A trusted friend and may I even say advisor recently suggested that I tell my readers a bit about myself so that they can better evaluate the reliability of what I say. I think that is a reasonable suggestion. But it’s tricky, because I don’t have credentials. What I have is a story.
After I graduated from high school I started college as my parents wanted, but it just didn’t work out. I wasn’t happy there. I left.
It’s not that I didn’t want to learn. I just didn’t particularly want to know anything they wanted to teach me. Plus I didn’t like the format, the presentation, the structure, or the sitting in a chair. I had two problems with college: spring, and fall.
Fall is the most wonderful time of year in northwest Missouri. The smells, the colors, the energy, the slant of the sun… I was not able to sit inside and listen to someone with the storytelling skill of a rusted hinge blather while autumn was going on. So before winter I had given up on the college idea. This upset and disappointed my parents. The last complete sentence my father was ever able to speak to me was, “How do you stand with the draft?”
Well, where I stood with the draft was right in the line of fire, so pretty soon I was in the jungle in Vietnam, drafted, a light weapons infantryman fighting, in the ancient mountains called the Central Highlands, local guys who resented my presence in their country. They wore uniforms and carried (among other things) AK-47s, mortars, and shoulder fired rockets. We knew them as the North Vietnamese Army. They were scary. I was a member of the 4th Division of the United States Army. Steadfast and Loyal. It was 1967. I had, on the day of my arrival, been 20 years old for 3 days.
362 days later, on my second 21st birthday, I was stepping off an airplane onto airport pavement in the city of my birth. They hadn’t invented jetways yet.
I had unhealed wounds in my back, arm, and head. I was carrying enough shrapnel in my torso to set off metal detectors in civilian airports, but I wouldn’t find that out for a few years, until they installed metal detectors in airports. It was a memorable birthday, and yet is forever enshrouded in fog in my memory. In the previous year I had been through different experiences than my friends and relatives who didn’t go. Among other things, I had sustained a traumatic brain injury which left me with a hole about the size of half a golf ball in the left side of my brain. The brain part that was where the hole now is died and withered away as a result of blast impact. The parts around the hole are a little fizzlesprung too. Strange things happen from time to time.
Nobody knows exactly what I would be like without the hole. In this particular experiment we forgot to keep a control. We have no basis for comparison. I am pretty sure I can recognize some effects from that cause, but I can’t prove them. As I said, there is no basis for comparison.
I’m sorry this is so strung out, but this is all I have. I didn’t go to college. Nobody ever certified me as able to write, or think, or understand politics or science. I don’t have any credentials, at least none to point to. Sometimes people object to what I say and tell me, “I’ve got a [X] degree in [Y] and…” I don’t. I don’t mind. I’m not impressed. Sorry. It’s all life. It’s all learning. You chose your way and I chose mine.
Probably my closest and oldest friend alive walked through the war beside me, or me beside him, from the day we got there together to the day we left. Together. We did miss a few weeks in between when one or the other of us were in the hospital recovering from one thing or another. Explosions. Bullets. Infections. Wars are hard on the health.
The night of the blast when my brain changed he was the one who cared for me. That night and two more, three days. When we came home he got a PhD. in Economics. I went into a trade. After he had the PhD he went into a trade too. There are many twists and turns.
My educated friend respects my work, and that matters to me. Not because of his degree, but because of his wisdom. So there is one credential I am proud to claim: Patrick likes my work.
After our part of the war Patrick and I, along with many of our brothers and sisters, worked together as members of the Vietnam Veterans Against The War in a long attempt to end our war, to keep others from having to share our experiences or be the ones to die. Eventually the war ended; to what extent our efforts contributed will never be known.
I earned a CIB. That’s a Combat Infantryman’s Badge. You can have the job title of infantryman, but until somebody shoots at you and you shoot back you can’t have a CIB. They literally brought little black metal pins out to the jungle and handed them to us, to Patrick and to me, to Jimmy O’Brien and to the rest of us replacements who had just gone through our first firefight. Kinda weird. Not like a cap and gown, exactly.
I was awarded a couple of Purple Hearts. One doesn’t speak of earning, or winning, Purple Hearts, not if one has one. They are awarded after you have been injured by enemy action.
My first Purple Heart came from a minor injury in a firefight. It was the sort of Purple Heart that fat Republicans who can’t imagine the smell of dead friends in the sun make fun of at Republican National Conventions. My first Purple Heart was like the one that got John Kerry Swiftboated and this hideous woman on national television. Whattya bet she says, “Thank you for your service,” to guys like me. She doesn’t really have to on my account.
My second Purple Heart came when I got the hole in my brain. Mortar. My head was at ground level because I was standing in a hole. The explosion nearly tore it off. I spent much of the next month in and out of a semi-coma. The folks at the RNC didn’t wear any of those bandaids.
So: one part of my writing is founded in those experiences. No, I haven’t let it go. Yes, the war is here every single day. Yes, I remember my lost brothers. They are forever missing. Both the war and the hole in my brain color some part of my every breath. They can’t go away. They are part of the foundation of my self. They are in what I write. Usually you can’t see them.
Next, I am a repairman. I am fascinated by how things work. I have been through hundreds of hours of training on how various things work, from the United States Army’s Chemical, Biological, and Radiological Warfare school (where I graduated first in my class) to how a Southwestern Bell Number One Crossbar Telephone Switching Central Office works. (14 weeks of school 5 days a week, 8 hours a day, after 4 or 5 weeks of prerequisite schools). Twenty or thirty manufacturer’s schools on various kinds of commercial telephone systems, installation, maintenance, programming. Various schools on how computer networks work, starting at about the same time the networks were being invented by people with different training than I. The technology of the Internet. Auto Mechanic school. Visual Basic Programming, 2 semesters, 4.0 average, just for the heck of it on my own dime.
I’m trying to make the case here that even though I never went to college I know things worth writing about. Beyond that, I would submit that working my life with empirical, fact based, unforgiving technologies better equips me for what I write than a college degree would. You cannot bullshit a machine. If you correctly analyze the problem, after you apply your theory the machine works. If your analysis was incorrect the machine still does not work. Return to start.
I don’t do original research. I don’t write original research. I begin from available empirical fact and from there write opinions and observations. For foundation concepts and facts I accept scientific consensus and what I will call the preponderance of the evidence. In other words I usually start at some point you can look up for yourself. I’m a big fan of Wikipedia for the hard sciences. I try to learn human and natural events from reports I find in historically reliable media, preferably print media. Here I don’t use outliers if I can help it, I look for some agreement among what I consider to be reliable sources that some event happened. Hurricane Sandy went up the Eastern Seaboard, for instance. Then what I do is, I look at those events, draw conclusions, and write them down.
I try to make it clear the points in a given essay where I move from empirical fact to my opinions, evaluations, and observations regarding those facts. I don’t ask my readers to believe anything happened or didn’t happen that a high school science, history, or civics teacher should disagree with. I am free with my interpretations and I hope that they will make sense to readers, but I do not base them on made-up stuff.
I do use numbers like “zillion” a lot, but I hope it’s clear what I’m doing.
At heart I am a repairman. I like to know how things work because if you don’t know how they work you can’t fix them. I do stretch the concept a little. For instance, I would (and think I could) fix Kansas, which is obviously broken, but the people there appear to be satisfied with what they have and I can’t force them to want it better.
Repair is a set of techniques of thought, not a set of learned facts and diagrams. A good repairman can fix almost anything if he can get the parts and get access to the failure point. One approaches any broken machine with a certain mindset and a certain set of principles in mind. Those principles are, essentially, basic physics on the levels above quantum. Everything works on the laws of physics. Matter and energy are reasonably well understood. Every phyisical thing works on the same principles. Electronic things do. Mechanical things do. Computers do. Hydraulic things do. Combination things do. Global Warming does.
So one thing I do as a writer is, I apply the simplest principles on which our universe is based to my observation of things that we both agree we can see. Tonight there is ice outside. I apply known principles of everyday reality to that ice and produce an essay. If you doubt my conclusions I invite you to research the principles – they are mostly pretty well explained on Wikipedia and elsewhere on the internet – and see if you think I have applied them incorrectly. If you think so I’d love to have that conversation, do make comments.
If you dispute the principles, please go away. I accept the preponderance of scientific opinion as fact. I won’t even discuss that. The principles are true; I might be wrong about my application of them.
I apply the same general worldview to human societal issues, except I acknowledge that there are fewer empirical facts. There are still some, but fewer and less clearly spelled out. So when writing of societal issues I begin, once again, with what I will call facts. For instance, if I want to discuss the principles of American government with somebody I will usually refer to the U.S. Constitution. I will refer to specific text, Article so-and-so, section this, paragraph that. I try to pull in some context. I have little respect for people who blather about “The Constitution says…” and when I say, “Where?” they say, well, it’s different now, and…
No. The Constitution either says it, or it doesn’t. Empirical fact. Language is wiggly but it’s all we have; as humans we have to make some fundamental agreements about meaning.
If someone said something and I can find unedited video of them saying it, then they said it. No discussion. Empirical fact.
If I get a fact wrong – and surely I must, from time to time – feel free to assist me. I prefer to be correct. The facts are empirical, the interpretations are mine at the time I write them. When I am writing out-and-out opinion (which I certainly do from time to time) I try to make that plain to the reader.
The other thing I am is a teacher. I love to teach. My life as a technician offered me an unending opportunity to teach, and I loved it. For about thirty-five years I installed business telephone systems as a primary source of income, both as an employee and as a business owner. If you work in an office you know the kind – a box with twenty or thirty buttons on it sitting on your desk. It’s supposed to do forty-six different things; you’re thrilled if you can transfer a call to somebody you can’t see from your desk without cutting the caller off. There’s a voice mail; you probably know how to get your messages. You might or might not know how to change your greeting. Beyond that it’s probably pretty fuzzy.
If you were my customer you would know. Maybe. I wanted you to know. I would install a telephone system and then hold training classes. I loved it. Teaching people to properly use their high-tech telephones is performance art. If you can get them laughing you’re halfway there: they are paying attention.
Being a hospital IT tech – my trade as my physical strength waned – is the same game. The computer works, the nurse just can’t work it. Want an enemy for life? Tell her that. Nurses do so much work it is almost incomprehensible to a mere mortal. She doesn’t need to hear, “You’re doing that wrong.”
So I’d do a dog-and-pony show, get her laughing, slip in how it really works, get her hands on the keyboard and mouse, get her doing all the stuff slick, computer all fixed. See ya later.
All that is in here. That’s why I write. I’m trying to teach people things that they never got around to learning. I’m trying to make it fun to learn it if I can. I’m not doing original research any more than I invented those phone systems I installed. I’m just doing a dog-and-pony show with the user’s manual.
Hope you’ll come along. Hope you find it enjoyable.