thing that could sneak up on you with startling consequences if you stopped paying attention.

I heard the warnings and scoffed at the booklets, partly because I was still young enough to believe I didn’t need to be told anything, and partly because I recall the booklets having a distinct presumption of American cultural immaturity – a dull cliché that has always made me bristle. It was also pretty clear that most of the people stationed at that post wouldn’t really need any of this information, because they wouldn’t have much contact with Korean culture, insulated as they were by the sheer concentration of American service members in the area. The post was home to about 25,000 US soldiers, airmen, and marines, so while it was in South Korea, it was foreign in geography only. But the warnings, the booklets, and the customs would become more important for me if I was to get the position I wanted – to take charge of one of the three remote detachments near the North Korean border.

Unfortunately, that position had already been taken by Staff Sergeant Lamb, who arrived a few weeks before I did. I had served with Sgt. Lamb at my last duty assignment and knew him to be genuinely unreliable and irresponsible. I could lie and say that I had the Army’s best interests in mind when I mentioned his shortcomings to my new platoon sergeant and platoon leader, but really, I only did it because I knew that I was the most likely choice to replace him. It didn’t take much. When I met with Sgt. Arnold and Lt. Kwan for introductions on the first day, I said “I heard you put Sgt. Lamb on the Det.”

LT. Kwan was short and thick, and two or three years younger than I was. Fresh out of college, he looked studious and clean in wire-rimmed glasses. He opened a drawer and removed a folder. I could see Lamb’s name on it. With just a shadow of an accent he asked, “You know him?”

“Yes, sir. I do.”

He looked at Sgt. Arnold – an over-starched uniform and a mustache too neat to trust – and then looked back to me. “You like him?”

I could see by the folder and by the way he asked, that they already had their doubts, so I dove in. “He’s late for everything. Used to fall asleep in class all the time.”

It was a low move on my part, some petty brinkmanship that I could not always have gotten away with in the Army. We have all manner of creeds and codes and unwritten rules, and one of the most commonly held is the one that says you do not undermine your fellow soldiers. When I was in a combat unit, where trust is sometimes more important than honesty, this rule was among the highest of all commandments. Discrediting a fellow noncommissioned officer for my own interests probably would have been the best way to guarantee that I did not get the job. But in this military intelligence unit, more corporate than combative, it was the best way forward.

And it worked. They pulled Sgt. Lamb back to headquarters, and I was flown to my stolen detachment by helicopter. I don’t remember how long the flight was. The Blackhawk wound low with its doors open, through heavy green valleys and over countless rice paddies and I would have been happy if we flew around up there forever. When we finally came up between two tree-covered ridges and touched down on the helipad – my helipad – we were about a 60-mile drive from the nearest US Army Garrison, nestled atop a mountain that overlooked the Yellow Sea to the West, and just a handful of miles from the river that separated us from North Korea.

Somewhere on that river and extending out into the sea, an invisible line had been drawn. You could see it clearly enough on a map, and no matter which side you were on, the bad guys were on the other. Sometimes a North Korean ship drifted too far South, always accidentally of course, and we would know because fighters from the nearby airbase would fly past us and towards whomever made the mistake. Often it was just a wayward fishing boat, but borders are borders and must be observed, even when you can’t see them.

About halfway down the winding road that accessed the mountain was a barracks and a few related buildings that housed a Republic of Korea Marine unit. We knew them as the ROK Marines, a small defense force ostensibly in place to protect us and that corner of the country from a dubious, yet oft-invoked, North Korean threat. I can only guess at a count, but between them and a handful of Korean intelligence soldiers, there were probably a couple hundred or so native military personnel on the mountain in total. There were only four Americans – myself, Private First-Class Judge, and Privates Reyes and Priest.

Along with the people, there were dogs seemingly everywhere up there. This was common all over Korea, and it was part of the reason you couldn’t eat a piece of meat in that country without someone half-joking that it was probably gaegogi, or dog. The Marines down the road had several of them, most of which were of a good-sized breed called Jindo, strong dogs that stood very upright and vaguely resembled a husky with neat white or reddish-brown fur. In that military environment they looked purposeful and not much like pets, so even though I was not given any reason to fear them, I never approached them. They belonged to the Marines, existing on the other side of the line between us and them.

That line, unlike the border with the north, was blurry and even harder to see. It was not drawn on any maps and it did not stay in one place. It was a line with no enemies on either side, but the same mandate that it be observed, lest there be consequences. Up there on that mountain, the line moved when we did, and we simply had to be careful not to move so quickly that we got ahead of it.

Which is not to say that there was any tension between us and the South Koreans. Indeed, we got along very well, joining them for small cookouts on the weekends and playing soccer with them on the large dirt field in front of their barracks. Many nights they would take two or even three of us – someone always had to remain on duty – into the town at the base of the mountain, where we would take off our shoes and be treated to a real Korean meal. Whoever was eldest at the table would pour us the first of the soju (or did the eldest get served first? I still can’t remember), and we would eat and drink and hear stories of the American soldiers who preceded us on the mountain in years past. They were accustomed to being generous hosts, and we did our part to be gracious guests.

Still, we had certain manners to observe and practice. And though we were far away from the crowding and politics of Seoul, someone always seemed to find an occasion to remind us of the girls we killed out in the country. Not as any kind of a warning or an accusation, but simply because it was still part of the fabric of their experiences, and so it would work its way into conversations without much intent. Also, arriving when I did, the one-year anniversary of the incident would have been approaching. I remember being relieved that we were out there on that island. Not only was it far from the site of the accident, but it was also far from the capital, where the bulk of the demonstrations would be concentrated, and the Americans were sure to be a little less comfortable than usual. On the island we were blameless, all of the Koreans were our friends, and the only thing that didn’t smile was the dogs.

We had a dog of our own, the mascot of the detachment. He had official orders assigning him to the post, just like a human soldier, signed by a Major or a Lieutenant Colonel. He was just a little mutt of fifteen pounds or so, scruffy and permanently dirty, probably born on the street and rescued by chance by a shopkeeper on her way home, as was often the case. His name was Frodo, given to him twelve years ago by whatever Americans were serving the mountain at the time he was brought there.

Frodo was old and ragged but still had a lot of energy, and I thought I would bond a little with my soldiers and the Korean Marines and the mountain in general by taking him on a short run down the road. A little PR tour where I could smile and wave at the local troops, showing my goodwill and fitness for the job. Frodo would serve as my liaison, a symbol of my right to be there and my willingness to get along. Private Priest and PFC Judge agreed to go with me, and the four of us went through our gate. We nodded at the skinny guard in his faded and tired-looking uniform and started jogging downhill.

I wasn’t thinking about much, other than what a beautiful day it was. It was May or June, and the early Summer view of the Yellow Sea made me pious and exultant. The road wound steeply downward. My troops were in good spirits. Frodo skittered back and forth across the road on his short legs, as happy as the rest of us to be free and moving. I felt perfect about the impression we were making on our hosts.

Whether my giddiness caused me to miss a warning sign I cannot say. There should probably have been terrible barks and growls from the brush at the side of the road, and I should have heard it coming in time to stop it. But I do not remember any of that. What I do remember is Frodo, being ripped at by the jaws of one of the ROK Marines’ stout dogs. I had brought him across some invisible line known only to the animals, drawn in scent and instinct, and the Jindo had raked him from the road and into its mouth. It heeded none of the shouts that I didn’t hear, but must have been coming from its Marine handlers. I wondered later whether the Korean dog would have understood me if I screamed at it in English.

Surely nobody could have stopped it – once the dogs got going, so the only truly useful thing to do would have been to never go out in the first place. That’s what Sgt. Lamb would have done. He would have stayed inside, sleeping every chance he got, and thinking nothing of his duty outside of those gates. He would have avoided the Koreans as much as possible, and he would not have gone running. None of this would have happened, Frodo would not have been killed, and I wouldn’t have been so confused about how something that really wasn’t my fault could feel so much like it was. But of course Sgt. Lamb wasn’t up there. I was, because I sat there in Lt. Kwan’s office and told the truth when honor should have made me lie.

None of that mattered in the least anymore. What mattered was whatever I did next, and I had no idea what that would be. The Koreans and PFC Judge were looking at me, Priest was looking at Frodo, and Frodo was looking down the road, in the direction his head fell when the dog dropped him there. I wasn’t looking at anything, because there was far too much to see. A voice inside me said do something. Now. But we had no vehicle nearby, and cell phones were not so ubiquitous at the time, so all I could do was nearly kill myself sprinting up that mountain to do something useful, even though there was nothing left to be done. When I try to think about it, my memory always rushes out somewhere in the strained breaths on that winding road up to our building, and I realize that I wasn’t running to get something done. I was running to get the hell away from there. I knew I could not stand there and look at Frodo anymore, so the one thing I managed to do in that crisis was to look like I was advancing, while actually running away.

Ultimately, I don’t remember anything else that happened after his death, after that dog raged out of the woods and tore into him right in front of me. I only remember Frodo being scooped and shaken, the fact that it was over almost immediately, and most clearly, I remember that the six of us who witnessed it were completely frozen in our places. I stood there with Priest and Judge on one side of the carnage, those three Marines on the other, and every one of us just hung there until the big dogs dropped little Frodo’s limp body into the gravel on the side of the road. I don’t think there was even any blood.

Of his body or who took care of it or where he ended up I have no idea. Knowing the Army as I do, I have to believe that the event would have generated a small pile of paperwork, a meeting or two to formalize the blame and be forgiven by someone with no right to do it, and finally a grim, silent drive into the maddening traffic of Seoul with Frodo wrapped in a towel. The Army put him out there, and the Army would want him back. But if any of that happened, I don’t know it.

And I don’t want to know, because it gives me a chance to hope that something much better happened for him. Something less administrative and cold. Something that anchored him to his home and didn’t put his fate in the hands of strangers anymore. It gives me a chance to hope that while I was running back up the mountain to do nothing of any use, the ROK Marines gathered him up gently from the road and carried him behind their gates. And that later, with their dogs watching or not, they gave him a quiet and reverent burial somewhere on his mountain.

I hope for these things because otherwise it would be too easy to say that Frodo was just a dog, and that to accidentally kill a dog does not deserve to be spoken of the way that accidentally killing a human is. But he was not just a dog, any more than it was just an accident when an American vehicle ran over two Korean school girls on another beautiful summer day the June before. They were not alone on that road, and we were not alone on that mountain, or that island, or that country, and it’s never just anything when you are not alone. In this case it was a dog and the other five sets of eyes on the road, and the ears and opinions of everyone who would hear about it, and most importantly of everyone – American and Korean – whose lives belonged to that mountain. It was all of that and all of us and those two girls who are still dying on that road out in the countryside, forever being snuck up on by something as loud and slow and huge as history.