Thursday, July 25, 2013

Trip to Mormon Country (aka St. George, Utah)

I'm about to lose my mind. I'm sitting in the passenger seat as my dad drives home from St. George, Utah. We are passing Vegas as I type this and I think about how the chances of me throwing myself out the window in the next four hours are becoming greater with every passing moment. It's been a while since I ventured inland. I like to stay by the coasts as a general rule, since being away from the ocean makes me a lunatic. If that isn't enough my Dad is decidedly the worst driver in the world, and my mother is the most excitable passenger in the world, so there was a lot of screaming, throwing of peanuts, snapping, laughing derisively at each other, and threatening to pull over so whoever had a problem with the way my dad was driving could get out and walk. But really, he's the worst driver in the world. I'm not exaggerating. We say that he drives by the braille method because he likes to ride the raised bumps in between lanes instead of picking a lane and sticking to it. It's horrifying.

So this trip made me realized how I live a pretty great life.  I live humbly, but my life is rich with interesting things, healthy food, good books, beautiful people, and pleasant weather. I have a job, which I love to complain about, but it's the easiest and most enjoyable job you can imagine. I spend my days running, making art, writing, and connecting with the people around me. I generally do what moves me. It's mind-blowing when I look at my younger cousins who are all married with multiple children, and I can't imagine myself in their shoes.

When I think about what my life could have been like had I chosen the path my Dad had in mind, it astounds me. 

I was born in Provo, Utah, to two Mormon parents. When I was a little girl, my Mom left the church while my Dad stayed in it. I chose not to join the church at a very young age, which terrified all of my relatives. While this might not necessarily seem like a big deal to most, my ancestors led oxen and covered wagons barefoot and pregnant across the plains to Utah so that they could freely practice Mormonism. It is a big deal in my family, and they take it seriously. To add insult to injury, I'm related to half the state of Utah between my Mother's and my Father's families. My ancestry before that goes all the way back to the Mayflower. I think. I've said that for a really long time, and I don't know if it's true, or if I just took liberties with the genealogy program my grandma let me play with. It's actually pretty easy to trace your lineage back to just about anything when you come from a long line of people who have entire litters of children instead of just one or two. From this expansive lineage, I've been endowed with a Protetsant work ethic, strong bones, and an unrelenting desire desire to cross America on foot. I guess the apple doesn't fall too far from the tree. 

"the girls in the church"
(my mom and I)
Mormons have a saying that you can take the girl out of the church, but you can't take the church out of the girl. I just might be a walking testament of this. While I don't accept the beliefs of my family, I accept my family and I love them. Even though they are obviously aliens that adopted me. And despite the fact that I completely resented not being allowed to dress in the scandalizing clothes of my peers as a child (read: tank tops, skirts above the knee), and not being able to watch any movies that had anything above a PG rating until I was an adult, I actually appreciate the way I was raised and I see the value in it. My parents didn't let us watch TV when I was a kid, and I am eternally grateful for that. 

(As an adult, I have yet to own one, and don't plan on it any time soon. I usually don't tell people about my aversion to television because they immediately conclude that I am a pretentious intellectual. I don't think I am an intellectual, but I am definitely a snob, at least about not watching TV. It's not that I don't enjoy it. Who doesn't enjoy zoning out? It's just that I can't sit still, and I have a lot of conspiracy theories about advertising and secret plots of the media, which makes it impossible to enjoy a show without pissing off everyone around me. "Oh my God, you guys, did you just see that can of Lysol on the counter next to the Aloe Vera plant? Nice advertisement."  or "That was really bad writing. Wow. I thought you said this show had good writing. These characters are totally undeveloped." I take it too far, and I know it. So I just avoid the topic altogether in order to lessen the misery of the people around me. I digress. I ALSO
realize that it's stretching it to put an entire paragraph inside of parentheses.)

What my Mom taught me when I was growing up was that life was not about trying to win a popularity contest. Whenever I would say, "But pleeeease, Mom! Please let me go out with this boy in my six grade class! All the other girls have boyfriends!" She would flatly refuse and tell me that she didn't care how other parents were screwing up their children, and she didn't care what they thought of her, because she wasn't trying to win a popularity contest. Because being the most popular girl in my class (which I never was, not even close--I didn't even make it out of the "loser" category) was the most important thing in the world to me, I concluded that she was evil, and out to ruin my life. She would compound that feeling when she threw cliches at me like, "What is popular is not always right, what is right is not always popular."  Looking back, I was a really unattractive 11 year-old, so I'm glad that she saved me from the pain of rejection I would surely feel after I secured her permission to have a boyfriend in elementary school, only to find out it was impossible anyway. Somehow, I guess all of those aphorisms finally sunk in. That lesson--doing what is right for myself and not trying to win a popularity contest--that is an idea that I've lived by. Like my best friend Carolina says, sometimes you have to give up your need to be cool.

I went to Utah because I wanted to grow as a person (read: make myself uncomfortable, punish myself). One could say that I've cut off ties with my Mormon family for about the last ten years. I haven't shown up to Thanksgivings, Christmases, graduations, mission farewells, births, or deaths. I've avoided Utah, Nevada and Arizona in case I run into a distant relative. When I decided not to get baptized when I was a kid, and when I left the church, I guess I kind of threw out the baby with the bathwater. I rejected the religion, and so in turn, I rejected my entire family, and then told myself that it was them who rejected me. It's silly, I know. But sometimes I tell myself stories like this one just to protect my identity. 

I knew that I had to go face the music because of the project I'm doing. Just like I reached out to veterans and took their cause on as my own, teaching myself how to be compassionate and caring towards a group of people I've never tried to understand, I knew I had to extend the same olive branch to my family. I thought for sure it would be the most difficult thing in the world to reach out and humble myself before a group of people that I felt I'd been ostracized by, but I knew it was important. Like I've said before in this blog, you can't really choose who you show compassion to. You should show love and empathy to everyone. If I decided to deny my family the same courtesy I was offering the rest of the world, it would make me a hypocrite.

This is what I realized when I was in Utah. For the last twenty years, I've been missing out. Once I approached relationships with them without the filter of  "you-people-are-mother-effing-crazy-and-i want-absolutely-nothing-to-do-with-you" I saw that they actually have a lot to offer. They've created a community, a support network, a web of blonde-haired people, that I've completely been blind to. They were kind to me, happy to see me, very loving, and interesting to talk to. I realized about halfway through the trip that this whole time, regardless of whether they were judging me or not, I was definitely judging them. I was putting up the same wall that I put up with all things that I don't like, but that closely resemble me, all in order to protect my delicate ego.

While I was in St. George, I went on a drive with my Dad to Mount Zion National Park, a place where red rocks jut out of the earth skyward and carve out rivers and green vallies. The sky seems more expansive than in California, the air more crisp and clear. I started running up the side of the mountain and I realized the whole time that I wasn't able to appreciate the beauty of the place because the entire time I was thinking, "Mormon Country. Huh!" as if the whole place was ruined because it is inhabited  by a group of people that I have a complicated history with. As if Mormons ever did anything more threatening to me than bring plates of cookies to my door and ask me to come to choir practice. Sure, that's oversimplifying it, but to explain the whole story I would need another blog.

In Zion National Park, there is a formation called a blind arch. Its a natural rock formation and it's called "blind" because it is not a true arch, since you can't see through it to the other side. It's named after arches in Medieval churchers that were similarly filled in. The funny thing is that the blind arches in Zion National Park all look like human eyes. Kind of ironic. So, the arches are only blind because you say that they are. Once you realize that they are watching you trying to figure them out, you realize that they should  be called "seeing" arches instead.  This made me think about how I was blinding myself to experiencing extreme beauty, both with my family and with the earth, because I was too busy looking inward, too self-involved to notice the symphony of people, and rocks, and steeples, and sky. Once I looked outward, allowed myself to be present, and embraced reality exactly as it was, I was finally able to see again.

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

When life rains lemons...

 Sometimes, when life hands you lemons, it is incrementally and in ways that you can prepare for. Other times, a torrent of grapefruit-sized yellow fruit will come down with such intentional velocity that they are virtually impossible to avoid. Accordingly, last Friday was the Hurricane Katrina of lemon's life lessons. It's gotten me thinking about resilience, and how important it is. But actually, what's more important than resilience is the ability to learn from your experiences, to see your own role in the trials you face, and to take steps to preventing similar occurrences from happeningin the future. 

I've gotten very good in the past few years at rolling with the punches. Being an "artist" and having mostly friends that are also artists, musicians, and writers, I've had a lot of experience dealing with situations wherein organization, logic, or a little more common sense could have easily prevented impending misfortune. But if I'm honest, my own slightly spacey and eccentric ways have built the foundation for my soaring house of mishaps. Losing my things, forgetting to protect my possessions (from those who might steal), failing to protect myself (from those who might harm), and a slightly distorted confidence in man's inherently good nature have all derailed my life in serious way. 

When you have experiences that you perceive as negative, it can be hard to take the blame. And I'm not talking about admitting that something is your fault, because that's easy. It's really just an out. Confused? Let me explain. 

When I do something really silly, like set my car keys down in the middle of the woods because I need my hands free to take pictures of a squirrel, and then forget about them and subsequently lose them, I obviously know that it's my fault. No one forced me to set the keys down in the dirt, and no one made me irrationally think, "This is okay. This clearing of dirt looks kinda like a triceratops, so I will definitely be able to find these later." So why do I still feel like a victim of my own absent-mindedness? It's a little silly when you consider that you really have all the control in your life. To change your habits, to better yourself, to create whatever you want. 

So, deciding to change my habits is the goal-- to buy a huge keychain so it's harder to forget my keys, to put my bills on autopay so my cell phone doesn't get shut off, to only park where parking is allowed so  that I won't get a ticket and/or towed. To eat healthy, to be kind, to be present. These are all things within my control, and when I don't do them, I'm actually rebelling against my own best interests. You might say that I'm being too hard on myself, and you might say that it doesn't seem like a big deal… until you take into account that the feeling that I am powerless over myself stays with me all day, after I've gotten my car out of the impound, after I've ordered a new drivers license, after my phone has been turned back on. And all the people and things that have seemed to victimize me- the tow truck driver, the leaves covering the clearing where I set my keys, my rotten luck--all become unnecessary enemies. I mean, that sucks. 

Rolling with the punches is great but ducking before you get knocked out seems like a much better idea. 

Monday, July 15, 2013

How to Not Be a Jerk: By an Undercover Jerk

I've been trying to write about Rick Arnold for the last three weeks and haven't been able to. I keep starting the narrative over from the beginning and making the opening lines more and more elaborate. But when it comes down to writing about what it was like to meet Rick, my creative juices stop flowing and I feel like I am at a loss for words. I draw a blank.

At first, I thought maybe it was just because I wasn't listening carefully enough to him, and so I was unable to pull the most relevant moments from the interview. But I've spent more time with Rick than any other veteran that I've interviewed. I've gone back to visit him at the VA Hospital in Long Beach several times and I continue talking to him and listening about his life. So why is it that relating any of one of his remarkable stories is difficult?

Here is the truth.

I talk a lot about empathy and compassion on this blog. I try to push myself beyond my limits when it comes to having compassion for people I don't have much in common with. That's what this run is really about. I've been teaching myself to withhold judgment, to make myself vulnerable, and to connect with other human beings on an authentic level.

However, when I meet Rick, I find myself catching petty and unkind thoughts pass through my awareness. He is obviously crazy, I tell myself. I resent him for being overweight and stuck in a wheelchair. I want to shake him, to admonish him, to scold him, to wake him up. "Why can't you just pull yourself together?" I want to ask. Where do these terrible thoughts come from?

The truth is that I haven't been able to admit to that experience until now, even to myself. Maybe the reason I kept going back again and again to visit Rick was because I felt guilty for thinking such nasty things and I was hoping he would say the one thing that could change my mind.

Since I've had a couple weeks to reflect on it, the reason why I've acted like such a jerk has become abundantly clear to me. Within the first few moments of meeting Rick, I had already made up my mind about him. I cut myself off from having an authentic, sincere interaction with another human being, and for what? Did I somehow think that by being compassionate and empathetic towards him, I would catch whatever it disease that has made his life go so horribly wrong?

Okay. So imagine the most terrifying, evil monster in the whole world. Think big fangs, matted coarse hair, red eyes, talons, the works. Now imagine someone who has all the traits and characteristics that you identify as negative. I would bet a lot of money that you would be more repelled by the nasty person because they embody all that you fear of becoming.  I'm talking specifically about those qualities in other human beings that you recognize as latent possibilities or realities in yourself. We separate ourselves from those people who reflect us, and we dehumanize them. We see ourselves as kind and benevolent but then have moments where we are racist, classist, and ignorant. People around us are dumb, lazy, fat, a loser, insane, a drug addict, out of control, a jerk. We tell ourselves that the only reason we are able to recognize these qualities is because we are separate from them, and therefore can point them out in others.

I thought that I had moved beyond such a simple, petty way of thinking, but I guess I was wrong. I don't see the time I spent with Rick as wasted, but I regret that I have yet to give him the gift of my full attention and presence. I want to tell you in detail how I listened to his stories for hours and hours, how we laughed, how we cried. I want to tell you how he encouraged me to steal fruit off of the fruit trees at the VA, and how we ate a fig together, because these are all things that actually happened that look really good. But I don't want to just look good, I want to be good. And in order for that to happen, I have to admit that there are areas of how I relate to the world and others that could use a lot of improvement.

I REALLY hope that I am not the only one who battles with this. I am exposing my own truth only because I hope that someone might read this and be able to awaken within themselves a more merciful way of being with others.

I hope that even seeing the problem in my way of thinking has been enough to shake me out of my fear-induced stupor. I'm not saying that my days of judgmental thoughts are over. I probably have had a dozen in the last hour, towards myself and others. But in regards to Rick, I have torn down the wall between us-- a wall that he probably didn't even notice was there-- because he is so used to people treating him with the exact same careless detachment.

In allowing myself to have compassion for Rick and in opening my heart hand being his friend, I finally see how his life has unfolded, and I am able to understand how he got to where he is today. I realize part of compassion is taking on other people's heartbreak, which may be another reason it took me so long to see him as the extraordinarily kind, caring, brave man that he is. Here is Rick's story.

Sunday, July 7, 2013

How to Not Get Eaten-- by an undercover drama queen

I'm perplexed at how different my life looks than it did last July. 

Last year at this time, I was on my way to Arizona to drop off my dog at a cattle ranch. Bonsai, an Australian cattle dog, and incidentally the love of my life, decided that it was necessary to protect me from my roommate with ruthless execution. This involved Bonsai biting him in such a way that he is still left with prominent battle scars from the experience. 

To be honest, it felt good to have a fierce protector (god knows I probably needed one) but unfortunately, the barista who is always so nice to me at Starbucks didn't know how to not take it personally when Bonsai ripped his shoe off as a punishment for saying hello to me. That's when I knew it was time to say goodbye. When your fierce protector turns into a jealous psychopath, that's when it stops feeling good. The irrational jealousy is cute until someone is checking my cell phone and interrogating me about the conversation I had with the gardener. Just saying.

I wouldn't bring it up, except this is exactly the kind of stuff that kept me from achieving what I wanted to with my art, or with my writing, or anything else for that matter. The fact is, if I need an excuse not to focus my energy my goals and dreams, I have no problem creating one. And I've done it over and over again. 

Why do we humans love drama so much? 

My first impulse is to go the scientific route and think about how we are still basically animals.  Back in the day, when we were all perfectly tanned and toned, adorning leopard skin loin-cloths, and carrying around clubs instead of going to them, being eaten was a real concern. So was the procurement of food. We lived viscerally, constantly having to solve problems ourselves, and relying on our wits and prowess to keep us alive. Here's a crazy tangential thought-- every single one of your ancestors reproduced before they died. Every single one made it to adulthood before being trampled by a wooly mammoth or attacked by a sabertooth tiger. I mean that's a miracle, right? Your existence is an anomaly, and it's kind of awesome. 
When life was easier

But in American culture today, we no longer really have to worry about things like that. We can get food at a grocery story, we don't have any major predators (except other people), and we live in homes that protect us from the elements. Where does all that mental energy go? If we aren't solving the problems of our physical existence, and if our lives lack the drama of survival, our gigantic brains will go to great lengths to create problems for us to solve. We can't help that our culture has progressed faster than evolution has. We all still have that gnawing feeling that we could be eaten at any moment, even though we don't necessarily need that feeling anymore. So instead of worrying about whether the wolves will come in the middle of the night, we find ourselves worrying about how we aren't making enough money to be a success, or we fret about all the nasty things that people are saying behind our backs, or we agonize about the last seven pounds that we can't seem to lose. 

I don't know, I'm just babbling. I could be totally wrong. The point I was hoping to make is actually a lot different. The fact is that while that feeling (the need for drama) will probably never go away, you can deal with it in two healthy ways that I have thought of so far. 

1. Put it to good use. (Create intense situations that are beneficial to you and others. Such as working on a something that you are passionate about, being creative, and having awkward yet important conversations that enlighten and comfort others)

2. Ignore it. (Tell it to shut up)
I know what you are wondering. Is there any drama in my life? Don't worry. I get it. I would ask the same question if someone wrote a blog that sounded this preachy. 

Well, for the first time ever, no. The weird thing is, I'm not bored, and I don't feel the need to create upsetting and distracting scenarios that suck up my time and energy just so I can be amused and occupied. But drama isn't just about people. It's about rigging your own game so that you fail. We don't pay our bills on time, we allow the gas gauge to fall way below E before we get off the freeway, we gossip, we aren't honest with people about what we want, and then we blame them for not guessing correctly. We take things personally when we don't have to.

Here is the honest-to-God truth that will probably be taken out of context in some way and recited back to me by my mother: 

I've been a drama queen my whole life. And I am the worst kind of drama queen, because instead of calling a spade a spade, people call me an artist, which is a way of excusing any insane thing I do and saying that it is actually romantic. I am of the particular variety that is seemingly blameless in every situation, and is constantly falling victim to the ploys of crazy people that get psychotic and weird for absolutely no reason. What a load of bologna. 

The thing is, if there is drama in my life, it's because I want it there. The same goes for you, my four loyal readers. I don't care what you say, your drama is serving a purpose. Maybe it's simply there to distract you from what your heart truly wants. Maybe its there so you have an excuse not to work on your goals and dreams, the ones that scare the living crap out of you. Maybe it's an excuse not to commit fully to a relationship that has the potential to break your heart into a million tiny little pieces. You decide what purpose it serves, because you're the only one who knows. 

I'd like to say that my days of being a drama queen are over, but I can still feel her sulking in my head, starved for attention. That something within me wants spectacle, grandiose gestures, outlandish experiences and insurmountable obstacles. To some extent I would say I've welcomed hardship and unhealthy people, just to prove that I could take on any uncomfortable situation life threw at me. Ironically, in trying to prove to others that I was strong, I simply appeared unlucky, powerless and victimized. I was only fooling myself, and I even did a half-assed job at that. Obviously.

With what I'm working on now, I'm all of a sudden too busy for that. I realize that there is no time for any negativity or self-inflicted hardship in my life because what I'm trying to do is already difficult enough without it. I wake up every morning and I definitely feel afraid of being eaten by Tendinitisauras, but it's invigorating.  Running from California to New York while raising money and awareness for veterans, and pushing myself to my limitations in terms of empathy and compassion is: a spectacle, an insurmountable obstacle, an outlandish experience, and grandiose gesture. 

It seems that I've found a healthy way to deal with my penchant for drama. 

Pouring myself into something that I truly care about, and only keeping the people in my life who love and support me, has been an eye-opening experience. All the energy I wasted on meaningless gossip, on unfulfilling relationships, on paintings that didn't inspire's mind-boggling. 

And, of course, it would be really fun to beat myself for my past mistakes. But I'm pretty sure that's just drama too. I'm beginning to understand how much of life I spend as a reaction, instead of initiating a new pattern of cause and effect or creating something entirely original. I'm trying to figure it all out, but this personal growth thing is somewhat of a slippery slope. Sometimes it seems I have to get past four lies I'm telling myself about who I am, and what that means, before I get down to the honest answers about what is really going on. 

There is good news in all of this. 

I have my whole life to figure it out. And as Scarlet O'Hara (the most infamous of all drama queens) stated in Gone With the Wind, "...tomorrow is another day."

Monday, July 1, 2013

Veteran Profile #2: Rodney Borba

Last week, when I was in search of veterans to interview for this project, I stumbled across Rodney. Online I found a post written by him where he stated, "I don't regret going, I just regret coming back." It's a sentiment that I've heard before and I wanted to get Rodney's story on film so that I would be able to understand why anyone would want to surround themselves with violence instead of peace.
When I first contacted Rodney, I didn't know what to expect. It's easy to feel discarded , especially if you feel alienated. I know that I went through several years in my life where I purposely did not allow myself to hope for anything as a way to bar against disappointment. Also, sometimes in the size of a cause, the individual is lost, and ends up feeling discarded, unimportant, and forgotten. Regardless, when I told Rodney about this project, he immediately agreed to be interviewed and donated half of his Sunday to sharing his story with us. It gives me hope that while he feels that he has been marginalized by the system, he is still willing to help me out when I am only a stranger who asked him for his help.

Rodney recalled that he had a successful career with the military. He spent several years in Germany, and in 2003, he was deployed to Iraq. Two months before he was left overseas, he found out his wife was pregnant. Nine months later, while he was in Iraq, his first child was born. Talk about terrible timing. When Rodney first arrived in the Middle East, things were difficult for him. He admits that he was wrought with distress about being away from home and from his wife, and being in a new environment that was hot, uncomfortable, and dangerous.

One day, a piece of sage advice gave him the perspective and clarity he needed. An NCO (non-commissioned officer) told him one day that he had a choice. "Whats happens," the NCO said, "is going to happen. You can either choose to fight it and worry about it and cry about, or you can suck it up, and you can do a good job. But either way, it's going to happen."

Rodney attests that it was this one simple piece of advice that got him out of his funk and carried him through his deployment in Iraq. Sometimes it just takes the right person saying the right thing at the right time in order for you to alchemize fear into inspiration.So often I find myself needing to hear those exact words. Every day I find myself faced with situations where I have to choose bravery over the impulse to hide under a rock, away from the judgments of people and the obligations of a confusing world.

 Rodney paints a picture of the Iraq that he knew in 2003 as a desolate and grotesque place. He tells me about people living in the medians of freeways, storing their food next to garbage, and living in absolute squalor. He describes destitution and poverty that most people in the United States have never had to encounter. It is still scary to me when soldiers like Rodney describe acts of horrific violence with the calm of a Buddhist monk. You have to see a lot of horror to get to be that numb. It makes me feel grateful for everything I have, and silly for that gnawing sense of scarcity that is constantly trying to set up shop in my heart.

More and more, I realize that my position as a pacifist is an extremely privileged one. I just happened to be born in the right country, at the right time. I realize that my idealism about hope and non-violence exists only because I do not hear mortars and explosions in the middle of the night. I am able to live without fear because I have not known it to the extent that our military does.

Rodney decided to get out of the military when he found out that his 18 month old son was diagnosed with autism. He realized that having a stable home life was essential to his son's progress and happiness. Soon after returning home from Iraq, Rodney accepted a job working as a civilian for the Army in Washington DC. He attests that life was relatively stable during that time.

One day, Rodney heard about a job available in California with a large defense contracting company. The way Rodney tells it, they used their program of wanting to hire only veterans as a ploy to look good, and have high numbers of veteran employment, but soon laid a lot of people off.  Rodney was one of them. The tension in the room is palpable when Rodney begins telling this part of his saga, and the pain and betrayal he feels from this is evident even in his eyes.

It took a lot of humbling for Rodney to finally ask for help from the myriad of organizations that promise to help veterans. When the defense contractors offered him a job as part of an initiative to hire veterans, he finally decided it was time to accept help. He moved his entire family across the country, only to be laid off less than a year later. This experience has rocked him. Feeling like he is incapable of providing for his family, Rodney attests that finding employment would be the first step towards creating a healthy and prosperous future. He admits that this hurdle is the first, and also the most difficult. When he lost his last job, he also lost a lot of the confidence that he had in himself. He is afraid to hope for a better life, because to him that means the inevitability of disappointment.

After talking to so many veterans about their experiences overseas, and the aftermath that ensues when they get home, I've started to see a pattern. The military usually ends up enlisting people who are around eighteen or nineteen years old, and usually its those who don't go to college who end up joining. In many cases, these kids want to go into the military just so they are able to afford college later after they serve their country.

I think about when I was nineteen. I was going through a serious identity crisis. Actually, I  still am going through an identity crisis,  but that is something one learns to be comfortable with as a self-proclaimed "artist". But at eighteen or nineteen years old, if you aren't in school with a solid five-year plan, I can see how joining the military would be a very appealing alternative to working in retail or going to a trade school. Especially because the military basically manufactures, packages up, and labels an identity for you. Not only that, but you are part of a very intricate, stable, and secure support network of both peers and mentors.

Because you all have this in common-- being in the Navy, or the Army, or the Marines, its easy to maintain your identity within your peer group as a musician, or a goofball, or a star athlete, or the tough guy. (Think of it this way. If you are an apple, and you are hanging out with a bunch of other apples, your apple-ness disappears. Instead you identify your fellow apples by their spots, or colors, or bruises, or flavors.) You are inducted into part of a family--and the infrastructure of your life is completely dictated to you. You are told when to get up, when to excersize, when to eat, when to go to bed, what clothes to wear, and the correct way to address your superiors. There's a lot of comfort in that, but I'm guessing that's not the most powerful part of joining the military.

I know I'm only basing this on my very scant knowledge, and I know that I risk appearing presumptuous by saying this (Please forgive me, I'm still learning), but it seems to me that the most valuable part  of a soldiers' experience in the military is their distinct sense of purpose. When you are deployed overseas, you are working together with thousands of other people to accomplish something impossibly important and dangerous together. You know your value as an individual and as a part of a cohesive team.

When you leave the military however, you are back where you started, at square one. Except now, you have a resume full of accomplishments that most civilians probably can't even read, much less understand, plus whatever traumatizing experiences you are carrying with you and whatever injuries you might be sustaining. You have cultivated a work ethic, bravery, discipline, and fortitude, but in the chaos of the civilian world, you have lost your sense of purpose.

I can imagine going to a data entry job, or working in a restaurant, or filing papers seems ridiculous and meaningless after going to war.  Adding insult to injury, your identity as a part of the military is amplified once you step outside it, because you are removed from your peer group, and more than ever people see you as different than them. No longer are you the class clown, or the star quarterback, or the well-loved scrawny hero. Now you are pigeonholed as a veteran. It almost seems by reaching out to help veterans as a demographic instead of focusing on the individual, we are stigmatizing them even more. Does that make sense?

I don't know the solution to that problem.

It's been on my mind all the time.

Correct me if I'm being ridiculous, but it seems to me that veterans are very well suited for work in the non-profit sector. There, you work together with a team of people who are passionate about a cause, you are inducted into part of a family, and you are working towards a common goal. I know it sounds terribly Utopian and idealistic but maybe this is the solution for veterans like Rodney.

Rodney says that he would rather be back in the middle of a terrible war than at his house three blocks away from the beach in beautiful Southern California. I've heard other soldiers also fantasizing about going back to war, so that they can regain their sense of belonging and their sense of purpose.

But, there has to be a better alternative. The problem is figuring out what it is.