I was seated at a table, small round, covered in the familiar green felt that I had come to dread. The room was in neutral colors, beige paint on textured walls. The room was rimed in the dark cherry oak that you would find in our grandfathers studies. The room reeked of cigars, its pungent left over smell and its slight discoloration of the ceiling would be nauseous if not edged by the glass of scotch in front of me, filling my nostrils and flooding my senses with something better. I glance around the room and recognize the leather chairs, reading tables and bar for what it is, a famed Republican hangout. A place of old men sipping bourbon and smoking illegal cigars, where decision are made and discussion take place that will move the country. A place of power; A place of control, a place where those who sat before me knew the rules, and would change them when they did not fit. I blink, the view blurs and as I bring it into focus I see the glass in front of me. It is half empty; a pessimistic truth that came from an optimistic beginning, the glass was full of Glenlivet. As my eyes focus I see the bottle on the other side of the green felt, a similar glass in front of him, slightly more full I should say. There is card stuck to the bottle, slightly eschew, it is a queen of spades. I am mesmerized by the card. Then I am aware that I too am holding a card to my forehead. I have no idea what it is, yet I will continue to bet. The bottle of scotch looks at me, taunting me. Yet I know it is a game, a card game, it has rules, and rules bring equality. As I look at my bet, I notice the small reflection in the glass in front of my opponent, it is hard to make out but it is the card on my forehead. As if it can read my mind the bottle laughs at me, he knows the rules, I do not.If a tree falls in the forest and no one is there to hear it, does it make a noise? If a game has rules to level the playing field, and one of the players does not know the rules, are there really any rules. It is clear that I have been out classed by this piece of glass across from me. The reflection becomes clearer and I see the four of hearts stuck high on my forehead. I laugh, a sad laugh, and reach for my glass and take a long pull. The bottle has done it again; it has beaten an opponent that doesn’t know the rules. The room around me blurs and fades into my neighborhood, into my dining room where I sit glass still in hand. The dining room blurs to a collage of my past and present. I see the bets that I have made ignorant of the rules; ignorant of the second and third order affects. I laugh again, slightly harder this time as I realize the truth. I have placed myself on the altar of self pity and I have drank deep from the wells of despair. The control I envisioned around me, and of me is gone. I have wished it to be with a passion that made it almost real, then the bottle looks across the table at me, waiting for me to ante up. Reality slides away, or is it the other way around and my world drifts into reality. I am the fiction writer constantly amazed that there are no dragons.I stand from the table and turn to walk away, knowing that it is impossible for me to let it go. Our illusions are everything, they are my everything. I look back, and feel the emotion rise up from somewhere deep, somewhere where childhood dreams still live, and I come crashing back to the table swinging my arm in a sweeping arch sending glass, cards and the bottle to the air. With defining shatter all smashes against the hard wood floors of the Capitol Hill lounge. I blink, and sit up. The room is dark and I am breathing way too hard. Ripping the covers off of me I swing my legs out of bed and take the three large steps to my bathroom sink and splash water on my face. It is but a dream, a reminder of the effort that I must put forth everyday to maintain control; to maintain my illusions of control. I breathe a little calmer; the cold water has felt good. I turn and head back to bed, fully aware now of where I am. I lie down and reach over to turn off the light, and that is when I see the empty glass looking at me.
The world swings awkwardly on its hinges, almost as if you could hear the creaking in the plaster of the night sky. I have felt every move, no different than that of a small boat at sea. Your stomach lifts with each swing and your heart freezes as the old adage of equal and opposite reactions crashes into your soul. So bereft of any emotional ties to another holiday, I am in my room contemplating a religious festival that is cheerfully being celebrated outside my door by the American Special Forces soldiers that have somehow managed to produce bottles of Johnny and Jack. The small fire is a little larger this evening, as is the volume of the conversations. These men have seen things that others would best forget, they have been places that god does not walk, and yet almost all of them to a man believe. They believe deeper than I care to admit to. They believe, yet they also hate. They dislike the people that they are forced to live and work with. To see their efforts diminished and disappear every time they return. Forced to start over, forced to deal with the same problems and norms that set the Iraqi man from us. They are ignorant of Islam and despise its perceived tenets. Though in good fashion and discipline they are professional enough not to allow these opinions to affect their work, as we operate side by side and through the Iraqi Emergency Response Brigade.
They are tired and discouraged, they have been taken to the mat by time and wear, yet they are not defeated. You cannot defeat men such as these. They will never lose; it is not an option that they are willing to even consider. So they continue on, venting to the youngest of the officers in their midst. They vent in the form of cynicism and snide remarks meant to hurt those around them that are not strong enough to take it. They push back against the orders that are passed down to them by those that forget to think before they hit send on the email. The war is over, and their blood as not been for the glories and success that they had hoped for. So, they forget the past, and ignore the future as they toast each other in the form of stories. Crazy stories that would scare the shit out of you, but only make them laugh, though their laughter is hedged with melancholy and sadness. Tones that only those looking for them will hear, as I do from the steps to my room.
Normalcy; in the past ten or so years I believe that I have lost the definition of the word. I have not lived a normal life. I have chosen to live what I hope one day I will perceive as exceptional, though today as I sit here and write this, I do not believe it is so. I am the most passive man that I know. Yet, there is no task that I have shied away from; there is no enemy that I have not pursued. There is no ring that I have not climbed into. And yes my stories have been told in a tall fashion, they are mostly truth. At 29 I am tired, so very tired. Tired of dealing with the expectation of exceptionalism, tired of others not meeting my reality, tired of my reality being just outside of my grasp. This exhaustion drives me to dream of the ocean. To drift into the darkest corners of my mind and set sail on some adventure that is the wind and sun. The dreams are grander than the reality. I am strong enough to admit that, I am strong enough to know that I will never meet my own expectations.
After some time, I will do as all others and I drift towards the fire. Drink in hand and a stoic face that will light up in smile when I am recognized and greeted. When I shake the hands of those that have gone to hell with me, when I grasp the men that hold my life in their hands, then I too will tell the lies that are my reality. The sunrises above the waning fire and begins is slow crossing of the sky and the men trickle away to their rooms. Today will be no different from the last or the next and the possibilities of what it will bring and what we will endure are endless. I to return to my room just as the morning call to prayer is sounded. On the inside, I smile as I recognize the irony of the music of the minarets. I shut the door and lay there awake…
Tonight I will try and find a conclusion to the initial question posed to me over a skype phone call from thousands of miles away. What do I care for, which somehow translated into what do I value, or rather how much do I value? I believe that at some point I started thinking too hard about such a simple question. One that required almost no thought, but rather a gut response. Though my first answer or attempted answer is true and valid, I think that somehow I missed the mark. That in the absence of an available metric from which to measure my willingness to sacrifice, that I missed the most important part of the question. The intangible desire to ensure that they are ok, that the bonds that exist are not shattered. It is from this revelation that I will attempt to summarize an answer that I have found to be complex and intangible.
The simple fact is that every email, phone call, and personal interaction that I have had since this quest of the mind, has reminded me that the number of things that I care about are uncountable. Not to say that it would be any easier to describe for you the things that I do not care about, but rather that the world is too full of the little things, of family, of interesting things for us to go out and find, and most of all the connections that we make. So, for a moment let’s talk about connectivity. Connectivity, a term referred to in the highest levels of academia in relation to globalization, can also have such a personnel and pointed meaning as well. The barista at the nearest Green Bean, to the friend that you share all of your sins with, are all connections that you make, some with more value than others but none the less, they are there. Now the metrics come into play. And it is this failure to have any distinguishable markers is what makes my statements so difficult. I have no clue what I am capable of in defense of that or those that I care about, I have not had to truly push the limits of what I am willing to do. That being said, it is safe to say that given what I do for a living, woe be it to those that choose to take from me something that I value.
My friends, my comrades-in-life, my comrades-in-arms, my blood, all have intrinsic value to me that is undeniable, and yes I could spend pages describing to you the values that each represent that I desire and will pay for with my time and effort, but it is suffice to say that you too share similar people and friends. So, an answer that is going to hurt to write is that I care about humanity, or at least the portions of humanity that are connected to me. I value the conversations, the gentle touch, the friendly tease, and even the smart-ass response, and maybe the occasional punch, but only from those that I hold in some regards. This is where it gets tricky. I value humanity only in direct proportion that it has value to me. Yes, I can see your eyes rolling, as you pull up quotes of Ayn Rand, but there it is. I am not unconditional, nor am I selfless service. Though I am conditional and I will serve, I have value, enough value that those who know me, love me, or respect me will understand that they know, love, and respect me because of the values that I bring to the table. The barter mans trade on what I care for, should scare some of you, especially my do-gooder friends as I call them. Though, if they were to read this page I would remind them of the values that they display and hold that make me want to know, love, and respect them.
I can see now that I have gotten off topic. What do I care about? Well, I still am not sure, though recently I believe what I care about is changing. This past week an ex-girlfriend moved to Iraq. She is small and beautiful, with such a brilliant mind, and I found myself for the first time feeling protective of something that is not mine to be protective of. She is more than capable of getting by on her own, but that was not enough for me. I have a specialized skill set that is designed for Baghdad and she does not. Somehow, this was translated into giving her rules, advice, and objects that I think will better prepare her for this environment. Why would I do this, well for one, I care for her. For another, this caring manifested itself into a concern or worry that could be partially alleviated if I knew that she would respond to events in a certain way. Maybe this is the natural progression of things.
So, I guess, protective feelings, connectivity, the small things, all placed together could get me very quickly to world peace and ending poverty. Then as I finally approach this inevitable position of the modern intellectual elitist, I remember that I also feel that there are numerous people on this earth that should be the home for stray bullets. And I also know that the sins that I have committed will out way any single serving sentence of a do-gooder.
Tonight as it snows in DC it rains in Baghdad, as the streets close down and the city grinds to a halt in DC so to does it in Baghdad. The mud is thick and will stop you in your tracks as you muck your way to work. It was on a similar dreary night that I watched a young girl turn on her father. Her testimony was enough to have me and those that work with come and pick him up. He was an AQI Ameer and responsible for some of the more recent attacks in the city, responsible for the deaths of tens of innocent. In her anger she sentenced him to death, though I am sure this is not what she intended. I remember the night not so much for the man that we were detaining but rather for the difficulty in walking to and from anywhere in the mud that was created by the rains. Specifically the way he and his two sons were covered in the mud as we made our way to our trucks. Iraqi mud is different, it is thick, yet with the ability to splash and dry onto anything. As I walk back to my room this morning as the sun tries to break through the clouds that are still drizzling, I must watch my footing stepping up into my room, no different that climbing back into the truck.