suicide

Kate Spade a few days ago. Anthony Bourdain today. I’m rarely surprised when I hear somebody has committed suicide. Saddened, yes, to be sure, but hardly ever shocked or surprised. Why? Partly because there are so many reasons for folks to want to kill themselves, and partly because thoughts of suicide are universal, and partly because the thought of nonexistence can be so strangely attractive.

I doubt I know anybody who hasn’t, at one point or another, thought about how nice it would be if you could just remove yourself from existence. All your problems, all those life complications, all that stress and anxiety and pressure — all of it, just gone.

For some folks there might be some measure of vindictiveness in the thought; that whole ‘They’ll miss me when I’m gone‘ thing. But I suspect most folks who indulge in the thought of suicide are more likely to be thinking something like ‘I wish I’d never been born.’ It’s not death itself that’s attractive, it’s deletion. It’s not being whited out or erased from the page so much as having never been written onto the page in the first place. That way nobody misses you when you’re gone, nobody suffers.

Kate Spade

Most of us never act on those thoughts, of course. Some do. Some succeed. But here’s the thing: everybody has a reason to commit suicide. Everybody. Most of us also have reasons not to do it.

Here are my reasons for suicide: 1) I’ve witnessed/done way too many ugly things in my life; I have way too many ugly images in my head, and not a day goes by without at least one of them popping up, 2) I’m getting old and my body is beginning to fail; I hurt a lot; my knees are crap; I can no longer do things I used to do easily, which is sometimes comical and sometimes terribly frustrating, 3) I’m moderately poor; I never expected to live this long, so I took no steps to insure I’d have enough money to live comfortably as I aged (in the same way I took no steps to insure I’d be healthy). I’m not so poor I’ll ever miss a meal, but more poor than I ever expected to be.

I don’t regret any of that. I may not like the images in my head, but I’m glad I’ve lived the sort of life where I experienced stuff most folks haven’t. I may be beat-up physically, but I’m glad I’ve lived the sort of life where fear of pain or suffering never stopped me from doing something. And I may be poor, but I’m glad I’ve never felt the need for financial security and I’m glad I’ve never made a safe career choice or taken a career path for a steady paycheck.

Anthony Bourdain

Here are my primary reasons for NOT committing suicide: joy and curiosity. Every single day — hell, several times each and every day — I find something fascinating to see, think about, watch, study, enjoy. Every day — several times a day — something happens that makes me laugh, that delights me, that makes me stupidly happy. Every day, several times a day, I’m glad I’m alive. All that far outweighs any passing desire to delete myself from existence.

Besides, the convenient thing about suicide is that you can always do it tomorrow. It’s almost always an option. There’s some weird comfort in that.

I need to acknowledge, though, that I’ve never experienced actual depression. I’ve been deeply sad, I’ve been desperate, I’ve been terrified, but I’ve never felt any sort of sustained depression. That’s a closed box for me; I can understand it intellectually, but I’ve no idea what it’s like to live with any more than I know what it’s like to be blind. But if depression makes a person blind to beauty and joy and curiosity, I understand why it would seem to close any option for living.

So I’m sad about Kate Spade and Anthony Bourdain. I’m sad for their friends and family. I’m sad they felt they’d run out of options. I wish they’d been able to find a reason to delay the decision to kill themselves. I wish they’d continued to find reasons to delay that decision. I’m not surprised by what they did, and I think the world is a slightly lesser place without them in it — not just because they were celebrities or accomplished in their chosen fields, but because their continued existence was part of what made being alive worthwhile for others.

I think that’s probably true for almost everybody who considers suicide.

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no need to help the arseholes

Yesterday I mocked the biased preliminary report on the Russia investigation from the Republicans on the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence. I included a few silly fictionalized tweets based on Comrade Trump’s all-caps tweet celebrating the prelim HPSCI report. One of those fictional tweets…well, hold on. I’ll come back to that.

I tend to write these blog posts fairly quickly. I may piss away a chunk of time doing research, but the actual writing happens in a bit of a rush. Most often it’s a first draft — so there are occasional typos, errors in grammar, mispeled wirds, or words omitted. It also means I sometimes includes stupid shit I wouldn’t have included if I’d paused long enough to consider how the stupid shit could be interpreted by folks who don’t know me. Or even those who do know me.

I made a rare editorial change before publishing yesterday’s post. I deleted a harmless but snarky fake tweet about HPSCI defending the music of Nickelback. I wanted to include something more obviously and sharply political, something more Republicanish. I replaced it with a snarky fake tweet about HPSCI and Stormy Daniels.

This prompted my friend (for the purposes of this post, I’ll call her “Jenn” — which is coincidentally her name) to respond. She wrote:

Loved this, darlin’, until the “STORMY DANIELS PROBABLY ACTUALLY A MAN” bit, which chucks a mudball of mockery in an unfortunate and undeserved direction.

“Jenn” went on to say this:

I’m in complete favor of taking jabs at Republican bullshit and hypocrisy; and lawdy, you do it well. But I find it cruel when a joke depends on transphobia and homophobia for any sort of “scaffolding.” Even if it IS exactly the sort of thing these arseholes would say. There is no need to help the arseholes sideswipe people who are already vulnerable and targeted and getting hurt all the damned time.

“Jenn” is smart, funny, compassionate, and thoughtful. She’s also a good friend. And she’s right. I’d intended the Stormy Daniels bit to be a swipe at the misogyny / gender insecurity of Congressional Republicans. But that swipe WAS built on the hurtful ways haters depict some folks who are already marginalized. It’s all the more hurtful since I have friends who fall outside of traditional gender norms.

I want to say this: I will not let anybody — friend or not — police my speech. But I also want to say this: I need to remember to police my own speech. I’m grateful I have friends who’ll call me out when I’ve crossed a boundary. I may not always agree with the boundary, I may not respect it and I may intentionally violate it — but I’m SO thankful for friends who point out where their boundaries are.

One of the most difficult things we can do — and something we really MUST do — is to call out our friends and family when they say or do something offensive or stupid. It’s probably harder to call out our friends than it is to call out a stranger. It took a bit of courage, I think, for “Jenn” to tell me I’d fucked up. It would have been so much easier for her to stay silent.

Do Not Feed the Arseholes

In this case, I totally agree with “Jenn”. As she said, there was “no need to help the arseholes.” Helping the arseholes is just a tiny step away from being an arsehole. I could have made my point in another way. After “Jenn” spoke up, I considered editing the blog post and re-inserting the snarky Nickelback bit. But that would just be covering my tracks. I think it’s probably more important to acknowledge that I fucked up.

And hey, let’s face it, I’ll likely do it again. We all fuck up. And we can all benefit from friends who remind us not to help the arseholes.

the return of knuckles dobrovic

I’ve already written about my slow conversion to Instagram, so I won’t repeat myself. Well, I won’t repeat myself much. I’ll repeat that my original IG account was meant as an experiment–a test or sorts. I designed a stupidly simple project idea: I put things on a table and photographed them. I didn’t expect it to come to anything and I didn’t really want to be associated with it, so I created a pseudonym: Knuckles Dobrovic. The whole thing was meant to be easily cast aside–project, alias, and the entirely of Instagram.

But, of course, that didn’t happen. I learned to love Instagram and the stupidly simple project idea turned into an actual project (though it remained stupid and simple). And as silly as it sounds, I love the name Knuckles Dobrovic. Here’s one more thing I’ll repeat: this bit in which I considered what I’d do when the project ended:

I’ll probably come up with some other sort of project, simply because I’ve grown fond of the name Knuckles Dobrovic. I realize that’s a stupid reason. I don’t care. I’ve no objection to doing things for stupid reasons.

The Things on a Table project ended in August of 2014. I put Knuckles Dobrovic out to pasture, with the idea that some day I’d–okay, I actually wrote I’d haul his ass back and put him to work, as if Knuckles Dobrovic actually existed.

Here’s the thing: I write and teach fiction, so I’m fairly used to thinking of characters in terms of their internally consistent integrity. So are you, for that matter. You have a fairly good idea how Sherlock Holmes thinks, what Princess Leia believes and would fight for, what Hannibal Lecter wants for supper, who Elizabeth Bennett would like to dance with and why. You have a fairly solid grasp on these fictional characters.

Me, I know what Knuckles Dobrovic would like to photograph. So despite the fact that Knuckles doesn’t actually exist, there are still certain Knuckles-based parameters that I knew would have to apply to a new photo project.

  • The project had to be simple, grounded in something commonplace. It had to grow fairly organically out of an everyday occurrence.
  • It needed to be something that didn’t require much planning or forethought. It had to be open to spontaneity. It also needed a certain–let’s call it ‘temporal economy’, meaning I didn’t want to have to spend much time fussing around with it.
  • The project didn’t need to be entirely original (how many projects are?), but it needed enough flexibility so I could make it uniquely mine. Or, rather, uniquely Knuckles’.
  • The project had to be something I’d find interesting–or at least something I wouldn’t mind doing–over the course of several months, regardless of the weather or season.

I confess, that’s largely bullshit. It’s not like I actually thought about it enough to make bullet points. I didn’t actually articulate any of this until I sort of stumbled onto this project idea. Over the past four years I’d occasionally consider project ideas, but they were all too fussy, or too complicated, or too much bother, too esoteric, too stupid, too something. Until last week.

I walk a lot. Most days, I try to take a lazy two or three mile walk. During that walk I’ll occasionally shoot a photo or two with my phone. I usually delete them. Last week, as I was deleting photos, I noticed I’d taken two shots with similar framing–looking straight down at stuff near my feet.

Nothing out of the ordinary there; I’d guess almost everybody who’s ever held a camera has taken that same basic photo. On a whim, instead of deleting the photos, I used a simple app to lay one image over the other–a sort of faux double exposure. And I liked the result.

January 29, two locations

I liked it enough I almost posted it on my Instagram account. Then it occurred to me that the photo had Knuckles potential. It met all the criteria. Walking was a commonplace event; it required no planning at all to notice stuff near my feet; it’s not an original idea, but it’s flexible enough to allow me a different take on it; and it was dead easy to layer one photo on top of the other.

So I decided, what the hell–I’d do it again on my next walk. See if the idea had legs, so to speak.

January 31, three locations

Again, I liked the result. I figured I’d repeat this for a few days to see if it was actually a viable project concept.

For the most part, I walk in my neighborhood, which is pretty suburban. There are some newer middle class areas, some older working class homes, a few small parks, some bits of light industry not too far away, a handful of strip malls and small shops fairly close by. It’s not particularly visually interesting. But there’s always stuff on the ground. Always and everywhere.

February 2, two locations

What I like about this idea is the element of randomness. You never know what you’re going to find on the ground. But there’s also an element of intentionality and deliberation that I find appealing. You have to make deliberate, intentional decisions on HOW to photograph the random stuff.

The biggest surprise was discovering I didn’t know what the hell I was doing. You’d think it would be easy to photograph random stuff in such a way that they’d blend together in an aesthetically pleasing way. But it ain’t. At least not for me. At least not yet.

February 6, two locations

I really like the fact that I don’t quite know what I’m doing. I like the fact that a lot of what I think will work as a double exposure turns out not to work at all. I’m pretty comfortable with the flawed and fickle nature of this gig. I’m okay with the fact that some days nothing I photograph will produce anything interesting.

I suspect that over time, I’ll get better at it–but I’m in no hurry. There’s always another walk tomorrow. There’s always going to be random crap at my feet.

February 7, two locations

The best thing about this gig (for me, at any rate) is that — well, there are two best things. The first best thing is that I get a ridiculous amount of enjoyment out of the name Knuckles Dobrovic. The second best thing is that this encourages me to walk with anticipation but without expectation. If that makes sense.

Thích Nhất Hạnh, a Buddhist monk who advocates a form of walking meditation, says this about walking: When you walk, arrive with every step. I’m not a good enough Buddhist to do that, but I try to be open to arriving. There’s just something pleasant and satisfying about seeing something on the ground — a leaf, a shadow, an oddly shaped stone, a bit of paint– and stopping a moment just to appreciate it. To arrive at that leaf or stone. I do that even if I don’t take a photograph.

So I think this project idea might work.

julius caesar, the foreskin of jesus, time to dance

Time is weird. No, wait…that’s not right. Time isn’t weird; the way people mark time, that’s what’s weird. For a big chunk of Western history, the new year began on March 1. Which makes actual sense, if you think about it. I mean, that’s pretty much the season in which life begins to re-assert itself after winter has stopped tossing its weight around.

The reason — one of the reasons — we celebrate January 1 as the first day of the new year is because Julius Caesar (yes, that Julius Caesar) decided people had fucked up the calendar, and he was just the boy to fix it. The problem was the early Roman calendar was a lunar calendar and only had ten months, ending in December (from the Latin word decem, meaning ten). Six of the months had thirty days, the other four had thirty-one. Why did some months have an extra day? Nobody really seems to know. There had to be a reason, but it was a long time ago — people forget. And really, who cares? It was fucked up, right? That’s why our boy Julius had to fix it.

Anyway, you can see the problem. The Roman year only had 304 official days. So they periodically added in a few extra days here and there (usually for political purposes), and they included a sort of block of unorganized winter days (and we all know what that’s like — it’s cold, it’s dark, one day is pretty much as miserable as another, and they all sort of blend together), and now and then they’d toss in an intercalary month of twenty-seven days. Sometimes twenty-eight days.

On with the dance! let joy be unconfined; No sleep till morn, when Youth and Pleasure meet to chase the glowing hours with flying feet.

Really, considering how organized the Roman empire was, it was a terribly sloppy way to deal with time. Seasons got weird, holidays would begin too early or too late, harvest festivals would be scheduled before the harvest was ready. Nothing made any sense. Folks complained. So one day Julius said, “Okay, this shit really has to stop.” He hired a guy from Alexandria, Sosigenes, who told him, “Dude, let’s just do what the Egyptians do. Chuck that whole lunar thing and base the calendar on the sun.”

So that’s what they did. They had to create a few new months, and add in a few extra days, but they banged together a new calendar and in the year 45 BC they said, “This is the first day of January, named for Janus the god of beginnings and endings, the god of gates and passages and doorways, the god of duality and transitions. And from now on, this is going to be the first day of the new year. Party on, people.”

The people partied on, but they still pretty much celebrated March 1 as beginning the new year. I mean, c’mon…tradition. And common sense. Who feels like celebrating in the middle of fucking winter? Even after the Roman Empire (and most of the Western world) went all over Christian, January 1 wasn’t treated as the beginning of the new year. Basically, it was celebrated as the Feast of the Circumcision of Christ. Which was a pretty big deal back then. You see, eight days after Jesus was born, his folks held a bris, a mohel nipped off his holy foreskin, they gave him his name, then everybody had a nice meal. Christians didn’t go in for all that; they skipped everything but the meal, but they still thought it was a fine thing to honor the day Jesus was separated from his foreskin. (Religion is also weird.)

Eventually the Julian calendar was supplanted (if ‘supplanted’ means what I think it means — I can’t be bothered to look it up) by the Gregorian calendar, and the Gregorian calendar got refined, and science weighed in, and time was more tightly ordered, and the world became more secular, and relatively few people wanted to celebrate the circumcision of Jesus, and now when you buy a calendar at the book store it begins in January. It’s not entirely universal, but January 1 has generally become accepted as the first day of the year.

When buds are breaking and birds singing merrily, dance with me.

But it’s basically all bullshit. Thomas Mann had it right when he wrote:

Time has no divisions to mark its passing. There is never a thunderstorm to announce the beginning of a new month or year.

Really, this is just another day. A lot of folks still have to go to work, the cat’s litter box still needs to be cleaned and the dog needs to be walked, food has to be prepared and dishes have to be cleared away and washed, the snow will still fall and have to be cleared off the sidewalk, people will still be people, and you’re still the same person you were yesterday.

It’s just another day. Nothing has really changed. But so what? Sometimes what we need is a symbolic transition. A point at which we can tell ourselves this is where things begin to change. This point, right here, this is the line. From this point forward, things will be different.

Doesn’t have to be the beginning of the year. Could be a birthday. Or an anniversary. It doesn’t even have to be a temporal point. It could be any symbolic point. Once I get my own apartment, once I get my first real job, once I can run a 5K, once I graduate, once I get married, once I can afford a ticket to Spain, once I get my driver’s license, once I get divorced, once the kids have grown up and left home, from that point on things will be different. That decisive point, whatever it is, it’s worth celebrating.

Now I think of it, I’m beginning to believe there’s actually something admirable about reaching that point on the first day of January. There’s something defiant choosing a day in the middle of the least hospitable, most bitter, darkest fucking season of the year. There’s something cheeky about shouting out, “It’s January First, bitches…and it’s time to dance.”

tsunami tweets

I have a long-ignored Twitter account. Between July of 2011 and August of 2013 I made 121 tweets; that’s an average of about five tweets a month, which suggests I basically ignored Twitter even before I ignored Twitter.

But with the election of Comrade Trump, I find I’m checking Twitter on a semi-regular basis, just to confirm that Trump actually made the tweets I see reported in the news. They’re often so juvenile, so bone-ignorant, so chaotically destructive that it seems unlikely they’d be the work of the President of These United States. I’d call it ‘inconceivable’ but Vizzini ruined that term for everybody. Still, time after time, the tweets are actually there. They’re actually real.

Okay, bear with me a moment. I’m about to go on a bit of a tangent. Or maybe more than a bit. But I promise, I’ll come back to Trump and Twitter.

On the 9th of July in the year 869 (or, to use the Nipponese calendar, the 26th day of 5th month, 11th year of Jōgan) a massive earthquake took place off the coast of Honshu, followed by a devastating tsunami. A history of Japan written about three decades later describes the event:

[A] large earthquake occurred in Mutsu province with some strange light in the sky. People shouted and cried, lay down and could not stand up. Some were killed by the collapsed houses, others by the landslides. Horses and cattle got surprised, madly rushed around and injured the others. Enormous buildings, warehouses, gates and walls were destroyed. Then the sea began roaring like a big thunderstorm. The sea surface suddenly rose up and the huge waves attacked the land. They raged like nightmares.

In the aftermath of the destruction, coastal communities began to erect ‘tsunami stones’ marking the furthest extent of the inundation. The stones served three purposes; they were historical markers, they were memorials to the dead, and they were a warning to future generations. The stones often included messages or advice:

Do not build your homes below this point.

Earthquake is an omen of tsunami. Watch out for at least one hour. When it comes, rush away to higher places. Never reside on submerged land again.

Hundreds of these stones were carved and set up along the coast; a lot of them still remain. But over time people grew accustomed to the stones and ignored the warnings. By 2011 a lot of communities could be found below the 869 inundation line. And as you know, in 2011 an earthquake of a similar magnitude struck off the same coast of Japan, creating an equally devastating tsunami. Nearly 16,000 people were killed, and another 2500 remain unaccounted for.

Not surprisingly, the towns and villages that heeded the old tsunami stones remained largely intact. In fact, the tsunami actually stopped around 300 feet below the tsunami stone in the village of Aneyoshi.

Right, this is where we return to Trump and Twitter. I think we can view Comrade Trump’s tweets as a form of tsunami stone. They comprise a historical record of his thoughts and behavior. In the future I hope they’ll serve as a memorial to the social and environmental policies the Trump administration are in the process of destroying. And I hope they serve as a warning, both to us in the next election and to future generations of voters.

This administration is an unfolding, ongoing disaster. It’s going to get worse before it gets better. Even though he’s already a weakened president, he’s still capable of — and intent on creating — a great deal of destruction. Civil liberties, race relations, the economy, foreign policy, the environment, the sweep of destruction caused by the Trump administration is deep and wide.

We need to establish our own tsunami stones, which include Trump’s tweets. We need to establish the inundation line.This is how bad it got. This is how much of our society was damaged or destroyed. People shouted and cried, lay down and could not stand up. Huge waves attacked the land. They raged like nightmares. Do not build your houses below this point. Never reside on submerged land again.

 

 

my day so far

Woke up. Always a good start.

Checked the perimeter (by which I mean the cat and I stood for a minute or so looking out at the back yard). Light breeze, sunny. The breeze made a small greyish feather skitter across the deck. The cat watched it with a sort of philosophical detachment until it blew off the deck. The cat lost interest and wanted fed. The perimeter was secure. I fed the cat.

Poured myself a large cold brew coffee. During the summer months I drink nothing but cold brew in the morning. Summer is basically over; tomorrow I’ll run out of cold brew and will return to hot coffee. Read the news. Donated another small sum to the Houston flood relief, this time to Operation BBQ Relief — a group of caterers, restaurateurs, and competitive barbecue teams that respond to disasters and feed victims and responders.

Edited the stuff I wrote yesterday. I always begin a writing session by editing the previous day’s work.

The cat complained about the lack of attention. Gave the cat some Laxatone, allegedly tuna-flavored (though how the hell would I know?), to reduce the odds that she’ll hack up a hairball someplace where I’m bound to be walking barefooted.

Thought about that feather. Not a particularly interesting feather, but I’d enjoyed the way the breeze made it sort of wiggle-waggle across the deck. Wasn’t a major flight feather; Maybe one of those smaller feathers from the upper part of the wing. Googled ‘types of feathers’  Discovered the feather the cat and I observed was probably an upper wing covert feather, which I’m told overlay the secondary flight feathers and serve to smooth the airflow over the wings. Nice.

 

Wrote maybe two or three hundred words.

Thought about the term covert, so researched the etymology, which was about what you’d expect. It comes from the Old French covrir which meant ‘to cover, protect, or conceal’. Made me think of a television show, Covert Affair, of which I watched the first episode a million years ago — mainly because it starred an actor with the improbable name of Piper Peribo. I remembered her name from a brilliant Christopher Nolan movie called The Prestige, though I couldn’t for the life of me remember what role she played. In the first episode of the television series, she played a CIA trainee who spoke a couple dozen languages and so was made a field operative. It was pretty awful. I never watched another episode, but I still like the actor’s name. I’ve no idea if she’s done anything else.

The improbably-named Piper Perabo

Picked up the cat’s dish and clean out the leftover Laxatone. The cat has disappeared to wherever the cat disappears to.

Wrote maybe dozen paragraphs, mostly dialog. Dialog is easy. Doesn’t take long.

Still thinking about the feather. Figured there was probably a website somewhere that cataloged feathers. Googled ‘feather atlas’ and hey bingo, there’s actually a feather atlas. Told myself I would NOT get distracted by looking at bird feathers. Did NOT get distracted by bird feathers. Got distracted by this:

READ THIS FIRST: Feathers and the Law.

Feathers and the Law — four words I’d never expect to see together. Totally clicked on the link, which opens a window with a few other links and begins with this alarming warning.

Feathers are beautiful and remarkable objects.  If you find feathers in nature, appreciate, study, and photograph them, but leave them where you found them.  It is illegal to take them home.

No fucking way is that illegal. Is it? Yes, it is. Sorta kinda. The Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918 makes it illegal to hunt, take, capture, kill, or sell migratory birds or any part of a bird, including feathers, eggs, and nests. Of the 900+ bird species in North America, more than 800 are considered migratory. We’re talking birds like crows and mourning doves and chickadees — and it’s actually illegal to take their feathers.

This feather (not the actual feather mentioned) is TOTALLY illegal. Probably.

Of course, in reality, the government is only really interested in protecting a few endangered species, but you can’t expect a wildlife enforcement officer to be able to distinguish between the covert feather of a barn swallow and the covert feather of a Gunnison sage grouse. So the law covers just about all the birds and puts the burden of proof on the poor sumbitch who picks up a feather to prove it’s NOT from one of these protected species.

Got a wee bit distracted by the feather atlas.

From the Feather Atlas

Got interrupted in my distraction by a phone call reminding me I have a doctor’s appointment on Friday.

I confirm that I’ll be there, but I’m not actually thinking about the appointment. I’m thinking that somewhere in that illegal feather business are the bones of a story. But it’s not the story I’m working on, so I close every goddamned window on my computer and bang out another hundred and fifty words or so.

The cat reappears and wants fed. It’s noon. I haven’t had breakfast yet.

Ate breakfast, caught up on the news, Melania Trump wearing stilettos while touring the flooded parts of Texas. Wrote this.

My day so far.

 

a simple acknowledgment of service

I’m not particularly moved by the U.S. flag. Don’t get me wrong — I’m a patriot. I joined the military and did my four years in uniform. I’ve spent most of my life engaged in some form of public service — prison counselor, criminal defense investigator, teacher. I stand up when they play the national anthem at ball games. But I’m not a flag-waver. The flag just doesn’t move me as a symbol. It’s been brandished too often by too many hypocrites for too many cynical reasons for me to get very emotional about it.

However, there are two exceptions. First, I get weepy every time I see a military funeral. I’m going to guess a lot of you have only seen a military funeral on television or in the movies. Even so, you know there’s a military tradition that involves folding the flag and presenting it to the next of kin. Believe it or not, there wasn’t any actual written protocol for this ceremony until about five or six years ago. There was, however, the awesome weight of tradition, and tradition is a very big deal in the military.

By tradition, when the flag was presented to the next of kin the Casualty Assistance Officer (yeah, they actually have a title for this person; it’s the military) would kneel, offer the flag, and then say some variation of this:

This flag is presented on behalf of a grateful nation as an expression of appreciation for the honorable and faithful service rendered by your loved one.

The moment I hear the words a grateful nation I get totally choked up and by the time they get to honorable and faithful service I’ve been known to cry like a fucking baby. Partly because it’s so often a lie. The service was real. I’m not going to judge whether it was honorable or faithful, the fact is that person served. But let’s face it — the nation is rarely very grateful.

The other exception to my flag-related apathy is Memorial Day. This wasn’t always the case. As a holiday, Memorial Day has pretty much lost all meaning. I’ve written about this before. I’ve written about how ‘patriotic’ Republicans treat one of their own on Memorial Day. And three years ago I wrote about accidentally stumbling across a cemetery in a small town in Iowa on Memorial Day.

I went back to Maxwell, Iowa last year and again yesterday. I keep going back because the good people of Maxwell make Memorial Day feel like it’s supposed to feel. The flags they display are large, and they display a lot of them. But what moves me isn’t the number or size of the flags; it’s about the simple act of recognizing and acknowledging service. Maxwell shows appreciation for the inherent sacrifice of serving.

These weren’t necessarily big sacrifices. Very few of the veterans in Maxwell’s cemetery died while in uniform. They weren’t all heroes (when you call everyone a hero you devalue actual heroism). They were just ordinary folks who felt they owed something to their country or their community. The vast majority of the veterans did their time in military harness, came home, got a job, and lived an ordinary life. And each year, on this one day, the town of Maxwell basically says ‘Thank you.’ They don’t just say it to the dead who served in the military, mind you. The town also puts little flags on the graves of volunteer firefighters and police officers — red for firefighters, blue for police. It’s all about service, regardless of its form.

There’s a good chance, if you live in the US, that over the Memorial Day weekend you’ll pass by a cemetery, and you’ll have seen all those little flags scattered amongst the tombstones. Think about this: somebody put those flags there. Somebody walked out into the cemetery with a little chart showing where the bodies of veterans are located, and planted a little flag by each of those graves. In a few days, they’ll collect those flags and everything will go back to normal until next year. The vast majority of veteran’s graves will go unremembered. Nobody will visit their graves, except the persons planting those flags.

That’s probably not true in a small town like Maxwell. In a town of only a few hundred people, there’s a good chance whoever put those small flags by those graves knew the deceased. Or knew his kin. Maybe they learned geography or math from the person, or maybe grew up with the person’s grandson, or maybe bought their used car. There’s a good chance whoever put those flags in place in Maxwell wasn’t a stranger.

That moves me. It moves me in a very different way than when I visit the graves of my own family’s veterans. It moves me because what I see in Maxwell isn’t just honoring the dead, they’re honoring of the concept of service. It reminds me that service — the act of doing work for the benefit of the community — works both ways. By honoring service itself, the community of Maxwell makes itself worthy of that service. That’s a lesson for every community — every community across scales: neighborhood, small town, city, state, nation.

If you want a proud professional military, be sure you create a nation worthy of pride. If you want a good police force, make sure the city serves and protects everybody who lives there. If you want good teachers, give them good schools and provide them with the material they need to teach. It’s really very simple. If you want good service, give people a good reason to serve.

I’ll probably go back to Maxwell again next year. It doesn’t make me feel any more patriotic, and it won’t really change how I feel about the flag. But it reminds me that the reasons so many of us put on the uniform are valid. It reminds me service is honorable.