Tag Archives: American


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.


New Review: The Emperor Gaius (Caligula) by J. P. V. D. Balsdon

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Categories: Reviews, Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

The Emperor Gaius (Caligula). (Caligula)The Emperor Gaius (Caligula). by John Percy Vyvian Dacre Balsdon

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

John P. V. D. Balsdon wrote his comprehensive biography of Emperor Gaius in 1934. As a fellow at Exeter College of Oxford University, Professor Balsdon’s book is intended for a scholarly audience. While the thoroughness of the research is impressive, the book is definitely geared toward fellow scholars. Without a mastery of Latin and Ancient Greek, several passages are unintelligible. Mr. Balsdon presents several ideas in the original Latin or Greek and provides no explanation of what they mean. He expects his readers to be familiar with ancient concepts already. Further, due to the age of the work and its British origin, some of the language used is unfamiliar to modern American readers. Likewise, some of the grammar and punctuation is not in line with common usage now.

Compounding the language barriers is the awkward organization of Professor Baldson’s treatise. The biography begins with Emperor Gaius’s predecessor, Tiberius. Balsdon intersperses his discussion of Emperor Tiberius with the story of Gaius’s childhood. In that discussion, Gaius’s father, Germanicus, is also covered. From this opening chapter, the biography moves into the first three years of Gaius’s reign as emperor. After covering the first three years, Professor Balsdon narrows the book’s focus to the young emperor’s activities in Germany and Gaul. His campaign against the barbarians is discussed in some detail. The next chapter details the many conspiracies against Gaius (some real, some imagined), his eventual assassination, and the ascension of his uncle to the head of the empire. Inexplicably, the next chapter of Balsdon’s biography is devoted to Gaius’s treatment of the Jewish population in Judea and of the Diaspora. Rounding out the book are two general assessment chapters. The first focuses on the emperor’s government and administrative skills: the last on his character.

Despite these substantial shortcomings to the average reader, Professor Balsdon’s book has a few notable bright spots. First is a fold-out family tree, showing the complex branches of the Julio-Claudian line. Second is a detailed time line of the major events of Emperor Caligula’s life. The biography also contains a fourteen-and-a-half page index: quite thorough, even for a scholarly work. The three appendices expand or clarify information presented in the text proper. Appendix C, in particular, carries a comprehensive discussion of the primary and secondary sources of information on Gaius’s life.

In all, Professor Balsdon presents a clear, objective, scholarly assessment of Caligula’s birth, life, and death. Some questions about Gaius will remain shrouded by time, but for those who think they know the story of Caligula, Balsdon’s biography answers many previously unknown questions and dispels many of the more outlandish rumors perpetrated by his detractors. For the serious scholar, Professor Balsdon provides an intense examination. For the casual reader, however, the biography may be difficult to comprehend.

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New Essay: “Our Darkest Parts”

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Categories: Essays, Writing, Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Our Darkest Parts

Since the earliest days of humanity, there have been legends of the dead returning to life. The most familiar tales of the undead in western culture are those of the vampire and the zombie. Countless novels, comic books, movies, and video games are devoted to portraying these night stalkers, these predators of predators. Both vampires and zombies return from death to feed upon the living; vampires drink blood and zombies consume flesh. As apex predators, humans are unaccustomed to thinking of themselves as prey. The thought of being another creature’s food is atrocious to us. It is not the fear of consumption that makes vampires and zombies horrifying, however. It is the mirror which they hold up to our culture, reflecting our darkest parts, that makes the undead terrifying. Vampires and zombies, in their opposing extremes, reveal American fear of that which is outside the mainstream.

The way in which one is turned from normal human to vampire or zombie reveals our twin fears of individualism and collectivism. The act of turning someone into a vampire is intimate and personal. The progenitor vampire is often portrayed in fiction as stalking its victim and learning everything about their lives. The vampire then seduces the would-be convert. The victim is told only they are worthy of the vampire’s gift of immortality; only they are special enough among the teeming throngs of humanity to be elevated above their peers. Zombies, on the other hand, are equal-opportunity undead. They transmit their infection through bites and scratches delivered to their unlucky victims. Rich or poor, young or old, black or white matters not to a zombie. If you are alive, you’re a valid target. If you escape one zombie attack alive, it’s simply a matter of time before you become one of the shambling dead yourself. You will be assimilated into the undead collective. This is one of the most common themes in zombie movies. Inevitably, one of the minor characters of the movie will be bitten, conceal the violation, and turn into a zombie at the most inopportune moment.

Americans pride themselves as individuals, but understand we are all part of a linked society. Neither the vampire nor the zombie operates within the confines between the extremes of egoism and collectivism: vampires holding themselves above the masses, zombies dragging everyone down with them. We loathe equally people being swallowed by the collective and being held up as better than their peers. Should an American hold themselves to be of a status far beyond the lot of common folk (as is often the case with celebrities), we feel the need to knock them down a peg or two. Our independent streak, however, prevents us from embracing the other extreme, collectivism (or communism).

The societies vampires and zombies exist in reveal our dual fears of autocracy and anarchy. Vampires form autocratic societies centered around a “head vampire.” This head vampire becomes the center of a cult of personality, its members made up of the converts it previously exalted. We see this theme frequently in the cinematic portrayal of the vampire. The heroes in vampire movies frequently are on a mission to destroy the head vampire in order to save a loved one from the curse of vampirism. The vampiric autocrat echoes the tradition of dictators like Hitler or Stalin, convincing its followers to commit unspeakable acts without hesitation. Conversely, zombies need no prompting to kill and devour. They are uncoordinated packs of ravenous cadavers. No one zombie directs the others; no vote is taken to determine which unlucky victim is to be consumed. Zombification is anarchy. Zombie novels often focus on the random nature of these beings. Living characters may be attacked at any time, in any situation.

Americans cherish democracy, where every voice is heard, but understand restrictions need to be placed on individuals for the common good. Neither the vampire nor the zombie respect this balance: vampires trampling democracy with their autocratic machinations, zombies disobeying all laws in their hunt for flesh. The American Revolution was fought to throw off the shackles of a tyrannical monarch, and our hatred of autocracy is deeply ingrained in our culture because of it. On the other hand, we are a rational people. Our rationality makes it impossible for us to abandon all government and laws in the other extreme.

The symbolic results of destroying a vampire or zombie reveal our opposing fears of existing without reason or emotion. Vampires are killed with a stake through the heart. The heart is seen, traditionally, as the seat of emotion. Thus, destroying a vampire with a stake through the heart is symbolically the same as destroying its emotions. Ironically, vampires are cold, calculating monsters, devoid of emotion. Nearly every vampire-themed comic book, game, story, or movie has the stake through the heart as a means of destroying the vampire, or at least immobilizing it. Zombies, conversely, are ended by destroying the brain. As the brain is seen as the organ of logic and reason, putting a zombie to rest is akin to the destruction of reason in the creature. This is again ironic, as zombies are mindless, flesh-eating corpses. The annihilation of grey matter is always a means to eliminate a zombie in fiction and folklore.

Americans use reason and emotion in harmony, striking a balance between what is practical and what feels right. Neither the vampire nor the zombie have this harmony: vampires abandoning emotion for cold logic, zombies eschewing rationality in their hunt for flesh. We fear being subsumed by emotion as much as being caught in the icy grip of dispassionate logic. Most Americans believe, as the ancient Stoic philosophers did, that being ruled by emotion limits one’s ability to make sound decisions. On the other hand, we also believe capitulation to pure logic limits one’s ability to sympathize with other people.

Vampires and zombies are truly terrifying creatures. The undead feed on our very flesh and blood. They devour those we love; they make a lie of our predatory supremacy. The terror engendered by vampires and zombies is not due to their consumption of human fluids and tissues, however. It’s due to the extremes in our culture they represent. We see the danger in collectivism or extreme individualism. We fear anarchists as much as dictators. We prize emotion and logic, and avoid the destruction of either. Vampires and zombies embody the extremes of thought we seek so desperately to balance in life. Perhaps it is because these monsters are not alive that we are able to project our faults on them so easily. In any case, the undead have become the examples of our darkest parts, and we fear them for it.