Saturday, May 14, 2016

He's not a 'safety hazard,' he's MY SON.

Mostly people are okay with the boys, and especially Mr F, who can present challenges to those who want to be okay with him. He's tough, at times: he can be loud, and he can be hard to control, and he can be mercurial (sometimes we say he's every emotion because he will laugh like crazy and then suddenly start bawling his eyes out.)  But mostly people are okay with him.

That makes it so much harder when discrimination and ignorance show up and pick on him.

We took Mr F and Mr Bunches to "Dolphin Pool" today. This is one of Mr F's favorite things: it's an indoor zero-depth wading pool that he loves to go to.  He sits in the hot tub, then he wades around. He will float, and roll on his back, and lately he has been going to the slide and walking up 2 or 3 steps before chickening out and going back down. I know he's going to make it up that slide one of these days.

"Dolphin Pool" is at a place called "Prairie Athletic Club." It's a health club on the other side of town that we get to go to because it's joined with the one we belong to in our neighborhood.  We have been taking the boys to Dolphin Pool (so named because there is a statue of a dolphin on the edge of the pool) for 8 years now -- since they could first walk. We have been members of the club for eighteen years. Because I can't work out without dying, almost literally, the only reason the boys and I are still members is to use their pools, because swimming is Mr F's and Mr Bunches' favorite thing in the world to do.

Mr F stands out at the pool. He has to wear a wetsuit, because a few years back he would get bothered by how his swimming trunks felt, and take them off. So we bought a wetsuit for him to wear, because we can't have him taking off his trunks but we want him to swim. Do you know how much wetsuits cost? About $90.  He's on his second one, because he's growing. We pay about $25 a month for the pool access, and have to buy a wetsuit. But swimming is important to Mr F. It calms him down and helps him relax, and he gets to be free.

Mr F is almost never free.  Everywhere he goes, he's belted in (we have a special safety harness for use on the bus and in our car), or has his hand held.  Nearly always. The only times Mr F gets to be free is when we're at a playground or a nature trail far away from roads or water. Then he can walk without someone holding him and not be buckled in on a 5-point harness like he's Evel Knievel, just for a trip to the library.  This is because Mr F has little to no impulse control. He will dart away from you at a moment's notice. He also has absolutely no sense of safety. He either does not know, or does not care, for example, that cars will kill him. So if there's any chance he will get into danger, or trouble, he's under what I call "hand arrest."

Swimming, he is free. We don't hold him. He gets to swim and duck under and jump and splash and roll around, and if you could see him! He gets this faraway look in his eyes and a smile on his face and he laughs. It's making me smile as I write this.

This all means, though, that Mr F sticks out like a sore thumb in a pool. He's the only kid with a wetsuit, the only one jumping and laughing and rolling around.  Even for kids in a pool, Mr F is a sight, the way he plays.

And he's the only one carrying 'tappers.'

I've mentioned 'tappers' before, I think. Mr F is always carrying something with him to tap. It used to be spatulas (we still have a drawerful of them). Then it was plastic coat hangers. For a while it was wooden spoons (we still haven't found the ones we used to have).  Right now, it is forks, but a very special set of forks.

Mr F picks out his forks the way a surgeon might pick out his scalpel. If they get mixed up or (God forbid!) he loses one, the selection process for a new fork is a strenuous one. He will take 2 or 3 forks and hold them up, tap them experimentally on his chin or his hand, and then shift them in position, move them a bit, try a different combination, and so on.  This takes about 15 or 20 minutes, at least, so we are very careful to keep his latest combination separate from the other forks, to spare him the trouble of having to do it again.  (You can see how troubled he is when he can't make a combination that works for him. He gets sad and upset, hitting his head and crying. Since we don't know what a 'good' combination is, all we can do is suggest other forks or try to keep him from cracking his head on the floor.)

Mr F's absolute most favorite forks are these cheap plastic silvery ones from the Dollar Store. He loves these so much that the other day, when we wanted to get a surprise for each of the boys, we got Mr Bunches an "Imaginext Batmobile," ($24.99) and Mr F two sets of silver picnic forks. ($2). Mr F liked his present more.

He holds these forks like this:

Always. That is always how he holds his forks. Then, once he has them set, he taps them lightly on his chin, or on his hand. Over and over and over.

I have a theory about why this is.  With autism, everything is a theory. Nobody knows anything, really, about autism. Half the time we don't know anything about people like us: people who are able to communicate in abstract ways and explain concepts that are barely conceivable. We are so smart and yet we can't explain ourselves. Mr F is harder, since he can't tell us anything about what he's thinking.

My theory is this: Mr F needs the tappers to help him focus. Some people need something extra to help them focus in.  I like to have background noise when I'm working: television works best, so many times when I'm writing a brief or working on research I will have Archer or something on in the background. I'm not listening to it, not really: it's white noise that helps me focus on what I'm doing, paradoxically. Without it the silence seems to crowd in on me, and I can hear my own pulse, it seems like, and I become aware of how my elbow itches and that my head hurts a little and my knee is bent too far... and I can't work. With some background noise, I'm fine.

Mr F is the opposite.  Some scientists have theorized that one reason autistic people like the same routines and eat the same foods all the time is to cut down on the stimuli they experience; people think now that autistic people cannot sort out and ignore sensations, that every sound, texture, scent, sight, and taste are noticed and cataloged and experienced, every time.

If you are reading this while sitting at your table drinking a cup of coffee, say, you are experiencing lots of sensations that your mind just categorizes away: sunlight over here, the chair creaking, the way the table feels under your skin, the mug's warmth: you don't notice those until they are really new.  But autistic people, they think, notice everything all the time, and because of that they try to cut down on all the static. Mr F and Mr Bunches eat a narrow range of foods, because they can't stand all the newness of different flavors. Mr Bunches, for example, can tell the difference between "Crunch Berries" and the generic version of Crunch Berries. He can tell the difference between Crunch Berries that come in the box with Cap'n Crunch, and the Crunch Berries that come in the box of "Oops All Berries."

These are differences the boys cannot ignore. You or I probably wouldn't notice that slight difference, but they do, and they notice it every time. So they reduce the changes in their life to a minimum. They like routine, they like processed foods that taste the same every time, they will happily watch the same movie fifteen times in a row because that's the point it's the same movie.

Mr Bunches, like me, can exist in a world where a lot is going on: music, movies, games, people talking, and through it all he and I can focus on what we're doing. Mr F can't, though. He needs to cut down on the stimulation. He will bury his head in a blanket or under a cushion.  He went through a phase where pictures on the wall bothered him -- so we have almost no pictures on the wall-- because there were so many different ones. He doesn't like to change blankets. He only wears a few kinds of clothes.

Even then, it's hard for him. That's why, we think, he sometimes loses it and starts crying and screaming. When he gets that bad, we cut down the interference even more: I take him for a ride in my car, which is a two-seater and small and he can feel the vibrations. He sits in his blanket and taps his forks and we listen to audiobooks and we drive the same route, almost every time, to help him calm down.

The forks, then, help him focus. That's my theory, anyway: by tapping them on his hand, or his chin, it helps him ignore all the stuff going on around him by focusing on this one little thing, these forks tapping against his chin. It's like biting on the heel of your thumb to help take your mind off the pain of your stubbed toe: if you give your mind something to focus on, it can help ignore things that are harder to take.

So you can imagine that he needs these forks at the pool. At the pool, there's the water and the noise and the kids running around and splashing and balls flying past his head and the hot tub starting up and people bringing pizzas to their tables and towels and a whole lot, and you can watch Mr F sometimes retreat from that by going over to the hot tub and wedging himself into a corner and closing his eyes, tapping his forks against his chin quietly.

Mr F has used forks as tappers almost exclusively for about 3 years now. He has brought them everywhere with him, including to Dolphin Pool, including last week when we went.

So I didn't think anything of it today when we went in and Mr Bunches went to the deep lap pool to jump in while Sweetie watched him, and I went over to the shallow pool to keep an eye on Mr F.  I do this by hovering about 10-20' away from him: close enough that I can intervene if something happens, far enough that he doesn't feel crowded. If I get closer than 5-10', he keeps edging away from me because he doesn't like people too near him.

The pool wasn't especially crowded today. There were about 10 people in it, maybe? Or less. A few little kids, most of them over in the bigger, big-kids, pool; and some parents sitting around the edges looking at their phones.

Mr F had been swimming for about 20 minutes or so, and I was hanging out in the hot tub, when I saw a lifeguard come over by Mr F.  Mr F was at that point standing at the bottom of the stairs to the slide, looking up them like he wanted really this time to go down the slide, and the lifeguard tapped him on the shoulder.  I started over there, and Mr F walked a few steps from the lifeguard without looking at him.  I wondered if the guard thought he was blocking the stairs or something. As I got there, the guard tapped Mr F on the shoulder again, and when Mr F walked away again, the guard looked across the room, rolled his eyes, and shrugged at someone, like what's up with this?

It SHOULD HAVE been obvious to anyone that whatever was up with Mr F, he wasn't a regular kid. Regular kids don't wear wetsuits to wading pools and carry forks around. Regular kids don't walk around making a bunch of nonsense noises.

Anyway, I was at the lifeguard and I said "Did you need something? I'm his dad."

The lifeguard said: "He's carrying forks and he shouldn't. It's a safety hazard."

I said, patiently: "He's autistic. He carries those forks because they help him focus. He doesn't hurt anyone."

The kid said "He shouldn't have them."

There were only a few kids in the pool. I said "Would it be okay if he kept them and I sat closer to him so nobody has to worry?"

The kid shrugged and walked away. I moved closer to Mr F and hung by him as he swam around, oblivious to what had just happened.

About 10 minutes later, I noticed a group of 3, maybe 4, people over on the other side of the pool.  They were all wearing lifeguard clothes or club uniforms. One was the lifeguard I'd talked to. One was one of the women from the front desk.  They were talking and looking over at me and Mr F, and pointing at him.  Pointing at him repeatedly. And it was clear they were pointing at him because he and I were the only people in the direction they were pointing.  They left about the time I thought they saw me looking at them. I can't be sure they left because of that, but they did.

I wasn't happy about this, but Mr F still had no idea what was going on, and we'd only been there about 30 minutes. I like to let him swim for an hour or so.

By this time, the pool was really pretty empty. There were two girls, about 5 or 6, sitting on the hot tub stairs. (I WILL NOTE that sitting on the hot tub stairs, and being under 12 and unsupervised in the hot tub, is in fact IN VIOLATION OF A RULE POSTED RIGHT THERE, but it did not appear these two girls had drawn the attention of the crowd of whispery pointers.) There were a few other kids over near the basketball hoops on the other side of the pool. Mr F was alone in the wading area of the pool.

I sat by him for a bit longer, and then he wanted to go in the hot tub.  After making our way PAST THE GIRLS, ON THE STAIRS, we sat in the tub, Mr F in the middle section, me on the right.

After a few minutes, I noticed a guy walking by us, and looking at the hot tub.  I noticed him because he'd walked past a few minutes before and had looked at us. Now he was doing it again. After about 2 or 3 more passes, he came and crouched by me in the hot tub. By then I was angry, because I didn't know who he was but I thought the crowd of club employees pointing at Mr F had drawn attention to him, and I didn't want some rando walking by eyeballing my son.

"Is that your son?" Rando said.

"Yes," I answered.

He was clothed. I was in a hot tub, in bathing trunks. He was crouching just over my shoulder, behind and to the right, and above me.

"I understand he's autistic, but he shouldn't have those forks," Rando said. He must have seen something bewildered in my face because he added "I'm Andy, one of the owners of the club."

So I said to this clothed man who loomed above me "He is autistic. He uses them to help him ignore all the stuff going on. He doesn't do anything with them. He just taps them."

"Does he have something else he could use here?" Rando Andy said.

"No," I said, trying to convey that we hadn't anticipated having to have multiple sets of tappers because he'd been bringing them here for about 3 years nearly every week without incident.

I also want to point out that this club is pretty fancy. In addition to 3 indoor pools it has a restaurant, and many people will bring their kids there around dinner and order pizza, which is brought into the pool by restaurant staff to eat poolside.

They bring it with forks and knives.  Kids use those forks and knives.

Anyway, Rando Andy said "Would you mind taking them away from him? It's a safety hazard."

So many things ran through my mind but where I settled was: I am in a bathing suit. He is the owner of the club. I do not want to get us kicked out and have the boys not be able to swim anymore. The owner of the club is looming over me as I sit in a pool of water and asking me would I mind doing what he's telling me to do."

So I said to Mr F: Let me have your tappers, buddy.  He started crying and tried to take them from me, but I gently held his hand and took them.  He got upset and punched himself in the forehead. Rando Andy stood up.  Thanks he said and walked away.  I sat there, angry and wanting to get up and leave, but Mr F was still in the hot tub. He was upset, and looked sad, and tried to get his forks from me, and began trying to bite his wetsuit collar.

A few minutes later, as it turned out, Sweetie and Mr Bunches came over. Mr Bunches was tired and wanted to go and could we leave early? I said yes, and then on the way out told Sweetie what had happened. She was going to go storming off and yell at him right then. I told her to wait until we got there.

So we changed, and I gave Mr F the forks back, and we went out to the lobby where Sweetie demanded to see the manager, Rando Andy.  He came out, and tried to get us to go into an office. I said quietly Right here is fine.

Then Sweetie lit into him. Without raising her voice but pitching it in that tone that tells you she would like to gut you like a fish, Sweetie denounced the manager for letting some parent goad him into making us take away Mr F's tappers.  When Rando Andy said nobody complained Sweetie said that was a bunch of crap and someone must have because we'd been coming here for years and he'd been bringing his forks all that time and nobody had said anything.  Rando Andy then pointed at me and said I asked him if he'd get the forks and he didn't seem to mind.

I said I was sitting in a hot tub with my son being told to by the owner of the club. I didn't want to make a scene.

Sweetie then denounced the ignorance and discrimination that would allow a little boy to be approached twice by a lifeguard who appeared completely uncognizant of the fact that this little boy in a wetsuit making strange noises was a special-needs kid, let alone have that little boy pointed at by a group of staffers -- Rando Andy tried to protest and say that didn't happen and I said it did, I was there -- and said that if their workers didn't know how to deal with special needs' kids they should get training. She pointed out that we'd been members for 18 years and had never caused a problem and said that she expected her sons not to be discriminated against when we came here in the future.

She started to leave. I told Rando Andy that if he wanted me or someone to come teach his staff about autism I'd be happy to do so.  We have several people who have ... he started and I said then I expect in the future my sons won't be singled out like this, and we left.

So now, one of Mr F's favorite things in the world, Dolphin Pool, has been tainted.  He will never know it, I hope. We're never sure how much he realizes about what's going on around him, so maybe he was completely unaware of all this today and just thinks I was being unfair when I took his tappers for a few minutes.

But we know it. We know that every time we walk in that door to take our boys swimming, it is likely to be a battleground -- or at least it will feel that way to us. We will be constantly nervous that Mr F or Mr Bunches will do or say something to attract attention from some other parent or staffer with no tolerance or understanding, and that the boys will again be the center of unwanted and unwarranted attention, that we will again have to make a scene to defend their right to exist on terms they can handle.

I'm not demanding special treatment. Mr F isn't carrying around weapons. He carries those forks everywhere. He is sleeping not five feet from me as I type this and the forks are in his hand. He takes them to the library, to the pool, in the car, sits with them as he watches television, everywhere. He has taken them to the pool at this club, and at the other health club. He has taken them to the Madison Community Pool. Not once has anyone said anything. He has never approached another little kid, never hurt anyone, never even dropped them in the way of anyone. If he does drop or set them down, Sweetie or I immediately pick them up.  Not because it's a hazard -- it's a FORK -- but because if he loses one he has to go through a whole psychological ordeal to get a new set.

We have a little boy who wants to carry around a couple of forks with him. This little boy cannot talk. He had brain surgery when he fell of a counter and still has a scar from that, and because of that he cannot go on bounce castles, trampolines, or many other things little kids love. He cannot eat most foods. Because he is so worried about things he likes to feel enclosed and so even though he has a very nice bed with an extra-soft mattress on it and Spongebob Blankets, he sleeps in a closet I've removed the door from because he wants walls on three sides of him. He has to be watched when he goes to the bathroom and can't have the door closed because of that head injury. He is strapped into his bus seat with a safety harness, and held by the hand 99% of his life.

He wants to carry a couple of forks with him, and swim. This makes him deliriously, insanely happy, one of the few things that does in a world where most of the things traumatize or confuse him.

He will still get to do those things, and if he is lucky he will never know that each time we walk through those doors, Sweetie and I will have to again bristle for a fight, be ready to defend him, be ready to shield him from ignorant looks and overbearing Randos who want to throw their weight around on behalf of some spoiled-brat soccer mom worried that the weird kid will do something to her own perfect kids.

Mr F has never hurt anyone in his life, and never would.

But lots of people try to hurt him.

Thursday, May 12, 2016

Book 35: Secrets and lies.

The Rook is everything that Futuristic Violence & Fancy Suits and Midnight Riot wished they could be: a fun, intricate book full of great fight scenes, interesting mixes of science and fantasy and literary book, interesting characters, and an all-around great reading experience.  It was so good, in fact, that when my time for borrowing the audiobook was up with 1/3 of the book left to go I couldn't wait to finish it and so I went and checked the hardcover out of the library.

The Rook stars Myfanwy (the W is silent) Thomas, or someone not completely unlike her, as a member of the Checquy, a British superpower/supernatural secret service. It opens with Myfanwy opening her eyes to find herself standing in the rain, dead people wearing latex gloves all around her, and no idea how she got there or who she is.  In her pocket is a letter.  Dear you, it begins, and starts to fill in the gaps of what happened.  The Myfanwy who starts out the book is not the Myfanwy that wrote the letters to the person who would take over her body after something terrible happened to the former-Myfanwy, and the new one has to not only adapt to not knowing who or where she is, but also the fact that a bunch of superpowered people are trying to kill her, and also that she is, in fact, about 3 rungs from the top of a group that helps protect Britain from supernatural threat.

It is an excellent book, reminiscent of Kraken by China Mieville or, possibly The Magicians crossed with X-Men.  It pulls the reader along through the story, and never gets dull or dry; it's not that every scene is action packed, but that Myfanwy is such a great character, and the supporting cast around her (vampires, funguses, a group of Belgian medieval scientists called the "Grafters" who once tried to invade Britain using giant horse-spiders, a man (?) named Gestalt who is one brain that inhabits four separate bodies, each of which can think and act independently of the others, and so on) is phenomenal.  There is just the right amount of humor, such as when tests have to be run on all the members of the Checquy to ensure they haven't become a Grafter pawn, and Myfanwy finds that she has to be licked -- by three of the best lickers the Checquy has produced, but there's lots of action and some intrigue as Myfanwy begins to unravel the plot around her.

Saying more would spoil the story, but I will say that the villains in the book are some of the most amazing (and intricately, phenomenally gross, at times, but in a fun way) that I've ever seen in a book, and by the end I was hoping there was a sequel to it.  (There is, and I've put it on my TBR list.)

One thing the book got me thinking beyond how great is this story? (Seriously great) is this: Why would superheroes, vampires, magic, ultrascience, etc., have to be hidden? LOTS of stories have this conceit. In Kraken very few people know about such mysticisms as the fact that the ocean lives in a house in England and teleportation is real. In Harry Potter and The Magicians the general population has to be kept unaware of the existence of magic. In this book, the Checquy and its US counterpart (called the Croatoan in an allusion that goes unexplained in the book but if you get the reference it's pretty neat)(although as it turns out that mystery probably wasn't all that mysterious) have to remain secret, and that's never really explained.

I think in part each set of storytellers must have their own reason for keeping the superpowered worlds a secret from others. In Narnia books the secrecy and limited access served as a surrogate for Heaven (or Christianity) as well as a way of demonstrating that childhood is more magical than adulthood, for example.  J.K. Rowlings' explanation for why magic was kept a secret from Muggles was this:

‘But what does a Ministry of Magic do?’

‘Well, their main job is to keep it from the Muggles that there’s still witches an’ wizards up an’ down the country.’


‘Why? Blimey, Harry, everyone’d be wantin’ magic solutions to their problems. Nah, we’re best left alone.’

That doesn't really ring true, though. We have "magic" of a kind today: cell phones, MRIs, microsurgery, vaccines, spy satellites: they all work on principles that most people don't understand and which we couldn't recreate, or at least not easily.  That doesn't keep people from wanting cures for everything and easier everything -- but saying we can't tell people about this revolutionary new heart surgery because then they'll be wantin' revolutionary solutions to their problems doesn't make much sense.

In The Rook the magic/superpowered aspects -- the world is sort of a mystical superpowered place -- is kept from most of the regular folk.  Some of the powers are weird or gross, such as the man who can make acid fumes come from his skin; others are more acceptable (an American operative can cover herself with flexible metal).  So that doesn't explain why all such things have to be kept a secret; it's not just that some things are gross or weird.

In some cases, keeping the secrets seems to be almost a commentary on society's divisions. In The Magicians one interpretation of magic is that it, like so many other resources, exists only (or mostly) for the 1%; people who go to Brakebills attend a school that's pretty much like an Ivy League college, and most seem to come from rich backgrounds. When they wash out of school they're placed in finance-companies, and magicians have fabulous wealth.  The magicians even gain access to other worlds, entirely, something regular people and hedge-witches can only dream of.  (In Narnia, too, it was generally upper-class people who could get to Narnia where, like The Magicians, they were kings and queens.)  It's not hard to read keeping-magic-secret as a way to further separate the common folk from the elite.

That explanation doesn't hold in The Rook, though.  It may be that it was just an idea to make it more exciting in the book, the idea that all this had to be kept secret, except that such a theory doesn't fit into the book at all: there are protesters outside the Rookery where Myfanwy works, but they're the usual wing-nuts who protect government agencies hiding supernatural things and nobody pays attention to them; other times (such as when a flesh-cube takes over a police station) the Checquy has very little trouble keeping people from knowing what's going on, despite the fact that this takes place in a world where, we're told, there are surveillance cameras all over and people have cellphones. So if you're going to make your superheroes secret to amp up the story, why not have the secrecy matter?

I considered whether it was just that everyone thinks, if I had power like that I'd have to keep it secret, but in a world where lots of people have powers, why would it be a secret? In our world, athletes don't work underground, the supersmart and superrich are not walking around incognito, and powerful politicians have Twitter accounts and Youtube channels: everything that serves as a proxy for superpower in our world is broadcast around the clock.

In the larger scheme, why would a government keep these things a secret, and how could they? One argument against any large conspiracy existing -- JFK's assassination, Pearl Harbor/9/11 being an inside job, the moon landing being fake-- is that it's almost impossible to keep any large scale operation a secret.  If only a few people knew, then you'd have a better chance hiding the truth, but it still takes people wanting to be fooled.  Bernie Madoff ran a fraud for decades because only a few people knew about it, and nobody wanted to question the good fortune.

Another thing is why would the government want to keep something a secret. I understand that if Bush let 9/11 happen so he'd have a justification to start a war in Iraq and do some regime change, the government wouldn't want to get that out. One could also assume that with the fact that there is very little difference between Democrats and Republicans in all the ways that count -- not talking social issues here -- the Democrats wouldn't rat Bush out because they too profit from a continuous state of war lasting 15 years now. (And counting!)

But Watergate, Iran/Contra, Monica Lewinsky, the Bay of Pigs, the Teapot Dome Scandal... controversies big and small get exposed even when everyone in power might benefit from not exposing them. It seems unlikely that vast conspiracies could exist and never be exposed.

If a government knew about superpowered individuals, and wanted to keep them a secret, could they? In The Rook people are born every day with new powers, and parents know about these (in some cases the kids are frightening.) Yet it appears that somehow nobody with any credibility ever talks about these people and the weird things going on.  That seems like it couldn't happen, except think about all the secrets that lots of people know about yet they never become public. Hillary's private email server, for example. How long did it take before that became common knowledge?

In 1962, a double (or maybe triple?) agent almost got the US and Great Britain to launch nuclear strikes. Most people didn't hear about it for 20 years, until the story was declassified in 1992. In the 1960s the US Joint Chiefs of Staff prepared "Operation Northwoods," a plan to do fake terrorist attacks on our own citizens in order to give the US an excuse to go to war. The report was declassified nearly 40 years later. In 1968 President Nixon had his advisors tell South Vietnam to withdraw from peace talks, so that the war would continue and Nixon could be re-elected. The report was declassified in 2008.

The thing about those is: not only did very few people know about them for decades, but even after they were declassified they seemed to not make any news. I'm not sure how a plan to kill our own people to start a war wasn't a big deal, but that's the first I've ever heard of it.

The purloined letter was allowed to sit out in the open, with everyone ignoring it.

The Democratic debates this year were (allegedly) planned to reduce viewership so that Hillary wouldn't have to worry about Bernie or That Other Guy getting more name recognition.

For years both Bush and Obama routinely denied NSA electronic surveillance of US citizens' phone calls. A secret Foreign Intelligence court was created in 1978, and nowadays is called a "secret Supreme Court." This Court ("FISA") issued an order (in secret) in 2013 requiring Verizon to provide daily reports of call detail records to the NSA. These included domestic US citizen calls to other US citizens. (I used Verizon in 2013, and used the cell phone to make calls to clients that were confidential and protected by the attorney-client privilege.) The order was only made public when Edward Snowden leaked it. (The Court in its history has only denied 12 requests for warrants, in 38 years.)  When this court criticized John Ashcroft for lying to it, and began requiring modification of requests to be ... more legal... the Bush administration simply ignored the Court and did its own surveillance, prompting one of the Secret Judges to resign. Judges on that court are appointed by the US Supreme Court Chief Justice, with no oversight or ability to object or interview them.

I don't think there are people with superpowers, or magic out there. If, though, there were, I have no doubt that not only would the government be able to keep them hidden from us, but also that when the news leaked out most people wouldn't pay any attention.

Quotent Quotables: You know, I don't remember the story very well but I'm pretty sure the squid had a crush on Queequeg.

"I am serious, what does love have to do with anything we do all day long?"

"Well, that's what he'd better work out," Ish says, "If he wants anyone to read his book."

"There are plenty of good stories without love."

"Like what?"

I think for a moment. "Twenty Thousand Leagues Under The Sea."

-- The Mark And The Void, Paul Murray.

Sunday, May 08, 2016

Book 34: "There is a rank due to the United States among nations which will be withheld, if not absolutely lost, by the reputation of weakness. If we desire to avoid insult, we must be able to repel it; if we desire to secure peace, one of the most powerful instruments of our rising prosperity, it must be known that we are at all times ready for war." -- George Washington

Great war stories give a person the feeling for what war must be like, a hard thing to do if the person being told the story has never even been in anything remotely resembling war. Movies can teach war through the visceral impact of film: the first 20 minutes of Saving Private Ryan, or the torture scene in Three Kings, or the city streets of Black Hawk Down.

Books have a harder time with this: as good as our imaginations are, they have difficulty synthesizing something that not only have they never experienced, but which is so far beyond the realm of our experience that it is, really, unimaginable.  The best war books do not try to make a war in your mind, but instead pick out some feature of war and communicate that.  Typically, what the best of these books show is how absurdly futile it is not just to fight a war, but to try to understand it. In Catch-22, this lesson is driven home by Yossarian's careful patching of the wrong wound on Snowden, and then being able to think of nothing more than there, there to say to the boy.  In Slaughterhouse-5, the entire story shows the futility of trying to change anything: when Billy Pilgrim comes unstuck in time, he reveals that his entire string of experiences is not 'cause-and-effect' but simply random chance. His life didn't happen in any particular order because order doesn't matter.

Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk is a great war book. It is all the greater for not actually ever having any war in it, really.

Billy Lynn is part of  "Bravo Squad," and the first thing to know about "Bravo Squad" is it doesn't exist. "Bravo Squad" isn't a military unit; it's real designation is more technical, but "Bravo Squad" is what the public calls the Bravo unit whose firefight in the Iraq war was caught by Fox news cameras; the resultant airing of that tape makes Billy and the rest of the Bravos instant heroes, and they're flown home for a two-week victory tour to shore up support for the war. (The book is set in 2007, a year that already feels like history.)

The book takes place on the day before Thanksgiving, when Billy is given 24 hours to spend with his family, and on Thanksgiving, when the Bravos are the guests of  the (in this case fictional) owner of the Dallas Cowboys, set to appear at halftime with Destiny's Child, and we see all this through Billy's eyes as we get his thoughts on the subject -- not that his thoughts are very deep. Billy's barely out of high school and joined the Army to avoid jail after he was arrested for destroying his sister's ex-boyfriend's car, and despite from time-to-time more grown-up people leaning on him, Billy really is a kid and really is innocent: he's gone to war a virgin and had his first sexual experience on this tour.

There's very little plot to the book. What stories there are unfold slowly before exploding at the end: Albert, a producer traveling with the men, is trying to arrange a movie deal for them, having promised each Bravo $100,000 for the rights to their story.  Billy's sister Katherine wants him to quit the Army and be helped by a group of lawyers who are fighting the war by trying to help men go AWOL.

The bigger story is Billy searching for meaning. Billy hooks on to anyone and everyone who seems able to provide him some deeper understanding of the world.  He idolized "Shroom," a now-dead Bravo soldier whose stoner philosophizing got Billy hooked on Hunter S. Thompson books and thoughts of reincarnation.  He throughout the book gets text messages from a TV preacher who he met at one stop and spoke to afterwards looking for guidance.  He hangs on every word of his Sergeant, David Dime. But even his search for meaning is confused: he manages to get a chance to make out with a Dallas Cowboy cheerleader when, after some flirting, she tells him she is a Christian. She asks him if he is, too, and to keep the conversation going, Billy says he's searching -- a word he uses because he's heard it from other Christians growing up in Texas, not because he believes he really is.

Hidden from the loving American public is the fact that the Bravos are only home for two weeks, and that at 10 p.m. on Thanksgiving they will report back to post, and 36 hours later will be back in Iraq. So these soldiers wander around Texas Stadium, alternating between getting in fights with roadies, having brunch with millionaires, and standing at attention on a stage while Beyonce sings "Soldier" in front of a parade of cadets spinning rifles with fixed bayonets into the air and catching them. The negotiations over the movie swirl around them (at one point Billy learns that Hillary Swank is interested and wants to play him) and they sneak drinks of Jack-and-Coke or head out back to get high with a busboy from the buffet.

Back home, Billy's sister Katherine needs two more plastic surgeries to repair her face: she was nearly killed in a car accident and had hundreds of stitches in her face, causing her rich boyfriend to dump her (and leading to Billy's BMW-bashing.) Billy's mom is planning to take out a loan to pay Katherine's medical bills and those of Billy's dad, a right-wing radio host who had a stroke and is now wheelchair bound, mute (although it's not clear if he can talk but chooses not to).  It's clear that Billy's dad hates Billy, for whatever reason, but the rest love him, while remaining true to their lower-middle-class roots: Billy gets a call from his family just after halftime, and what they want to know most of all is whether he met Beyonce.

The real point of the story is that none of this really matters.  It's halftime for Billy, too: he and his friends are parading around in between the battles, having fun before going back to Viper FOB (Forward Operations Base) and a war that they don't really care about, but there's nothing better going on in their lives, either.  Billy meets rich people and, trying to glean something from this experience, asks questions about how the Cowboys' owner got his money, how he bought the team -- only to goggle at the explanation. The world the rich move in isn't just economically out of the stratosphere for Billy; it's mentally and physically that way, as well: he spends the first quarter in the luxury box of the owner, looking down on the stadium before being kicked out for some dignitary or other.  It'll get too crowded with the guy's security detail, the team owner says, and one Bravo says well we could protect him you know, and everyone laughs before packing the Bravos off to their seats near the sideline, in the sleet.

Everywhere Billy goes seems surreal, even though it's all depicted in the most basic terms. Shown into the locker room to get some pre-game autographs, Billy fields questions from the wide receivers about what it's like to kill a man, and the players later ask if they could come on tour with Billy for a week or two and shoot some Iraqis. When Billy says they'd have to join up and why don't they do that, the players laugh: We've got jobs, they say.  We can't break our contracts.  They go through the equipment room, with staggering numbers of shoes (3,000 pairs of sneakers a year, the trainer says the team goes through.) They get to do photo-ops with the Dallas Cowboy cheerleaders (but when one Bravo asks whether they will meet Destiny's Child, they're told they're not a big enough deal to meet Beyonce.)

One of the most absurd, ridiculous, perfect moments comes near the end, when the Hollywood studios have gotten cold feet about the movie. (Ron Howard's company wants it, but demands it be set in World War II).  Albert talks the Cowboys' owner into financing it, but the owner wants to drop the Bravos' advance to $5500 each, and then give them a share of the profits. Sgt. Dime gets angry and says no deal, and they're about to make a counteroffer when they're called back into the room, and Norm (the owner) says there's someone on the phone for Dime.  It turns out Norm's connections have gotten him through to a General and Norm is going to have the General order Dime's men to make the deal. Dime gets on the phone, and Billy sees and hears Dime nodding, saying Yes sir and No sir and I didn't know that sir, before hanging up the phone, handing it back to Norm, and saying Come on Billy let's go.  They leave, and when Billy asks whether the General ordered them to take the deal, Dime says no.

Turns out the General's a Pittsburgh Steelers fan and hates the Cowboys.

That moment sums up just how ridiculous war is: matters of life and death, rich and poor, winners and losers, get decided based on where someone lives and which team that man roots for.  There's no grand scheme, no rhyme or reason to it, no purpose. Everything is the way it is because that's the way it is, and trying to change it is almost, if not completely, impossible. That's the lesson Billy learns on his long halftime walk before he reports back to the base and another 11 months of war.

But all is not lost.  Billy is, after all, a war hero.  So after meeting the President, being on TV, being told that an Academy Award winning actress wants to play him in a movie, and being featured on the TV in a close-up at halftime, Billy's greatest victory of the day ends up being when he finally gets some Advil for his headache.

Every gun that is made,
every warship launched,
every rocket fired signifies,
in the final sense,
a theft from those who hunger and are not fed,
those who are cold and are not clothed.

This world in arms is not spending money alone.
It is spending the sweat of its laborers,
the genius of its scientists,
the hopes of its children.

The cost of one modern heavy bomber is this:
a modern brick school in more than 30 cities.

It is two electric power plants, each serving a town of 60,000 population.

It is two fine, fully equipped hospitals.

It is some fifty miles of concrete pavement.

We pay for a single fighter with a half-million bushels of wheat.
We pay for a single destroyer with new homes that could have housed more than 8,000 people. . . .

This is not a way of life at all, in any true sense.

Under the cloud of threatening war, it is humanity hanging from a cross of iron.

-- Dwight Eisenhower.