Why It’s Okay To Mourn, To Cry For, The Passing Of Strangers

Many silly things are written when celebrities die. One is that you cannot speak ill of the dead. Another is that you cannot mourn for those whom you did not know personally. A variant of this is that visible expressions of grief for those you did not have personal acquaintance with are ersatz, inauthentic, a kind of posturing.

The folks who make the former claim are simply clueless about the nature of the public life. The latter are clueless about how emotion works, about the nature and importance of symbolism and its role in our memories, and thus our constructed self.

Consider for instance that I tear up on the following occasions:

  1. Watching this musically mashed-up tribute to Carl Sagan;
  2. Watching a Saturn V rocket lift-off (or reading about the death of Gus Grissom, Ed White, and Roger Chaffee while testing Apollo 1);
  3. Watching fighter jets at an airshow, or indeed, even listening to the roar of a fighter jet’s afterburners as they are lit.

I did not know Carl Sagan personally. I did not know any of the astronauts on the Gemini and Apollo programs. I did not know Grissom, White, or Chaffee personally. I do not know any of the pilots who perform at airshows or whom I have seen taking off on many occasions. Indeed, one might ask, why tear up when watching or listening to any of these things? Man up! Be authentic! Stick to the known and the personal.

Sorry, no can do. Carl Sagan was an important influence on my education and philosophical and intellectual orientation as a child; to watch that little mash-up of Cosmos is to remember my childhood, one spent with my parents, watching Cosmos on Sundays at home. And my father was a pilot who flew fighter jets; I watched the Apollo 11 documentary with him as a child. My parents are no more. Need I say more about why I tear up when I undergo the audio-visual experiences listed above? Planes, rockets, astronauts, men with crew-cuts, memories of the moonrise. How could I not?

The emotions we feel are wrapped up in the deepest recesses of our selves; they reflect memories accumulated over a lifetime, traces of experiences, formative and supposedly insignificant alike. This is why, of course, when we listen to music, we can conjure up, seemingly effortlessly, a mood, an atmosphere, a remembrance, a time long gone. Music is perhaps the Proustian Madeleine par excellence. We listen to music when we read, write, walk, run, make love, work out, play, talk to our friends–the list goes on. We grow up with music; it becomes associated with our lives and its distinct stages. We listen to some songs again and again; they become almost definitive of a particular self of ours.

So when a musician dies, one whose music we have listened to on countless occasions, it is natural to feel bereft; we have lost part of ourselves.

To ask that we confine our expressions of sympathy and sorrow to only those we know personally is indeed, not just ignorant, but also morally dangerous; it bids us narrow our circle of concern. No thanks; I’d rather feel more, not less.

The Pleasures Of Comfort Reading

We eat comfort food when we are sick, angry, depressed, or unhappy: chicken soup, chocolates, <insert your own, idiosyncratic favorite here>, substances that satisfy cravings which tap into some deep nexus of the mind and body and momentarily elevate our mood. Comfort food is comfortable because it is ‘easy’; it does not tax you unduly; it provides readily accessible pleasure; it goes down smoothly, bringing you up as it does so. Like comfort food, there is comfort reading too. Everyone has their own varietal.

Last Thursday, a bacterial infection that has, on and off over the past three weeks, subjected me to a sore throat, fever, body aches, a runny nose and eyes, and which I have subjected to two courses of antibiotics, returned with a vengeance. All too soon, I found myself canceling trips to the gym and social engagements, and retreating to the safety and comfort of my bed. There, unable to sleep, I turned to the most visible and tangible source of comfort: a good read.

My tastes in comfort reading follow well-established patterns: books on cricket; fiction by authors whose work I’ve read before; narrative, ‘trade’ or ‘popular’ history; and lastly, a perennial, military history. It was to this group, and to a particular subset of its offerings–military aviation–that I turned to this past weekend. With a slight twist.

For many years now, I’ve owned the last vestiges of my father’s book collection. (It deserves a blog post of its own, which I will write someday soon.) For the time being, it suffices to note that that collection includes two autobiographical accounts by pioneering test pilots: Neville Duke and Mike Lithgow.   The former’s Test Pilot and the latter’s Mach One, have long adorned my shelves; for some reason, I’d put off reading them ever since I brought them back from India a few years ago (after an extended quasi-archaeological rummaging through my brother’s garage.)

On Friday their day had come. I could not read Cass Sunstein on analogical reasoning in the law or Larry Alexander on being constrained by precedent in legal decision-making; I could not concentrate on Seneca‘s nostrums for a good life; I could not stare at a page of Mussolini expounding on fascism; I did not feel like hacking through a ninety-thousand word assemblage of notes and comments and semi-coherent writing. But I did think I could read, again, like I used to when I was a schoolboy, about pilots, and the machines they flew. I was ready to be transported again to familiar spaces in the mind.

Duke and Lithgow are now long gone (the latter in an aviation accident in 1963); in my father’s time, when he was a newly commissioned fighter pilot in the Indian Air Force, their stories–about service in the Second World War, followed by flight testing work on the new generation of jets–must have served as inspiration and edification alike. The inscriptions in these books indicate my father bought them on 3rd May 1955 at the International Book Depot in Bombay; some sixty years later, in Brooklyn, I finally read them. It was a curious occasion on which to reconnect with my father, but there was no quibbling with the manner in which I did so.

Of Pilots’ Comrades And Young Imaginations

On Father’s Day, like last year, I posted a photograph of my father on Facebook. This one shows him as a young pilot, standing in his flying overalls next to a fighter jet; he stands proud and erect, carrying his flying helmet tucked under his arm. Here it is: the man, his steed, the glamour of fighter pilots and flying, captured in vivid black and white. It is a photograph that can easily serve as the stuff of legend for a young boy–as it did for me.

I’ve written here, briefly, about the effect my father, a fighter pilot who fought in two wars, had on me. That photograph encapsulates part of the reason why he was able to exercise such a hold over his sons’ imaginations. (All that is missing is the sound of the jet engines; their high-pitched start-up, their roar on ‘lighting up’, their flames trailing from their fiery exhausts.) It captures, statically, one of the many, many moments of scarcely plausible derring-do, flair, and élan I will always associate with my father.

Some part of the fighter pilot’s glamor and style was captured–for me–in the interactions these dashing swashbucklers had with each other, their comrades and mates in the air and on the ground. There was talk of flying, their hands and arms, sometimes with a beer mug held in one, tracing out aerial maneuvers with the expertness of a dancer executing a complex interpretive move; there were jokes and repartee; their camaraderie–a bond forged through training, close companionship, and a shared participation in an often dangerous activity–plain to see for all.

I saw many such meetings and interactions. One, in particular, stands out, its remembered details clear as ever.

In 1975, our family piled into our loyal car, a venerable Fiat 1100D, and set off on an epic road-trip up to Kashmir and back. We drove through plains and hills and valleys, up into the mountains and down again; we picnicked, we hiked, we walked, we swam; we stayed with family, we spent nights in ‘rest-houses’ and ‘forest bungalows’; and thanks to my father’s military service, we sometimes stayed in air force bases.

One fine day, we drove into an air force base in Avantipur (Jammu and Kashmir). We would take a brief break, eat brunch at the officer’s mess, and then carry on. We were met–for my father knew some of the base’s residents from the academy or from previous postings–by a bunch of pilots returned from their morning flying. The greetings were uproarious; there was vigorous handshaking and backslapping aplenty; many stories were quickly swapped–the roar of jets taking off and flying overhead provided the appropriate soundtrack. My mother, my brother, and I gazed upon the scene: crew-cut men in flying overalls, still sweat soaked from the cramped cockpits they had occupied a little while ago, wearing aviator’s sunglasses, talking about their trade. These initial interactions over, we made our way to the mess for food. There, sitting on its lawn in glorious sunshine, we watched fighter jets coming in to land; their wheels would kiss the tarmac, the nose would drop down, the colorful landing chute would flare as the mighty aircraft would continue its deceleration toward its eventual resting spot.

It has been forty years since; I still feel like a boy when I think about that day, that sunshine, those men.

Military Brats And Shoe Shines

A good shoe shine isn’t easy to pull off. You have to do a preliminary cleaning of the shoe first: a removal of the dust and grime that has accumulated on the shoe’s precious leather exterior, perhaps with a cloth or with a spare brush. Then, you apply the polish itself with another small brush with dense, closely packed bristles. Not the one you just used for dusting; that will still have some dirt on it which will stick to the greasy polish and will be transferred back to the shoe. (If you’ve been careful in your storage of the polish, that is, you’ve kept the can carefully closed, the polish will not have dried up and become useless.) This initial application done, the actual shine can begin. A larger brush with broader, softer bristles should be used. The last touch–one only used by those who desire the kind of gleam in their shoes that you could check your reflection in–is to use a soft cotton rag to deliver one final buffing. (Incidentally, while some shoe shine kits come with such rags, I’ve found old undershirts work best.)

As this description of the shoe shine process should indicate, I have some familiarity with it. And I continue to take pride in stepping out for the day wearing a well-polished pair of boots. Over the past twenty years or so, I’ve worn Doc Martens, Blundstones and Dickies boots; I think I’m justified in explaining their long lives–several years for each pair–on my feet as being partly due to not just their sturdy manufacture, but also my diligent care of their exteriors.

This attitude of mine is, in large part, due to the fact that I am a military brat, the offspring of an air force pilot, someone who took acute care to make sure his precious flying boots looked ready for action every time he stepped into an aircraft cockpit. This attention to appearance, this external manifestation of an inner discipline, he sought to convey to his sons, teaching them that to look sloppy and slovenly in manner and dress was to be sloppy and slovenly in other aspects of our lives too (and perhaps in our minds too). A school uniform was not one if its wearer sported dusty and dirty shoes. My father taught us how to spit and shine, how to make sure we stepped out in style, taking pride in  pair of well-shined shoes. This was not preening or strutting; this was simple self-esteem made manifest.

Over the years, I let many of my father’s lessons about dress and decorum fade away. I grew my hair long, I got tattoos, I wore jeans and shirts with holes in them; I disdained ties and never learned to knot one; I own only one suit, purchased twenty-fours ago, which I trot out for weddings; I walked around in shorts and sandals; I was often sloppy and unkempt.

But somehow, I never reconciled myself to wearing dusty, beat-up shoes that looked like they hadn’t been shined in months.

Bowe Bergdahl and the Military: An Unhappy Marriage

Bowe Bergdahl has always been a very interesting young man. As this profile by Kirk Johnson and Matt Furber makes clear, he carried around with him, as interesting people invariably do, a divided self, one drawn in several different directions all at once. Some psychic currents pulled him in the direction of spirituality and bookish solitude, others toward the outdoors, and yet others toward guns and adventure and traditional models of masculinity. These competing forces were enough to set up internal swirls and eddies, making his outward actions increasingly complicated, and setting him on an almost certain collision course with his employer, that bastion of hierarchical control: the military.

Many young men join the armed forces not because they want to go to war, but because they want to partake of certain benefits and pleasures that only the military can provide. (My father and my brother joined an air force because they wanted to fly. And they didn’t want to fly just airliners.) Some do it so they can travel, some to earn a college degree and marketable skills. And some, like Bergdahl perhaps, sense that the military might allow for a marriage of previously entertained passions. In this case, Bergdahl might have thought he would be able to traverse all manners of new landscapes, in the company of comrades, perhaps fulfilling a humanitarian mission of sorts, all the while equipped with gun and grenade.

We don’t know what caused Bergdahl to desert, or ‘go native’, or lose his bearings and allow himself to be captured. But we can guess at what might have gone wrong out there in Afghanistan. Perhaps, well aware of the histories of US and Afghanistan, and the manner of his use by the US Army, he had become possessed by the feeling that his mission was not as noble or well-defined or morally unambiguous as he might have imagined. More problematically, for a soul as restless as his, so used to questioning and inquiring, he would have found the military’s brooding indifference to his turmoil especially galling. This indifference would have been manifest not just in his superiors and the procedures they followed, but also in his comrades, many of whom would have better internalized the military’s expectations of them, and thus would have wanted nothing more than to complete their tours of duty quietly and return home.

The military, and war, can very often make men like Bergdahl into misfits. They find themselves out of place, literally and figuratively, their moral compass disoriented; even the vaunted camaraderie of the uniformed can seem a shallow cover-up for ugly deeds. They might expect mentorship from their superiors and only find unrelenting control and domination. Unsurprisingly, some snap–as Bergdahl might have.

Bergdahl’s re-entry to civilian life is likely to be very complicated. His older relationships need considerable reconfiguration and he might yet be punished–with varying degrees of punitiveness–by the Army. In any case, when the smoke has cleared, one can only hope he will write about his experiences. I look forward to reading his story.

A Smoking Career, Suspended

A New York Times article that wonders, ‘Why Smokers Still Smoke‘ set me to thinking: Why did I smoke? For as long as I did?

I smoked my first cigarette in my teen years. My father smoked, as did many of the men–all Air Force pilots–that I idolized. There was glamour and masculinity written all over the act. I loved the smell of cigarette smoke mingled with Old Spice cologne.

Buying cigarettes was easy; the shops that sold them cared little for ID’ing their customers. Disguising the smell wasn’t, so I took refuge in sucking on mints and chewing betelnuts. But I got caught–by my mother. It didn’t stop me, of course. I still smoked the occasional cigarette in high school, and then in university, began smoking every day. My consumption hovered at the half-a-dozen a day for those years, sometimes rising to ten a day. I didn’t buy packs of cigarettes, but like most students, bought them ‘loose’, in singles or pairs. Our budgets just didn’t permit the pack. Indeed, I didn’t begin to purchase packs until after moving to the US and commencing graduate school.

Four years after moving to the US, I tried to quit smoking. I was three months short of my twenty-fifth birthday. On New Year’s Day 1991, I stopped. I stayed tobacco-free for more than two years, surviving 1991, 1992 and the first five months or so of 1993. Then, on a hike in the Himalayas, I stopped at a mountaineering expedition’s base camp and the porters, after a hearty and friendly conversation, offered me a beedi. I accepted. I don’t know why. Perhaps, at that moment, overcome by euphoria and the friendship on display, I felt I couldn’t decline. My defenses had been breached. A few weeks later, during a long train journey through India, I smoked again. I had fallen off the wagon.

But from then on, my smoking was always sporadic; I was always in between attempts at quitting. I began my doctoral studies in the fall of 1993 and smoked heavily the first year, all the while regretting it. I quit in 1994 for a few weeks; I tried again in 1995 and 1996. In 1997, I succeeded again, staying off cigarettes till I had finishing my Ph.D in 2000. But on the day of my successful defense, drunk and disordered, I smoked again. I was off the wagon once more.

I moved to Australia after my Ph.D and quit several more times. Each of these episodes lasted days or weeks, never months. In 2001, I quit for a few months before starting again, as I struggled to cope with the stress of my job hunt.  In 2002, during a trip to Tokyo for a conference, an Australian graduate student urged me to throw away my half-full pack of Marlboros. I did, and stayed off cigarettes for a few months. In 2003, I began again. My girlfriend smoked.

In November 2003, we went away for a weekend to Cape May. My father’s 68th birth anniversary fell during that weekend. On that day, the two of us awoke and set out for breakfast. On the way, we stopped at a local bookstore, and I bought a biography of a US Navy pilot. As I did so, my girlfriend asked me if I was paying tribute to my father. I hadn’t thought of it that way, but it was probably true. A few minutes later, we arrived at our diner. In those days, you could still smoke indoors in eating establishments. Our coffees arrived, and we reached for our cigarettes. At that moment, I thought that this day seemed like as good a day as any other to quit smoking. So I did. My girlfriend–who is now my wife–quit for good a few months later.

I haven’t smoked cigarettes since.  The pattern I noticed in my quitting and restarting was that initially, I fell off the wagon because I was trying to celebrate something; later, I responded adversely to stress. But once I had tried to quit and succeeded for as long as I did, it became clear to me I didn’t want to smoke. So every cigarette from there on became a mark of failure, one I vainly attempted to disguise. It didn’t work and my compulsion to quit, even if almost always unsuccessful, remained strong.

I still fear the damage I did to my body all those years; perhaps I haven’t escaped tobacco’s cancerous embrace. For now, I’ll just hope I’ve managed to dodge the bullet.

Shrapnel is Still Deadly, No Matter Where It Strikes

Many years ago, while talking to my father and some of his air force mates, I stumbled into a conversation about munitions.  There was talk of rockets, shells, casings, high-explosive rounds, tracer bullets, napalm, and all of the rest. Realizing I was in the right company, I asked if someone could tell me what ‘shrapnel’ was. I had seen it mentioned in many books and had a dim idea of what it might have been: it went ‘flying’ and it seemed to hurt people. Now I had experts that would inform me. A pilot, a veteran of the 1971 war with Pakistan, someone who flown had many ground-attack missions, spoke up. He began with ‘Shrapnel is the worst thing you can imagine’ and then launched into a quick description of its anti-personnel raison d’être. He finished with a grim, ‘You don’t have to get hit directly by a shell to be killed by it.’

I was a child, still naive about war despite my steady consumption of military history books, boy’s battle comics and my childhood in a war veteran’s home. So it wasn’t so surprising that my reaction to how shrapnel worked, what made it effective was one of bemused surprise. So those beautiful explosions, the end-result of sleek canisters tumbling from low-flying, screaming jets describing aggressive trajectories through the sky, those lovely flames capped off by plumes of smoke with debris flying gracefully to all corners, were also sending out red-hot pieces of jagged metal, which, when they made contact with human flesh, lacerated, tore, and  shredded? I had no idea. Boom-boom, ow?

As the aftermath of the Boston bombings makes clear, shrapnel is still deadly:

Thirty-one victims remained hospitalized at the city’s trauma centers on Thursday, including some who lost legs or feet. Sixteen people had limbs blown off in the blasts or amputated afterward, ranging in age from 7 to 71….For some whose limbs were preserved…the wounds were so littered with debris that five or six operations have been needed to decontaminate them.

This nation has now been at war for some twelve years. In that period of time, we have grown used to, and blase about, impressive visuals of shock-and-awe bombing, cruise missile strikes, drone attacks, and of course, most pertinently to Americans, the improvised explosive device, planted on a roadside and set off remotely. What is common to all of these acts of warfare is that at the business end of all the prettiness–the flash, the bang, the diversely shaped smoke cloud–lies a great deal of ugliness. Intestines spilling out, crudely amputated limbs, gouged out eyes; the stuff of medieval torture tales. Because shrapnel is indiscriminate, it goes places and does things that even horror movie writers might hesitate to put into their scripts: slicing one side off a baby’s head, or driving shards deep into an old man’s brains.

Weapons work the same way everywhere; the laws of physics dictate that they do. Human bodies are impacted by them quite uniformly too; the laws of human physiology dictate that.

Flesh and flying hot metal; there’s only one winner, every single time.