Tag Archives: America


Surrounded by Jackasses in America

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Categories: Essays, Family, Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

The prairie dog’s bark echoed across the plain – a plaintive cry for me to break the rules and hand over some of my popcorn. I resisted, glancing over at the sign: “DO NOT FEED THE ANIMALS!” Though my mother, stepfather, sister, and I were the only humans in sight, I could feel the park ranger’s phantom eyes upon me. I pictured Tonto on horseback, riding up to scold me – “Maize no good for prairie dog, Kemosabe.” – and snatching the errant kernel from my hand (or, perhaps, an unnamed Indian shedding a single tear over my proposed misdeed).

I crumpled the end of the bag closed and returned the popcorn to the back seat of the family car. A worn-out Pontiac, it had nevertheless ferried us from the gentle, green hills of northern Illinois, to the vast, scrabbly tableau of South Dakota, to this nameless drive-thru nature preserve in particular. Along the way, that car carried us over the Mississippi (which seemed less mighty with a giant concrete and steel bridge shrinking it to a five minute drive) and sailed sickening seas of soybeans in Iowa.

There we made a stop in Mitchell to see the Corn Palace, which is indeed made entirely of corn. (Curiously, there was no maze of maize in Mitchell, however.) There was heat, though; oh my goodness, the heat. I was amazed the Palace didn’t spontaneously pop. It smelled of cooked kernels. Not the left-too-long-in-the-microwave smell: this was the almost sweet scent of corn and oil in a pan on the stove from my childhood.

Outside there were hawkers of all kinds, with Corn Palace bumper stickers and Corn Palace T-shirts and Corn Palace corn cob stuffed animals and Corn Palace books and Corn Palace videocassettes (no Corn Palace DVDs, even though it was the mid-Nineties). I was glad to be rid of Mitchell and its thrice-damned Corn Palace. Nothing like rampant capitalism to shatter a perfectly good reminiscence.

The Crazy Horse monument in South Dakota was little better. Only the outline of the noble native was visible, with completion a decade or more away, yet still rocks blasted away from the face of the mountain were for sale. I shook my head and wondered what Crazy Horse would have thought about selling broken parts of the earth – never mind carving his image into his Mother’s body. Of course, we bought one.

The Crazy Horse rock sat in the back seat of our Pontiac, and I used it to hold down my half-empty popcorn bag. An arid breeze blew across the amber waves that day, and I was not about to explain how the animals came to be fed through my negligence and a gust. Tonto would not be scolding this Kemosabe today.

I started when what I assumed was the chief of the prairie dogs let out three sharp barks. “Son of a…” I said as I cracked my skull on the roof, but my mother’s peregrine ears caught me before I could complete my curse. “Language, son,” she said.

The prairie dog’s language became more insistent, as if he had understood and ignored my mom’s rebuke. His barks came faster, louder, commanding his tribe back to their holes not more than twenty feet from the road winding through the preserve. I pulled my now-aching head from the car to see what his bother was. Scanning the horizon, I saw no wolf or fox emerging from the wood for a snack, no buffalo stampede threatening the dog’s den or our dying Pontiac – in fact, I had not seen a buffalo at all in South Dakota, though I had eaten one the day before.

My mom (originally from Canton, S.D.) was advised by her cousin in Sioux Falls to try a local burger joint specializing in buffalo. Signs proclaimed buffalo an “All-American Meat.” Presumably, this was because the buffalo were, as another sign shouted, “Free Range,” not that I had any idea what that meant.

I understood after the first bite, however. That burger was the most exquisite mesquite-fire-cooked hunk of flesh I had ever experienced. No grease dripped down my chin, yet the patty was moist and tender; no preservatives taxed my liver, yet the meat tasted as fresh as new-fallen snow; no vegetables garnished my plate, yet every bite came with a whiff of grass and scrub.

The McDonald’s down the street had a sign indicating there had been “Millions and Millions Served” there. If this little burger joint had a similar sign, it likely would have proclaimed “Dozens and Dozens Served.” Still, I had no doubt even Crazy Horse would have called this burger a work of art.

Returning to my search of the source of the prairie dog’s stress, I turned my eyes to the painted sky. I scanned the expanse, so much bigger here than in Rockford, Illinois. The stratus and cumulonimbus seemed miles long, and their height threatened to scrape the Hubble. Still, even in the clouds of South Dakota, I saw no buffalo.

I saw the predator, though: the slow-circling falcon – or perhaps it was a hawk or an eagle (though not a bald eagle: those I had seen along the banks of the Mississippi as a child on my grandfather’s fishing boat). I pointed it out to my mother, who decided we should move on to a different part of the preserve. I was sure she wanted to give the raptor a sporting chance. I was also sure she wanted to avoid having to explain the “circle of life” to my younger sister if the bird’s hunt was successful.

We piled back into the Pontiac and continued our languid tour of the prairie. Wildflowers and brush surrounded us and concealed the vicious dance of the smaller animals of the plain. My mother and stepfather decided our time in the preserve, and in South Dakota, had come to an end. As we made our way toward the park exit, one last obstacle kept us in Sioux territory a bit longer.

A pack of burros wandered along the narrow road winding through the prairie. Content and confident, they were little concerned about the car casually cruising toward them. My stepfather blared the horn at them; their ears moved, but not their hooves. Soon they surrounded the car, poking their noses in, sniffing for a treat (which they’d no doubt received from other tourists, despite the signs admonishing such activities). My sister cried when one of the donkeys licked her face, and so desperate measures were called for.

I took up the popcorn bag from under Crazy Horse’s stone, pushed a donkey aside with the car door, and climbed out, despite my mother’s warning. I opened the bag and offered a few kernels in my outstretched palm to the donkey I’d shoved out of my way. It seemed the best way to make amends for treating him so rudely. Ears up, the donkey devoured the popcorn in an instant.

Soon, I was making amends for crimes I hadn’t committed. The rest of the pack caught the scent of maize, and moved in to get their share. Shortly, the burros pressed against me, their short hair bristling my legs and arms like brushes. I was surrounded by jackasses there on the plain, just as I had been amidst the soybeans in Iowa.


Where’s The (Political) Party?

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Categories: Politics, Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

With the recent Occupy Wall Street protests and the debt ceiling faux-crisis resolution, I’m reminded of how people like me are not truly represented in America’s representative republic. The two major parties in the United States have drifted closer to their extremes, leaving the majority of Americans to choose the lesser of two evils each election cycle.

A CBS News poll conducted before the debt deal was finalized showed a strong majority of Americans wanted a deal that took a “balanced” approach. Moderates in the U.S. were looking for spending cuts, entitlement reform, and tax increases to balance the federal budget and tackle the national debt going forward. This is essentially the plan worked out by the President’s National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform late last year. The Commission’s balanced plan was shot down by Congress, and so were similar ideas closer to the debt ceiling deadline. Instead of fair and balanced, we got slash and burn. Of course, most economists will tell you the plan we got won’t work, but it’s not really about solutions, is it? No, it’s about looking like you’re solving problems so you can keep your job.

Most Americans fall in the middle of the political spectrum, and that’s why so many of us wanted a debt ceiling/ deficit reduction plan that straddled the fence of tax increases and spending cuts. It’s not because we’re wishy-washy as a nation; it’s because we believe in justice and equality.

Unfortunately, the Democratic and Republican parties in America are ill-equipped to make government work for the majority of citizens. They are beholden to the extreme ends of the political spectrum, with moderates trapped betwixt and between.

As the protesters in Manhattan and beyond show, everyday Americans feel cheated by a system that pretends to have their best interests in mind but rarely works for them. These brave folks are frustrated by social and economic injustice. Unfortunately, without dramatic change, their aspirations of a more just civil society are doomed to failure.

I, therefore, propose a new party to represent the moderates in America. Here’s the platform:

  1. Repeal DOMA. Marriage regulation is a matter for the states to decide. In fact, I’ve argued marriage is a matter for churches to decide, with the state having overstepped its authority.
  2. Amend the United States Constitution to provide for term limits on the legislature. If one cannot serve more than two terms as President, it seems to follow that one ought not serve more than two terms in Congress. “Politician” is not a career; it is a civil service one performs. By limiting legislators to two terms, we could potentially see a Congress less beholden to corporate interests, and more attuned to solving problems. As the Congress is unlikely to send an amendment proposal out to be voted on, this would likely need to be proposed by the state legislatures.
  3. Abolish the federal minimum wage. While it may seem counter-intuitive to many Americans, the federal minimum wage actually makes your life worse by driving inflation and increasing unemployment. The minimum wage also drives employment of illegal immigrants. Because employing an American citizen requires they be paid the minimum wage, employers are willing to hire illegals to save labor costs. Without the minimum wage, it’s likely these jobs would be filled by American citizens, as they are more attractive employees (no risk of penalty for employing undocumented workers, no language barrier to training, etc). Further, if you are not a minimum-wage worker, each increase in the minimum wage is an effective pay cut, unless your employer is generous enough to increase your pay by an amount equal to the MW hike. Oh, they’re not? I’m shocked, really.
  4. Speaking of illegal immigrants, I prefer the Starship Troopers solution: “Service guarantees citizenship.” You give us four years of sacrifice, we’ll give you a lifetime of opportunity. It doesn’t have to be military service. Peace Corps, Americorps, whatever – if you serve the greater good, we’ll forgive your trespass, so to speak, and put you on track to citizenship.
  5. Let those who can take care of themselves. It’s funny when one hears conservatives say the poor should take care of themselves, yet are more than willing to take their slop from Uncle Sam’s trough. If you do not need Social Security or Medicare when you retire, you should not get it. Let’s start means-testing these programs, like we do so many other entitlements, and see if we can save some money and make the programs more sustainable.
  6. Walk the walk; be the world’s Superman. We stand for truth, justice, and the American Way. That is to say, when it comes to foreign affairs, we ought to always act upon those principles which make America great, and never betray those ideals no matter the short-term cost. We will always benefit in the long run when we loudly denounce those who act in violation of democracy, freedom, and human dignity. Specifically, this means we should end our normal diplomatic relations with Saudi Arabia, support Palestinians, and provide assistance to the floundering government in Mogadishu (again). There are plenty of other examples of tyranny and abuse around the world, but make no mistake – I’m not suggesting America should become the world’s police. I’m not suggesting we engage in cultural imperialism either. I’m saying we can’t have our cake and eat it too. We cannot speak of freedom from one side of our mouth while negotiating oil deals with dictators from the other.

Of course, there are many, many, many other things wrong with our system, but the six things I’ve listed above are a pretty good place to start, I think. I’m no politician or political scientist, but I bet I could get a dozen people to agree with me pretty easily. If I found someone on a ballot that agreed with even half of the principles I just laid forth, they would get my vote up to two times (term limits!). Until then, I’m going to write in the only two reasonable candidates I’ve seen in the last decade: Jon Stewart & Stephen Colbert.