The other day I decided to start clearing out the office section of my house. Before I got into it, our office supplies resided in several junk drawers strewn about the three floors of my house, with papers and staplers and sticky-notes and at least twelve workbooks issued by Texas public schools piled into bins and shoved into drawers and cabinets. As I was purging old papers, I discovered two old term papers from my International Relations undergraduate program, titled…
U.S. Humanitarian Intervention: The Legacy of Somalia, and NATO: A Comparison of the Post Cold War, Post 9/11 era and the Importance of the United States for the Future NATO Alliance. Shrug.
We got a lot of rain last night and early this morning, so the weather was unusually cool during my run. Now I’m alone at my kitchen table, still, at this late hour in the morning. My night owls are still in bed, Nick is upstairs getting his regular early start on Fortnite. I’m having coffee, listening to the birds outside, and it is grand.
Today is Memorial Day, which is a federal holiday honoring the sacrifice of service members who have died while serving in the military. This is not to be confused with Veteran’s Day, which celebrates the service of all military veterans. Later we’ll take a family outing to a war memorial in Asiatown, which is about a 30 minute drive in an area we visited often before the pandemic. The story of Houston’s Vietnam War Memorial is showcases how diverse a city Houston is.
Since it’s Memorial Day, I’m reminded of a mother in Staten Island, New York, who I met during my tour of duty at 6th Communication Battalion in 2011.
As part of the permanent active duty staff, all officers and staff non-commissioned officers were on a rotation to serve as the Casualty Assistance Calls Officer (CACO). In February 2011, a Personnel Casualty Report arrived in my boss’ inbox conveying only the most pertinent details of a Lance Corporal Omar Mendez (not his real name), killed in action as a result of a gunshot wound while on an dismounted patrol in Helmand Province, at time X, date Y.
Our administration section pulled up LCpl Mendez’s record and determined his parents were divorced, which required two sets of CACOs, one set to deliver the news to each parent. I was handed LCpl Mendez’s record, and set off in parallel with my Staff Sergeant assistant and the other set of CACOs, to change into my service dress blue uniform and find LCpl Mendez’ mother.
It was a typical overcast and gloomy February afternoon. As the Staff Sergeant and I drove through a light rain across the Verrazano Bridge, I thought about the Marine’s name, and wondered if his mom preferred Spanish to English. I wrote out a Spanish translation just in case my Spanish deserted me at the critical moment.
I had never been to Staten Island, but like many of New York’s Burroughs that seem worldly, diverse, and interesting in my head, it’s not until I’m there when I realize the urban thing is not for me. We found her apartment on the corner of a dreary street and parked close, but not too close. I got out of the car with a business card and an index card with my notes.
The Staff Sergeant and I waited at the front door of her apartment for what seemed like a while. In the event that she wasn’t home we would have gone back to the car and waited until we saw her. In these circumstances, the Marine Corps wants to notify next of kin first and as soon as possible, with condolences delivered in person. Since we did not know where she worked, if we had to sit there all day and wait for her, that’s what we were going to do.
“Yes?” She said to us as she walked up from behind us standing at her front door.
“Can we go inside?” I said. She let us inside, and there at the foyer, I began, “The commandant of the Marine Corps has entrusted me to inform you that your son, Lance Corporal Omar Mendez has been killed in action…”
I did not get through much the remaining dialogue. She threw herself on the couch and cried and screamed. Her 16-year-old son came out from a room in the house and was soon anguished as well. I left my card with her son and told them both we’d be in touch. What followed over the next seven days or so were several visits back to this mom and coordinating with the other CACO for LCpl Mendez’s dad, to talk through military funeral arrangements and benefits. We spent time in the funeral home hearing the family discuss arrangements and burial preferences, with family intermediaries relaying messages between mom and dad. LCpl Mendez had a big family and three brothers. Two were also Marines, his twin brother had been serving in Afghanistan at the same time he had been killed.
It occurs to me how surreal this must be for the families. LCpl Mendez had probably been in the Marine Corps, maybe two years. He had been in Afghanistan only a couple of months. He got the same send-off as many had before and many would after, but he just never came back. I remember on a separate occasion talking with a Gold Star mother at a community relations events representing 6th Comm. She talked about losing her son a few years back and how she’d come to get involved in the military community in New York.
“It’s hard some days. Some days I tell myself, ‘let’s pretend he’s still on deployment.’”
There’s a lot of other stories out there. These are mine. This is what Memorial Day is about.
Today I had virtual drill, which means I spent all day sitting in front of my computer and on Zoom calls. It wasn’t as bad as it sounds. Frankly, I had a good time. Since my husband has taken the main office on the first floor thanks to WFH, I moved my computer and things to the third floor when all this COVID stuff first started. It’s an ample space with windows everywhere and a constant flood of natural light. I also share this space with Nick, who has also been here, all day, playing Fortnite. While I thought this arrangement would be very annoying when I first moved my things up here, it’s actually fantastic because it means we spend time sharing the same space when I come up here to work. Some people might judge this as poor quality time. I disagree. Time is time, people. It’s Ordinary Time and it counts. I wrote about that here, if you care to know.
As part of what I worked on today, I was trying to offer advice on a training plan for a field exercise we have this summer. Naturally, the people organizing the training want their plan to meet several objectives and teach many things at once. I argued the point that since it’s a small scale event (and somewhat last minute), we should aim to teach only one thing, but teach it well. And I thought about how funny it is that in training, as in writing, people try to pile many ideas into one thing. I’ll explain.
When I was first learning how to really write as an adult, I used to flood my pieces with several ideas and too many modifiers. Or they would be too short as to be unfinished. The end result was not terrible, but the writing wouldn’t add up to much. The problem was– and I learned this only by producing lots of bad prose– is that the best writing is tight and complete. Often for a piece to be impactful, it can only express one single idea. It’s the depth of the idea that changes, but not the number or variety of ideas expressed in a single work. This applies to simple writing, like this blog post, or something more complex, like A Farewell to Arms. What is Hemingway’s masterpiece about, you ask? Well, it’s about a lot of things, sure. But it’s really about love and loss of the most profound. That’s it.
When Stephen King said writing is telepathy, this was brilliant. I would go a step further and say teaching or communication of any kind is telepathy. Which is exactly why a single idea is so powerful. And limited. Because how much new, earth shattering information can we really process in one sitting?
“The Firm should be a place to work that exudes class. This means that the associates (whose workloads are arduous) should be treated generously and supported well.”
D. Ronald Daniel, Daniel on McKinsey
Today is Friday. I missed my window to run this morning in exchange for a trip to the grocery store for some staples such as, coffee! And milk! And paper towels! I complimented my cashier’s floral print face mask.
“Thanks,” she said. “My grandmother made it.”
I mentioned in a previous post that my reserve unit started activating people to support New England in handling the Coronavirus pandemic. As of yesterday, that activation has been canceled. For anyone reading this who is not connected to the reserves, canceling an activation sounds like no big deal. It sounds as simple as flicking on and off a light switch. But activating a reservist is more like booting up an old computer. When you push that big round button on the CPU, you can hear the little machines inside start to whir and beep, and see green lights flicker and watch commands flash across the screen. A minute or two later (probably longer I don’t remember), that computer is ready to do some work. Activating a reservist is more like that.
This past summer I received 30 days notice for a seven month activation. My “booting up” involved my husband saying to his boss, ‘Oh, hi boss, just letting you know my wife’s been activated so I’ll need to be more hands-on at home while she’s away thanks for understanding,’ and my mom telling her boss, ‘Oh hi boss I know I just signed a contract to work another year but can I do it remotely? My daughter just got activated and I have to move to Houston, thanks.’
When I did finally arrive to my appointed place of duty it became clear that my role—my team—did not have a clearly defined mission. In total, I can account for two-three months of idle time.
The other side of this is going through the booting up process and someone just pulls the plug out of the wall. Mission canceled.
There is something to be said for being a reserve force in readiness, as in, we are ready to “boot up” at the whim of our nation’s call because it’s our patriotic duty. We’re volunteers, after all. But there’s also something to be said for treating people with respect, as in, the organization respects the fact there are people on the other end with families and lives and jobs. Sometimes involuntary mobilizations and false starts can’t be avoided. But I get the sense that sometimes, some staff officer out there just sees rows of CPUs with big round buttons ready to push.
It’s late now, almost 10pm. I’m sitting with Penny in her bed watching My Little Pony on the iPad. I know. The bedtime routine has gone out the window.
We are all dreading tomorrow which is Monday, because it’s more of the same except with the added pressure of virtual work for Steve, and virtual school for the kids and I. Penny burst out crying tonight about how she doesn’t get to see her friends anymore. I know how she feels. I woke up this morning, too early, with a vague sense of despair. I got out of bed and went up to my office on the third floor. I worked on my manuscript and journaled and wrote some things that on second glance sound harsh and I guess that happens sometimes. Have I mentioned that my unit is mobilizing reservist to support efforts to fight Coronavirus? It’s crazy- a windfall maybe if, like so many people right now, your job is in a precarious spot.
Tonight we FaceTimed with my parents which was really nice. I need to video chat with people more often. My parents are well and in good spirits. My mom said that she had felt sad at times because since Coronavirus she’s not able to travel and see the people she loves, like my kids and my sister, and relatives in Colombia. We were in the middle of planning a vacation to Cartagena in celebration of her 60th birthday when this blew up. It’s funny how even the little events keep you going, like the kids going off to school, or baseball practice, and you don’t realize it until there’s nothing there. Now I look forward to the activity on my social media feeds. I just finished a good ebook and audio book and I’m missing looking forward to popping open my Kindle app. Funny now, how the things you barely notice in normal life can mean so much.