Old School Dog

I got a dog recently, everybody. …I went down to the pound. I got one of those free dogs. Free dog. That’s how I say it too. I don’t say, “I rescued a dog.” I hate when people say that stuff. They say, “She’s a rescue. I rescued her.” Really? Did you pull her out of a burning building? Did you jump in a river with your wingtips still on with no concern for your own safety? Or did you just go down to the pound and get a free dog…? — Bill Burr, comedian

I gotta agree with Bill on this one. You’ve probably noticed that when people tell you that their dog “is a rescue” it has nothing to do with the dog’s situation. They are really telling you about themselves. I am a great person. I found this poor pitiable cur cowering in a corner. I, my magnanimous self, ushered it into the light of the civilized world and am giving it the life it deserves in its forever home. Am I not wonderful?

Okay. So I got myself a free Doberman.

I have wanted a Doberman pinscher for 20 years. They are the ultimate dog: sleek, elegant, muscular, not too big or small, typically brave, athletic, hyper-intelligent, minimal shedding, minimal drool, low odor. And they do not bark a lot.

They are all that and, by reputation, the last type of dog you would ever want to get from the pound.

As Bill Burr goes on to (very correctly, very hilariously) point out:

Dude, the shelter is not a pet store. It’s like Shawshank for a Golden retriever. Why don’t we just go down to the prison and rescue an inmate and just roll the dice that maybe the guy was wrongly convicted? Are you out of your mind? F—k that. I want a brand-new 2009 bulldog, all right? I don’t want some 1995 half-a-labrador with part of its ear chewed off, you know? I’ve got to put together its backstory. Every time I go to use the toaster, it starts freaking out because his last owner hung him from the ceiling fan every time the Jets didn’t cover the over, you know? Dude, that’s an animal, man. That thing can kill you.

And he’s right. This is an animal you do not know. That baleful look may be from selective breeding. But it might also be from poor socialization, neglect, mistreatment or abuse. It may have a neurosis you have no ability to detect or correct. That dog could be like the mad barber of Fleet Street, biding time until it can remove a child’s face as you try sneaking it onto a plane in the guise of your “emotional support animal.” (See footnote) To top it off, none of us are a Barbara Woodhouse, or a Sophia Yin, or, heaven forbid, a Cesar Milan. We have no clue what to do with a twisted animal psyche.

The way to avoid all of that is to raise a dog from a puppy. But I haven’t had 15 or 20 extra Benjamins stuffed into the mattress any time in the last 20 years to spend on a newly minted Doberman. Then this year we had a Christmas miracle.

My daughter, who volunteers at the pound, came home one night and opened her phone to show a photo of a pair of Dobermans that had come in together, a black male, and a red female. When she did, I blurted out, “I want the black one!” But with the image lodged in my wife’s mind being a snarling, leaping Doberman taking down a soft-armored perp in protection training that’s as far as I expected it to go. To her Dobermans represented what you least want in a dog: aggression. And pound dogs represent what you least want to deal with: an unknown backstory.

Don’t get me wrong. Of the eleven dogs, seven cats and fourteen turtles we have owned, all were rescues but three. (Have I mentioned that we are wonderful magnanimous people?) So maybe it shouldn’t have surprised me when my wife ended up steering me to the shelter. And in the chaos, in the cacophony of yapping canines—mostly pit bull mixes—the pair of Dobermans were as cool as cucumbers. Neither was skittish or aggressive. Any neuroses they had were wrapped in a demeanor of pure calm. That was enough for my wife to encourage me to put the black male on reserve. That is to say, its owner had five days to claim it. After that a Doberman rescue group could claim it. After that folks on the reserve list would be contacted. I signed the form, handed over the non-refundable $50 reserve fee, and waited to be disappointed.

But we weren’t. The pound called on the winter solstice to ask when we could pick up our new baby.

The mythical Doberman is protective, attached to a single person, quick to warn off strangers. The anecdote is that after the AKC recognized the breed, it won Best of Show three years in a row without the judges even looking at their teeth. But the mythical Doberman is just that: mythical. The aggression shows up mostly as an atavistic trait brought out by bad upbringing. The best kept secret about modern Dobermans is that they are absolute cuddle-muffins. In fact, if the secret were out, people would abandon their boring Golden Retrievers in droves and take up with the Doberman.

And what about ours? To Bill Burr’s point, he really does have part of one ear chewed off. He came to us underweight, dehydrated, dull, dirty. He was very unsure of his new status. There was no sign that he had any memory of spending a night in a house, or a ride in a car. He must not have ever had a toy, or chased or caught a ball. Early on he had an altercation with our rat terrier, Sammy. That got the terrier shaken like, well, a rat. And it almost got Jericho—that’s what we named him, Jericho—sent back to the pound. But he adjusted quickly. You could almost see him absorbing his new situation minute by minute. Inside of two weeks he and Suzie Q were fast friends, and Jericho was giving Sammy a wide berth.

All of that netted him rides in the car and walks in the park to get him exercised and socially adjusted. And that’s when I realized I’d gone old-school. A sleek, black, alert Doberman is a sight to behold. So people would stop to ask about him. And then they would say, “You don’t see many of these any more.” That set me back a step the first time. But my mind clicked through all of the inmates at the pound. Wall-to-wall pit bulls. All of those clunky canis lupus waddling the streets, some still sporting spiked collars? Pit bulls. They have become almost—well—cliche. Yeah, yeah, there are still more black labs than you can shake a stick at. We have golden retrievers up the wazoo. And you practically can’t move without stepping on a Chihuahua or its doo-doo. But the Doberman is almost an artifact.

And now I hear it on almost every circuit of that aging asphalt path. “Nice dog. You don’t see many any more.” “Gorgeous dog. I haven’t seen one in awhile.” Of course, Suzie Q gets compliments; she’s a straight up sweetheart. Strangers are friends she hasn’t met yet. And Sammy gets the occasional, “Oh look at the cute little fat one.” But only the Doberman is passé, yesteryear, old school.

That’s fine by me. The classics never go out of style.

Jericho on his first day at his forever home

Footnote: It’s true. One mom sued Alaska Airlines and Portland International Airport over facial injuries her daughter suffered after beng bitten by a pit bull traveling as an “emotional support animal.” Click here to read the story. 


Burying Edward Abbey

Edward Abbey died thirty years ago today.

Although I did not know it at the time, I first met Edward Abbey through a book about the Great Smokey Mountains. He was the book’s author. Being a Pennsylvania boy like me, Abbey appreciated the soft round fullness of the Appalachian Mountains. So he spoke well of the place—in his own prickly style. And why not? With Clingmans Dome poking into the clouds at 6600’; with the historic hollow of Cade’s Cove deep in one of its valleys, with hillsides seeped in the eternal mist of untold exhaling trees; with the half-buried secrets of the Cherokee and Scotch-Irish settlers, you won’t find a finer example of the Appalachians than the Great Smokies.

Like me, Abbey also suffered from wanderlust, that itch you scratch with new place names on new maps, the next river bend, the next flank on the next trail. Before I was born he had wandered west. When I couldn’t hike or paddle, I had armchair adventures back in our little house in Grindstone, Pennsylvania. At one point I picked up another book called Cactus Country. There was that cantankerous voice again, ringing this time like a clapper in a bell—the clarion call of twisted spiny plants, broken down porphyritic rocks, gaudy sunsets, and a sere, always thirsty land. If I had slipped the previous book back on its shelf, this time I did not. This was new. And it was fascinating.

I was lured west. Or I should say ‘we‘ since I had a family by then. Admittedly, Cactus Country had an impact on where we pushed our pin into the map. And it was here in Tucson at the Haunted Bookshop—now a ghost itself—that I discovered Desert Solitaire. This time it took only Abbey’s name on the cover to make me read it. By the time I closed the book, it had transformed how I looked at wilderness; how I looked at writing; and how I looked at authors.

Abbey’s simple wilderness ethics and spare writing style followed a single guidon: his fierce independence. Well, maybe two, since he was a hopeless romantic as well. His approach to wilderness was  pedestrian, clear-eyed and uncluttered, save the necessary allowances for laziness and economy. His writing, too, was stripped to the essence. He had little tolerance for adjectives, placing them as carefully as an artist fitting tiles to a mosaic. He simply wrote down what he saw. If he described a landscape too fantastic to be true, it was because it was too fantastic to be true. He became the first author who made me want to read everything he wrote.

So I started in on his fiction. By the time I’d read most of it, he’d finished his “fat, American novel,” The Fool’s Progress. It was printed the same year as the 20th anniversary edition of Desert Solitaire. As a concession to being a Tucson resident, Professor Abbey stepped off his dais at the university and wandered into The Haunted Bookshop to sign copies. I handed over my fresh hardback copy of Desert Solitaire and, while he scribbled in it, explained that he had been sort of responsible for my kids, then aged 6, 4 and 2, being dragged all over the state of Arizona. We switched books, and when he handed back A Fool’s Progress he had written, “to Gerald & Kelly and three great kids! from Ol’ Uncle Ed Abbey, Tucson 1988.”

And then just like that he was gone.

I’ve spent a lot of time since then, traveling in ever widening circles, chasing his ghost. Or maybe using it as an excuse to simply wander in ever widening circles. The circles grew, in time, to include rivers and canyons in Utah. Then, just a few years ago, Arches National Park itself. And finally, just this past year, a river journey through Grand Canyon. It’s been an amazing journey. My plan, before the 50th anniversary of his passing, is to romp through it all again, with some well-worn copies of his books along for the ride. I suspect, at the end of it all, his ideas will still be valid. Which brings me to one other thing I want to say.

Abbey needs no apologists. I doubt he cottoned to that sort of thing. But I’d like to clear up one little misunderstanding about where he stands among today’s philosophers. Quite a few believe, maybe because of his unflinching advocacy of wilderness preservation, that he was a bit of a socialist. He might admit to that on an off night. But that’s far from the truth. He was a salt-of-the-earth hillbilly and a rock-ribbed conservative. I’m not calling him a right-winger. I can already imagine him bristling at being lumped with those pustular, rabid dogs, eager to fatten themselves selling our planet off to the highest bidder. Nope, Abbey pointed out often enough how to keep that fat mixed into the stew. I say conservative in that he actually believed in conserving things. The more irreplaceable it was, the more loudly he spoke out for it. And, he is also differentiated from the piss-ants of current conservatism by a sense of humor. In other words, he knew what should be shared; what should be kept; and he faced the psychotic babble of the world outside of those safe mountain valleys with a bit of sardonic wit. In short, he reminds me of home, of the people I grew up around.

Do I have a point? Probably not. I just wanted to say that I miss Cactus Ed, that my life has been a bit better because of him. When I sometimes forget that it’s good to be out there, out in the empty spaces, trudging along—cold, wet, tired, thirsty, hungry, lost—there is that voice again reminding me why it’s all worthwhile. And since there’s no sense in me offering a second-hand reminder, I’ll let Ed finish this:

“One final paragraph of advice: do not burn yourselves out. Be as I am — a reluctant enthusiast… a part-time crusader, a half-hearted fanatic. Save the other half of yourselves and your lives for pleasure and adventure. It is not enough to fight for the land; it is even more important to enjoy it. While you can. While it’s still here. So get out there and hunt and fish and mess around with your friends, ramble out yonder and explore the forests, climb the mountains, bag the peaks, run the rivers, breathe deep of that yet sweet and lucid air, sit quietly for a while and contemplate the precious stillness, the lovely, mysterious, and awesome space. Enjoy yourselves, keep your brain in your head and your head firmly attached to the body, the body active and alive, and I promise you this much; I promise you this one sweet victory over our enemies, over those desk-bound men and women with their hearts in a safe deposit box, and their eyes hypnotized by desk calculators. I promise you this; You will outlive the bastards.”
—Edward Abbey, Missoula, Montana, 1976

My Friend Dave

One afternoon in late December I was standing in a swirling snowfall thinking about the afterlife. I don’t spend a lot of time contemplating the hereafter. It’s a fuzzy concept. That day, though, I was in Madera Canyon. Every year, on whatever Saturday fell closest to his birthday, my friend Dave would go to Madera Canyon to gather mistletoe. This wasn’t for Christmas kisses. Mistletoe is a parasitic plant, actually a hemi-parasite, that sinks its roots into the host’s vascular system, eventually killing it. Dave would go there with family and friends to help relieve the high desert oaks of their parasitic load.

This particular Saturday actually was Dave’s birthday. But Dave wasn’t there. Dave had died in late October from cancer, another evil growth that kills its host.

The mountains rising above Madera Canyon were in rare form that December afternoon. Old Baldy, the craggy main peak in the Santa Rita Mountains, was standing like a referee in a dual between the pale late-December sunshine and an unsettled snowstorm. Driving into Madera Canyon from the north, the duel was a spectacular display of light and weather.

But by the time Dave’s family and friends had gathered at a picnic pavilion near the open mouth of the canyon the snowstorm had cast the world in twilight and sent icy flakes to melt in our eyes. Everyone nodded knowingly. “Dave,” they said, “this is Dave’s doing.” And they may have been right. I’ve spent a lot of days on that mountain. And in some marginal weather. But I’d never seen a spectacular display of sun and snow like it put on that morning. And, being from old-school Iowa, Dave would have been quick to tell you that he had walked to school, uphill both ways, in the snow, with barbed wire wrapped around his bare feet for traction. So, sure, why not depart leaving us a little taste of the same?

So was Dave off in an afterlife somewhere? Was he in good with a cosmic weather wizard? Had he arranged this for some sardonic combination of our discomfort and delight? If so, he was safely beyond the range of human senses. What was in the range of things we could feel and know, though, was a life lived.

You can’t exactly swing a cat and hit a hillbilly philosopher. If you could find one, they might sum up that life this way: Be useful; Be reliable; Be honest; Don’t think too much of yourself. Good advice. The question is how to hang on to those ideals when you leave the enclave of the hills. And this is especially true for me. I get distracted by shiny objects. So when we left Pennsylvania for Tucson I spent time wondering what the people here would be like. Or, more to the point, how I might change.

Happily, one of the first people I ran across was Dave. Dave was practical, sensible, honest—almost to a fault, just a little sardonic, and more than a little bit stoic. You could have dropped him into any holler in the hills and he would never have made a ripple. But he was from Iowa. He was the first of many people from Iowa I would meet.

Waves of refugees have come to Arizona. It was once a spa. You came here for tuberculosis. Or anything else that dry air and sunshine might cure. Then retirees filtered in. They still come. A huge wave came escaping the oppression of housing inflation in California. Dave had come with the Rust Belt wave. Long before the leakage of manufacturing jobs was derailed into the thin air of political platitudes, Bruce Springsteen had penned the words: “These jobs are leaving, boys, and they ain’t coming back.” He was talking about the Rust Belt; about the simple jobs being done by simple people. They were happy to do the work, asking in return only to be able to feed their family, own a basic home, and fund a modest savings account. But Wall Street isn’t run by people who wanted the same for them. So the jobs drained into maquiladoras and drifted into Shenzhen. Until then, had you flipped over a tool or crawled under some farm equipment, you would have seen that it was made in places like DeMoines, Ames, Waterloo, Cedar Rapids or Davenport. The jobs left. And the people, like they had done during the Dust Bowl, followed the Mother Road west.

So Dave was the first Iowan I met, but not the last. He came to represent what I began to think of as Midwest sensibility. And it hewed closely to the ideals of: Be useful; Be reliable; Be honest; Don’t think too much of yourself. Dave—unwittingly—became a bit of a lodestar for me, helping me to see when I was drifting.

Dave introduced me to the song catalogs of John Prine and John Hartford. And for a bit of the cultural touchstones that people bond over, we both enjoyed A Prairie Home Companion.

Life is life. It is rarely constant. And, naturally, through all the changes, Dave and I often wound up on different paths. But at one point I ended up again at a company Dave had never left. So we began chewing on the intervening years. Dave summed it up with a favorite tidbit of ours from the Lake Woebegone stories. He said, “Gerry, what do you do when you were raised to be a stoic and life turns out good?” That was a heartwarming moment. And it is one I will always remember and treasure. But for you folks who didn’t tune in to A Prairie Home Companion, I’d like to quote from a longer version of Garrison Keillor’s words:

They raised him to bear up under hardship and sadness and disappointment and disaster, but what if you’re brought up to be stoic and your life turns out lucky—you’re in love with your wife, you’re lucky in your children, and life is lovely to you—what then? You’re ready to endure trouble and pain, and instead God sends you love—what do you do?

What Dave said was just a shorthand for the above. He had a wife that he loved; a child that he adored. He had steady work, and a roof over his head. He was happy.

So, no, I wasn’t standing in the swirling snow thinking a lot about the afterlife. I was huddled in a picnic pavilion with the woman he loved, the daughter he adored, the son-in-law he thought of as a son, the grandchildren that warmed his Sunday afternoons, and the friends that thought Dave was a pretty okay guy. I was huddled with the core of Dave’s good life. If that doesn’t focus you on the here and now, well, then I don’t know what to say.

I hope that Dave was playing a weather joke on us that day. More than that, though, I hope that I always remember the value of living simply. And I hope I will always value people who do the same.

So long, Dave. Thanks for the snowflakes. And thanks for reminding me that life did turn out good.

The Pycnogenol Report

I’m not sure I trust medicine. I don’t mean the amber pill bottles lined up by the height of their childproof caps in my rusted medicine cabinet. I mean the practice of medicine. Specifically, the practice of it here in the old republic. I’m told we’re the best in world. The guidon bearers. I’m told that people swarm across the planet, like bees to a hive, for access to our doctors, or, more to the myth, our gleaming medical technology. I’m even told that they forgo socialized medicine in their particular god-forsaken hell-hole to come to ours to pay tens of thousands of dollars for treatments they cannot get elsewhere. Like any jagged little pill, be careful swallowing that whole.

In the hillbilly haven I hail from people say “the proof is in the pudding.” The truth is that our enormous per capita spending on health care doesn’t yield significantly better results than some other god-forsaken hell-holes. We’re still sickos. Worse, my prostate cancer was discovered by accident; my enlarged aorta was discovered by accident. And a recently discovered vestibular problem apparently has no fix. My wife’s first lumbar laminectomy was botched by our town’s best neurosurgeon. So she needed another. The combination of the two landed her in a world of chronic pain. The both of us now have pre-existing conditions, which, at any moment, could render us uninsured. That’s the pudding. And that’s why I am not sure I trust medicine.

If I mistrust the medical industry, I trust the supplement industry even less. After the billions we spend on medicine, with questionable results, we drop hundreds of millions more on, well, I’m not sure what to call it: the holistic, the homeopathic, the natural.

Don’t get me wrong. We would benefit greatly from a change as simple as going on a whole plant diet. The prognosticators claiming that this would stave off the coming obesity/diabetes/heart disease pandemic can’t be far wrong. I agree that it would start to empty our hospitals and waiting rooms. And I am absolutely for getting something in a natural form rather than a chemical compound. But if the supplements we take now were having any effect, we should see lots of healthy people running around. I see the opposite. It’s almost like you can draw a straight line between the amount of supplements a person takes and their tendency toward depression, neuroticism, and general affliction.

My skepticism began in the 70’s with Vitamin C. Vitamin C supplements were the cure for the common cold. No, even better, Vitamin C prevented the common cold. All you need do was take enough of it. So people were swallowing ascorbic acid in record quantities. Several grams a day in some cases. But the common cold remained common. That’s when the up-and-coming General Nutrition Center revised their newsletter. Sure you need Vitamin C, but, you need to get it from rose hips. Okay. So we switched to rose hips. For a moment it seemed like there could not be enough English gardeners in the world to meet demand. And that’s when we learned the truth. You can shove as much Vitamin C down your gullet as you want. Your body can absorb only so much of it. And without bioflavonoids along you may not absorb it readily. Oh, and in excessive amounts, it interferes with absorbing other essential vitamins and minerals.

In short, the human body is amazingly complex. Just because it benefits from something doesn’t mean you can concentrate that thing and simply take more of it. It doesn’t matter if it was compounded by a pharmacy; or if you scrounged it from a primeval forest a la Euell Gibbons, concentrated it, and pressed it into a capsule.

The common cold remained what it was: thousands of rhinoviruses waiting for an opportunity. And, yes, healthier, low stress folks provide less opportunity. But in and of itself, Vitamin C was not a preventative silver bullet. Well, for scruvy maybe; but not the cold.

So if I’ve resisted lining my medicine cabinet with plastic amber bottles from CVS, I’ve resisted even more lining it with brown glass bottles from GNC.

Then along came prostate cancer and heart disease.

As I’ve mentioned, I elected to treat my prostate cancer with the gold standard: a nerve-sparing, robotically-assisted, laparoscopic radical prostatectomy done by a highly experienced urologist. I’ve talked about the resulting impotence. And how much sex meant to me. And my curiosity about things that might reduce the effects of my impotence. Oh, sorry, ED.

One thing that kept popping up was Pycnogenol. Humans have hit on a number of aphrodisiacs over the millenniums. Most are hogwash. Some, though, actually square up with how physiologists know our bodies work. One such thing was an extract from the bark of a Mediterranean pine tree. (Pinus pinaster) Of late, an extraction process for this has been licensed by a company called Horphag Research. Its founder, Charles Haimioff, has devoted his life to the idea of healthy aging. To that end, Horphag Research has funded or promoted any number of studies to show the benefits of Pycnoenol. Almost none of these are the epitome of research: a double-blind study of a large random population with a placebo and a control group. However some had a fair basis in science. A few others were suspect.

And what were the studies to prove? That Pycnogenol, like many bioflavonoids and antioxidants, promotes the health of human endothelial cells. That is to say, it should reduce blood pressure, increase oxygen uptake, and generally improve circulation. For sufferers of ED, it should act as a PDE5 inhibitor along the lines of sildenafil, improving the ability to get and hold an erection.

Does it really? Based on my Internet research, that was hard to determine. However, while I could not say it would help, I could also say it would not hurt. No one was getting worse on Pycnogenol.

So what I found was not enough to tip me in favor of trying it. I had my trusty pump. I had generic sildenafil from my urologist—which in the quantities I needed was cheap enough. Maybe what I need more than another pill was just acceptance, and the patience to wait for my body’s natural healing process. And that’s when I found out I had a bad heart.

Before you imagine a wrinkled, grey-haired old man dragging around an oxygen bottle, I should explain. I am just fine. I run, walk or hike some 90 miles a month. I can hike gradient that weeds out hikers younger and lighter than me. I still rock climb. I am still planning river trips. I built my own storage building, single-handedly. In 100 degree heat. True, I can’t run fast. Never have. Never will. I occasionally struggle at elevations above 10,000 feet. But I am not suffering from congestive heart failure. My heart muscles are not weak. I do not have arteriosclerosis or atherosclerosis. It is a simple mechanical deficiency. I have an enlarged thoracic aorta.

Eventually this could be a problem. To enlarge, the aortal wall must thin. Too thin a wall could result in a rupture. A rupture in the thoracic would almost certainly be instantly fatal. Picture blood pouring directly from your heart. So my cardiologist will monitor the enlargement. At a certain point (50 millimeters) he will replace my aorta with a Dacron sock. Meanwhile, he recommended what is apparently recommended to all patients with heart disease: statins.

That’s right. I have no have arteriosclerosis or atherosclerosis. My cholesterol and LDL are a bit high. But nothing in my lipid panel suggests anything a lifestyle change won’t fix. More to the point, no studies indicate that statins help in any way with an enlarged thoracic aorta. (They are helpful in the case of an enlarged femoral aorta.) Nope. You should take statins because statins are for people with heart disease and you have heart disease. To me it sounded like “this may not help, but it won’t hurt.”

You know, like Pycnogenol.

So now I had two reasons to take it. But I didn’t take it. Not right away. First I got a Siberian Husky puppy. A happy Husky is an exercised Husky. A happy Husky is a fabulous dog. I wanted a fabulous dog. So I started building my mileage up to the 90 miles a month I make today. And I went back to my gym. And I started the move toward a whole plant diet. Then to seal the deal, I bought enough Pycnogenol to give me 100 milligrams a day for four months.

In that time my weight dropped from 205 to 175 pounds. My resting pulse dropped from 88 to 63 BPM. I was clearly healthier and eating better. The Husky was relaxed and happy. In my stressed out, fat and happy days my blood pressure always bordered on hypertension—about 124/82. With everything else going on, it should have been an easy thing for the Pycnogenol to slip in and drop it those few points to normal. It did not. With better general health there should have been some improvement when my wife gave me the occasional come hither look. It didn’t happen.

Would it have worked in a bigger dose? Would it have worked if I had taken it longer? Was it doing things that were beneficial but not measurable by me? It’s hard to say. I am only one data point. But in this case I am the only data point that matters.

Holistic. Homeopathic. Natural. Those are great sounding words. They seem so much better than the chemicals and machines the billion-dollar medical industry throws at us with questionable results. But you can still count me among those who question the results. The proof is in the pudding.

A Poppy For Your Thoughts

In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row…
— Lieutenant-Colonel John McCrae, 1915

This is the 11th day of the 11th month of 2018. I might drag my lawn chair to the corner today and wait for Rick to drive by. I don’t know Rick’s real name. It might be Steve. It could be Gunther. Or Günther. The point is that Rick drives a green Jeep. Army green. Rick’s Jeep is equipped with a moron switch. If you haven’t seen these, the switch lets your vehicle spew dense black smoke for a while. ‘Cuz you know, freedom. Yes, you’re right, Rick’s Jeep is festooned with a large United States flag. Lucky guess.

Why would I sit on the curb waiting for Rick? Because I enjoy irony. Rick doesn’t know it but he is sending a mixed message. From the comfort of his hermetically sealed, air conditioned cab he doesn’t see what is happening on his ass-end. The flag is not bravely unfurled. The squared-off tail of his Jeep literally sucks. His flag hangs limp in the vacuum. And when he passes a Prius and hits his moron switch he adds another coat of oily soot to those abused colors.

And why would I expect Rick today? He would, undoubtedly, be heading out to a Veterans Day event, ready to remember all of our veterans, living and dead, who have made sacrifices for our freedom. Rick remembers. Except that he doesn’t.

Veterans Day was once called Armistice Day. In our allied countries, it is still called Remembrance Day. It commemorates the day that saw a hastily patched together armistice silence some of the most horrendous battlefields the world had ever seen. That armistice held and World War 1 ended 100 years ago today.

How long ago was 100 years? Do you remember, or know about, the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy; the Tet Offensive and the Prague Spring; that Peggy Fleming spun her way to a gold medal in Grenoble and our astronaut’s first moon orbit? Those all happened in 1968, the mid-point of the past 100 years. It was fifty years from when World War 1 ended to when those things happened. And it has been fifty years since. Put another way, there were still World War 1 vets around to see those things happen.

In the long view of history we get to distill things. Well distilled, World War 1 began with a violent act of wild-eyed populism. The world was shrinking. Steam ships, the Suez Canal, the Trans-Atlantic cable, had helped bring a wave of globalism. Oligarchy and imperialism had seen to it that the lion’s share went to the already well-heeled. The crumbs went to Lazarus. Oligarchy and imperialism also saw to it that the lid remained on that pressure cooker. But the deepening socioeconomic rift, particularly in class conscious Europe, left many ready to defy convention. The shot that killed Archduke Ferdinand and Sophie, meant to be a political statement from the disenfranchised Balkans, bloodied nearly the entire world.

Of course the United States got involved. We were a rising star in globalism. But it’s hard to inspire a nation to enter a foreign conflict where commanders are marching the rank-and-file into machine gun nests, where tanks and mustard gas add to the horror. And so you tell the plebes that it is about freedom. That this is the war to end all wars. That when this is over our rising economic star can outshine all others. After all, the Panama Canal was just completed. And in case they don’t believe you, you conscript them. And so we marched into Europe to George M. Cohan tunes.

The Great War ended. The troops climbed from the trenches and went home. But the strife caused by that bullet in Sarajevo didn’t end when the clocks in Paris struck eleven. The war unleashed a global pandemic. It left the European economy in shambles. We shored it up until Black Tuesday in October 1929 and then the world collapsed into the Great Depression. Societal turmoil gave rise to crime syndicates. And, of course, the ghosts of Versailles haunted Europe until it, and nearly the entire world, boiled into war again. It’s hard to believe that a simple assassination caused millions of deaths and decades of turmoil. But it happened just that way.

Why would you want to remember all of that? You wouldn’t. Pesky Armistice Day becomes Veterans Day. Now we get to wave flags and cheer our troops just like Memorial Day, July 4th, Flag Day, and every nationally televised sport event. But we don’t have to spend a moment thinking about our past.

And maybe it’s just as well. The Great War’s dead still remain under the poppies in Flanders fields. The horrifically wounded are themselves long dead, replaced by the horrifically wounded of WWII, Korea, Vietnam. And they will soon be gone and replaced by the next wave. But nothing’s changed. Our current crop of plutocrats and oligarchs have kept the lid on this pressure cooker too long. Our mettle is stretched. Vote, they say, things will get better. And we did. In record numbers. And we woke up to Wednesday’s child. Globalism is rampant. Populism rises. It remains tamped for now because Rick believes in his man in office. But the veneer won’t hold. President Everyman is a plutocrat dressed in an emperor’s new clothes. In short, things sit now pretty much as they sat in Sarajevo in June 1914.

If you were in Britain or France today someone might hand you a poppy. In John McCrae’s home country someone surely would. No one will here. We don’t remember. We don’t want to. So I will sit in my lawn chair and wonder. Rick has a 100% American-made machine equipped with a flag and a moron switch. I wonder, does he have a gun?