Smile Politely

Rue Morgue Avenue

Things are thawing now and muddy. A piece of sun tries cracking through. February has come sooner than expected. I have made it past Groundhog Day, deep into winter without succumbing totally into gloom.

I worked for this, planned for it diligently since Thanksgiving, and I like to think it has been a triumph of the will against the forces of central Illinois. But not all have been so fortunate, not even those who live in the hot zones or the southern hemisphere.

There were a record number of suicides in the U.S. Army in January, more than the number of soldiers killed on the ground that month in Iraq and Afghanistan, in all military branches combined. In fact, suicide in the military services is at the highest numbers since they started keeping track.

To be all that you can be or not to be? That would seem to be the question, and something tells me that the surge isn’t working all that great for all parties concerned after all.

Brig. Gen. Jeffrey Phillips, Deputy Chief of Public Affairs, appeared on C-Span on Saturday, fielding calls and trying to reassure the public that everything possible was being done to figure out the problem. He seemed genuinely befuddled.

Why is the military killing itself?

Is it the result of broken relationships, unfaithful spouses and lovers back home? Is it the economy? Is it the denial of PTSD for the Purple Heart? Is it “compression of service,” repetitive, back-to-back deployments?

Maybe it is just the season. Or are the psychotropic drugs administered to soldiers in combat contributing to the epidemic?

One caller, a Vietnam veteran, blamed the prescription drugs. “They used to let us get drunk,” he said, calling Phillips and the new recruits “brainwashed.” “I can’t believe they’re giving (soldiers in combat) drugs.”

All of the veterans calling in seemed pissed. One denounced the “support our troops” campaign, calling it fake.

Of course, no one dares name another likely contributing element: the war’s lack of purpose. A war begun under false (and frequently changed) premises. Meaninglessness. Iraq as a War of Oops.

The sun has gone behind a cloud. The snow outside this window falls from the ledge into soiled clods. I could use a cup of tea.

Terrible as it seems, suicide used to be more horrifying to us. In the Grand Theft Auto World, in the Heath Ledger Joker Universe, we have become somewhat accustomed to hearing about death that is casual and random and abrupt.

As a young child, I remember being horrified by the idea of WWII kamikaze pilots, taking on a mission in which they knew they would die. Then came the self-immolating Buddhist monks in Vietnam, protesting the war by setting themselves aflame.

But now, it is kind of old hat. People blow themselves up almost every day. It is still horrifying, but rarely surprising. Suicide just isn’t what it used to be, except for the fact that the ones who suffer are the ones left behind. That hasn’t changed.

Spiraling downward, hand in hand with suicide’s drop on the list of unthinkable acts is torture. Torture is downright popular. It has followed a trajectory from cult Korean horror movies like Audition to the mass-marketed religiosity of The Passion of the Christ to critic-approved 24 to Dick Cheney swearing by his dark side methods, whether they are effective or merely vengeful catharsis.

I am convinced that George W. Bush will be remembered — his legacy — as the torture president.

Chamomile or peach? Ginseng or Earl Gray? Earl Gray, with sweetener. The flavor of bergamot.

Before America’s own recent regime change, a lot of people seemed to be ready for Armageddon, ready to let the world burn up to an environmental crisp, ready to be carried up to the skies in a rapture or whisked away to heaven surrounded by virgins. Let the world commit suicide all around us, they seemed to say with their actions, carrying on as though nothing were wrong.

As long as I am indulging in dark thoughts, it seems like a good time to listen to some Dylan, say “Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues,” that part when he sings about being lost in the rain in Juarez, on (the redundant) Rue Morgue Avenue, when “your gravity fails and negativity won’t pull you through.” [click the player atop this article to listen to the song]

A lot of people survive on bad luck and negativity, on expecting the worst. It becomes something you can always count on. It is risk-free.

It’s like living in central Illinois in winter. You can learn to love it. Someone messaged me on Facebook last week. “Winter,” she wrote, commenting on the blurry cell phone photos I keep shooting, landscapes of the bleak world around us. “It’s my favorite time of the year.”

“Between ahhh and arrrgh,” the Tao Te Ching says (paraphrasing), “how much difference is there?”

This tea, the aroma, the warmth inside. I’m comforted. The world is going to end some day. When that day comes, maybe as soon as 2012, I hope I’ll be sitting on the rainforest grounds surrounding the ruins of Tikal or Palenque. All the tourists will have disappeared. Let them rapture without me.

I’ll sit there by the ruins and meditate, same as now. If I can just hold out, hold on, six more weeks, six more weeks, or so says the groundhog. Six more weeks.

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