On the way to American University this afternoon I listened to Kojo Nnamdi discuss manners and etiquette on NPR. They opened with the definition of 'boorish' as someone who only thinks of themselves and never of anyone else and then went into rules about things like, what to do when someone asks you to pass the salt? You pass the salt AND pepper, of course. Why? Because you are anticipating their future needs and being courteous in considering them. One of the guests later suggested that violence in the work place largely stemmed from bad manners and poor etiquette, because people aren't considerate of one another and only think of themselves. The guests scope of "violence" in this scenario spanned from shoving someone to the severe end of shooting someone and in looking back on all of the places I've ever worked, I can see how poor manners or thoughtlessness have indeed led to ever escalating trouble.

All of this talk of manners got me thinking about something Chris and I discussed recently. When we are out in public and Chris accidently steps in front of someone, fails to let them pass or bumps into them I automatically turn to them and apologize. He hates this. He says if I would only give him half a chance he would apologize on his own and that he feels like I think he's some kind of oaf. I probably blushed a little because I know that it bothers him when I do this, and I realize it even as I'm doing it, but I can't seem to help myself. Why is that?

I told Chris that I did it automatically and that I couldn't help it. My instinct is to apologize even if I'm not the one that cut the person off. As I was listening to the Kojo Nnamdi show, however, I realized it was more than that. Manners aren't an explanation for it, though they are a component because I am, afterall, apologizing for behavior I feel was inconsiderate to some degree. I don't think it stops there because I don't demonstrate this instinctive apology behavior with anyone else. When out with close friends and family members I am more likely to stare at them and call them on their behavior than to actually apologize to the person. Although I will usually give a half smile and look of sympathy if eye contact is made with the victim. No, I've realized that the reason apologizing is an automatic when I am with Chris is because it's an automatic for my own behavior. Even the casual bumping into someone's bag or hand as I pass them is something I stop and apologize for, even if they've continued on and haven't noticed.

Because Chris and I are emotionally bonded I view his actions, on some level, as an extension of my own. At least when we are together. And when Chris cuts someone off and we are hand in hand it is as though I have cut them off..even when he is leading and I am trailing behind. I find this delightful for some reason. Not that I think he'll find me apologizing for his misdeed any more enjoyable, and not that I think the realization will allow me to stop doing it. I think it's delightful because it's just another demonstration of how close we are as a couple.

At least that's the way I see it.

Four years is a lifetime.

It's strange: for four long years I asked myself what the hell I was doing, what the hell I'd gotten myself into, who the hell did I think I was, and what the hell was I thinking, and for four long years I kept imagining that I'd wake up back in Kansas and tell Auntie Em all about the crazy dream I'd had.

And now it's over. And now I feel like I'm going to wake up in the barracks, or on ship, or in a tent, or in a sleeping bag, a wonderful dream about getting out fading quickly.

And I suppose very soon now, it will all be over, the whole thing, and all of life will seem like an impossible dream, and I will shake my head wistfully and die.

Or maybe by then I will understand some things. Maybe by then I will have some certainty about something, maybe I'll be able to contextualize these last four years, and parse meaning. Maybe between now and then I will accrete wisdom, and I will see clearly the direction of life, or its trajectory, and be able to extract some cosmic profundity.

One can only hope.

It's hard to think about now. Too fresh, I guess. Gotta let it settle. It's too big. I have to step back and get some distance so I can see the whole thing.

Though I suppose with distance, some resolution gets lost. The visceral details will fade. Once I can hold it all in my head, I won't be able to feel it anymore.

I can still feel it now. I can still feel it all, and so I can feel the incredible relief that it's over. I can feel an even more incredible relief because my brothers are in Kuwait as I write this, waiting for a flight home.

I can still remember what it felt like, too, when we heard that Kyle had been hit.

The not knowing steals joy out of everything. I can't converse with anyone about anything else. Everything seems small, food tastes like helplessness, and nothing seems worth doing. Every idle moment is filled with agonizing thoughts of the impossibly violent motion of hulking masses of steel, of a sudden, high-pitched deafness, of smoke and confusion.

I feel guilty for laughing at things that are funny, and for trying to escape into distraction.

So I sit and discover that the hardest words to enter into a search box are: casualty, wounded, and KIA.

I stared at the ceiling for several hours last night, trying to parse what little information I had, trying to determine its reliability, and the reliability of what I could infer from it. I don't remember falling asleep, only waking from dreams that faded fast from memory except for flashes of light and the smell of cordite.

I can't help but feel like I should be there. I remember deciding that, given the choice, I couldn't watch my brothers walk into fire without me. I can't remember when it was that I changed my mind.

I remember that pretty clearly. But I remember something else that I didn't mention then: hope. I remember nursing the hope that he was ok anyway, or that maybe it really hadn't been him, that it had been someone else. It was painful, that hope, agonizing. Hope was what kept me awake and haunted my dreams.

But all my hopes came true. He was ok. It wasn't him. It was someone else. Kyle's coming home next week, with everything intact.

I understand now that to hope is a luxury, because you don't always get to.

Kathy's brief e-mail filled me with anxiety, because I knew it meant bad news. The next night when I finally got a hold of her, the grief in her voice was a crushing weight under which there was no room for hope.

Phillip Baucus was always full of hope. That's just the kind of guy he was. It was rare for him to show frustration, and he was always an encouragement, in his quietly deliberate way.

The single darkest moment in my life, darker even than losing my religion, was when some Iraqi children thought I was going to execute them.

By this time we're behind on our patrol schedule, and Sgt. W_____ tells me to just tell them to go somewhere. V_____ a little while later, also impatient, tells me to just kick them the fuck out, but, of course, neither of them have to look them in the eye and tell these people that they have to leave their house in the middle of the night because some violent foreign soldiers want to use it.

Exasperated, I close the door and when I turn back, two of the little girls start crying and they all hold their palms out toward me, begging me not to do something. When I realize they're asking me not to kill them, I almost cry. I realize exactly what we've done, and that they've all been terrified out of their minds this entire time, from the moment that fucking det cord went off.

"Peace, peace," I tell them as I sling my rifle behind me and take off my helmet.

All the exhaustion, all the pain and loneliness, all the moral uncertainty, and all of the doubts, all the madness, the anger, the frustration, the isolation, all of the misery I have accrued during this deployment hits me then like a blow to the chest, and suddenly I feel like the worst kind of person, who has done the worst kind of thing. Suddenly I'm sure that I've done more harm than good in this country, that this place would be better off had I stayed thousands of miles away.

I never imagined I could be the source of such abject terror, and I still want to cry when I think about it.

When they get outside, they're afraid to pass in front of our vehicles which are parked in front, so Lcpl B_____ offers to escort them past.

Before they go, I touch the woman's arm and tell her again:

"Aunt, I'm sorry."

She shows me a sad smile, places her right hand over her heart and tells me:

"I understand. It is not a problem. God be with you."

And those are the first words she has spoken that I understand entirely, and I am stunned.

After they're gone, I take post on the roof with B_____, and wracked with guilt and anger, I begin to chain-smoke cigarettes we bought from a local store a few days earlier.

B_____ tries to tell me it's not my fault, that I was only following orders, but I know better. What we've done here tonight is fucked up.

The B_____ stands for Baucus, Phil Baucus. Who else?

I'll admit that Phil was the butt of a lot of our jokes. It was just so easy. He was ridiculously tall and had this giant nose, and this almost pedantic drone and a way of mulling things over too long. But he had such an easy manner, he would always laugh along, and he enjoyed it as much as we did.

He never did fit quite right, though. I mean, none of us fit perfectly, and he got along with everyone, it's just: you could tell he didn't really belong. I realized later that it was because he belonged somewhere else.

I missed his funeral, but when I stopped in his hometown to see his ashes scattered, I could see him everywhere. I could see him in his parents' faces, hear him in his brother's voice, and his sister's laugh. I could see him on the ranch, herding sheep onto a flatbed, or riding an old horse, his gaze out on the horizon. I could see him leaning against a tree, with a pipe in his mouth and a book in his lap, or leaning on a fence with a cup of coffee, listening intently to his neighbor chatter at him.

I was amazed and haunted by how much he belonged there, envious that anyone could belong anywhere so thoroughly, heartbroken to see the gaping hole he left behind.

I saw my old buddy Kevin there. We stayed up late and reminisced, about how Phil would always invite us to go hang out with Kathy on weekends. Kevin would go sometimes, but I never did. We talked about how Phil would always bring me a case of Henry Weinhard's Root Beer on his way back to base, because it was hard to find, and I could never find it. We talked about how guilty we felt that we hadn't gone back with him, about how we couldn't help but think maybe we could've made it turn out differently. And we agreed that either of us would trade places with Phil in a heartbeat. Jesus said, "Greater love has no man than this..." but, honestly, it's not even a big deal, when you know someone like Phil.

He had an enormous heart, and he was killed by someone so full of blind hatred that he would lay down his life to take another. Greater hatred has no man than this, I think.

Phil taught me to look at stars one night, under a celestial canopy that only shows itself way out in the desert stillness. He showed me Orion and Cassiopeia, and gave me a little chart and showed me how to use it. That's how I choose to remember him: far from home but full of wonder, pointing at the sky.

I think Phil enlisted for some of the same reasons I did, for an uncommon experience, for the opportunity to travel, and to find some direction. I guess neither of us ever did. For four years I felt like I was in some sort of stasis, like my life was on pause, and that it was going to stay that way forever. But today's my Expiration of Active Service. So, I'd better start moving. And there's nowhere to go but forward, I guess. And forward is whichever way my toes are pointing.

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"Oh honey, stop it, he's blushing!" - Being a closeted, foreign student in Japan

I dreamed last night that some throw-away line I wrote on this journal was quoted on a popular blog in a post with a link to the original. Not because it was admired but because the blog author found it hilariously inaccurate. The people reading my dispatches from Japan in this dream were some varient on the Something Awful crowd; more intelligent, but with the same playfully vicious streak. They proceeded to tear into my writing with hundreds of sarcastic, scornful comments. I tried to apologize and that just earned me replies accusing me of being not merely ignorant, but an ignorant coward who wouldn't stand for his beliefs.

As I woke from the dream I was so angry and disappointed with myself I was going to delete the journal entirely, post by post. Then I realized it was six in the morning, nothing of the sort had actually happened, and I was merely making nightmares out of worries.

I think I've spoken in too many generalizations as I've been writing about Japan. Especially when I'm being critical. I've been reading a lot of Dostoyevsky the last few days and it's made me self-reflexive. When you're in a country where you understand so little, from the language to the manners to the way the doors work, there's a powerful impulse to find something that doesn't make you feel like a idiot clod. That can turn into superiority complexes. Picking out some flaw and harping on it salves your ego a bit.

I've probably been doing that these past two months. If you've found my posts strange or overly negative, if you've lived in Japan and things I've said don't jive with your own experience, or if I've ever sounded arrogant in talking about this country, I apologize.

So, onward.

At dinner today it came up that my host sister didn't know the story of Adam and Eve, so I told it to her with some help from my host mother. Explaining the concept of the Tree of Knowledge was a challenge, but I got it through. Then, since my host sister knew nothing about it, my host mother told her the Japanese creation myth, with the gods Izanagi and Izanami fashioning the Japanese islands by stirring the waters of chaos with a spear from the heavens.

The reason my host sister didn't know the creation myth was that such Shinto stories aren't often taught anymore. They've become associated with right-wing nationalism and chest-thumping war apologetics. My host family told me that the majority of children know little to nothing of ancient Japanese myths on this account. Contrary to the impression American media leaves, the Japanese I've met have found such bigoted polemics embarrassing. I might only be meeting the Japanese who are open-minded enough to approach and converse with a foreigner, though. Biased sample.

It is a little uncomfortable seeing all the signs around town put up by city hall that declare in English and Japanese that the North Kuril Islands will be returned to their proper Japanese ownership through national will.

I'm sure the Koreans are real chuffed to hear about Japanese national will.

Then again, it wasn't exactly courteous behavior on the Russians' part to forcibly deport several thousand Japanese residents of the Kurils. But then, Japan took the land from Russia as war booty. And the Ainu were stuck somewhere in the middle. They call this whole international clusterfuck "the fight between thieves."

After creation myths, the conversation somehow led to movies. My parents don't hold much stock by American hollywood movies, and I'm not going to contradict them, but I was a little surprised to learn that they held the movie Se7en in high esteem. It's one of my favorite movies too, so we had a lot to talk about. They didn't expect such a subtle and complex movie from the US. They described it as 'shibui,' a somewhat difficult to translate adjective that suggests restraint and poise. Japanese aesthetics from the Meiji-era onward puts a lot of emphasis on 'shibui' qualities (the Tokugawa-era before the nineteenth century produced shibui works of art and customs as well, but it only takes a brief look at Tokugawa sponsered temples to see that gaudiness and ostentation didn't have that bad a rap either).

I told them that there are actually plenty of American movies that could be described as 'shibui' (Memento and Silence of the Lambs spring to mind), but they're generally indie films. In contrast, Japan may pride itself on its shibui cinema, but it doesn't produce too many comedies, though there's a strong standup comedian tradition springing from the Kansai region. My host parents told me that the comedies that are made by the Japanese are indie films. I found the contrast interesting.

The conversation then meandered along to the subject of me getting married. I grew nervous, since I don't want to lie directly to my host family and I've been able to avoid doing so thus far, but at any moment the questions could turn from gender neutral ones, like what age I'd like to be married by or if I'd like kids, to more specific questions, like what sort of woman I like. I dodged the bullet when they asked me if I'd ever had a girlfriend before, because they used a word in Japanese that refers to a 'significant other' and can conceivably apply to either gender. I know it can because a friend of mine came out to her host family as bisexual and it's come up in their conversation. She's more daring than me in most ways. Don't mistake the nuance of the word, though. They're not being politically correct. I'm just getting lucky.

They misinterpreted my nervousness as discomfort with the subject in general, so my host family's impression is that I'm bashful about dating and women. But, and here's where the mystery starts for them, I also told them that I spent a summer sharing an apartment with a girl and that two of my roommates this coming year will be girls. They were shocked when I let this fact drop. They jumped straight to incredulous when I clarified that I was just friends with these girls. They explained that you simply do. not. share. an apartment. with members of the opposite sex in Japan.

So this mysterious American seems to be very shy about the topic of women and dating, but nonetheless does the unthinkable and lives with them on a regular basis. I can tell by the way they often poke at the subject indirectly that they're deathly curious how to reconcile the two trends.

I know I should just bite the bullet and come out to them, because I'm fairly certain they wouldn't take fault with me, but I'm more determined to keep them from feeling uncomfortable having me around their son and daughter than I'm determined to stay totally honest.

I'm trying to strike a balance between respecting my self and what I believe to be right and respecting others' boundaries. If people haven't done anything to offend me, and especially if they've been generous to me, I'm loath to make them feel uncomfortable.

And the lines around sexuality in this country are conflicting, intricately woven, and really difficult to follow. There are all these unexpected intersections between traditionalism, liberalism, and disinterest. Reading hardcore porn in public is okay but hugging a friend of the opposite sex isn't. Being completely naked in the public bath is okay but taking off your shirt when it's hot isn't. Having sex at a love hotel is okay but living with a friend of the opposite sex isn't. Watching gay romance anime is okay but introducing your same sex significant other isn't. It's confused and complicated.

Oh well, being so distracted with ambiguous answers to question about my sexuality, I don't even have time to worry about grammar or word usage. It's good practice for my Japanese, in any case.

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