Thursday, June 27, 2013

The Discrimination Cha Cha (In the Category of Mean What You Say.) #52Weeks

Wow, what a week. Whether you abhor discrimination in all its forms or fully support the subtle nuances of fear mingled with outright hatred that define it, this week’s SCOTUS rulings are hard to take in all at once. It’s a legislative Cha Cha, two steps forward, three steps back. Sidestep, sidestep, cha, cha, cha.
Arthur Murray's Cha Cha Footing Diagram

On the one hand, I guess we should all stand up and cheer now that Supreme Court Chief Justice Roberts has decided that the south is no longer racist and can be trusted to keep the voting legal. If it were true, it would be really awesome news. But I live in Virginia. Even before this ruling, our bigoted legislators (regrettably, the majority these days) pushed through a new law requiring a photo ID to vote that our Rolex-wearing, gift-taking, probably-needs-to-be-impeached governor happily signed. The bill is intended to cut down on voter fraud by disenfranchising legal voters who don’t have the means or access to obtain a Virginia-issued photo ID.

Voter fraud does happen from time to time in Virginia. Just this past fall, a fellow working for the Virginia GOP employed fraudulent tactics in an attempt to get Newt Gingrich on the ballot for the Presidential Primary. Virginia has been cracking down on voter fraud pretty much ever since we went blue for Obama…twice. The creepy, conservative, wanna-be-next-Governor has already gone on record that he thinks voter fraud may have won Obama the election. So you can see the GOP’s incentives to nip this sort of voting-without-ID nonsense in the bud.

I’m going out on a limb here to suggest that Chief Justice Roberts may not actually watch the news. If he did, he would see Paula Deen copping to thinking “slave-themed” wedding receptions are a neat idea and that racial discrimination in the work place is no big deal, y’all. He would see a murder trial about a spunky but unarmed black teenager gunned down by a frightened, armed man -- whether or not racism played a part in Zimmerman’s decision to disregard police dispatchers who told him to quit following Trayvon will be for a jury to decide. Racism is alive and thrives in more than one pocket of this country. We’re making progress, but racial discrimination is still very real.

On the other hand, our nation is one step closer to reversing decades of treating homosexual couples unfairly. We all watched history this past Wednesday when SCOTUS overturned both DOMA and California’s Prop 8. Discrimination took another two steps back, and the promise of equality that makes democracy worth a damn cha cha’d onto the dance floor of possibility. It needed doing, folks.

Marriage is great, if you can find the right partner. It’s good for the economy; the wedding planning industry is big business and creates and sustains jobs in a wide range of sectors including clothing, florists, caterers, hotels, reception venues, musicians, travel agents, hair dressers, printers, bird seed producers and bottlers of bubble stuff. (Let’s throw in divorce lawyers just because...)

Marriage is (generally) good for your health; it simplifies raising children (single parents are amazing, but it’s definitely more work when you have to do it all yourself). But most importantly, marriage is NOT a product of government legislation. It is NOT a product of the Bible (and the hubris of the hypo-Christians to suggest otherwise is an affront to every other religion on the planet, but I digress). It’s a connection between two people, a desire to face together the challenges, heartaches, and pitfalls of being alive, because it’s a scary, mean world.

I say one step closer, but many more steps are needed and all of them forward – cha cha cha. Thirty-seven states still openly ban or at least fail to support same sex marriage (SSM), including (no shocker here) Virginia. SSM supporters such as I take heart from yesterday’s rulings. Recognizing SSM on a federal level will give momentum to supporters on a state level to overturn bigoted legislation state-by-state. Polls consistently show that the next generation to run this country already has little tolerance for these ridiculous and unsustainable prejudices. Indeed, in Virginia, support for same sex marriage is up to 56%, a mere 1% shy of the margin by which Virginian’s voted to prohibit SSM back in 2006 (not this Virginian).

I’ve given a lot of thought over the years to my own prejudices, where they come from, and how they weaken me. Unlike Paula Deen, I remember very clearly the day I fully understood the power of fear that racism depends on to flourish. It was June 1981, the last day of school my eighth grade year. My mom, sister and I had moved to Norfolk from Virginia Beach in the Fall of 1980, and for the first time in my life, I was in a racial minority in my school. I didn’t think much of it; it never occurred to me that it mattered. But on the last day of school, as I and two other white friends walked through a neighborhood near our homes, we were stopped and surrounded by a group of six or eight black kids, and they were looking for a fight. I was flabbergasted. Always the peacemaker, I asked, “Why?”

“Didn’t you see Roots?” they taunted me. “Don’t you remember slavery?” One of them pushed one of my friends.

“But you were never a slave. I never had a slave.” I was desperate. Surely I could make them understand. This wasn’t our fight. Whatever they felt had been done to them, it wasn’t me.

It hit me suddenly: this is how it feels, to be discriminated against because of skin color. These kids didn’t even know my name. I had done nothing to them. My only crimes were being white and vulnerable. Wrong place, wrong time. If a police squad car had not driven by at that moment, I guess they would have kicked our butts. But the sight of “Johnny Law” sent the group running in all directions. My friends and I hightailed it home. I don’t ever remember getting angry about the incident, just really, really sad. I quit using racial epithets. And I quit letting others use them in front of me without my objection.

When I was eleven my father played King Sextimus the Silent in a Little Theater of Virginia Beach production of Once Upon A Mattress. Dad's new wife was the musical's choreographer. My sister and I were part of the crew. As Dad drove us to the opening night cast party at Don and Dan’s house, Dad explained that Don and Dan (who my sister and I understood to be close friends) actually shared the house the same way he and his wife did. It was no big deal, “so don’t let it throw you.” Sis and I shrugged, enjoyed the hors d’oeurves at the party, sang along when the musical director brought out the song book and Dan sat down at the baby grand piano. We fell asleep, later, in the back room on the bed. Dad carried us to the car when the party was over. Never in my life has it occurred to me to fear love in any of its incarnations.

Nelson Mandela said, “I learned that courage was not the absence of fear, but the triumph over it. The brave man is not he who does not feel afraid, but he who conquers that fear.”  I learned that, too; it can be a difficult path, but I will dance down it with anyone willing to be as brave. Three steps forward, no steps back, cha cha cha.

Sunday, June 23, 2013

Bucket List (In the Category of Say What You Mean.) [#52Weeks]

We made good progress on our bucket lists this week, my husband Greg, and I. I like the idea of a bucket list. The movie was inspiring, but I actually had my own before I saw Jack and Morgan write theirs. I have always had in mind things that I really want to do before I die, like playing Blackjack in a Las Vegas casino. I like Blackjack. I play it often with friends at the Ladies’ poker night. But Blackjack in Vegas – that is authentic – I had to try it.

My first shot came in the mid-2000’s. The president of the company for which I worked decided to send me to a leadership training retreat held by Rapport International. I flew to Las Vegas (carrying a Thomas the Tank Engine themed backpack filled with things like a pasta ladle, a spatula and deodorant, but that is another story for another post) and checked into the Sunset Station Hotel and Casino. A wiser Kim would have gone straight to the Blackjack table to take care of business, but I felt apprehensive about looking stupid and I decided that, since I would be returning to the same hotel after the retreat, I could do it later. I hadn’t been through the leadership training yet, you see.

The “training” comprised 60 straight hours of demonstrating my ability to show passion, focus, enthusiasm, courage, conviction and heart. By the time it was over, I was exhausted and losing my voice. I’d just endured two+ days of screaming America the Beautiful at the top of my lungs and karate chopping through my “block to success” (which was wanting to be liked). I mean literally karate chopping -- through a 1” thick pine wood square. (Hit it on the grain, and it snaps like a fortune cookie.) The company president showed up at my “graduation” to give me a ride back to civilization, and I was grateful not to have to take the damn bus back into Vegas. (The retreat took place in a lodge about 90 minutes east of Las Vegas in the high desert.) We celebrated with a fancy dinner in the restaurant at the Renaissance Hotel on the strip in Las Vegas.  He had a red-eye back to Virginia to catch, but he insisted that I rebook into the much fancier Renaissance and forego my room at the Sunset Station.

He had just dropped $125 on a very nice bottle of red. I deferred to his suggestion. But the Renaissance Hotel on the Las Vegas strip has no casino. My exhaustion level and the time of night precluded any desire to find a casino, and so my window of opportunity to play Blackjack in Vegas slammed shut unexpectedly, crushing my metaphoric fingers the way a ghost slams a window on an interloper in a haunted house. My freshly honed leader instincts chafed. If I had learned nothing in the past 60 hours, I had learned not to miss opportunities. Would I ever make it to Vegas again?

At the time, I felt sure that the company president had managed to find the only hotel on the strip without a casino. It isn’t, and given that Nevada allows smoking in casinos, it’s nice to know the smoke-free options for hotels. Four years later I had moved on to a different company. (One of my take-aways from the Rapport training was the realization that the company president who had sent me in the first place was a great guy and also completely full of shit.)

Eventually, my new job presented to me the opportunity to plan a corporate event in Las Vegas, and I researched a number of potential venues for the event: indoor, outdoor, themed, casual. My new company president and I liked the tropical deck setup and pricing at the Trump International Las Vegas hotel, but he suggested I make a quick trip out west to see it first hand. The Trump offered to charge me only $99 for the night to make the meeting, so I booked a flight to Vegas.

The North Deck at the Trump International Las Vegas

The Trump International Las Vegas is another casino-free, and thus smoke-free, hotel on the strip (actually at the end of it, across the street from the Wynn Las Vegas, which has a casino). While I strongly disagree with Donald Trump’s politics, his hotel brand is, in my opinion, spot on, and I would stay again any time – the team that runs the place is phenomenal. And Donald is no fool. His hotel (originally built to function as luxury condos) has a relationship with the Wynn; they run a shuttle van from door to door. I scheduled my meeting with the Trump’s catering manager for 1:00 pm Vegas time and took the first flight out of Roanoke EDT. The flight and meeting both went perfectly, and I had concluded business by 2:15 pm.

It was June, actually, a few days after the Summer Solstice, about this time of year. I was already checked in at the Trump, unwilling to suffer a red-eye home (I’m allergic to airplane blankets). I scheduled my return flight for early the next morning, giving me sixteen hours to kill. Including travel time, I had already put in an eleven-hour day, so I had no qualms about calling it quitting time. I didn’t bother to change out of my business attire. I didn’t even bother to wait for the shuttle. I tucked $50 into my pocket and headed for the Wynn.

To my relief, the casino was mostly empty. I found an unoccupied $5/bid Blackjack table with a friendly looking lady dealer. I admitted to her immediately that I knew the rules of the game quite well, but when it came to table etiquette, I was a complete rube. She smiled and walked me through it. The only thing she didn’t tell me was that I should tip the dealer every now and again when I’m up. Thankfully, a man joined our table about a half hour into my “lesson.” He got a run of good hands and tossed the dealer a few chips in appreciation. I began to tip the same. (I was $170.00 up and had already tucked my original $50 back into my pocket – I should have been tipping all along!) I played for another ninety minutes. By then I was up by almost $300 in addition to the pocketed seed money. Bucket list item complete, I asked her if I could cash out.

“You were very lucky,” the dealer said as she passed me a handful of chips of various denominations and pointed me to the cashier’s window. I flipped her a $100 chip. She smiled warmly for a moment then turned back to the man, who continued to play. My heart pounded as the lady behind the window converted my chips to crisp U.S. dollars. I held up a $5 chip and asked, “Can I keep this a souvenir?”

“Of course!” She laughed and handed me my cash. After the tips to the dealer (and the cocktail waitress) I had net winnings of $175. I tried not to giggle as I headed to the entrance to wait for the shuttle back to the Trump. (I had only consumed a couple of light beers, but the sidewalk was actually under construction for part of the walk back to my hotel, and I didn’t trust myself in traffic.)  I did not play Blackjack again when I returned a few months later for the corporate event itself. I don’t know that I ever will. The first time was just that good.
After I left the casino, I hung out by the Trump’s pool and slurped overpriced light beers brought to me by bikini-clad cocktail waitresses, because, hey, that’s not a sexist cliché. Actually though, it did not suck.

This week’s achievements have the same lasting sense of satisfaction of a bucket list item well done, thoroughly crossed off, with no regrets. You see, this past Tuesday, I ate my first Philly Cheesesteak sandwich in Philly. As with the Blackjack, I needed two shots to do this. Our 2001 honeymoon flight to St. Thomas, USVI included a layover at the Philadelphia Airport, where I intended to have a Philly Cheesesteak, Cheez Whiz and all, regardless of the fact that it would be 9:45 am. I had eaten many cheesesteak sandwiches in my time, but never in Philadelphia. I like authenticity. It was a bucket list item. Al-Qaeda thwarted my first attempt, literally.

We married on the Saturday after the 9/11 attacks (we’d been planning since February) and tried to fly to St. Thomas on September 17, 2001, the following Monday. The government had only just allowed airports to open the day before. Some chucklehead had dropped a travel alarm clock in a trash can at the Roanoke Airport. A week earlier, the presence of a travel alarm clock in an airport trash can would have fazed NO ONE, but in the hyper vigilance of those days, it prompted the airport to close.

The maintenance crew required to clear our plane for take off at 6:45 am the next morning had not received word that the airport had reopened. By the time they showed up at 9:15 am, we had missed our connection out of Philly, a jumbo jet that would have taken us straight into Charlotte Amalie. Instead, the airline (US Air) rebooked us on a Delta flight to Atlanta, GA and on to San Juan, Puerto Rico, where we boarded (after providing our weight -- Greg recommended I round up) a 10-seat airplane, including the pilot, that flew us – WITH THE WINDOWS OPEN – to the Charlotte Amalie Airport. I missed my shot at an authentic Philly Cheesesteak. Twelve years would pass…

Greg is a Rolling Stones fan, or more correctly, a Keith Richards fan. He has always wanted to see Keith play guitar live; it’s been a seemingly unattainable bucket list item of his for four decades. Four. Decades. When they went back on tour (likely for the last time – that’s what they threaten anyway), he wheedled and whined. He provided coherent arguments. I respect the bucket list, but ticket prices were obscene, our funds are tight and venues were limited.

“If you can find tickets for $100 or less, and we can afford to travel there, then get them,” I said. I wasn’t a big Stones fan, but as I said, I respect the bucket list, and anyway, the list of things I would not do for Greg is very short. But I honestly didn’t think I had to worry about it.

It was my idea for Greg to set up a Twitter account; I must own this fact. He follows the @RollingStones on Twitter, so he saw the announcement that 1,000 tickets for every show, in every venue for this “50 Years and Counting” tour would sell for only $85 per ticket. More astoundingly, the 1,000 seats would be scattered throughout the venue. I was skeptical. Surely, these were all nosebleed seats. But they met my cost limit, and Greg felt that he really just needed to be in the same room with Keith to meet his bucket list criteria. I wished him good luck scoring the tickets.

He Tweeted me ten minutes after the tickets went on sale to let me know I needed to request some vacation time. We had two tickets to see the Rolling Stones in Philadelphia, PA on June 18. Ticket price: $85. Seat location unknown; our instructions said to check in at the VIP door, look for the red and black balloons, and have the credit card used for the purchase and a photo ID. We would receive our tickets then.

I immediately began plotting how to work in a stop somewhere in Philly for a cheesesteak. I wanted to try Pat’s on Passyunk Ave. It claims to be the original, and I wanted authenticity. My cousin, Jen, lives in Philly, and I really hoped to see her if possible. We would only have a few hours between the time we hit town and the time the gates opened. Meeting for lunch at Pat’s for a cheesesteak seemed obvious, but Jen’s a vegetarian. I wasn’t sure how awkward my phone call to her to suggest this might be. Philly probably has a number of delicious dining options replete with vegetarian delights, but I needed a greasy steak sandwich with mushrooms and Cheez Whiz, the kind you have to stoop to eat lest the grease should drip onto your clothing.

Cousin Jen is a good sport though (truly – she’s amazing), and Pat’s has no trouble serving up a mushroom steak “wit” and hold the steak. My mushroom steak “wit out” had plenty of steak, not too greasy, and plenty of gooey hot processed canned cheese food. Bucket list item, check.

As for the location of those $85 seats to the Rolling Stones? Well, see for yourself.

Yes, that’s right. Section 101, Row 9, Seats 7-8. We used no zoom in this picture; our seats really were at the tip of the tongue, eye to eye (when they strutted out onto the walk) with Mick, Keith and Ronnie. They played for two and a half hours. Bobby Keys, Mick Taylor, and Lisa Fischer joined them for all the classics, and Brad Paisley played guitar on Dead Flowers. For Greg, it was all about Keith, and his guitar riffs, chords you could feel in your chest, in your heart – they made your hair stand on end. The behind-the-band Jumbotron (those teeth fade away) showed Keith’s intensity and concentration in sharp detail, but we could see it with our own eyes.

Bucket list item, check.


Thursday, June 13, 2013

The Voices of Ghosts (In the Category of Want What You Have.) [#52Weeks]

I’m reading Anne’s journal these days. It’s research for the memoir that I plan to write — that I am writing in some of these blog posts. Anne’s brother has invited me to Alabama; he took all of Anne’s files there, back home, after we cleaned out her house in Ellett Valley. I could piece together much of what has dimmed in my memory with those files. It’s been eleven years, five months and twenty-six days since Anne died, and trust me, much has dimmed.

Until very recently, something held me back from going there — physically and metaphorically. And I don’t just mean going to Alabama to further dig through years of file folders of receipts, letters, contracts, syllabi, Christmas lists (not wish lists, but lists of gifts to buy), unfinished chapters, poems and the occasional nude picture of her ex-husband. I’ve held back from delving too deeply into the memories of all those years spent in Anne’s friendship — Anne’s universe. They were wonderful, crazy years, full of drama and comedy, littered with absolute assholes from all walks of life, and angels, saints. Until very recently, it’s been too painful to contemplate. Blogging, for some reason, has emboldened me.

The journal entries I have date back an additional dozen years, beginning in July 1988, one year before Anne and I met. They have provided an illuminating jaunt down memory lane. Reading names I haven’t heard or thought about in years has conjured faces I haven’t seen in just as long. I have a few of Anne’s photos from this time period, and I think now, I can put names to some of the people in them. I should have done this years ago, writing all this down. I should have at least scratched out a timeline of the highlights and milestones. I’m amazed I had the foresight to copy the journal entries from Anne’s computer to my own. (Anne’s computer skills! Must save those stories for a separate blog post.)

Before I began reading the journal, I could not recall the sound of Anne’s voice, but it rings clearly in my ears now. The pitch is moderate – you’d expect the tone to be higher in a woman so petite. It has the smooth silky accent of central Alabama and privilege. But the words – the incomparable sass – “I need…” in that slow drawl accompanied always with a sly smile and bat of eyelashes. The pronunciation of shrimp without the “h,” like Sri Lanka. The way “bitch” had two syllables and was always spoken with that same sly smile.

It’s nice to hear her voice again, even if it is still fretting, after all these years, about men (I want to feel close to R. But I cannot support him. Let's see if he really makes it to the job...), money (What the fuck is this Control thing to [Daddy]? Sure, it's money but it's more than that.), music (Music SAVED ME!!!) and career, her unfulfilled quest to attain the status of Full Professor. (Anne retired a tenured Associate Professor. After her funeral, at the wake, I bought many drinks for the former department head, who had been instrumental in denying Anne’s promotion, and asked him why? He admitted, giggling while his wife looked on annoyed, that it was because they didn’t like her Alabama accent...or her trust fund.... “She didn’t need the money.” I nearly committed murder that day. Karma has its way though...I saw him recently at a local restaurant eating alone.)

Anne’s journal entries take the form mostly of letters, some sent, most not. She wrote to her shrink (her standard word choice), her family, her lovers or to herself. The tone is often self-abasing but always conversational. Reading them, I realize that Anne held almost nothing back from me in all the hours and hours (years and years) of conversations we had while sitting in her bedroom, she at the head, and I at the foot of the brass bed that she bought, “because of the Dylan song.” Entry topics “fox-loop” between the things that worried Anne and the things that kept her sane. As I read them now, the voices of ghosts surround me.

Not just Anne’s voice — Michael’s there too, and Theresa, Dutton and Charlotte, Paul, Jesse, Anne’s Daddy. These people, family and friends, mentors, idols, informed Anne’s life. They grounded her, amused her, loved her, abused her. They are all ghosts now too: Michael, Theresa and Jesse by their own hands, Charlotte and Paul from illness; Dutton died naturally after a life well lived. A stroke brought Anne’s Daddy down from his terrifying, controlling status to one of drooling and vacant stares that would last several years. Karma has its way.

I’m mentioned twice. The first reference in 1990 is brief, Meeting with Kim and C. today about the video. I don’t recall the meeting. The video, “Just Like a Church But Completely Different, was a documentary about the Blacksburg music scene during the late 1980’s and early 1990’s. There actually was a music scene in Blacksburg in those days, a pretty good one, and not just cover bands. In addition to teaching college English, Anne also ran a business called The Spool Company, which booked musical talent into local venues (that was the plan anyway – the business had limited success). Anne produced the video as a means to further promote the Blacksburg music scene and even managed to get a showing of the video at a couple of film festivals in Virginia (where it got honorable mention) and Toronto, Ontario.

My second mention, in 1994, occurs in a letter to her mother. I did not realize that she sent her mother a copy of the Fiber Optic Reference Guide, by David R. Goff, which I edited, but I’m flattered to know it now. Anne’s mother is a very sweet woman who showed me much kindness in many of the same ways her daughter did…so generous, so genteel.

I’m not surprised at my scant appearances in her journal. It affirms that I did not cause strife for Anne the way so many others in her orbit did. Anne routinely created very complex relationships with people who to put this? Let’s just say they may have been more motivated by self-interest than any true affection for Anne. She was ridiculously generous by nature, driven in part by an intense fear of loneliness. She never failed to pick up the check at a restaurant or bar. I managed to beat her to it maybe twice in the 100’s of meals we shared together, and she got really angry with me both times.

Many, many “friends” of hers never bothered to try to get the tab, which, in a total contradiction, also annoyed Anne; variations on, Went to dinner with ____, I paid, show up frequently in the journal. Anne was a study in contradictions, but that made the friendship fun for me; I’ve always been drawn to zaniness. The woman evoked my full range of emotions over the years, but she never bored me. Never.

I still can’t say where the memoir goes from here. Much is missing from the journal that I had hoped to find. Depression gave Anne writer’s block; trips to the “nuthut” (her word) broke the continuity of the entries; these periods are marked only by brief flashbacks: Life is overall easier [in the hospital] than it is outside. Except for sleeping. I like sleeping in my own bed. The periods I know of where she felt very content are also missing from the journal, which seems like another contradiction, but I think happiness also presented a form of writer’s block for Anne. Contentment dulled the drive to keep a journal; it seems only drama fueled her introspective muse.

At the same time, the periods where her journal is silent were very productive commercial writing periods for Anne. During those years, she wrote and edited two books of poetry along with the students of her “Literature of Rock & Roll” course. She edited a Pulitzer Prize nominated collection of letters written by her mentor, Jesse Hill Ford, the southern writer. She taught English at Virginia Tech full time during those years, was involved with the Miss Virginia Pageant (that will be its own chapter – the scandal!), performed in poetry slams and began plans to have a large addition built onto her house. Who had time to keep a journal with all that going on?

Then Daddy finally died. A year later, Theresa overdosed and Jesse shot himself, depressed from heart surgery medicine, Anne’s published collection of his letters in his lap. Anne edited a third poetry book — poems by and about Theresa, a gifted poet who studied English at Virginia Tech. Anne’s friend and favorite musician, Paul, succumbed to hepatitis C the next spring. Less than two years later, Anne was diagnosed with breast cancer. After finishing her treatment, Anne put her writing energy into The Novel, an autobiographical fiction that begins the year she and I met. She finished writing three chapters of Fool’s Hill before the breast cancer came back with a vengeance eighteen months later. All of Anne’s writings end there.

But for me, the story percolates and gains momentum. I guess the next steps include a trip to Alabama, to a little town called Oneonta where Anne’s brother lives in Graystone, the house where they all grew up. Mother is just across the street, in a newer, smaller, better appointed house, and Opal comes around every day to help with cooking and cleaning and taking care of Mrs. Cheney. Anne’s files are there, and the videos, more photos; her brother’s memories will be valuable as well. He’s promised to set up an office for me – scanner, computer, VCR (yes, VCR...these are actually videos on tape) whatever I need to take notes, recapture the memories of what we tried to accomplish, all those years ago, with music and writing. We failed and succeeded – the exquisite contradictions continue – the outcome really didn’t matter though, only the dream.
Me sitting at the foot of Anne's brass bed, Summer Solstice 1996


Saturday, June 8, 2013

Cozy Bubble (In the category of Be Where You Are.) [#52Weeks]

I’m a military brat (Dad was in the Navy), so I come to the opinions I am about to share from the point of view of a “brat.” If you are a “brat” too, then you understand what that means. If you don’t understand, you may be a “civilian” (non-military folk). As a “brat,” to me, civilians were the people whose rights my dad went away six months at a time to defend. I’m not trying to sound divisive, swear to God, but childhood is different for military brats.

Early on, military brats learn a few things that civilians don’t have to learn (although some do anyway). For one, I knew from a young age that the “Powers That Be” (a.k.a. Uncle Sam, the Government, Dad’s boss) had complete control over what happened to Dad, and he was powerless to protest. The Navy said move, we moved (three times before I reached age five). The Navy said deploy, he deployed. The Navy said fly “listening” missions over Cambodia, he flew. I grew up believing my Dad spent the Vietnam war sitting on a naval base in San Diego, CA while we missed him from Virginia Beach, VA. Dad couldn’t tell us the truth.

I also learned very young that the “Powers That Be” watch your every move and take notes, so act accordingly. Presidential white glove inspections? Yep, those were real, and my dusting job had better pass muster. A permanent record of my every misdeed that could be held against me at any time in my life? That was real too, so watch it kid! To me, the government was a sort of less-friendly Santa Claus who knew if I had been bad or good but would not bring gifts if I behaved well, only punishing lumps of coal for my high crimes and misdemeanors.

All military brats (as well as some civilians) are taught to say “sir” and “ma’am” always, automatically, without thinking, to any older person, or else... . In my house, use of the honorific was non-negotiable, and failure to adhere to protocol was met with stiff retribution. Habits like that are hard to break, but I’ve noticed that people are sometimes offended or annoyed if I call them one or the other. Why? It’s just manners, an assumption that you are worthy of respect. Why would you argue with that? But I digress.

Last week, the military brat in me felt perplexed by the national outrage that erupted over allegations that the Internal Revenue Service might be screwing with people or organizations because of political motives. That’s standard operating procedure, isn’t it? It’s the Government. They do what they wish, and our protests are pointless. Get used to it. (Seriously, part of me still awaits the I.R.S. audit letter I’ve got coming after I spent several months bad-mouthing that worthless House Speaker, John Boehner, on Twitter.) I’m pretty sure this abuse of power is a standard perk of the job, like the now-defunct buckets of ice and whatever equally silly thing replaced them, and interns. To me, it explains why no one wants to quit Congress once they get elected.

(NOTE: I fully comprehend the public outrage over wasteful spending at I.R.S. conferences. The dancing in that one video was atrocious! No one needed to see that shit. And whoever owns the rights to Gene Roddenberry’s creation REALLY needs to sue for the use of Star Trek imagery in the second video...of course that could get them audited...)

I’m equally bemused by the furor over revelations that the National Security Agency (NSA) court-orders telecoms to grant them access to monitor mountains of metadata about our calling habits and Internet usage. It’s as if people don’t believe the NSA could get this information without a court order. They can. They always could. It was friendly of them to get the court order, a formality – surprisingly transparent behavior for our top spy agency. I’d be shocked if this was limited to Verizon customers. I guess that plucky journalists have yet to uncover the court orders issued to Sprint, nTelos and AT&T.

None of this is news. It isn’t new; it’s been going on for years, as others have already pointed out. If you feel shocked by all this, you’ve been living in a cozy bubble of blissful naïveté. Internet privacy? Don’t be ridiculous. You never had it and you never will. (Hell, you can’t even convince me the postal service hasn’t been randomly reading our mail all these years. I’m a military brat.) There are surveillance cameras everywhere these days, a valuable thing to remember, as even children must learn.

During my godson’s last year in elementary school (he's a rising high school senior now), he was caught with drawings of something inappropriate for A) his age; B) lunch time and C) the back cover of his friend’s spiral notebook. When the lunchroom monitor confronted him, he did what seemed like the sensible thing and denied he drew the artwork. A true and loyal friend (and the owner of the notebook) stepped up to claim responsibility (albeit erroneously). But here in the 21st century, even the lunchrooms of elementary schools in small mountain towns are fully covered by surveillance video cameras.

I feel sure the Principal was kind but stern when he called my godson into his office to discuss the matter. “Answer me truthfully, son. Did you draw these?”

I can visualize the cherubic face puckering, the golden locks waving as his head shook, “No, sir. It wasn’t me.”

I imagine the Principal grimaced as he reached over to hit the play button. The video recorded in the lunchroom by the security cameras clearly showed my godson drawing one penis after another on the back of the notebook. I can still empathetically experience the sinking feeling that must have overwhelmed the lad as he confronted two harsh realities: First, he had just been caught flat out lying to the Principal about whether or not the phallic art was his handiwork. Second, and I sincerely hope this was his takeaway: They are watching. They are always watching. Act accordingly.

I saw a Tweet the other day that gave me pause. It read, “Al-Qaeda was much more insightful than us. They planted seeds of fear and now watch as we fertilize, water, and grow their garden.” I agree with the image, although I am not sure I would have chosen the word “insightful,” which to me suggests deliberateness. I think this collective fear, which we continue to nurture, is an unintended happy consequence for Al-Qaeda – icing on the cake if you will. It’s true that the fear we developed after the September 11 attacks gave our Government the impetus and opportunity to pass legislation that systematically strips us of our constitutional fourth amendment protections. (It may interest you to learn that at no point does the Constitution guarantee a right to "privacy." If you don't believe me, search the text yourself.) But I think the only true change was transparency. The Government now admits that this goes on (when they have to). We’ve allowed them to pass laws that make this perfectly acceptable. Why then do we act surprised when they do it? If my opinion is correct, this has actually been going on for your entire life. And how has it affected you?

Admit it, it probably hasn’t.

Unless you are spying for a foreign country or actually plotting a terrorist attack, the reality of this metadata monitoring has had zero impact on how you comport yourself either publicly or privately. It hasn’t cost you a job, your freedom, your friends or your family. (If you work, it has cost you a few tax dollars, but you knew that already.) I can’t say that the intrusion made you any safer, but it probably hasn’t informed your essence. It has likely failed to overtly shape your gestalt or define your overall political views. It didn't help you cultivate your prejudices or change your level of tolerance toward your fellow man. It won’t impact what turns you on or turns you off.

It might affect how you feel about your Government, now that the cozy bubble has burst. Whether or not it will get you audited by the I.R.S.? Well that is another matter altogether.


[Postscript: Most civilian technological advancements begin as military applications; the NSA gets all the cool gadgets first, and they use them to spy. Back in the late 1990s I met some guys from the NSA at SatCon Expo, a telecommunications industry trade show that was being held in Washington D.C. The company I worked for at the time sold high speed fiber optic video/audio/data links to the NSA, who happened to be showing the links off in their booth. Very nice guys, kind of nerdy -- they seemed a bit nervous around me. Until they started demonstrating their new toy, a fiber optic video/audio/data feed (provided by our links...remember, this is pre commercial Wi-Fi) from the NSA facility in Fort Meade, MD to the show floor that allowed them to activate cameras on a satellite in outer space. I watched somewhat horrified as, after providing my address, they zoomed in directly on the house where I lived. We call this Google Earth now, but at the time, it was for spies only. Makes you wonder what toys the kids at the NSA are playing with today.]