Thursday, September 20, 2007

Wedon'tdothat [Bryan]

I recently read a story that I have been unable to get out of my mind. It has haunted my thoughts and dreams. It is both tragic and inspiring. The story is from the autobiographical account of one man's experience during World War II. The writer is the famous German novelist Gunter Grass. It recently surfaced, to nearly everyone's consternation, that the beloved author was actually a member of the infamous Waffen SS -- Hitler's elite stormtroopers. Although he struggles to remember the details, his account of his time during the war is fascinating reading. Here is the part that I just cannot forget:
Day after day in the morning drill, we went through a ceremony conducted by the corporal in charge of weapons, a man who looked serious on principle. He handed them out, we grabbed them. It goes without saying: every member of the Labor Service was to feel honored by the touch of the wood and metal, the butt and barrel of the carbine in his hands....We thought of ourselves as engaged, if not quite married, to the 98 carbine.

Though I make a point of using “we” here, there was an exception to that rank-and-file, somewhat facile plural. This exception was a lanky boy who was so blond and blue-eyed, and whose profile revealed a skull so elongated that the likes of him could be found only in propaganda promoting the Nordic race. Chin, mouth, nose, forehead—each was the epitome of “racial purity.” .... No one could beat him in long-distance running; no one could match his daring when leaping over musty ditches or his agility when clambering over a wall. He could do fifty knee bends without getting tired. There was nothing, no flaw, to sully the picture. But what made him an exception was that he—his name eludes my memory—was an insubordinate: he refused to take part in rifle drill; worse still, he refused to take butt or barrel in hand; and, worst of all, when our dead-earnest drill instructor pressed the carbine on him, he would drop it. Which made him or his fingers criminal.

With the spade, a basic utensil for everyone in the Labor Service, he did all that he was ordered to do. He would also have received top marks in camaraderie. He was the friendly, good-natured type, always ready to help, and he never complained. Upon request, he would give his comrades’ boots such a regulation shine that they would be a feast for sore eyes, even the eyes of the strictest N.C.O. during roll call. He had no trouble with brushes or dustcloths; it was only the firearm he refused to wield.

Every possible sort of punitive labor was imposed upon him, but nothing helped. He would work conscientiously for hours without a peep, emptying the latrine with a worm-infested bucket on a long stick—a punishment known as “honey-slinging” in soldiers’ slang—only to appear, freshly showered, at rifle drill shortly thereafter and refuse to wield the weapon once again. I can see it falling to the ground as if in slow motion.

At first we merely asked him questions and tried to talk him out of it. We actually liked the fellow, this oddball, this knucklehead: “Take it! Just hold it!” But when they took to punishing us on his account and tormented us in the hot sun until we collapsed, we all began to hate him. I, too, worked up my ire against him. We were expected to give him a hard time, and so we did. He had put us under pressure; we would return the favor. He was beaten in his barracks by the very boys whose boots he had polished mirror-bright. All against one. Through the boards that divided room from room, I could hear his whimper, the snap of the leather belt, the loud counting. These sounds are ingrained in my memory. But neither the hazing nor the beatings, nor anything else, could force him to carry arms.

Morning after morning, when we gathered for roll call and the drill instructor started passing out the weapons, the incorrigible insubordinate would let the one meant for him fall to the ground like the proverbial hot potato and immediately return to his ramrod position, hands pressed to trouser seams, eyes fixed on a distant point.

I cannot count the number of times he repeated his mantra, a catchphrase that has never left me: “We don’t do that.” He stuck to the plural. In a voice neither loud nor soft, he pronounced what he and his refused to do. Four words fusing into one: Wedontdothat.

When he was asked what he meant, he repeated the indefinite “that” and refused to call the object he would not take in his hands by its name.

His behavior transformed us. From day to day, what had seemed solid crumbled. Our hatred was mixed first with amazement, then with admiration expressed in questions like “How can that idiot keep it up?” “What makes him so hard-nosed?” “How come he doesn’t report sick? He’s been pale as a ghost lately.”

Then we let him be. No more beatings on the bare behind. The insubordinate stood above us, as if on a pedestal.

In the end, this morning ritual was cut off by his arrest. “Off to the cooler with him!” came the command.

From then on, discipline and order reigned. Every once in a while, the “convict” came up in our conversations. Someone—was it the drill instructor or one of us?—would say, “He must be a Jehovah’s Witness.” Or, “He’s a Bible nut. No doubt about it.” But the blond, blue-eyed boy with the racially pure profile had never referred to the Bible or Jehovah or any other Almighty; he had said simply, “Wedontdothat.”

One day his locker was cleared out: private things, including religious pamphlets. Then he was gone—“transferred,” it was called. We did not ask where to. I did not ask. But we all knew. He had not been discharged as unfit for service; no, we whispered, “he has long been ripe for the concentration camp.”

And since we knew of the camp, Stutthof, only by hearsay, we thought Wedontdothat—which was what we called him in secret—was in good hands. “They’ll bring old Wedontdothat down a peg or two.”

Was it all as simple as that?

Did no one shed a tear?

Did everything go on as it had before?

I must say that I was, if not glad, then at least relieved when the boy disappeared. The storm of doubts about everything in which I’d had rock-solid faith died down....

To the memory of that blond kid. A boy with courage I don't know I possess.

Sunday, September 16, 2007

Ellie's Triathlon [Bryan]

Below are some pictures of Ellie's triathlon. It was a 250 meter swim, a 7 mile bike ride, and a 2 mile run. She has been getting up early all summer to train for it. I'll let her blog about it, if she wants, but I am very proud of her. Way to go Ellie!

Here is some poor quality video of the beginning of the race:

Sunday, September 09, 2007

The Thin Red Line - Who are you?

I was walking through Walmart the other day and decided to scan the bargain bin DVD stack. It was, as usual, full of junk. But then I saw a copy of The Thin Red line, one of legendary filmmaker Terrence Malik's few projects. I had seen the movie a few years ago, and I was surprised to find such quality work in the bargain bin. I snatched it up for a mere $5! Those of you that haven't seen it really should. The film is, to put is mildly, unconventional. It is more poetry than narrative, more photographic artistry than film making, more philosophical essay than war movie. Its aspirations are high -- to be the Homer of the modern age. And it almost succeeds.

The film often uses the seldom used voice-over technique. The soldiers in the film reflect on what's going on in the battle (and in their own lives) mainly through a quiet voice-over. Their speech retains the ungrammatical cadences of rural America. But at the same time, their rough drawls are transformed into metaphysical poetry. At times, it is even difficult to know who is speaking -- the confusing mixing of the voices suggests, perhaps, our deeper connection to each other. The clip above is an example of the film's visual and literary artistry.

The film is about many things. It asks how conflict arises in the human heart. It ponders the many ways in which this conflict is manifest. Is seems to ask: How can a world that contains both love and beauty also contain such terrible cruelty and destruction. The film is even more amazed, it seems, at the mixtures of love and conflict, destruction and beauty, that reside in the same moment. Think of a predator taking down his prey.

Some key quotes:

What's this war in the heart of nature? Why does nature vie with itself? The land contend with the sea? Is there an avenging power in nature? Not one power, but two?

This great evil,where does it come from? How did it steal into the world? What root did it grow from? Who's doing this? Who killing us? Robbing us of life and light? Mocking us with the sight of what we might have known?

I remember my mother when she was dying. Looked all shrunk up and grey. I asked her if she was afraid. She just shook her head. I was afraid to touch the death I seen in her. I couldn't find nothing beautiful or up lifting about her going back to God. I heard people talk about immortality, but I ain't seen it. I wondered how it'd be when I died. What it'd be like to know that this breath now was the last one you was ever gonna draw. I just hope I can meet it the same way she did. With the same...calm.

The film ends without any strong answer to the perplexities of human conflict. There is a suggestion that love and conflict, beauty and destruction, are both part of one big whole (e.g., it suggests an "opposition in all things" that creates the multi-textured reality we know, love, and hate). There is also a suggestion that peace can be found in reflective pauses, and in such pauses, one can find courage to face such a difficult and beautiful oppositional world. When we stop to think, to be calm, to reflect, we recognize our ties to the world and to those around us. We realize our connection to those we fight with, those we love, and those we love whom we fight with.

Tuesday, September 04, 2007

Mormons Against Romney? [Bryan and Ellie]

As Mormons, people seem surprised that we are not supporters of Mitt Romney. Not that we have anything personal against him. He seems nice enough. We've heard many good things about his father, George Romney, and he did a good job with the Salt Lake Olympics. His health care plan in Massachusetts is widely admired. If a Republican must win, we suppose we would want Mitt to win. He would be infinitely better than someone like Rudy Giuliani (who combines, it seems to us, all of the bad characteristics of Bush and Clinton in one remarkably unattractive package).

Romney's being Mormon does not really affect our choice. We do not believe that Mormons have any special expertise in public policy, nor has it been our experience that Mormons are particularly more moral than other people -- especially when it comes to questions of large-scale social ethics. Plus, we would not usually vote AGAINST anybody because of his religion, so why should we vote FOR somebody because he shares our religion?

More specific reasons:

1. He has been vague about what his policies would actually be, as have most of the candidates. From what we've heard, though, he seems to want to continue most of Bush's policies (just executed more competently). Thus, he seems to want to carry on the Iraq War delusion (his ignorance about Iraq is actually remarkable). He wants to continue the national disgrace known as Guantanamo Bay (in fact, he even said he would "double it," whatever that is supposed to mean). He seems to want to continue Bush's torture regime. He also seems to favor Bush's tax cuts, which have increased income inequality. We disagree with all of this on moral grounds. He wants to get the "family values" vote, but he certainly does not share our values on these issues.

2. He seems like a consummate willing-to-say-anything-to-get-elected politician. All politicians have to do this dance, to some extent. His flip flops, though, seem particularly offensive. It is one thing to change your mind as situations change (i.e., Kerry changing his mind about Iraq). It is quite another to change your mind for purely political purposes. Did Romney really decide only recently that he was troubled by abortion after talking to a cold-hearted stem cell scientist, as he claims? If so, that means his previous thinking about abortion was remarkably shallow. Chait's description of Romney seems right to us: "I see him as a competent, moderate-minded manager who has decided his only chance of being elected is to masquerade as a whacko." Dude, if you have to change your views completely to win a primary election, you are in the wrong political party!

3. A minor note: He seems too concerned with image and style. At Bryan's graduation, he was the commencement speaker. He refused to put on his mortar board because, he said, it would "mess up his hair." And he wasn't joking. He strikes us as too sculpted and too scripted. He has confused his political persona with who he really is.

Sunday, September 02, 2007

Big Apple [Ellie]

First, a silly comment about the title. I can think of nothing I would be less likely to compare New York City to than an apple. First of all, I don't really like apples. (I know this is unAmerican. Yada, yada, yada. I just don't like them, ok?) Second of all, apples have this fresh, clean, innocence about them. Fresh, clean, and innocent are just not terms I'd use to describe New York.

And now for my trip.

I had been looking forward to this trip for six months. Four days in The Big City doing big city things without my kids. Just the thought of the trip would send little thrills up and down my spine. Eating without preparing anyone else's food first. Sleeping without first putting anyone else to sleep. Walking through an art museum with my arms swinging free--no diaper bag, no stroller. Young mother heaven! Everyone warned me I would miss my kids. I did, I guess. In a, "Oh, look at those cute kids playing on the subway. My kids would love that," kind of way, though. Not in a "wish they were here" kind of way. I did miss Bryan. I spent a lot of the time I was in The City plotting a way to come again with him by my side.

I "heart" NYC. All the t-shirts said I would. (And it should be mentioned that EVERYONE was wearing those t-shirts in New York.) Just the memory of seeing Phantom of the Opera on Broadway and walking around Times Square at night still makes me giddily happy. It's hard to describe being surrounded by the huge gaudiness of it all--the excitement in the air, the dizzy, flashing colors splashing every building's surface. The music and the chattering masses of people. I loved everything we did--the Cloisters medieval art museum, a castle made from bits of medieval ruins; the Statue of Liberty (stouter than I expected); the "best of" burger and pizza joints we went to (fantastic!); seeing Manhattan Island lit up like a jeweled fairy land from across the East River; tasting my first caviar at the Russian Tea Room (not as bad as I though it would be); rushing through the Met at a breakneck pace (well, I wish we wouldn't have had to rush); riding in a crazy New York cab; traversing Central Park; and alternately swooning, puzzling, and giggling at MOMA's modern art. The City met all my expectations.

Unexpectedly, one of my favorite things about NYC was the subway. There's something about hurtling through a black abyss in a gently rocking cubicle that fascinates me. Add to the surrealness of that the people-watching possibilities. How many places in a suburban landscape can you find a mid-level executive and a drunken, singing homeless man sitting next to each other? Anyone can and does ride the subway. It's such an equalizer.

I loved being in New York City, and I was sad to leave it. I know I'll go again, and I hope it will be soon. But, for the record, I had a Dorothy moment flying back into Columbus, too. I almost clicked my heels together as I noticed, as if for the first time, Ohio's rain-washed greenness dotted with picturesque white farmhouses. Its beauty seemed to point up the City's flaws. It was clean, fresh, and innocent. Like a big apple.

August Photos [Bryan]

August was a big month for us. We went back to Utah to see my sister Ashlee get married and to see my new nephew Benjamin. Then, Ellie took off (without the kids) to NYC to see her sister Emily. Some highlights of the Utah trip were:

1. Nora got to ride the "Heber Creeper" with Grandma and cousin John.

2. We got to play lots of "Settlers of Catan" with the Warnick clan.

3. We went to the Hill Air Force Base Museum.

4. We spent some time in Provo with Ellie's sister Anna and her husband Spencer.

5. We got to see nephew Benjamin's baby blessing.

6. We went fly fishing in the Uintah Mountains (China Meadows). I caught a 12-inch rainbow, but not much else.

7. I was able to go to Park City and have dinner with my long lost friends, David and Jared. Great food, great company, and great conversations (bow before Barak Obama Chappo, bow!)

8. Ashlee's wedding was beautiful (welcome to the family, Kurt!). We had a terrible time getting there, though, since our car overheated at an extremely bad time (long story).

9. We went to an incredible Thai restaurant in Layton and had our first experience with Tom Ka soup! Yum!

10. We went to the new aquarium they opened in Salt Lake. It wasn't bad. Did you know in the next life I want to be an octopus?

11. My brother Derek and family invited us down for a swimming party at their place. I played Dance Dance Revolution and didn't do too bad.

Some pictures:

Andrew driving around SLC.

Amber and Ruston.

Benjamin Ryan Warnick -- Welcome to the world!

Playing Settlers.

Hill Air Force Base.

Aunt Anna at the SL Temple.

China Meadows. It was a bit cold!