Part of the Story

Ahh…the middle of nowhere…

Okay, that’s the wrong description…especially for someone who enjoys the pace of life in smaller towns.

Now, look — I grew up in L.A.  The pace and crowding and insanity of that kind of place is something with which I am intimately familiar, so trust me when I tell you this: I hate big cities.  They are the plague.  They are the purest evil in the universe.

If some race of super-intelligent, super-powerful aliens came to Earth and demanded to scoop out and take New York, My response would be simple: “Have at it!”  No haggling, nothing expected in return, they could just take that shithole — err, “place” — as a tip…as a little something-extra for coming all that way just to visit us…

But even I lose track of what life can be like sometimes.

Let me paint you a picture…I’m sitting here, typing this post in small-town Montana.  When folks around here talk about going “to the big city”, they are talking about freaking Bozeman, for God’s sake, which is no one’s idea of a bustling metropolis.  Hell, the coffee shop in which I had breakfast yesterday had more ATVs and four-wheelers parked in front than actual cars.

So, today, I stopped for gas before going to lunch.  A normal gas station, with a normal convenience store, just off the highway.  Great, everything pretty standard and expected, so far…except that my credit card is old, and its magnetic strip has pretty much given up the ghost as far as functionality is concerned, and it refuses to work in the pump’s reader.  Oh well, shit happens.  I’ll just go inside and pay.

As soon I walk through the door, I get a wave and a call from the woman behind the counter, “Don’t worry about it, honey.  Just pump and come pay when you’re done!”

Wait…what?  What the hell?!

The L.A.-raised part of me started to look for the scam, went instantly to DEFCON-1 on the ol’ suspicion-meter…

Another smile, and another wave, from the lady — presumably for the slow, slightly stupid moron starting blankly at her — and I went back outside to pump my gas.  Before paying for it.

Before paying for it.

Let me say that again: before I fucking paid for it!

Think about that for a minute.

If I had tried to do that same thing back in L.A., I would’ve been face down on the ground, with the business-end of a pistol pressed against the back of my head, before I so much as got my gas-cap unscrewed.  If I was very, very lucky that gun might even have been held a real cop…or if I was very, very unlucky.  It depends on who you ask.

In the world of small towns, however, where folks are still human?

*sigh*

We’ve lost so much of ourselves in our mad rush to concentrate and urbanize.  We’ve lost that sense of community, and of brotherhood — not to sound too hippy — that is what made us what we are…that is also what could make us what we should be.

“Go outside an play.  I don’t want to see you back in this house until the streetlights come on!”

“Don’t worry about the money, just take the gas can now, then pay for everything when you come back.”

“Naw, I’m not gonna write a ticket.  Just slow down a bit and watch out for the cows…”

E670C71A-CB46-4134-923C-01C38F57F0E7We watch it in movies, we read about it in stories and articles…but usually there is that (inevitable) overtone of superiority, of patronizing indulgence, from those “betters” who have spent just a day or two in a small town, and who want to use that experience to highlight what really matters to them: New York, or L.A., or London…

There is nothing on the face of this planet more fundamentally insulting than patronizing superiority, by the way.  That unspoken sense that someone is “better” because they “get to” go home to a 500 square-foot box costing $2,000 a month…that the reality of “the rest” is somehow less.  Less valuable, less important, less real than theirs, just because they have 30 million “neighbors”….

Once again, all I really to say is: *sigh*

I could talk about my waitress at lunch, about the fact that she was one of the best I’ve ever had.  Hell, I could talk, even, about the fact that she could make far more as a cocktail waitress in a “real” city.

I could talk about all that, but I won’t.  Frankly, I don’t particularly want to roll around in the pigsty of recrimination and criticism that going deeper into this subject would bring.  There’s a cigar bar right down the road, and I have better things to do…

Besides, what are fiction novels for, if not to take the foolishness and flaws of our society and make them a part fo the story?!

Climbing The Second Mountain

I’ve mentioned before that my news and opinion reading is pretty dang broad.  I do my best to take in info and viewpoints from all across the spectrum, then run all of them through my own perspective (and BS filter) in an effort to come up with something approaching the “whole picture.”

You come up with some surprising results that way, by the way.  You come up with writers that you like — that you take quite seriously — even though you may not agree with the policies and positions and opinions they express (I’m looking at you, Richard Cohen).

That’s rare, however.  More commonly you find those writers who simply make you shrug, who are there just to read in the moment.  Every once in a while, however, one of those “blah” people surprises you…every once in a while you find a column or an essay that makes you sit up and take real notice of someone you had dismissed for years…

I ran across one of those this past weekend.

Maybe it was because the piece had nothing really to do with politics, but rather was about life itself…about life, and second chances.  Given that I, in the essay’s terms, am on my “second mountain,” this piece really resonated.

I cannot for copyright reasons quote the entire thing here, but I am going to put a pull-quote to give you an idea of what he has to say, along with a link to the piece itself.  It is…erm…a terrible title for the piece, by the way.  The headline has nothing whatsoever to do with what is actually written, but that’s not the author’s fault…blame the editors for that one.  Ignore the title and just read the essay, it’s worth it.

David Brooks, “The Moral Peril of Meritocracy”

“Life had thrown them into the valley, as it throws most of us into the valley at one point or another. They were suffering and adrift.

Some people are broken by this kind of pain and grief. They seem to get smaller and more afraid, and never recover. They get angry, resentful and tribal.

But other people are broken open. The theologian Paul Tillich wrote that suffering upends the normal patterns of life and reminds you that you are not who you thought you were. The basement of your soul is much deeper than you knew. Some people look into the hidden depths of themselves and they realize that success won’t fill those spaces.”

Ramblin’ On

I meant to do this post back on Monday, but I got distracted by planning & preparing for my (imminent) Yellowstone departure.  Oh well…shit, as they say, happens.

At any rate, I’ve accumulated enough things I wanted to talk about, that I think it’s time for another list post.  Just as a word of warning: this post got away from me.  I went into with no plan, but a few things I wanted to talk about, and…well…welcome to random and unorganized bloggin’!did-paul-revere-1

  1. The elections are coming! The elections are coming!  The silly season is upon us!
  2. Of course, the US being the US, elections are always coming. Gone are the days when normal folks got a break from the constant din and chaos of campaigning and politics.  Okay, so the House was intended to be that way, to be the “immediate expression” of the “popular will,” but the Senate and Presidency…those longer terms were supposed to make them not on-going popularity contests but rather stable positions able to focus on the longer term and the bigger picture.  Holy crap, did the Founders got that one wrong…
  3. Okay, so on the topic of elections, it’s probably good to remind folks that nothing and no one on the news right now matters one bit.  Yes, there are more and more stories about the various Dem challengers for the 2020 ticket, more stories and biographies and speculation, more stories reflecting the electioneering and posturing and positioning of the “candidates,” but none of them mean a thing.  Look, all those stories are just like another big stretch of silly-seasons that’s going on right now: the NFL Draft.  There really is nothing to talk about in terms of the NFL prospects — let alone the Dem “candidates” — as not a single one of them can do a damned thing before the season (or the election) starts, but the talking heads (of both species, sports and politics) need something to talk about, something to drive viewers and interest.  They need something, when you get right down to it, to make them sound smart and connected.  And so we get showered with speculation and statements about this “can’t-miss” prospect/candidate and that “sure-thing,” and all the while the Truth just gives up and decides to go out and get drunk.  So, when you’re looking at these stories and either hoping or dreading in regards to a certain candidate — depending on your political team — just remember this: when the election actually starts, you won’t remember a damned thing that happens right now.11260C46-9429-4BEF-907D-D8D0AFF3A5CC
  4. I know, I know, I’m talking about the silly-season I just told you to ignore.  But, well…I never claimed to be particularly consistent, did I?!  Ahem.  I do want to say one more thing about the current Dem field: I like the fact that there are some new names getting involved — and the Repubs should take note of what their opponents are doing.  Far too often in the past both teams put up the same names, the same faces, that we always see. They put up the same praetors and pontiffs to run for the consulship, with the same bios and the same CVs and the same views.  If the 2016 US election — and others in Europe and elsewhere — showed nothing else, they showed that the rest of us, the normal folks, are looking for something different.  We are getting heartily sick of the same elites pushing the same policies and politics.  Just one look at this world is enough to show that change is very much needed.  Which, by the way, explains the popularity of guys like Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump — whatever you may think of each of them, they most definitely represent something “different” from what is/was usually forced down our political throats…character-war-soldiers-character-military-demotivational-posters-1313084604
  5. Crap…last political point, I promise!  I also want to call out a couple of names in the Dem field for a very specific reason — not for their politics, nor for their positions in the race, but for their titles: Major Tulsi Gabbard and Lieutenant Pete Buttigieg.  Both served honorably and well.  Both deployed to the Middle East.  Whether you agree with them or not, they bring a view the primary needs — on both sides of the aisle.  After twenty years of conflict and war, only now is the House of Representatives once again seeing the entry of veterans in decent numbers…of folks who know what it’s like to serve, and to deploy.  It is vital that we have that experience represented in DC.  Without veterans, without their experiences and knowledge, in positions of influence and power, it can — and has — become far too easy to use the men and women of the military for posturing and politics.  Honorable mention, by the way, goes to Joe Biden — although he did not serve, his son did, and the experience of those back home, of the parents and spouses and loved ones, matters.

Err…well…that went on too long.  I’ll cut the list short there and save the other stuff I wanted to talk about for Friday’s post, I think.  Black holes and the environment and The Matrix

When It All Changed

Normally I am not someone who will talk about “turning points” and “key moments in history.”  Quite simply, those things are much more rare than folks like to believe.  Most of the time those events and moments and people that we like to describe as “key” and “special” are not.  Instead they are the inevitable outcome of events and tides and movement far outside of their immediate scope.

murder_julian_cesar_bIf you went back in time and decided to “snuff out” Julius Caesar, for instance, you would do nothing to prevent the rise of the Roman Empire.  All you would do is delay that rise for a few years…delay it and put another face on it.  Perhaps an Aemilius, or a Cornelius or Domitius, would have stepped onto the stage and taken on Caesar’s “role.”  Whatever the name of the player, however, the demise of the Republic was written in stone; there was no single turning-point, no crossing of the Rubicon, there was just the evolution of society and economics and politics…

That being said, there ARE a few true turning points in history, a few events that really can be described as cataclysmic and world-shaking.  The most recent of those events happened a hundred years ago…it happened, and it really did change everything:  World War One.

No, it wasn’t “the war to end all wars” — war, I’m sorry to say, will never go away so long as humans are, well, human.  What WWI did do was completely shatter the “old world” and set the stage for all the years, and all the travails and triumphs, since.

Now, a lot of folks would argue that WWI can’t be described in such stark terms, that it’s genesis can and should be described in the years and decades prior to the start of hostilities.  The war, after all, was not about the murder of some random Austro-Hungarian prince by a bunch of Balkan separatists.  No, the war itself was an inevitable clash between the Great Powers of the day, and is fully a “natural outgrowth” of the power-politics and real politik of the day.

So why do I still describe it as a “turning point”?

d_War_i-_Read-Only_It was the first time the gentry and upper classes — the officer-class — lived and suffered and died right alongside the poor enlisted bastards.  It was the first time the barriers were truly broken down, the first time some landed aristocrat ate week-old horsemeat and got trenchfoot right alongside the guy that cleaned his freaking toilets before the war.

It was the first time death and pain and trauma became truly “democratic.”

Yes, it was also the first industrialized war, the first war on a total, unlimited and all-but unstoppable basis.  Yes, it was the first time technology dominated and determined tactics and strategy.  Yes, it was the first time war became an “industry.”  But…

But…

But, none of those things changed the world anywhere near as much as the utter destruction of social and economic differences in the trenches.  As a percentage of the various national populations, far more young men fought in WWI than in any other conflict up to that time.  It was all-encompassing…and because of that, it was all-leveling.

ft342-p5-cover_story_woundedJust how do you go back to “the ways things were” when the supposedly better, smarter and more well-born officer next to you spent the entire Battle of Paeschendale sobbing uncontrollably, unable to move or speak or fight while you had to protect and guide him?

In the trenches, I should explain, the “democratization” of war worked.  The officers knew it, and so did the men.  They could — and did — live and fight and survive together in ways their fathers and grandfathers would have considered both unnatural and dangerous.

And they were…oh, yes they very much were.

They were dangerous not during the war itself, but in the days after…

In the days when every town lost not just “someone”, but many someones.  In the days when an entire generation of European males were decimated by wounds, disease, death and trauma.  In the days when everyone, no matter for which side they fought, returned to countries they no longer recognized as home.  In the days when everything was different.

How do you go back to what you had before?  How do you turn the clock back?

You can’t.

Not even WWII changed the world quite so profoundly, in spite of the even greater death toll.

The history nerd in me wants to add all kinds of thoughts to this — thoughts about the pointlessness of WWI, and about the absurdity of it’s beginning, and about its almost criminally inept conduct by all sides.  Thoughts about the seeds it sowed that led directly to WWII…and how it profoundly affected and controlled those who were commanding nations and armies in that conflict.

I half-want to get in to those thoughts, but this isn’t the time.  No, I’ve prattled and rambled quite enough, I think.  I will, however, add a couple of bits below for further reading.  It’s important, I think, to do so because we don’t spend enough time learning and understanding WWI — we certainly don’t learn just how and why it changed the world…and that leaves the door far, far too open to not learning from it, and to repeating it…

Some suggested reading:

The First World War by John Keegan.  Pay special attention to his description of just how the war actually began…how the deaths of 40 million people can be traced to the all-powerful hand of bureaucratic timetables and schedules…

Goodbye To All That by Robert Graves.  Graves was a member of the small group of upper-class poets, writers and creators (he is most famous for writing I, Claudius) who fought in the trenches as junior officers, and it changed the world for him.  Goodbye is the first volume in his autobiography, and is…it’s…well…  Just read it.

Dreadnought by Robert K. Massie.  World War One is all about the blood and suffering of the trenches, but it’s start came on the water in the “battleship race” between Germany and Britain.  More importantly, it came in the family feud between two cousins who wanted to live up to their grandmother’s (perceived) expectations — unfortunately, those two unhappy men happened to be the Kaiser of Germany and the King of England.  Grandma Queen Victoria has some ‘splainin to do.

2K47BNZGK5CEFO2DSK42P7X4UIAnd now I’m going to do something I seldom do on this blog: quote extensively from another writer.  I’m not a huge poetry guy, by the way.  I’ve read thousands of the, but I’ve committed to memory just three…the three that are the most powerful for me.  One of those three was written by another member of that war-torn, literary circle I mentioned above.  Unlike Graves, however, Wilfred Owen didn’t make it home…

Dulce et Decorum Est

Bent double, like old beggars under sacks,
Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge,
Till on the haunting flares we turned our backs,
And towards our distant rest began to trudge.
Men marched asleep. Many had lost their boots,
But limped on, blood-shod. All went lame; all blind;
Drunk with fatigue; deaf even to the hoots
Of gas-shells dropping softly behind.
Gas! GAS! Quick, boys!—An ecstasy of fumbling
Fitting the clumsy helmets just in time,
But someone still was yelling out and stumbling
And flound’ring like a man in fire or lime.—
Dim through the misty panes and thick green light,
As under a green sea, I saw him drowning.
In all my dreams before my helpless sight,
He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning.
If in some smothering dreams, you too could pace
Behind the wagon that we flung him in,
And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,
His hanging face, like a devil’s sick of sin;
If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,—
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est
Pro patria mori.