CAT | Personal
“Oh, that this too, too sullied flesh would melt,
Thaw, and resolve itself into a dew,
Or that the Everlasting had not fixed
His canon ‘gainst self-slaughter! O God, God!
How weary, stale, flat, and unprofitable
Seem to me all the uses of this world!”
Hamlet, Act 1, Scene 2
Next to a country road in rural Minnesota there is a memorial to a young teenage girl who died a suicide. It features her likeness and words of loving farewell from her kin.
I hate it with every fiber of my being.
My son is 12, my little girl is seven. When we first passed that memorial they of course wanted to know who the pretty girl is. And I had to tell them.
Then I had to tell them that death is final. That the young lady isn’t around to appreciate the lovely memorial.
There are studies of child suicides which found many children plan their own funerals, as if they expected to be there to enjoy them like Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn.
There was a local suicide recently of a woman in her high thirties. She was in the words of people who knew her, “different” and had been tormented for it all through her childhood.
Most of us are not strangers to at least some amount of bullying when we were younger, children can be very cruel, but this evidently never stopped. She was actually on her way out of town when one last vicious prank pushed her over the edge.
We newspaper people are very, very wary of reporting suicides. Adult suicides may get a brief mention of cause of death, and even that gets us some flack. Child suicides are too hot to handle, we often just report them as a death. Period.
In cases like these though there is a tremendous urge to name and shame, drag the heartlessly cruel bullies into the light of day and let the world pour scorn upon them.
And then it occurred to me that this might actually encourage suicides if someone thought they could have posthumous revenge on their tormenters through an avenging media.
Maybe it’s best to grit our teeth and hope their conscience torments them. If they have one.
I have had two close encounters with suicide in my life.
Years ago I worked as an operator and lab tech at a sewage treatment plant. One day I came into work and found everyone sitting around with long faces. It turned out a colleague had hanged himself at the end of a three-day weekend.
If we’d known he was suicidal we might have worried that he was just too cheerful on his last day of work.
It seems his wife was cheating on him, openly, flagrantly and contemptuously. I think this was a sort of revenge to make her suffer.
Except it was his five-year son who found him.
She had the last word though, when she named her lover as an honorary pallbearer at the funeral.
A few years later the 30-year-old son of one of my oldest friends committed suicide at the home of his girlfriend. They were in a contentious relationship, but we really don’t know what motivated him to put the gun to his head that night.
You’re not supposed to do that when you’re 30!
And just this weekend I ran into a friend who is a pastor in a rural church. He had just presided over the funeral of a 27-year-old woman who’d also committed suicide.
He told me that of her entire graduating high school class, the size of which he didn’t know but couldn’t have been large, five were dead already. Some suicides, some traffic accidents.
What he said at her eulogy may have offended some people, may have hurt some.
But it needed to be said.
“I know we’re supposed to say we’re here to celebrate her life, not her death – but this sucks! This is not OK!”
This is why I always have a camera somewhere near. I have my professional camera I take on assignment and I have a smaller camera in my glove box as a backup.
I was on my way to Montevideo to sit in on a session with Congressman Colin Peterson (D-Minn.) and saw the sun coming up behind the Archer Daniels Midland ethanol plant.
My editor put it on the front page of Tuesday’s newspaper.
It seems 9/11 is one generations defining memory, as in “Where were you when you heard about…?”
For my generation it was the assassination of President Kennedy. (Seventh grade home room.)
For my parents generation it was Pearl Harbor.
But 9/11 for me will always be the day my son got his name.
Actually his name had been kicking around for a while. I was living in Poland then and his mother wanted “Jerzy” for an uncle she liked. I suggested “Jerzy Waszyngton” – that’s George Washington in Polish, as a joke.
We were by the way, living not far from “Rondo Jerzego Waszyngtona” at the time. That’s the George Washington traffic circle which has a bust of Washington nearby.
Then one day, a few weeks before our son was due to arrive my then-sister-in-law called up and said, “Turn on CNN right now.”
We turned the TV on and saw the first tower smoking.
I said, “It could be an accident, this once happened to the Empire State Building.”
(On July 25, 1945 to be exact. A B-25 Mitchell bomber hit it.)
Then we saw the second plane hit the other tower.
“It’s terrorism,” I said.
That’s when it was no longer a joke for me. I vowed that my son would be named for a man of rigid honor and inflexible purpose who led his country through its greatest crises.
The tragic irony of it all was, not long before I had lectured at the Ethnographic Museum of Belgrade in Serbia on “Weapons Technology and Culture.” In my presentation I pointed out that an airplane with a pilot willing to die is a cruise missile.
It gave me no pleasure at all to be proven right.
At any rate, that’s how my son got his name. We had a fair amount of difficulty getting his name registered because many European countries have laws about what you can name your children.
I told that story here.
KEYSTONE, SD. It’s morning in the Black Hills of South Dakota and it’s cold and damp.
In the mountains the suns come up over the rim of the narrow gorges and daylight creeps down the opposite side at a snails pace. Heavy dew forms early in the night and may never burn off entirely if the day is cloudy.
The tent has a heavy layer of beaded raindrops from yesterday’s shower and the inside walls are damp with condensate. If the clouds don’t part and allow the sun to dry it, we’ll have to shake it out when we break camp and put it away damp.
I envy the people who live here.
There is nothing quite like driving along the winding roads built through the narrow valleys walled by steep tree-covered hills. Perhaps your destination is within those hills, as ours was, or perhaps you’re on your way to someplace on the other side of them. But when you leave them you’ll dream about the the low clouds entangled in the tree tops for the rest of your life.
We’re camped outside of Keystone, a town of about 300 permanent residents and it seems like tens of thousands of transients. We set up at Kemp’s Camp, a delightful campground just a couple miles outside of town on a side canyon.
I’ve been here several times before, the last time with my children in a happier time. I brought them back with me to make new memories.
We have a guest with us, a young lady from Poland who is thinking about studying in the United States. With a limited time left on her visit we thought about taking her to see something really spectacular within a reasonable driving distance.
The Black Hills are home to two of three examples of American mountain sculpture, Mt. Rushmore and the Crazy Horse Monument, the latter still a work in progress.
Gutzon Borglum, the sculptor of Mt. Rushmore, wanted to build a gigantic monument to the men who made America that could not easily or conveniently be pulled down by later generations, as has been the fate of so many throughout history. Most recently the twin Buddahs blown to bits by the Taliban barbarians in Afghanistan.
Korszak Ziolkowski’s family are engaged in a generations-long project to memorialize a great chief of the first nations of America, defeated but not conquered by the new American nation.
It is entirely fitting that the two monuments should be located close to each other. Just as it is entirely fitting that the great bas relief carved into the side of Stone Mountain, Georgia should honor the heroes of the Confederacy.
We are what our history has made us. If we did not honor the courage of those whose defeat led us to become what we are, we would be a petty people without honor.
And what have we become, what will we become as a nation?
In a short while we will break camp and decide where we will go and what we will see next.
Wherever we decide to go, we’ll start out across highways carved through mountains, covering distances in a day that used to take months for the first pioneers.
That’s what we have become, perhaps along the way we’ll get a hint of what we will become.
As predicted, there have been riots in the wake of the acquittal of George Zimmerman in the death of Trayvon Martin. Nothing really big so far, but there’s been a fair amount of property damage and some serious but so far non-lethal assaults on whites and Hispanics.
I reacted differently. I bought a canoe.
Well I was going to anyway, but it was sort of waiting on paying off some bills, studying, getting some fairly serious dental work done etc etc.
But after something occurred to me, I went and put it on the credit card, something I try not to do for things which are strictly indulgences.
So what happened?
A few things had been preying on my mind. The first of which was, it’s been more and more evident from information that’s come to light that Trayvon Martin was not the innocent little 11-year-old cherub in the only pictures the media seems to have been able to dig up.
Trayvon Martin was a punk, well on his way to becoming a career criminal.
But he was that sweet 11-year-old in the picture – once.
What happened to him?
Obviously he fell into a toxic youth culture that glorifies drug use, violence and treating women like dirt.
But he didn’t come from that culture, his parents seem to be good and decent folks. His mother has acted with restraint and class. I think she’s wrong about some things and I don’t think she’s quite ready to face the truth about her son, and I think I’d react in exactly the same way.
His father… I don’t know. He was divorced and living with his girlfriend, but he was living in a good neighborhood and no reports have surfaced that any of his neighbors had complaints about him. And he did take his son in when he got into trouble in his home town.
I like many others, heaped well-deserved scorn on President Obama when he said, “If I had a son he’d look like Trayvon Martin” during an ongoing legal case.
I had a great deal of fun with Obama’s statement that he could have been Martin 35 years ago.
Then I realized there was a point buried in that ill-timed expression of opinion.
Obama was the product of a broken home, as was Trayvon Martin, as are my children.
Obama’s father left him at an early age and saw him precisely once in his life thereafter. He has had to live with the pain of loss and abandonment all his life.
Trayvon Martin’s father and mother divorced when he was a child. I have no idea what the particulars are, but evidently his father married again, divorced again, and was living with his newest girlfriend in another city. I’m sure he loved his son, but obviously didn’t see him as much as a father who lived with him would have.
My son is acutely aware that though his mother loves him, she has other priorities that take precedence over him at this time in her life. My children live with me in a city fairly far from their mother.
Some years back there was an argument between child-rearing experts as to who had the most influence on a child’s development. The majority opinion argued parents have. A vocal minority argued that a child’s peer group has greater influence.
What I remembered than was that at the time I thought both sides were missing the point entirely. The greatest influence on a child is going to be those who he or she spends the most time with, whoever they are.
That’s when I decided not to wait and bought the canoe.
Two in a canoe are alone together and have to communicate. They are cooperating closely to accomplish something substantial, propelling the canoe through the water without capsizing. There’s an element of risk involved that requires care and forethought to keep safe. There is a ladder of accomplishment one can ascend, from learning the basics in calm water to negotiating swift-flowing rivers.
And there’s no TV, no computers, no videogames, and you’ve got your hands too full to text constantly.
Life passes all too swiftly for all of us, but it’s passing at breakneck speed for a child. If you keep meaning to do something with your kids, you may find the time to do it has passed while your were otherwise occupied.
I am afraid of the effects of a toxic culture on my children. That’s why I mean to be the most significant influence in their lives while they are growing up.
Because the child of a broken home might grow up to be the president of the United States, but then again he might grow up to die at 17 after assaulting a man with a gun.
Ordinarily I don’t get excited about shoes, as long as they cover my feet and are comfortable.
But these are really comfortable. I went up to the Mall of America and thought maybe I’d just pick up some shoes when I got there. There was a big shoe store having a sale, and I’m terribly sorry I’ve forgotten the name or I’d give them a plug too.
What I was looking for was a pair of street hikers. A long time ago I had a pair I loved with that name, though an Internet search seems to indicate it’s not a brand but a kind of shoe. I need a shoe that’s comfortable for walking on pavement, with off-road capability.
And they’ve got to look if not dressy then at least acceptable enough to walk into an office in.
That describes my dress requirements in general. I’m not like the late Robert Novak who always wore top-dollar suits to work because he might be called into a TV studio at any time. As a journalist in a rural agricultural area I have dress well enough to walk into someone’s office for an interview – but practical enough to go walking across someone’s field on a soggy day.
And of course when dressing for a Minnesota winter, warm trumps everything.
What I found was CAT – as in the Caterpillar tractor company. They’re advertised as work boots/shoes but I found a pair of brown leather low tops that aren’t out of place in an office casual environment.
Better still, they’ve got shoe laces that actually stay tied.
How did these durn nylon laces become standard? You know, the kind you have to tie in a bow, then double-knot and they still come untied?
These appear to be some kind of synthetic, but woven in such a way they actually keep a knot in them.
It’s a lot easier to face the day wearing comfortable shoes whose laces stay tied.
I got a new desktop a couple months ago. A professional writer needs to have two computers and my laptop sat on the desk 99.999% of the time anyway. So I semi-retired it and use it for travel and backup. When it finally gives up the ghost I may actually downgrade my portable work station to a notebook-sized model. All I use it for is a typewriter and a telephone anyway.
The problem with getting a new computer or new software is you have to learn a lot of the control procedures all over again. Every time I get a new version of Word it’s got a whole bunch of new things it can do that I don’t give a flip about. I want it to do the things I’ve done for years on it. Trouble is, the buttons for the things I’ve always done are now hard to find.
Since I started writing seriously I have NEVER EVER said, “Gee, I wish my word processor would do —–, I hope next year’s model does that.”
I have however said, “I wish this durn thing wouldn’t do —– every time I turn it on.”
It’s as if every time you bought a new car you had to learn to drive all over again. (“This year’s model features a tiller instead of a steering wheel…”)
When was the last major change you remember in the controls of cars?
I think it was moving the bright switch from left of the brake or clutch pedal on the floor to the steering column.
At any rate on my new desktop I’ve been noticing something lately. Actually, “been intensely irritated by something lately” describes it better.
Pop-ups have been with us for a long time, but were a livable irritation and of course you can install pop-up blockers.
However lately I’m continually interrupted by streaming video pop-ups which are invariably louder than what I’m listening to at the time. I have to hunt for the “x” to close them, or even minimize the screen to get to them. And for some reason a window will open behind the one I’m working on and start playing a full episode of some TV series.
And what’s really irritating is, I’m used to clicking on the screen to get it to scroll down using the down arrow button. Of course you avoid clicking on buttons, but nowadays when I click on a blank part of the screen more often than not a window opens on something I wasn’t even aware of.
And by the way, who the heck allowed someone to start creating links on words in my blog? Nobody asked me if they could do that and I’m not making a dime off it.
What’s going on?
Not surprising, she used to write for MAD Magazine back when it was still good, and is the author of “The Dysfunctional Family Christmas Songbook.”
She’s also “the worst mother in the world” according to quite a few people a few years back after she let her 9-year-old son go home alone from midtown Manhattan on the subway.
Aside from her column, which you can find over at creators.com under “liberal opinion” she has a blog “Free Range Kids.”
And Skenazy authored a book for parents, “Free-Range Kids, How to Raise Safe, Self-Reliant Children (Without Going Nuts with Worry).”
Skenazy explained the origin of the Free Range Kids movement on her blog:
“Somehow, a whole lot of parents are just convinced that nothing outside the home is safe. At the same time, they’re also convinced that their children are helpless to fend for themselves. While most of these parents walked to school as kids, or hiked the woods — or even took public transportation — they can’t imagine their own offspring doing the same thing.
They have lost confidence in everything: Their neighborhood. Their kids. And their own ability to teach their children how to get by in the world. As a result, they batten down the hatches.”
I have to confess, I’ve shared these fears. I’m a single dad raising two kids. My son is eleven and a moose so I don’t worry two much about him. But my daughter is six and just entirely too bold for my peace of mind sometimes. She insists her brother does not need to walk her home from school (all of three blocks).
OK, I’m good with that. But the other day she went and crossed a busy street by herself…
I have to remind myself when I was six I walked to and from school every day in Castro Valley, California. There were two ways. I could either go down the street, round a corner and walk up the street, a distance that was probably at least a half-mile.
Or I could take a short cut up a hill and across a cow pasture.
I try to remind myself of that every time my heart starts pounding and my breathing gets rapid.
There’s a term for parents with unrealistic fears and uncontrollable anxiety about their children, “helicopter parent.” It goes waaaaay beyond a healthy concern for our kids’ welfare to the land of Phobia. And unfortunately it’s institutionalized in our schools due to our lawsuit culture, and yes a lot of sensationalist journalism.
Lenore has the cure, and one could do worse than have a look at her blog.
Note: Cross-posted from my professional blog at The Marshall Independent.
This morning I saw something on Facebook that almost made me lose my breakfast.
It was under a label “Take Back Socialism” and posted by someone I’ve known for 30 years – who I know for a fact has never visited any of the countries he has held up as exemplars of socialism. Not a one. Nor has he ever visited any of the former Eastern Bloc countries – though I personally urged him to visit Poland as my guest.
Quoted in full.
“I love socialism.
I love socialism because I love having a post office that will deliver my mail.
I love socialism because I love having roads to drive on, bridges to drive over and sidewalks to walk on.
I love socialism because I love having national parks to visit.
I love socialism because I love having libraries where I can borrow books to learn about new topics.
I love socialism because I love having a fire department to call if my house is on fire (or to make sure my neighbor’s burning house is saved before it catches mine on fire).
I love socialism because I love having a police department that keeps the streets safe.
I love socialism because I love having a military that keeps the country safe.
I love socialism because I love having water that I can drink straight out of the faucet without worrying about ingesting poisons or parasites.
I love socialism because I love knowing that the food I eat is safe to eat.
I love socialism because I love knowing that the medicine I take has been tested and proven to be safe.
I love socialism because I love knowing that when I get old and retire, I will have Social Security to buy food and housing with and Medicare to pay for my medical expenses.
I love socialism because I love the environment and am glad there are regulations to protect it.
I love socialism because I love knowing that if I get hurt or sick or layed-off, I’ll be able to get assistance in buying food, paying medical bills and paying rent… and that’s why I’m happy to pay taxes towards those things.
I love socialism because I love knowing that there is a minimum wage, a weekend, sick days, holidays, a 40 hour work week and an 8 hour work day, overtime pay and all the other benefits that labor activists have fought and died for.
I love socialism because I love that there are public schools and universities where those who came before me, myself and future generations all will or have learned and I would be more than happy to pay a little extra in taxes if it meant funding them properly.
I love socialism because I love our space program and the thousands of advancements it has brought to everyday life from GPS to freeze-dried ice cream and everything in between.
But most of all:
I love socialism because I love my country and all the people in it and think that everyone deserves a FAIR shot at life, whether we agree on politics or not. The American people deserve better than dog-eat-dog capitalism.
“I lived from 1991 to 2004 in the former Eastern Bloc – none of this describes the socialism I experienced first hand. The post office was inefficient, and mail theft was rampant. Every bureaucrat down to the little old ladies that sold tickets at the railroad stations were petty-minded tyrants whose idea of relaxation was to ruin your day. Medical care was a nightmare.
As for “fair” the Party aristocracy enjoyed access to special shops full of western good ordinary folks could only see in movies. For only one example, a Party member could get a telephone installed reasonably quickly – the average wait for anyone else was 14 years!
I saw it get dramatically better, almost day by day, when this evil system was replaced by a freer market-oriented system.
Medical care in the newly privatized sector became so cheap, my first child was born in St. Sophia hospital, the one in Warsaw patronized by movie stars. The whole 9-month process cost about $1,000 equivalent – and our pediatrician made house calls!
Now tell me about your experience living under socialism.” (Said I dripping sarcasm.)
I could have multiplied examples point-by-point, but you get the point.
Some time back a writer coined the term “xenophilia” for this kind of phenomenon. The conviction among some Americans that it must be better somewhere else, in spite of all evidence that people everywhere else still want to come here, in spite of all our problems.
Twenty-four years after the most disastrous political experiment in the history of the world collapsed, there are still people who want to give it another try.
Sometimes I despair of the human race.
Note: This is last week’s syndicated column.
Every now and again a term gets coined and comes into circulation that perfectly describes in shorthand a phenomenon you used to have to use whole sentences, paragraphs, pages or books to describe.
The late psychedelic guru Timothy Leary called these terms “neurologically exact.”
Do you remember the first time you ever heard someone say, “Hey, don’t get uptight”? You didn’t have to ask what they meant, did you?
Well recently I was exposed to a term which perfectly describes a phenomenon whole books have been written about. For example Diana West’s, “The Death of the Grown-Up: How America’s Arrested Development Is Bringing Down Western Civilization,” or David Mamet’s, “The Secret Knowledge.”
I encountered it in the online version of the humor magazine Cracked. I remember Cracked as a sort of poor relation to the much better-known and influential MAD Magazine of beloved memory, before “the usual gang of idiots” died off or retired and MAD was possessed by the Devil, a.k.a. AOL/Time-Warner.
It was in an article titled, “How the Karate Kid Ruined the Modern World” by David Wong. I’m not sure if Wong invented the term or not, but it’s a good one.
The essence of it was that movies like “The Karate Kid” show someone going from being bad at something to being good at it over the course of a two-minute musical montage, after a sudden enlightening attitude change.
Ever work that way for you?
Me neither. Like Daniel-san I was a skinny kid who got picked on. But I acquired my instructors credentials in two martial arts and intermediate/advanced level skill in a half-dozen others via thousands of dollars spent on lessons and reference materials, and tens of thousands of hours of practice.
I switched professions in mid-life when I was living and working in Eastern Europe in an exciting milieu of dramatic change, civil war, and international intrigue.
After getting some great stories as an amateur I went back to school. I then became an underpaid reporter at my first newspaper – one with less than 12,000 circulation. I’m on my second, somewhat larger paper now.
I cover local government, agriculture, small business etc. It’s called paying dues.
Success in most professions does not require genius. It requires a certain minimum of study, experience and a lot of paying dues.
The classic, reliable way of getting rich for those of us not in on the ground floor of the Next Big Thing, is not at all complicated. Get a job, any job. Gradually increase your earning power via skills training. Do a conspicuously good job. Put aside ten percent of your earnings, regular as clockwork, for years and years. Invest it according to the best advice you can find, which itself takes a lot of research. Get married, stay married, buy a house. By the time you’re ready to retire, barring disaster, you’ll be at least comfortably, maybe very well-off.
And yet, every year a multitude of college students graduate from our institutions of higher learning expecting to own the world, or a substantial piece of it, while they are still young and good-looking.
That’s when they run into effort shock.
Notice that formula for success is not complicated, merely very, very, difficult. It requires sustained patient effort, and delay of immediate gratification, over years. And years. Not to mention the fairly frequent bad luck, or bad judgment, that means you have to start all over again.
This applies to success in all things. How many people can’t stay married, not because of those “irreconcilable differences” but because staying married is hard?
Of course people have always encountered effort shock, but it does seem to be more pronounced these days.
If I had to guess, I’d say modern civilization makes us a little too comfortable. Not many of us grow up on farms anymore where kids are part of the workforce from an early age. We don’t grow up working hard just to stay afloat.
I wouldn’t give up those civilized comforts. On a not-too-spectacular salary I still have a house full of stuff people used to pay fortunes for when I was a kid, if they existed at all.
But sometimes I wish I could make life a little harder for my children. And sometimes I wonder if that’s not going to happen anyway.