Tag Archives: life


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.


New Essay: “The Duty to Die”


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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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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Thanks For The Music

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Categories: Bands & Music, Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

It occurs to me that music is a very important part of my life. It also occurs to me that most of the music I listen to and like was introduced to me by someone I know. In the interests of disclosure and acknowledgement, I’d like to share some of my musical tastes and who introduced me to the artist(s) in question. So, without further ado, here’s the riff:

I was introduced to my favorite band of all time, Rush, by my mother. I have some very clear memories as a child listening to “Tom Sawyer” in the car and at home on the stereo. My mom had Moving Pictures on cassette. That tape was listened to so many times that the last time I heard it, there were noticeable pops and crackles on almost every song. I “borrowed” the Moving Pictures cassette for quite a long time. It didn’t occur to me until I was about 16 that the record I loved was released the year I was born. Pretty amazing longevity, don’t you think? Thanks, mom: I owe you big time for holding on to that tape even after Rush stopped being popular.

I’ve never been into what’s popular. I’m sure that’s part of why I hated Nine Inch Nails when I first heard “Closer.” To me it sounded like some strange white-boy rap. At the time, I was into grunge rock still, listening to a lot of Nirvana and Soundgarden. Then my friend, Toy Cesar, made me a tape of some Nirvana B-sides. To fill up the blank space on the cassette, he included some tracks from NIN’s Broken EP. I heard “Last” and I was hooked. Thanks for not being wasteful with cassette tape, Toy: The Downward Spiral was my salvation when I broke up with my first true love a year later.

Speaking of my first true love, Mary Richards (née Watson) introduced me to Tori Amos (quite literally, I was completely star-struck and speechless when we met Tori backstage outside the Coronado). Little Earthquakes remains one of my favorite albums of all time and every time I hear the song with the same name, I’m reminded of one of my first messy and awkward teenage romances. Thanks, Mary, for introducing me to one of the most beautiful artists ever.

My wife, Tiffanie, is also a beautiful artist, albeit of a different sort than Tori Amos. Tiff has gotten me listening to quite a few musicians I probably wouldn’t have found without her intervention. Marilyn Manson, Deftones, and Orgy are just a few of the groups that she’s introduced me to over the years. The most recent band to join my clique of acts I enjoy is Stabbing Westward. Their record, Wither Blister Burn and Peel, is emotionally disturbing industrial at its finest. Thanks, babe, for challenging me to push my boundaries, both in music and in life.

Some music challenges you. It’s like a sonic version of Citizen Kane. Other music is more like There’s Something About Mary: entertaining, but not very heavy on substance. Huey Lewis and the News is my favorite “light” band. I have my aunt, Lisa Hermanson, to thank for my love of Huey. I remember many fun times with her, driving around the back roads near Belvidere, Illinois, listening to “The Heart of Rock N’ Roll.” Thanks, Aunt Lisa, for giving me some lighthearted times to make my childhood a bit more bearable.

There are many more bands I like and people I could thank, but this post is getting pretty long as it is. I’ll finish up by thanking my friend Mike Diamond (and, indirectly, his brother Brian) for my bonding with Vic Rattlehead, Megadeth’s mascot extraordinaire. I had heard Megadeth before I met Mike, but it never really caught my interest. Then Mike let me borrow his (or his brother’s: I’m not really sure) copy of Youthanasia. With ferocious guitars and thoughtful lyrics, Youthanasia made me a die-hard Megadeth fan instantly. While Cryptic Writings is my favorite Megadeth record of all, I’d still like to thank Mike Diamond for getting me to “taste the high-speed dirt.”

So long, and thanks for all the music!