Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Thinking In Equality: On Laruelle's Democracy of Thought

Professor of film studies at Kingston University, London

Equality and inequality are fast becoming commonplace themes, given our straitened times and recent efforts to uncover not only the vast social inequities around us but also the origins of such inequality. One could wax on about the unequal distribution of monetary wealth, or even discuss the less-tangible philosophical consciousness of who has what, how much do they have, and so on. But here, I want to address the equality of thinking itself, irrespective of what, or even if, it is a thinking about x, y, or z – money, rights, or consciousness. It is the question of an equality (or democracy) in thinking, in theory, rather than any theory of a specific equality. 

One implication of François Laruelle’s notion of a ‘democracy of thought’ is that all entities are indeed equal, which is to say (in his language), that they are equally ‘One’. Laruelle describes himself as a ‘non-philosopher’ or ‘non-standard philosopher,’ and for him, to respond to this notion of being ‘equally One’ with the query ‘equally one what?’ is to miss the point of the gesture with too much philosophy. Even to respond ‘equally different’ (with Gilles Deleuze, say), or ‘equally Being’ (with Martin Heidegger), or ‘equally multiple’ (Alain Badiou) remains all too philosophical for Laruelle. Individually, they are all One – and this is firstly a performative gesture before it becomes an ontological thesis (that tells us ‘what they are’): Individuals invent equality, they do not possess it (as a philosophical property of difference, multiplicity, and so on).

In my new book, All Thoughts Are Equal, I explore the idea that film is philosophical while also introducing Laruelle’s ideas about non-philosophy. Film and philosophy both think in their own way. Conversely, however, should one say that film is philosophical because it is a type of philosophical act (linguistic therapy, say, or fundamental questioning) then one adds a third, defined element, a definition of philosophy in which film is allowed to participate. Yet even this definition can always be defined in such a way as to still make the type of therapy or questioning that philosophy alone instantiates qualitatively different and superior to the therapy or questioning of film. When saying film equals philosophy, and then how they are equal (the third element), one thereby creates a new and potentially arbitrary definition that, again, can be made to make one half of the equation the privileged, exceptional instance. Alternatively, if there were no third quality or type, then their equality is not defined but invented: in other words, it is performative (a concept I discuss in the final chapter of my book).

And yet – haven’t I earlier said that film and philosophy both think, that they are equally thoughtful? Isn’t that a third quality? Well, yes and no. The reason I say ‘no’ is because I haven’t defined what thought or thinking is. I have simply said that film and philosophy equally think, but in their own way. This is a pluralistic gesture to be sure, but, according to Laruelle at least, it is also a non-philosophical gesture, because the job of philosophy (by contrast) is to attempt to enforce one or other image alone of what counts as thought. Despite what appears to many as philosophy’s benign, abstract, and consequently (perhaps) even irrelevant status, Laruelle takes philosophy to be the supreme form of thought control, or, to be clear, a device for controlling what counts as proper or fundamental thought.

So: when saying that film is philosophical, one must not take this equation – this equality – as one conflating two defined entities. Rather, the statement ‘cinema is a philosophy’ is an invention, an exploration of how this pair can be equalized, but without defining either of the two – nor their union – at the outset. For, inversely, if everything were equally philosophy as defined as X, we still have to account for the appearance of those films or philosophies that also actually do look like a film or a philosophy, and those others that do not. For instance, it would be uncontroversial among many film-philosophers to claim that Richard Curtis’s Love Actually (2003) is not a good example of cinematic philosophy. Conversely, Michael Haneke’s Caché (2005) is frequently taken as a typical instance of true cinematic thinking, if only because it seems to accord with the philosophy of Emmanuel Levinas; both tackle the infinite moral responsibility we have toward others. The latter film appears philosophical because it seems to say something typical of the kind of thing philosophers say. But what about those films that do not appear philosophical in any pre-defined fashion, or even those moving images that are barely counted as proper films at all (YouTube videos, TV adverts, etc.)? They have a self-identity after all, even if only an apparent one (as film), and the appearance of any identity counts for something, a something that can then be used as the basis of an exceptionality (were one so inclined): this is not a film but that is; this is not philosophy but that is. Anything less, such as to say that the self-identity itself is merely an illusion, still leaves the basis for the illusion as such unexplained.

Alternatively, to say that film is philosophical in a non-philosophical manner is not another logical equation, but an invention, a hypothesis to be explored, a new comparative that must be only one among many. Saying that ‘X equals Y’ in this ‘real identification’ is also to say that ‘X could equal Z or Q or R’, and so on. Of course, this multiplication of identities could explode into triviality, but only in a theory separated from practice. In practice, that is, performatively, the identifications have each to be invented in actual spaces and times (and not in one philosophical position of everywhere and always). A film can be philosophical, in its own way. This ‘can be’ is what some might call a ‘paraconsistent’ leap in logic (see second chapter of All Thoughts Are Equal), but it can also be the benefit of our doubt, of our resistance to definition.

All thoughts can be equal, but what that equality consists in has to be invented each and every time in an ongoing process of equalizing.


John Ó Maoilearca is author of All Thoughts Are Equal: Laruelle and Nonhuman Philosophy. He is professor of film studies at Kingston University, London. He is also author of Post-Continental Philosophy: An Outline and Philosophy and the Moving Image: Refractions of Reality and coeditor of Laruelle and Non-Philosophy.

"All Thoughts Are Equal is an original act and development of non-philosophical thinking. John Ó Maoilearca gives us a virtuoso tour of Laruellian thought and offers a highly original and significant mutation of non-philosophy in his own right."
—Ian James, University of Cambridge

Friday, September 25, 2015

The Kensington Rune Stone Legend and the Catholic Church


Pope Francis has arrived in the U.S. and is soon to arrive here in Philadelphia, a city that carries the moniker the "Birthplace of America." The nation’s founding documents might have been signed here, but something that isn’t so obvious to those familiar with America’s establishment is that there is a small town in Minnesota that also carries the title. Emblazoned on the shield of a 28-foot-tall fiberglass Viking statue in the center of town is the claim "Alexandria: Birthplace of America."

The Kensington Rune Stone legend (so named for a nearby settlement at that time) is based on an inscribed stone that was unearthed from Swedish immigrant Olof Ohman's farm field in 1898. Its Runic inscription was later interpreted to tell a story of a party of Swedes and Norwegians who traveled to the area in 1362 and were killed by Native Americans. If the inscription were authentic, U.S. history books would have to be re-written, as the group's arrival predates that of Christopher Columbus. Scholars quickly concluded that the stone was the product of a hoax. Despite this, scores of Minnesotans persisted in believing it to be true. Many Scandinavian Americans took pride in the notion that their ancestors had already visited what was to become their home in Minnesota.

In 1909, Norwegian immigrant Hjalmar Holand, the most famous of the Rune Stone’s defenders, hosted a meeting at the Minnesota Historical Society, inviting several important civil and religious leaders. Foremost among the attendees was Archbishop John Ireland. In a St. Paul Dispatch article published the next day, Ireland is quoted as saying that a phrase in the Runic inscription, "AVM, save us from evil," was "characteristically Catholic." Both Holand and Ireland understood it to indicate a prayer to Ave Maria, the Blessed Mother of God.

"The Saga of the Runestone," by Sister Mary Christine.
Courtesy of the Kensington Area Heritage Society.

Why would a busy bishop take an interest in the controversial Runic artifact? Records indicate that Ireland had long endeavored to proselytize Scandinavians, describing them as "fruit ripe for Catholic picking." Most immigrants from Sweden and Norway were Lutheran or some version of Protestant. Ireland likely saw the Rune Stone as an opportunity to remind these immigrants that prior to the Reformation, Scandinavians were Catholic.

Additionally, Ireland was committed to improving the social status of Catholics, who were still somewhat at the margins of cultural and political power in the early twentieth century. Ireland frequently spoke of his admiration for the achievements of recently arrived immigrants from Sweden and Norway. By declaring the Kensington Rune Stone to be Catholic, he was able to fashion a place for his co-religionists in the founding narrative of the state. To this day, the Catholic Encyclopedia endorses the Kensington Rune Stone as the earliest record of a Catholic presence in Minnesota.

This re-imagining of early American history presents a challenge to the dominant narrative. The story of America's birth in the Midwest by Scandinavian Catholics is quite a contrast to the emphasis often placed on the importance of English Protestants on the East Coast. The Kensington Rune Stone became a touchstone for Minnesotans with varied agendas. Civic boosters use the artifact to demonstrate that a small town in Minnesota was exceptional and could rival the historic importance of big cities "out East."

The myths that the Kensington Rune Stone has inspired reveal much about the aspirations, fears, and self-understandings of Minnesotans in the twentieth century.


David M. Krueger is a scholar and teacher with a PhD in religion from Temple University and a master's degree from Princeton Theological Seminary. He lives in Philadelphia.

Wednesday, September 23, 2015

Growing up an army brat: The silence.

The author’s mother, wearing glasses and proper attire, at a public event.

This is the fourth part of a series by writer Catherine Madison on growing up in the army around the midcentury. Madison's father spent three years as a prisoner of war in North Korea in the 1950s.
Part One: The rules.
Part Two: The moves.
Part Three: The friends.



“Children should be seen and not heard,” my mother said sternly from one end of the dining room table while my father nodded solemn approval from the other. As the eldest of three children, I was used to these frequent admonitions and knew it was my job to set a good example. I sat up straight, shut my mouth, and made sure my lap held both my napkin and my left hand, but my brothers had a hard time keeping still. Just one foot jiggling would make my mother scowl and wag her manicured finger at the offender.

The ’50s and ’60s were an etiquette-sensitive time, when most officers’ families had a thick volume of Amy Vanderbilt or Emily Post guidelines gathering dust somewhere on a top shelf. My mother, an attractive perfectionist who dressed stylishly and preferred well-behaved children, read those books. She was a rural small-town girl thrust into military society after my father returned from captivity in the Korean War, and it was her job to be a good army wife.

In those days, and perhaps still, spouses were a career asset. Or not. My mother and her contemporaries studied their military wife handbook, which contained detailed instructions on everything from how to serve tea to where to place ashtrays, napkins, and salad forks. They wrote thank-you notes, volunteered on committees, and shushed their children. They wore hats and heels and white gloves at public functions, sat with legs crossed at the ankles, and spoke only when spoken to. I felt awful when I learned that my aunt, beloved by us for her humor and spunk, cost her military husband a promotion because she “talked too much.”

“The First Amendment gives me the right to free speech,” I tried announcing at the dinner table. I was taking civics at school, thank you very much, and I knew what I was talking about. Except that I did not. Only civilians could speak freely. My father was subject to the Uniform Code of Military Justice, which limits free speech and conduct. He could say nothing that would undermine discipline or bring discredit upon the armed forces. He could not demonstrate for peace or criticize Congress or the President, his commander-in-chief. And because my father was our family’s commander-in-chief, we couldn’t, either.

Silence became my best friend. I relied on it to avoid domestic turmoil. My father suffered from PTSD, and I never knew when speaking my truth, however quietly, might unleash a verbal tirade or errant fist. As a young teenager, I had been walking the dog when I was accosted in the dark basement of our apartment building by an older boy who had dated one of my friends. He slammed me into the concrete block wall, thrust his arm across my mouth so I couldn’t scream, and started to rip my shorts off. Fortunately, I maintained my grip on the leash, and the dog’s frantic jumping and snarling convinced the boy to abandon his plan.

By the time I reached our apartment four flights up, saliva had crusted on my lips and my legs were shaking. I couldn’t catch my breath, and my heart pounded as I went inside. My father was reading the Sunday paper, and my mother was frying bacon. I let the dog off the leash and strode to my room without saying a word. So many people have far worse stories; I dared not tell mine.

“To be a daughter inside the Fortress is to be a kind of hovering spook: a weightless creature without power, without presence, without context, whose color is camouflage and whose voice is unheard,” Mary Edwards Wertsch wrote in Military Brats: Legacies of Childhood Inside the Fortress. Devouring that book years ago, curled in my patio chair over a Fourth of July holiday, I began to understand how growing up an army brat had shaped my life in ways I had yet to explore. Perhaps the pervasive silence steered me toward traditional journalism, where my job was to document both sides of events, to be fair and impartial, to withhold bias, to tell everyone’s story but my own. Keeping my opinions to myself was easy; I had suppressed them for so long I hardly knew what they were.

Writing one’s own story is hard. For an army brat, it’s even harder. It means breaking the rules, fighting guilt, skulking by the family picture wall where the man in uniform gazes down. But how very important it is to penetrate that silence, to speak the truth that heals and sets us free.


Journalist Catherine Madison is author of The War Came Home with Him: A Daughter's Memoir. She was editor-in-chief of Utne Reader, senior editor at Adweek and Creativity Magazine, founding editor of American Advertising, and editor-in-chief of Format Magazine. She has written articles for many publications, including the Chicago Tribune, Star Tribune, and Minnesota Monthly.

Thursday, September 17, 2015

Living with the ghost of Martin Heidegger

Cornell University

I’ve been living with Martin Heidegger for a while now. Longer, I suppose, than I could accurately tell. At some point, maybe ten or so years ago, I turned to Heidegger and since then I have been unable to get away from him. And, as if to intensify that truth, I don’t think I’ve made much of an effort to get too far away from Heidegger. My attraction to Heidegger (which is always complicated by Heidegger’s past, by what he did as much as what he did not do) is easily explained: more than anyone else, Martin Heidegger makes me think. Together with Hamlet and Beyond a Boundary, Heidegger’s Was Hei§t Denken? is one of my favorite books. An odd triumvirate, I grant you. And yet not. In some way, they all make the same demand of me, persist with the same question: What kind of work does it take to be an intellectual? “Thou art a scholar, speake to it, Horatio,” Marcellus implores his fellow soldier. Horatio’s ability to speak Latin, Marcellus is convinced, will allow him to commune – communicate – the ghost of the dead king. “I was a British intellectual before I was ten,” says James. Shakespeare, C. L. R. James, and Heidegger, bound for me by their injunction to think. Nothing matters more.

That is why I’ve taught a course on Was Hei§t Denken? a couple of times. Every time I read or teach it, every time I quote from it, I learn more – more, I should say, than I could possibly have imagined. You could say, then, that I’ve lived with Was Hei§t Denken? for a good while now. And if you live with a book, if it occupies so much of your time, an intense relationship develops. Part of that relationship, part of that intensity, provokes—in me, anyway—the desire to write about that book. Problem is, I’ve never quite figured how to do it. I was, you could say, ready to write about Was Hei§t Denken? a while before I actually sat down begin Martin Heidegger Saved My Life. In so many ways, I was ready to take up the challenge of thinking that Heidegger issues in Was Hei§t Denken?

Here’s the thing of it. You don’t know you’re ready until you find yourself prepared to think in the moment – in the moment of what, for you, feels like the moment of record. That moment upon when something very important, your sense of who you are, how you are in the world (let’s just call it being/Sein, shall we?), hangs in the balance. Turns out that all it required was a white woman approaching me, a black man raised in apartheid South Africa, to ask if I wanted another job while I was raking leaves outside my home. Who’d a thunk it? (to render Heidegger in a vernacular that would have been wholly unacceptable to him).

My idiomatic indulgence notwithstanding, in the moment of record, Martin Heidegger came to me and, as I so grandly proclaim, Martin Heidegger saved my life. And Heidegger saved me because he gave me the language to write about race in such a way as I’d never written it before. Heidegger enabled me to write in this way because he has made me think about how to think. Of all the philosophers I know and the theorists I read, Heidegger stands apart because he is the only thinker I know who explicitly sets himself the task of thinking thinking. This is, above all else, what draws me to Heidegger: to ask myself, again and again, what it means to think. And thinking, in Heidegger’s rendering, is nothing other – in other words, it is everything – than asking oneself what it means to be an intellectual. It is all good and well to insist, as I have done, that the work of an intellectual is simple, straightforward: to think. It is entirely another matter to confront oneself with the question of what thinking is – this is the kind of question that can take over your life. And because it overwhelms you, it can, in the most crucial moments, also save you. Maybe it is all that can save you.

And this is what Heidegger gave me, gives me: the injunction to think gave me the capacity to imagine an entirely new way to write race, to critique racism. I could write it as my attempt to think thinking. Heidegger, if I might be so bold as to proclaim, freed me from any strictures. He released me, not fully, but enough, from my experience as a disenfranchised South African; he liberated me from my antipathy to racism in America; and he allowed me to write in such that a way that could, I hope, register my utter dislike for the screed as well my discomfort with identity politics. Heidegger liberated me to write race as the act of thinking. Thinking as a singular philosophical and political demand. Thinking, again, now leavened, modulated and, yes, inspired by the experience of having to write thinking. On my own terms, in my own language, closely observed by the ghost that is Martin Heidegger. “I wish to speake to you, Martin, as a scholar.” Or, “Because of you, Martin, I strive to be a scholar.” Or, “I wish to think as a scholar should, Martin.” I try to think with you, because of you.

Because of Martin Heidegger, I understand what I tried to undertake in Martin Heidegger Saved My Life.

I tried to think what it means to write race, I struggled to think my way to my own writing of racism. At once strange and salient that it is, Martin Heidegger, whose politics I abhor, who has taught me what it means to think, who demands that I never stop trying to think thinking. If James, anti-colonial critic par excellence, was a British intellectual before adolescence, does that mean that I have been making myself a Heideggerian intellectual, with all its possibilities and discomfitures, in my middle years?


Grant Farred teaches at Cornell University. He is the author of several books, including the Forerunners series title Martin Heidegger Saved My Life (2015), In Motion, At Rest: The Event of the Athletic Body (2014), and What's My Name? Black Vernacular Intellectuals (2003).

Wednesday, September 16, 2015

Growing up an army brat: The friends.

The 1963 cheerleading squad of Broome Junior High in Rockville, Maryland.
The author is in the back row, second from left.

This is the third installment in a series on growing up in the army by writer Catherine Madison, whose father spent three years as a prisoner of war in North Korea in the 1950s.
Part One: The rules.
Part Two: The moves.



The bus stopped up the street from our duplex on Fort McPherson on the first day of school in 1965 in Atlanta, Georgia. I ran half a block, climbed on, and took the first empty seat, next to a girl with a brunette pageboy who looked about my age.

“Hi,” I said. “I’m Cathy.”

“Hi,” she said. “I’m Cindy.”

By the time we arrived at Therrell High School about 20 minutes later, we had made plans to sit together at lunch and help each other navigate the hallways of a building we were seeing for the first time. I had just moved to town from Texas; she had just moved from a different state. As army brats who were now juniors, we knew the drill. We knew how not to sit quietly next to strangers, glancing everywhere but at them, pretending to be deep in thought. We knew how to invite a conversation without forcing it, and how to ask pertinent questions, neither nosy nor inane. Within ten minutes we had identified novels we both loved, the chemistry class we would share, past posts we liked better than this one, and the most annoying traits of our siblings. We became friends. Fast.

Both of us were shy, studious types, introverts even, who knew how to stay out of trouble and turn in homework on time. But shy doesn’t cut it in the military. If you wanted friends and acceptance, you had to boldly go where you had never gone before. Over and over again. And because you might move again next year, you had to be quick.

My father had spent five years in surgical training in San Antonio, so our family got to live off post until I finished the fourth grade. I grew up with neighborhood friends who never moved. I started fifth grade with them—then in November had to say goodbye in tears, my heart wrenched with the conviction that they were gone from my live forever.

We moved temporarily to my mother’s hometown in Maryland, where she enrolled me in school for three weeks. That first day, I stood, petrified, beside the principal as she knocked on a classroom door, then opened it and nudged me inside. The teacher stopped mid-sentence. All the kids turned around to look.

“We have a new student today,” the principal said. My face got hot and my feet heavy as I took the long walk to an empty desk in the front row. The silent stares hurt. I never wanted to be the new student again. Sympathetic, the teacher assigned me to a special project for my brief tenure, one that forced interaction. The same thing happened months later in Germany, when I was again the awkward new student in my third fifth grade class.

By high school, I knew to volunteer for any opening. Need cheerleaders? I couldn’t do flips but tried out anyway. Drill team? Why not. Yearbook? Sure. Difficult though it was for someone who’d rather read alone at home, I could not rely on past associations for company. If I wanted a friend, I had to make one. Whenever I met someone new, I heard myself mimicking them in conversation: their accent, their cadence, their poor grammar. In retrospect, I realize that it was an unconscious, organic way of creating common ground before I’d had time to discover it. I wonder now if they thought I was mocking them, when all I wanted was connection.

Cindy became one of my best friends, one of many I treasure. They show up on new posts and in odd places. Years later in the Honolulu airport, I ran into another military friend as he was bidding his girlfriend farewell; coincidentally, she was my seatmate on the last leg of my trans-Pacific flight. Neither of us was surprised, of course. We were army brats, and we had long ago learned that friends come and go, not through will or effort, but through mysterious quirks of the universe. We knew to simply say hello again, and never to say goodbye.

Part Four: The silence.

Journalist Catherine Madison is author of The War Came Home with Him: A Daughter's Memoir. She was editor-in-chief of Utne Reader, senior editor at Adweek and Creativity Magazine, founding editor of American Advertising, and editor-in-chief of Format Magazine. She has written articles for many publications, including the Chicago Tribune, Star Tribune, and Minnesota Monthly.

Wednesday, September 9, 2015

Growing up an army brat: The moves.

Part of Catherine Madison's childhood doll collection, unpacked after 40 years,
which managed to survive so many moves.

This is the second installment in a series by Catherine Madison, whose father spent three hellish years as a POW in Korea.
Part One: The rules.



“Where are you from?”

It’s such an innocent, ageless question, one of the first things a new acquaintance asks. By the time I left for college in 1967, I had grown accustomed to watching the inquirer’s expression morph from polite interest to perplexity while I considered my answers.

What does this person really want to know, I would ask myself. Where I was born? That would be Tacoma, Washington, which didn’t count because I hadn’t visited since I was nine months old and wasn’t absolutely sure I could find it on a map. Where I lived the longest? That would be San Antonio, where I lived three times, but three such disparate times that I hardly knew I was in the same city, so maybe that didn’t count either. What place I liked the best? A stumper, that. Germany was the most unusual, but Washington, DC, had its fascinations. Where did I feel most at home? Here, now, as long as the last move was at least a year ago. It takes that long to settle in.

Wait. Maybe this person just wants to know where I came from the last time we moved. Nah, probably not.

“My dad was in the army. We moved a lot,” I would answer. By this time, through hesitation and diversion, I had already set myself apart from this new person, when all I wanted to do was connect. The patient and persistent ones asked a follow-up question: “So where did you go to high school?”

Ack. Three high schools, in Maryland, Texas, and Georgia. I spent my junior and senior years in Atlanta, where boys were not allowed to ask me out because we hadn’t known each other since kindergarten. I was an itinerant, suspect for my lack of roots. But my new friend probably didn’t want to know that, either.

Only on military posts did no one ask, because moving was routine. One day a stack of orders would show up on the dining room table, and soon came the command to “pare down,” rummage through drawers and closets to extract non-essentials and dump them in a large wastebasket that had mysteriously appeared. Moving cost money, and boxes were limited. Once my mother decided I had accumulated too many trophies. She drove me to the Goodwill bin and watched as I removed the brass plates as keepsakes and tossed the rest.

When the packing boxes arrived, I learned what fit where, like pieces of a 3D puzzle. Precious objects such as the miniature Bavarian clock my seventh-grade boyfriend had given me went on top, tucked into socks and underwear so it wouldn’t get jostled. I learned to think ahead about how the move could take weeks, and how sometimes, while unpacking later, I would realize that my affection for an object had waned. Somehow it had lost its spirit during the interim, faded and grown shoddy. Discarding it in its new home made me sad.

We saved boxes for next time. Eventually their corners got crushed and different-colored tags speckled their sides. Each move had its victims. A salt shaker made it, as did its salt (wrapped neatly in an entire sheet of wrapping paper), but the silver top went missing. Glass vases shattered. A new television disappeared after a sudden storm sent movers rushing furniture into the van, and I failed to note its tag on the inventory list. Sometimes boxes were moved only to be stored in closets or basements until it was time to move again.

I didn’t love moving, but I didn’t hate it, either. Each time got easier. On move-in day, my father insisted that curtains and pictures be hung and the stereo hooked up before we went to bed. Music, art, and privacy made a home, not the stuff that filled it. We assembled one room at a time, kitchen first, and pushed remaining boxes into ever-smaller areas. In two or three days we were done, launched into a new life in a new city filled with new opportunities I grew to cherish.

I still pack with precision and can travel for weeks with what fits in a carry-on bag. I still save boxes, and I still have the Bavarian clock. I finally unpacked my childhood doll collection after moving it from place to place for 40 years, but I’m still flummoxed when Facebook prompts me to add my hometown. I don’t have one. We moved a lot.

Part Three: The friends.

Journalist Catherine Madison is author of The War Came Home with Him: A Daughter's Memoir. She was editor-in-chief of Utne Reader, senior editor at Adweek and Creativity Magazine, founding editor of American Advertising, and editor-in-chief of Format Magazine. She has written articles for many publications, including the Chicago TribuneStar Tribune, and Minnesota Monthly.

"A mesmerizing page-turner." —Hugh Delehanty, coauthor of Eleven Rings: The Soul of Success

"I loved this book, not only for the knowledge gained concerning a war I knew so little about, but for Catherine Madison's skill in relating both sides of this complex and difficult story." —Judith Guest, author of Ordinary People

"A heartfelt account of a family fractured by war and its awful aftereffects." —Kirkus Reviews

Wednesday, September 2, 2015

Growing up an army brat: The rules.

Our extended family in front of our quarters in Landstuhl, Germany, 1960.
My father is wearing his hat. I'm on the left, dressed up in saddle shoes.


By the time I was in the fourth grade, in 1959, I understood that my father was not like the rest of us. Of course he went off to work long days like most fathers, while we kids went to school and my mom took care of the house, but he was different in other ways. We wore clothes washed in a washer and hung on the clothesline to steam in the Texas heat, but he wore uniforms starched stiff and brought home in plastic bags. Every morning, he donned a fresh shirt never touched by my mother’s iron. He wore shoes spit-shined into black luster daily, while we wore dirty Keds until our baby toes fell out the holes on the sides. He wore a hat. We never did.

My father was in the army. The rest of us were, I thought then, civilians. We lived in a one-story house on a quiet San Antonio street with no sidewalks. We played games in the driveway and kickball on the lawn, where stiff spears of hardy grass sliced our feet if we went without shoes. We walked several blocks to the elementary school with friends whose fathers were not military.

Halfway through the fifth grade, everything changed. My father got orders to move to Germany, and apparently they were our orders, too. One page from a large stack of identical papers had to be handed to nearly everyone we encountered, from hotel desk clerks and ship stewards to cab drivers and military police.

“Don’t walk on the grass!” my father barked on our first day on the army post at Landstuhl. “Don’t walk on the grass!” I shouted to my brothers, then ages 5 and 3, often in the next weeks. This was a place of rules as circumscribed as the rows of apartment buildings we lived in, identical except for color, furnished with government-issue standards. Our families shared washing machines lining the basement and columns of clotheslines fronting the playground. We followed the rules posted in the stairwells. We were all in the army now.

What seemed strange at first quickly became routine: the MP saluting us through the gate, the segregation of officer and enlisted families, the expectations of cleanliness and order, the curfews. No one questioned these restrictions and rituals, at this or other posts where we later lived. Before the movie began at the theater, we stood with our hands over our hearts to sing “The Star-Spangled Banner.” Of course we all knew the words, and even the tone-deaf sang. At 5 p.m. everywhere on the post, traffic came to a halt. Everyone shut off their engines, got out of their cars, and saluted or covered their hearts while taps played. As the last bugle note drifted away, we climbed back in and went on.

Although I never heard it discussed, I suspect most of us, no matter what age, saw this regimentation as a good thing, a balm to counter the chaos that surrounded us. We lived in Germany during the days of the Cold War, when families more careful than ours made practice runs to the west coast of France to map an escape route if war broke out. We wore our dog tags, just in case. We lacked many things that Americans back in the States took for granted: real pasteurized milk in cartons, two-stick Popsicles, Levis available in all sizes, TV choices in English beyond “Bonanza” on Sunday evenings. Most of us didn’t have TVs at all, but we were army brats. We had transistor radios, scooters, each other, and the comfort of rules.

For my 50th birthday, my mate and I visited what is now Joint Base Lewis McChord in Tacoma, Washington, where I was born. I had not been there since I was nine months old. After checking credentials, the MP saluted us through the gate. Just beyond, we spotted several men in uniform, on their knees, using screwdrivers to clear the cracks in the sidewalk. The sidewalks were clean, and no one was walking on the grass. I was home.

This is the first post in a weekly series by Catherine Madison that will run throughout September on the University of Minnesota Press blog.
Part Two: The moves.
Part Three: The friends.
Part Four: The silence.

Journalist Catherine Madison is author of The War Came Home with Him: A Daughter's Memoir. She was editor-in-chief of Utne Reader, senior editor at Adweek and Creativity Magazine, founding editor of American Advertising, and editor-in-chief of Format Magazine. She has written articles for many publications, including the Chicago Tribune, Star Tribune, and Minnesota Monthly.

"A mesmerizing page-turner." —Hugh Delehanty, coauthor of Eleven Rings: The Soul of Success

"I loved this book, not only for the knowledge gained concerning a war I knew so little about, but for Catherine Madison's skill in relating both sides of this complex and difficult story." —Judith Guest, author of Ordinary People

"A heartfelt account of a family fractured by war and its awful aftereffects." —Kirkus Reviews