29 October 2010

Let's Misbehave

Carving by sculptor Ray Villafane

Happy Halloween! I wish you ghouls and goblins and candy corn, and for those who are interested, a blessed All Saints’ Day. Given the season, I thought it appropriate that I found out today the majority of my co-workers are convinced I’m going to hell. There was a lot of hemming and hawing and bushes that were not beaten around, but that was the gist of their confession.

The Doctor, who remains persuaded of my imminent conversion to Islam, has faith that I will ultimately be saved from damnation. The others, though, admit that I’m something of a lost cause. I suppose I may at least take solace in the fact they are regretful about it. They do appear a bit torn, as they accept that I am a spiritual person. Interestingly, this is more thanks to the yoga than my weekly attendance of Mass. Indeed, they almost always choose to ignore that I’m religious at all; I’m not sure if this is because I’m western or Christian.

Without question, my Afghan co-workers take exception to my Catholicism (as, in fairness, do my largely agnostic American friends). We’ve discussed our faiths a number of times by now, and they are rather adamant that my belief in the Holy Trinity constitutes polytheism. I attempted to clarify the matter with the St Patrick Elucidation (if that’s not it’s official name, it should be) to no avail.

Moreover, while they are more than receptive to my critiques of the Bible as beautiful but outdated, the Koran is not-to-be-questioned perfect. There are no errors, and if I were to read it, I would see the light of its perfection, never mind that I have. I attempted to point out that this ‘perfect’ record of the word of God states that in matters of law, one man is worth two women, men are allowed to marry as many as four women, over whom they have dominance the same as over their land, and angels, as sublime beings, should only be called by men's names. My protests were met with either blank stares (of course it does. Your point is?) or assurances that it all makes more sense in Arabic and I was missing the nuances (yes, a man is allowed to have four wives, but only if he can feed them all equally. Isn’t that better?). The Bible contains similar absurdities in both Testaments, such as when to sell you daughter in to slavery, admonishments for women to keep silent in church, and the reminder that man is woman’s head and to be deferred to in all things. Upon further reflection, the prescribed treatment of women is similar in both sacred texts. Cut from the same cloath, they teach that the ‘fair sex’ is unclean during our menstrual cycle, and should be treated at least as well as livestock, if better than slaves. It’s good to know where we stand.

Perhaps because of the common religious ground, polytheism notwithstanding, I suspect they are inclined to view me as unredeemably damned because I’m a liberal, and therefore licentious, Westerner. Though my colleagues seem quite fond of me, they nevertheless assume I must lead a hedonistic lifestyle. Mind you, they never actually ask, not that I would be inclined to tell them. Perhaps I could just burst in to song: “if you want a future, darling, why don’t you get a past…” One did ask rather hesitantly if I was upset with them. I laughed and assured them that I was alright – Catholic guilt aside, according to my faith tradition, all hope is not lost.

The ‘we like you but think that you’re damned’ juxtaposition isn’t all that rare. My daily interactions are actually full of really interesting dichotomies. I have an erstwhile friend among linguists with whom, on some days, I am particularly close. On any given day, he is so very western, but on others, so very not. For example, he readily admits to having a crush on me, and frequently alludes that he would like to act on it. When this happens, I remind him that he has a serious girlfriend back in the States on whom he does not want to cheat (as he once pointed out, American women take that much more seriously than do Afghani women). At which point, he usually gets miffed and compares me to a German whore.

Similarly, while affirming that cheating is both wrong and backwards, denoting a lack of respect for your significant other, he holds that monogamy is aberrant. This is clearly why the divorce rate in the States is so much higher than in the Middle East; these overzealous wives won’t let their men openly frequent sex workers. Given this stance, he is also oddly supportive of lashing as a reasonable punishment for adultery (for both parties, mind you. He’s not a barbarian, and that’s what it calls for in the Koran). Stoning, though, is a bridge too far. He thinks I’m fit, frequently asking for workout tips, but opines that my vegetarianism is both unhealthy and unnatural. Otherwise pleasant lunches are often marred by lectures on the benefits to be gained from eating cow (rich from a man that shuns pork) and recitations of the calories in my food. I simply sigh. There are so few pleasures here, and I just want to eat my chocolate chip in peace. Tomorrow I’ll eat with the crazy Bulgarians. They might well think I’m going to hell, too, but at least I know that they probably expect to be going with me.

25 October 2010

Words Words Words and Commas

In certain wonk-heavy circles in DC, when more weighty topics are lacking, there is a heated debate over whether acronyms are to be pronounced as words or simply spelled aloud. For example, is it U-S-A-I-D or youse-aid? I-P-O-A (now ISOA) or eye-poe-ah? I once had an employer actually yell at me for saying you-sip, rather than U-S-I-P. The military has apparently fallen squarely on the side of words rather than letters. Their almost comical over-abundance of acronyms are frequently forced to behave like real denizens of the Queen’s English, consonant clusters be damned. ACOR, CSTC-A, MANPAD, INSCOM, VBIED, FOB, DOMEX – all of these so-called nouns demand oral contortions to spit out with any fluency.

Beyond blithely making up new words, the military is also prone to coining their own idioms. As an insular community, this practice isn’t altogether surprising and they are entitled to engage in it. However, as an outsider, I don’t always appreciate it when I am treated like a moron for being confused when someone exclaims that he has eyes on the day his replacements rip in so he can pop smoke.

Combine that with the idiosyncratic way most Americans already speak, and it’s no wonder the linguists struggle. I realize that I have written about this topic before, but it seems to be worth revisiting. One of the better language testers we have was stumped after being called ‘cranky’ today. When asked for a synonym he might know, my office-mates kept tossing out technically correct but largely vernacular words – crusty, ornery, crabby, grouchy, tetchy, cantankerous. It was language lessons via an irascible version of the Seven Dwarfs. After clarifying that they were all subtle riffs on angry, the linguist shook his head, sighing over ‘white Ebonics’. I’ve never really equated ‘cantankerous’ to AAVE, but to each his own, I suppose.

The majority of language confusion in the office stems not from slang, however, but from homophones and near homophones. The linguists use a nifty (more white Ebonics for you) computer-based translation program that vocalizes the English word. Unfortunately, the sound quality is frequently less than perfect. Some of my favorite mix-ups included mistake versus mystic, forgery versus orgy (I corrected them on that one with greater alacrity than normal), and Gyllenhaal versus genital. Okay, so that last was actually from an older American staff member, although I rather liked the confusion. I imagine that’s the screen name of the lead actor in the pornographic version of Proof.

My recurrent role as go-between for US and Afghan staff has earned me the unofficial title of ‘terp whisper’. Generally, translating for the linguists is just a matter of tenacity and context. For example, if you watch the Doctor for long enough, you come to realize that when he wants to emphasize something, he alters the word order. Once, an American colleague, complaining about the Afghan preference for subtle green tea, opined that he needed some ‘punch in the face’ coffee. The next day, Doc obliged with some extra-strong ‘face in the punch’ coffee. His inversion proved appropriate; anyone who drank it walked right into that beating. That said, often the context of my colleagues’ language snafus is established in Pashtu and then no amount of tenacity will help. The other morning for instance, my local co-work starting chanting To-ga! To-ga! seemingly out of the blue. I really didn’t know what to make of that, so I just went back to work.

Linguist writings are another matter entirely. In the (usually typed) word, they reach almost Dadaist levels of abstraction, particularly with regard to punctuation. In a post-interview email, one linguist was compelled to re-introduce himself. Afghans have a lovely and rather time-consuming tradition of greeting, asking after one another’s health, family, and activities. What the custom lost in warmth I think it gained in entertainment value when delivered over the interwebs:
hElLo gOod MorNiNg hOw arE yOu. hope you are doing well and happy with all hobbies in here. wHat isssss goInG On? im sure still you dont know me.... last week came to there and had interviews with interepreters.

The Afghans at least have some excuse for their abstractly-worded missives (the random capitalization, though, not so much). The Americas whose writing descends to Afghan levels, however, have only apathy and T9 to blame. Whether professional or personal, emails and tests that may have originated as English seldom reach me as such. The iPhone-blessed among my friends are particularly prone to sending indecipherable communiqués. I rather suspect that eventually, the study of texting will join the ranks of other venerable linguistics categories like decoding hieroglyphs or paleography.
I'm sorry I missed this Koenig totally slipped my mind. I had to ante sexua pig duct work but no one told menu tip 830pm. I just go
Sent from my iPhone
*got home. Sorry I didn't mean to send that just yet. When can we reschedule?

Translation: my friend missed our planned Skype date that morning because she had to cover an extra shift at work, and no one told her until 2030. I had to use the T9 on my own cell phone to make sense of some of that. Being a rather wretched speller myself, I’m sympathetic to those whose messages are, shall we say, non-conformist. That said, spelling and grammar checks are automatic on almost everything these days (except Skype – what’s with that?) so that even the laziest and most dyslexic among us have no excuse.

I know that I’ve shared a number of examples today, but please indulge me with one more. The worst offender for written discombobulation I’ve yet met, among all nationalities and linguist preferences, is one of my yogis. For some unspecified reason, most mornings he sends me summaries of his dreams. Apparently in addition to whispering the terps, I’m also supposed to be the camp soothsayer. I have to say this isn’t my favourite development in life recently, but there it is. However, I firmly refuse to even contemplate a faux analysis unless the dream in question is correctly described.

I had a weird dream yesterday afternoon...
I, a Night, was in a horse drawn carriage when the Damsel started
screaming as a Dragon was picking the carriage up and flying away....
The my phone range and Lt was asking about Yoga class. I haven't
remember dreams lately, not I can't forget this one.

Were you a knight or a night? Horse-drawn or horse drawn? I have to admit that I rather like the Dalí-level surrealism inherent in the dream as written. I was also intrigued by the article “the”. This isn’t just any damsel we’re talking about, but THE DAMSEL. This is the stuff made-for-television SciFi movies are made of. I sense a secondary income source…

21 October 2010

Sometimes being a contractor makes me feel dirty, but all that money will buy a lot of baths

In an effort to remind us that we’re all united for one mission, or something to that effect, Corporate recently hosted a company-wide ‘town hall’ with our CEO. His speech was (appropriately enough, considering we’re coming up on All Hallows’) very much Frankenstein-esque. There was some State of the Company stuff (where we are, where we’re going), passive-aggressive finger-wagging (we just lost a big contract, but it was a loss for all of us! Don’t go blaming certain departments, even if they did drop the ball), and the rah-rah enthusiasm of a good pep rally (we just won a big contract! Okay, so we’re splitting a new contract with three other contractors. Semantics. We’re number one!). Most of all, though, he stressed how critical those in the field are to Corporate, given that we’re how they make all the lovely revenue that keeps him fully kitted out in Hermes.

Credit where credit is due, the CEO knows how to work a room. He is warm, making pithy jokes and teasing those in the audience. Of course, watching half-way across the world and 8.5 hours ahead, over a spotty Skype connection that went out at least every five minutes, some of the personal touch was lost. I was therefore forced to focus on substance alone. Time and again, the CEO managed to undercut his own ‘the field is our first priority’ message. Even having spent most of my working life as a lowly intern, rarely have I felt like such a second-class citizen as during the discussion of Corporate’s annual picnic and fundraiser. Though it was acknowledged that we couldn’t attend, being, as we are, in Afghanistan, we were encouraged to make our presence felt by sending donations. Thanks for thinking of us, guys.

Much of the field-ignorance I expected, like being incapable of naming a single of our 16 hub FOBs outside of Bagram. It was a great bonding moment in the office when the CEO said “those out in Bagram or...” and we all shouted PHOENIX at the monitor. He, however, reached for “Blackhorse”. This was a particularly unfortunate choice, as we just pulled all of our linguists from Blackhorse for ill-treatment and literally have no employees there.

Beyond that, there was some blatant pandering I did not expect. In response to a question from the field, the CEO suggested we will soon be eligible for leave after 90 days boot on the ground, whereas before we had to wait for 180. The squeals of delight drowned out his next few sentences. I was less impressed, my QA mind turning over the implications of this seemingly impromptu promise. Did he check this against other policies already in use? Is Corporate in fact prepared to implement, or was that an empty promise to satisfy the natives for a few months? Will we actually be afforded extra vacation days and travel re-imbursement? It turns out the answers were as follows: no, ish (somehow I was tasked with writing this policy – still not sure how that happened), no, no, no. Swell – a poorly thought-out policy with little positive impact in my life. This speech was really going beautifully.

For me, however, the highlight of the town hall came as a bit of a throw-away line during the business-development portion of the chat. In the midst of enlightening us to the places we, as a company, would go, the sights we would see, and the heights to which we would soar, he noted that the referendum for the independence of South Sudan is imminent. While Corporate hoped for a peaceful passage, it would be ready to act, he added, the anticipatory glee in his voice belying his sanguine words. Wait, I said to myself. Did he really just say that MEP is prepping for civil war in Sudan? I thought I would be sick.

On the subject of inducing nausea, some reports out of a more proximate southern conflict really got to me today, as well. A local linguist came into Kabul this week on vacation, and stopped by the office to beg for re-assignment. Apparently, his unit forced him back out on patrol after having injured his arm in two separate IED attacks. When he asked for medical leave, his Marine supervisor held a gun to his head, telling his there were consequences for abandoning the unit. Ultimately, he was only allowed to leave after he had lost all mobility and feeling in his arm. It now appears that he may never fully recover. Further, he left one of his comrades recovering from emergency appendectomy on a cot in the transient tent.

I appreciate that the linguists are not always the easiest individuals to work with. Some of them are even dangerously incompetent, speaking English so poorly as to put units in danger (the gentleman today was decidedly not in this category). I also understand how many in the military have come to hate Afghans. Being asked to distinguish between the Afghans who support you, want to use you, are indifferent to you, and want to kill you is frequently an unfair burden and frequently a bridge too far. I feel for the troops – I really do. They see the worst of this society. Not just the insurgents, but the destitute in the form of beggars and the corrupt in the form of cops. And they despise them.

Tragically, this ire toward all things Afghan strips the mission of its meaning. More than that, it offers a license to dehumanize each and every citizen of Afghanistan, no matter their relation to the Coalition. One would hope that familiarity should breed not only contempt, but compassion, especially for the linguists. These aren’t just people, but are people who work with the troops. Sleep with them, eat with them. They serve as comrades in arms (close to, at any rate, as linguists are really not supposed to carry firearms). There is no excuse whatsoever for such torturous treatment of a fellow human being. Many linguists hate this country just as much as their units. If they had nothing else in common, they have that.

16 October 2010

Hooah! Namaste

It starting to get cooler here and fall is settling over us, rather decisively in the evenings. It is the most desert-like Kabul has ever seemed to me, and temperatures easily drop twenty degrees with the sun. While I appreciate the falling temperatures, it is causing me a bit of concern with regards to the yoga group.

I can say with a fair amount of confidence that these are the most adverse conditions in which I will ever practice Asanas. Yes, I realize that I’m in a war zone (war zone-esque at any rate; Camp Phoenix is certainly not Helmand), but we’re working under some pretty adverse conditions. Currently, my rag-tag little group of yogis meets outside, near the helicopter landing zone. Prior to every practice, I have to sweep up the splintered stage lest we all be coated in a fine layer of powdery Afghan dust, in-side and out. Not that it matters much, as the wind and helicopters ensure that we’re filthy and dusty by the end anyway. Nothing to get one into a Zen-like meditative state like an instructor screaming directions over whirring rotary blades and the incessant need to sneeze. All of this blends nicely with the honking of horns from the Jalalabad Road just over the wall and the sporadic shooting from the SOF range. About the only ambient noise that I find helpful are the elegant and undulating prayer chants from near-by mosques, though I suspect that those among my yogis who engage in combat operations find them less than soothing.

For some time, I was grateful for the cooling weather, as it finally spelled the death of the malaria-bearing ‘Taliban’ mosquitoes that frequently dive-bombed our practice. Now, however, I find myself racing against the impending snow to find a replacement space. It is becoming increasingly apparent to me that my general, khamra-based approach is not going to further my efforts. We’re jostling with a number of other groups for the same spaces, including racquet ball, mixed-martial arts, and P90X. The marine in charge of the kickboxing class and the drill instructor with Insanity apparently missed lessons on sharing in kindergarten. My group has both seniority and, in many cases, superior numbers on our side, but I’m not sure how to leverage these qualities. I did have one student who tried to convince me yoga was how ancient Hindi monks prepared for battle, prompting flashbacks of A Fish Called Wanda. Perhaps we need to harness yoga’s unexpectedly aggressive roots. Combat Yoga sounds like a niche market, does it not?

In addition to the obstacles facing the class, I am encountering difficulties in my private practice (this aside from my guilt at even teaching a class. I’m altogether a mediocre yogi, and feel like something of a fraud in leading in the first place). If finding space for 15 yoga practitioners is logistically fraught, doing the same for one is not considerably better. I often find myself relegated to the ‘combatant’s room’, where I share space with boxers, break-dancers, and taekwondo on any given day. Just yesterday, falling deeply into camel pose so as to say out of the way of the windmill of a medic and aspiring b-boy, I hit my head rather soundly on a punching bag. On the bright side, my ability to concentrate seems to be improving.

11 October 2010

DADT Point-Counterpoint

Happy Coming Out Day from the land of DADT, or to give this heinous little piece of legislation it’s more formal moniker: Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, Don’t Pursue, Don’t Harass. Recently, a particularly unambiguous anti-DADT Facebook status of mine was met with both the humorously disapproving “you’re scaring me” and the flatly awkward “O”. I’m not even sure what that means, but I think I can safely assume it’s not an endorsement of my position. Some of my other debates have been, at very least, more spirited. By way of a fun intellectual exercise, let’s run through some of the arguments and counter-arguments I and my (usually military) sparring partners have trotted out over the past few weeks.

Consistently, the first claim to be made, and one which I had not heard before, is that repealing DADT represents a massive logistical burden. I have trouble seeing this as much more than an ‘excuse’ argument – something that says really, I’m not against queers, but they’ll complicate things too much. In the spirit of good debate, though, I’ll accept it as a sincere concern. The argument is as follows: in letting openly LGBTQ people serve in the armed forces, they would have to be provided with separate services such as lodging and restrooms, thereby doubling the logistics footprint of any operation. Integration of openly non-straight people presents the same type of logistics quandary as did the women’s army core, or WAC, into the all-male Army. As such, it presents a tremendous financial and resource burden on already strapped armed services.

LGBTQ only living quarters? Why not a separate DFAC and TMC while we’re at it? Many of the same arguments about logistics and the need to segregate facilities were made about racial integration into the military. The Army is a conservative institution, and as such historically is always one of the last to change. It fought racial and gender integration, yet I think both made it a stronger force. Also, I find it interesting that LGBTQ-identified soldiers would only require distinct living quarters if they were out; closeted soldiers are evidently fine to share a shower with.

Further, when assessing the financial costs of repealing DADT, one also must be aware of the costs of keeping it in place. According to the Servicemembers Legal Defense Network, a LGBTQ advocacy group for vets and current service members, more than 14,000 service members have been fired under the law since 1994. The GAO estimated that these losses cost the military upwards of 200 million USD, due to investigations, lost productivity from discharging troops, and other related expenses. An independent study put the estimate for the same time at more than $363 million. Intangible costs, such as the loss of potential LGBTQ recruits, cannot be quantified.

I was, however, assured that lost recruits are not a grave concern. In fact, some National Guard units are so chock-a-block with recruits that they’re turning people away. Leaving aside the question of whether Big Army, Navy, Marines, Air Force, and Coast Guard are so lucky, it was asserted that, while repealing DADT might encourage some new recruits, it would almost certainly also discourage those who do not want to serve with openly LGBTQ comrades. One Guardsman was willing to concede that the “quality of the personnel could be an issue” among new recruits. It was a begrudging, if utterly accurate, admission, considering the trends among recruitment standards. Army Strong doesn’t mean quite what it used to, as recent years have seen the armed services wave requirements on high schools degrees or equivalency exams, clean criminal records, and health and fitness. But, by all means, let’s continue dissuading totally capable LGBT recruits so that we can capture the coveted bigot demographic.

Moving beyond recruits, I considered those 14,000 personnel who have actually been discharged. While some of the high school dropout courted by recruiters might eek by in the service, the same GAO study found that more than 750 mission-critical service members, including more than 320 with skills in important languages such as Arabic, Korean and Farsi, had all gotten the boot. Why there are so many LGBTQ linguists, I do not know. What I do know, working with civilian linguists, is how hard it is to find good ones. Incidentally, we do have a former Marine among our linguists who left the service ‘before DADT could do it for him’. The ripple effect of such a discharge would also have outed him to his very conservative Muslim family. Gotta love unintended consequences.

According to the grapevine, however, such mission-critical skills are nothing in the face of unit cohesion. Showering with non-straights was raised time and again as a unit cohesion issue, apparently comparable to allowing men to shower with women. Who knew there was such a spate of bathroom phobias in the military? In addition to contenting that living with openly LGBTQ folks is, for lack of a better work, icky, many of my interlocutors felt the need to add a concern non-straight sex will increase. As one young medic put it, “if you start letting OPENLY LGBTQ people live together what do you think will happen?” He expanded his emphatically capitalized rhetorical query but asserting that, “with the political correctness of today’s Army it would lead to more investigations, and more BS.”

It’s gotten so that every time a supposedly straight man complains to me that he doesn’t want another dude checking him out in the shower, I want to alert him the sad fact that, really, he’s not that cute. Moreover, simply because one is attracted to the same sex does not mean that they will feel comfortable ogling them in the shower. More likely, a fear of stigmatization will actually encourage more demure conduct. And having watched the rampantly homo-erotic behaviours among servicemen, I hardly even think they would notice.

As a means of by-passing locker-room harassment, one charmingly naïve specialist suggest basing living quarters around gender and attraction, rather than biological sex. If you feel like a woman, the logic went, you should live with them. So wherein lays the problem of allowing gays to shower with the ladies and lesbians with the fellas? Oh, that’s right, they might well get raped. Indeed, DADT is exploited to cover up a great deal of sexual misconduct. Its repeal could therefore lead to more investigations, but that is far from a bad thing and it’s most certainly not bull-shit.

As far as consensual LGBTQ sex is concerned, all US personnel in theatre all supposedly bound by GO1. Why does it matter who you’re not sleeping with as long as you’re yet abstaining? What is more, does anyone really suppose DADT has stopped the queer folks from pursing romance? Indeed, this is as good an argument as any against living quarters segregation by orientation; it would make hooking up so very much easier. I suspect that even now, LGBTQ soldiers violate GO1 with much the same temerity as their straight comrades. Actually, given the queer population here is likely to be smaller than the hetero population, same-sex tryst are probably less common and more circumspect. I don’t see how someone who is serving openly is any more likely to flaunt violations of GO1 than is someone serving in the closet or straight.

Let’s forget about sex for a moment (less fun, I know). A number of my friends in uniform reminded me that there is the ‘military culture’ to consider. The armed services are not an equality-based institution, and people are routinely excluded for any number current or potential concerns, such as medical conditions like asthma. Lest I didn’t notice, the United States military is not some recreation baseball league that must allow handicapped kids to play. Some people are simply not acceptable for the military, and this is the “hard truth”.

If LGBTQ recruits are upset about an institutionalized bigotry that compares their sexual orientation to a disease or handicap, it’s evidently their own fault. As members of a volunteer force, they should have an awareness of what they’re signing up for in the first place. There is nothing directly impeding their service, but doing so necessitates remaining mum on their sexuality. The traditions and stringent requirements of the military are overt and well-publicized. A minority, therefore, has no standing to demand rules change to their personal benefit. The only focus of the armed services in on winning wars, excuse me, WARS. In that respect, it cannot be expected to conform to the precepts of other governmental bodies. It’s simply not “how the finest fighting force in the world does things”. If a LGBTQ individual is hell-bent on expressing their orientation, they can join the NSA or FBI.

But, I protest, the toys aren’t nearly as cool. After all, there are no grenade-launchers in the FBI. On a more serious note, why does being open equate to flaunting your sexuality? Repealing DADT offers LGBTQ soldiers the right to take pride in themselves and their families. It is about being able to display photos of one’s partner with the same dignity as his or her straight colleagues do their spouses. Queer soldiers are exposed to the same stresses during deployment as everyone else, but with the additional and possibly unbearable pain of having to constantly hide a critical aspect of who they are.

Beyond the obvious mental health strain this poses to individuals, it also negatively impacts the overall functionality of the military. Closeted personnel are less efficient and enthusiastic. According to the Harvard Business Review, less than 21 per cent of closeted LGBTQ persons trust their employer, compared to 47 per cent of those who are out. Similarly, fewer than 60 per cent describe themselves as loyal, versus 70 per cent of their out peers. Being open about one’s orientation fosters engagement, trust, loyalty, and creativity, in addition to boosting productivity. Did someone mention something about creating the most effective fighting force in the world?

Frankly, while these debates have been stimulating, I still want to call shenanigans. Whatever justifications are offered in defense of DADT, it is and has always been a question of equality. Some service people are simply uncomfortable with the thought of sharing their B-Hut with someone queer. Again, though, there is no doubt that the service already has LGBTQ members. Does the knowledge really make that much of a difference?

In the long-run, an open military will likely not adversely impact its straight members. Who it will impact are the victims of DADT, predominately women and minorities. Because the burden of proof rests with the ‘accused’ under this law, there have actually been several instances of people (usually women) being investigated and discharged under DADT for entirely vindictive reasons. Perhaps they resisted the advances of a superior or passed over someone for promotion. So much for not harassing and pursuing.

I’m sorry if my soapbox is especially high in this post, but few things have stirred my passion this much of late. I think you should be able to vote, work, fight for your country, or marry the person you love, no matter your orientation, religion, skin colour, gender, or whether you prefer crunchy or smooth peanut butter. On this Coming Out Day, I’m coming out against DADT as broken, unnecessary, and functionally unconstitutional. It camouflage fear and hatred with a veneer of plausibility, and it’s high time it was exposed and consigned to the rubbish bin of history. I will celebrate when it's repealed, and in ten years, I very much hope my friends and debating partners in the armed services agree with me.

Don’t even get me started about queer rights in Afghanistan. Except on Thursdays, of course.

05 October 2010

Cash Only, Pogs for Change

I would like to reflect, if I may, on the never-ending source of peculiarity that is the PX (post exchange. It’s our version of a general store). Stopping in for socks and batteries, two things I go through at a remarkable clip, I had to marvel at the sub-set of goods with which they fill their very limited shelf space. Much of what seems odd at first blush is, I understand, requisite here. For example, the panoply of knives, emergency blankets, and flashlights is an important supplement to the standard issue equipment. Still though, other aspects remain a bit more perplexing. Remember, please, that this is not a sizable establishment. And yet, there is an entire room dedicated to video game accessories, including a Wii steering wheel and DDR floor pad. Moreover, hanging next to the socks in the cloathing section were several leopard-print bras in nothing smaller than a C cup. Seriously, whose Comic-Con fantasy was responsible for putting the order together this week?

I really do find it a great logical exercise to try and ascertain what, exactly, constitutes a necessity. I mean, I wasn’t really expecting them to have nail polish remover (though my toes are in pressing need of a new pedicure), but if you can only bear to stock one kind of shampoo, do you really need nearly a dozen types of protein powder? Even here, I’m not able to find something I like. This shmorgishborg, proffering protein powder with nitric oxide, with caffeine, with glutamine, with a cherry on top, is entirely composed of whey proteins. There is not a soy product in sight. Everyone here is terrified of the estrogen levels in soy, avoiding even the single-serve Silk in the DFAC for the much more questionable ‘milk-style drink’ that has enough preservatives to be shipped from Qatar. Honestly, most of the folks on base could use a good dose of estrogen. Man-breasts be damned.

The PX also boasts an oxymoronically large but limited selection of greeting cards. For example, there are rarely simple happy birthday cards to be found. Meanwhile, there is always a bundle for grandparents’ day. When is grandparent’s day anyway? Beyond simply acting as a source of frustration, the cards are actually faintly tragic. What really kills me are the children’s cards. The PX perpetually has extensive choices for birthdays 1-3. They know their demographic.

As I was standing in the very long line - this one small store services roughly 5,000 folks – with my six-pack of socks and over-priced batteries - $11 for a 4 pack of AAs! The PX only carries the ‘high performance’ lithium style – I was struck anew by the illogic of the PX. It manages to carry items like single-serve packages of Crystal Lite and Ice Breakers gum, both of which are available for free at DFAC. Honestly, I think that it’s just sometimes cathartic. For no reason I can articulate, it feels so comforting to go through the very normal motion of spending money on a bag of cheetos – for a second, it almost feels like I’m in any convenience store State-side. And I might have then eaten them all in one sitting. I felt a little nauseous, but it was totally worth it.

On the topic of purchasing things you can enjoy gratis, some FOBs also boast the more financially sound if less satisfyingly consumerist “free-x”. These are mostly filled with a miss-matched assortment of snack food and travel-sized toiletries. Donate your hotel shampoo to soldiers! It’s rather like a lower-budget, pocket-sized Good Will, if you can imagine such a thing. I have no right to complain, though. I always manage to forget my towel and shampoo when I travel. If not for the free-x and gym, I’d be hurtin.

No discussion of PXs is complete without a nod to those on ISAF bases. I can’t wait to go back and take advantage of their tremendous selection. You see, the last few times, I was so overwhelmed that I didn’t actually buy anything – just wandered around in slightly stunned amazement. They’re huge, diverse, and have CHOCOLATE! And I mean real chocolate. No Hershey here; just Godiva and Milka. And not only do they carry several different kinds of shampoo and deodorant, but they even have perfume and body lotions. The quality of living is apparently totally different for European forces. For all intents and purposes, their PXs are war-zone duty-free shops, less the alcohol. Even they don’t make it that easy.

01 October 2010

Perhaps we should have an office Project Runway party

Afghanistan is frequently referred to as the Graveyard of Empires, perhaps to the point of cliché.  If this truism holds, I feel that it is also something of the fondue pot of their cultures (sans white wine, of course).  Afghans have tremendously strong cultural and tribal identities, and are a remarkably proud people.  This does not, however, mean they haven’t soaked up some cultural touchstones from their various occupiers and neighbors.  Notably this does not include the Chinese, for whom Afghans seem to hold a special disdain.  India, though, is fair game.  Many people learn to speak Urdu and Hindi simply by watching copious amounts of Bollywood movies. 

The sub-set of Afghans I typically associate with, that is, young, educated men, display an odd combination of American mannerisms with Euro-trash sense of style.  This week, a quote from American Pie kicked off a comparison of everyone’s favorite comedies (the American Pie series, The Hangover, and unexpectedly, Sex and the City were all cited), culminating in surprisingly academic consideration of streaking and Tantric sex.  In the meantime, they’re traipsing about the office in acid wash skinny jeans, designer shades, muscle shirts, with Ed Hardy and Diesel being very popular choices, and Italian-style shoes with elongated toes.  The vast majority of these styles are Chinese rip-offs (another point in common with the US!).  Fashion really marks the only time Chinese goods are considered acceptable, as their versions make for more bedazzling and random accessorizing.  Our office is a glorious mélange of clashing patterns and dizzying colours, all topped with the ever-present scarf (it works in nice counterpoint to my own depressingly monotonous wardrobe of khaki.  It seems everything I own is khaki).  The bold styling reminds me a lot of Russia, actually, with their loud post-soviet styles.  There was a similar dramatic cultural shift, I suppose; not so much an awakening as an explosion.

Fashion is a frequent topic of conversation, as the guys argue about what color pallets match (green and gray are, they maintain, a no-go) and preferred designers (Gucci was the consensus).  When I tried to round-out their cultural reference points by offering them the New Yorker, they asked if it wasn’t a fashion magazine.  In fairness, they also thought the Corn Huskers were a fashion magazine from Nebraska.  One assumes it would be heavy on denim.  I ended up compromising a bit, and giving them Vanity Fair.

They do have a number of pop-culture pursuits outside of cloathes.  They had a rather nicely choreographed air guitar routine to Kid Rock the other days, are voracious pool players, and can curse like, well, soldiers (in minority of cases, sailors).  Indeed, the English-language vulgarities were quite fluent even during Ramadan, when it was technically proscribed.  They managed to avoid food and cigarettes, but cries of ‘cocksucker’ abounded.  Deadwood is also very much in vogue in these parts. 

I’m often called upon in my capacity as font of Western knowledge, asked wildly random questions about such myriad topics as university accreditation, GEDs, birth control methods (I didn’t ask), and Islamophobia in Texas (the vast majority of linguist émigrés to the States seem to go to Northern CA, VA, or Texas.  I suggested they consider avoiding Texas).  We’ve even had a few tentative discussions of alcohol.  I’m uncertain if my co-workers are embarrassed to ask about alcohol because they feel that, as devout Muslims, they shouldn’t talk about drinking, or because I’m a chick and they’d prefer not to know about my imbibing.  Mostly, they stick to things they think I should know, as an American woman.  I’ve been quizzed about divorce rates, religion, politics, pop culture, medical school, and rent in various locations.  I’m asked about grammar, which I’m good with, and the availability of whores, which I’m not (as for why that’s fair game but booze isn’t, search me).  It is an interesting collection of facts I’m meant to have in my head.  Between me and Google, though, we usually cover it.