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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.

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Magnitude of Gratitude

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Categories: Family, Tags: , , , , ,

For those of you who aren’t aware, my family and I recently experienced a substantial trial in the form of a sewer backup that damaged our ground-floor apartment and large parts of our personal property. While the legal wrangling over ultimate responsibility and restitution for our time and trouble will undoubtedly not be resolved for some time, we are now in a safe, clean new apartment with the necessities of middle class life covered. We would not, however, be in such a position if it were not for the help of several key people whom I would like to acknowledge. Mom, Alex, Gary, Char, Jayme, Mike, Dan, Toy, Mike, Dave, Jess, Craig, and Kyle: thank you. I truly appreciate your time, hard work, and support. You made what would otherwise have been a nightmare a manageable crisis. We are in your debt.

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9360

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

My apologies for the delay between this and my last post. College is back in full swing, I recently moved, and I’ve been working my butt off on my super-secret project. Recent events, however, have prompted me to write. I need to get something off my chest.

First, a little biography. I’ve never met my father. He has never been a part of my life, having left my mother and me when I was but a wee babe. I know very little about him, except for a few minor details. [Apparently I look quite similar to him, which is a credit to him. Despite the other things he might be, at least he’s goddamned sexy. ;)]

Last night I was contacted on Failbook by my half-sister. I’ve never met her, though I’ve known of her existence for about ten years or so. I’ve never tried to contact her before because, frankly, I could care less about her or my half-brother. I already have a sister, and her name is Mirel Vera Allegra Jones (though hopefully her last name will be Santiago again soon enough, but that’s a topic for another day).

I do feel for Jennifer, my half-sister, because she did not know for certain that I existed until last night. In that, we have something in common; we’ve both been wounded by the man who calls himself Allen and whose genetic material Jennifer and I share. My empathy for her situation does not change the fact that she is a stranger to me, however. My mother always told me never to talk to strangers…

This morning, then, imagine my surprise when I received another Failbook message from a stranger: my absentee father’s current wife. I’m taking the liberty of re-posting her message here:

Hi Darius my name is Melody Duncan I am Jeniffer Duncan’s step mother..yes that means Allen Duncan is my husband..I am not going to feed you a line of BS why he didnt stand by you or your mom, but I know sence I have been with himfor the last eight years he has been a good man …I do know when he was younger he drank alot and smoked a lot of pot. it wasnt until his other son David was 13 did he finally get his sh.t together…It look like you have done well for yourself and you should be very proud of how you turned out…you see neither one of his other two kids finished high shool, and I see you went to college..and you have a beautiful wife and child… and you are there for them.. I think he couldnt handle what ever was going on at that time in his life you and David are only 7 month apart…so how do you choose which family to stay with?? I do know you do cross through his mind form time to time… but there is nothing he can do to turn back time and make things right with you..I do wish you the best in life in everything you do.. Take care and may god always watch over you and your family………sincerly Melody Duncan

And here’s my reply:

Melody-

I would argue that a good man would try to make amends for the mistakes of his past, even if he knew they were doomed to failure. It is the attempt that speaks to a man’s character, not the results. A good man would have revealed the truth to his other children. Therefore, your description of Allen as a “good man” rings hollow. Actions, indeed, speak louder than words.

It is true Allen cannot turn back time, nor is there much chance of making things right with me. If I do cross his mind from time to time as you say, I wonder if the number 9,360 crosses his mind as well. That is the number of dollars the court ordered him to pay to help support me. If one were interested in making amends, that number would be a good place to start.

You see, Melody, in my thirty years of life, I’ve let go of the hate and anger and shame of being a bastard child. All that remains is a sense of injustice and a desire for retribution. I don’t feel owed love or compassion or affection. There is simply the matter of an unsettled financial obligation. Thankfully, time has a way of sorting these things out and making them right.

To that end, I’d prefer not to hear from you again unless it’s to tell me of Allen’s death. I harbor you no ill will; I simply have nothing else to say to you. If Allen wants to contact me himself, my info is pretty easy to find in cyberspace (and has been for quite some time).

-Darius McCaskey

I’m not really sure why I feel the need to share this, except that I am a believer in calling bullshit when people are deluding themselves. Maybe I’m hopeful I can shame someone into doing something they ought to have done of their own volition long ago. I dunno. Maybe I’m just an asshole. >shrug<

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New Essay: “The Duty to Die”

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

For the record, I am not a utilitarian, and this essay helps explain why. I hope you can at least appreciate the logic I employed in crafting my thesis. Without further ado, here is my essay, “The Duty to Die”:

For those existing with the intense pain of a terminal illness, the right to life sounds like a cruel joke. Every day becomes a choice: continuing to endure the pain of disease, taking powerful pain medications to ameliorate the discomfort, or ending one’s life. Which option to pursue can become a moral dilemma to someone battling excruciating bone cancer or advanced HIV/ AIDS. Some may choose to grit their teeth and bear it, believing they must preserve their mental clarity in the final stage of their illness. Others seek comfort in the form of potent narcotics that may render them incoherent. The morally virtuous instead choose to die on their own terms, either by their own hand or with assistance.

The moral theory of utilitarianism requires us to always choose the action that maximizes pleasure and minimizes pain for all those affected by the action. Thus the terminally ill patient must perform a wicked calculus; which of the three available end-of-life treatments will maximize pleasure and minimize pain for everyone involved? Obviously, in the situation of someone who is terminally ill, it’s doubtful there’s any hope of maximizing pleasure. Therefore, the patient needs only focus on minimizing pain.

This eliminates the possibility of sustaining one’s life without benefit of pain management drugs while maintaining moral correctness. As noted by Foley et al, “the suffering of an individual radiates throughout households, neighborhoods, and villages.” Toughing it out certainly does not minimize pain. In fact, it does the opposite; it maximizes pain and minimizes pleasure. The second option available is to continue existence with palliative drug treatments. While this does minimize the pain of the patient, the family and friends of the terminal patient continue to suffer. In their February 2010 article on Scientific American’s website, psychology professors Robert Emery and Jim Coan state:

During a particularly stressful experience, the anterior cingulate cortex may respond by increasing the activity of the vagus nerve – the nerve that starts in the brain stem and connects to the neck, chest and abdomen. When the vagus nerve is overstimulated, it can cause pain and nausea.

Few would argue dealing with a loved one suffering from a terminal illness is not stressful. Therefore, simply by being terminally ill – whether one utilizes pain management or not – a patient is causing pain to his or her friends and family. The death of the patient is also stress-inducing, and the pain of losing a loved one can last for years, decades, or a lifetime. Friends and family suffer their own pain while the ill person is dying, and after their death. The final solution available is to terminate one’s life. Suicide, whether assisted or not, can be accomplished painlessly. The terminally ill patient’s pain ends at the moment of death. This means less pain for the patient than if they had foregone medication, and the same amount (or less) than if they had opted for palliative care. The friends and family of the patient will still experience the pain of that person’s passing in the same way as the previous two options. They will, however, be spared the pain of watching their loved one languish away. The friends and family of the ill person will skip the pain caused by watching the patient slide closer and closer to death, and move directly to the pain caused by the death itself. This means less pain for those affected by the patient’s passing than if they had continued to suffer with their disease, medication or no.

Clearly, then, of the three options available to the terminally ill patient in pain – palliative medicine, no medication, or death – self-euthanasia is the option required of the morally righteous, according to the utilitarian thesis. It is the choice that maximizes pleasure and minimizes pain for all those affected by the action. The patient’s pain ceases; the suffering of family and friends is diminished. Terminally ill patients in pain not only have a right to die, they have a moral duty to pursue their own death as quickly and painlessly as possible.

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