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.

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memorial my ass

Yeah, I pretty much dislike Memorial Day. Don’t get me wrong; the idea of honoring the men and women who died while serving the nation — that I respect. But that’s not really what Memorial Day is anymore. Now it’s mostly a day to say something nice about veterans, maybe see a parade, go shopping, then eat a hamburger. And you can usually skip right to the hamburger.

The thing is, a lot of folks don’t even understand Memorial Day. They get it confused with Veterans Day, which is a different beast altogether. The confusion is understandable, on account of they’re both about people in uniforms and big big big shopping discounts and picnics with hamburgers.

Ice-Memorial-Day-Sale-Event

Allow me to ‘splain the differences. Memorial Day is the one where you say nice things about folks that actually died while in uniform.  Veterans Day is the one where you offer ritual thanks for everybody who put on military harness — dead, living, somewhere in between (and if you think that’s just a figure of speech, go visit a VA hospital).

I like Veterans Day. That’s what we call it in the U.S., although most Western nations call it Armistice Day or Remembrance Day. I like it because it still retains some meaning. It’s still celebrated on the same day — the anniversary of the end of the First World War. The 11th day of the 11th month.SM-Memorial-Day-Maddness-mattress-hub-0515-homepage

Memorial Day used to have meaning. It began as Decoration Day — a day when folks would decorate the graves of soldiers who died during the American Civil War. It was an organic holiday. It began spontaneously, on different days, in different years, in different parts of the nation. Folks just went to cemeteries where Civil War troops were buried and decorated the graves. You know, out of respect.

One of the earliest Decoration Day events took place in Charleston, South Carolina. Union prisoners of war had been interned at the Washington Race Course and Jockey Club. More than 250 of them died and were buried in a mass grave behind the grandstand. In April of 1865, a small group of freed slaves reburied the bodies in individual graves. They constructed a fence around the burial site, and put up an arched entryway with the inscription Martyrs of the Race Course. Then on the first day of May, some ten thousand former slaves and some white missionaries decorated the cemetery with flowers, and they held a picnic on the site.

New graves of Union soldiers at the Washington Race Course

New graves of Union soldiers at the Washington Race Course

Now that is a serious show of respect. Over time, Decoration Day became Memorial Day and through some sort of osmotic agreement, it was celebrated throughout the nation on May 30th. At least it was until 1968, when everything changed. But I’ll come back to that in a bit. First let’s reduce this national holiday to the personal level.

In April of that same year, 1968, a young photographer named Art Greenspon shot this photograph in the jungle southwest of Hue. Alpha Company of the 101st Airborne had walked into an ambush. Several killed, more wounded. Bad weather prevented any medevac until the following day. So the troops sat awake all night, in the rain, with their wounded and dead, wondering if they’d get hit again. The next day, when the rain lifted enough for a medevac, Greenspon got this shot of a soldier directing the chopper. By that point it had rained so long and hard that when Greenspon tried to rewind the film in his camera, it stuck to the pressure plate.

Here’s some military esoterica for you: the first choppers take the wounded; the last choppers take the bodies. The bodies can wait; they’re not going to get any more dead. Greenspon flew out on a chopper filled with body bags. When he got back to his base, he discovered most of the shots weren’t usable. This one was.

greenspon vietnam

Art Greenspon was paid US$15 for that photograph. That’s all he’s ever been paid for it. A week later he and another photographer, Charles Eggleston, found themselves in a firefight outside of Saigon. Eggleston was hit by rifle fire and killed. One of the bullets passed through Eggleston’s hand, which slowed the round enough that when it hit Greenspon in the face, it didn’t kill him. Instead, the bullet lodged in his sinus cavity. In order to remove the bullet and minimize the facial scarring, the surgeons broke his cheekbone from inside his mouth.

Two months after that, during the darkest days of the war in Vietnam, Congress passed the Uniform Monday Holiday Act. The intent of the act was to change the date on which four holidays were traditionally celebrated in order to create three-day weekends. Great news for workers and a boon to commercial enterprises. The effect, however, was to trivialize those holidays. Now Presidents Day, Columbus Day, Labor Day, and Memorial Day are all about mattress sales and potato salad. We’re not really thinking about the men and women dying in jungles or deserts; we’re thinking about buying summer clothes.

Nello-Olivo-memorial-sales-event

Oh, we’ll still say nice things about the men and women who died in uniform. We’ll still have parades (that very few people attend), and politicians will still give speeches (that very few people will listen to), but mostly we’re just glad to have that extra day on the weekend, and a chance to save a buck on a mattress, and hey, it’s a good time of year for a picnic.

So yeah, I pretty much dislike Memorial Day. I don’t want to see the parade. I don’t want to buy a pair of cheap-ass flip-flops. I don’t want to hear any politician thanking the troops for their sacrifice.

I want politicians to stop sacrificing them.

ADDENDUM: Last year on Memorial Day I wrote about my accidental visit to the local cemetery in the small town of Maxwell, Iowa. This year, while running around, I made an intentional detour to Maxwell. It looks exactly the same as it did last year (and probably for the last umpty-ump years) — flags lining the tiny town center, and all over the cemetery.

Maxwell, IA. Memorial Day, 2015

Maxwell, IA. Memorial Day, 2015

It doesn’t make up for the apathy and commercialism, but there’s something innocent and fundamentally decent about the way these small towns continue to honor their dead.

can’t we wait until after thanksgiving?

Call me old-fashioned, call me a traditionalist, call me a fuddy-duddy — but I miss the old days. When I was a kid, the War on Christmas didn’t begin until after Thanksgiving. Not any more. Yesterday the publisher HarperCollins released Good Tidings and Great Joy: Protecting the Heart of Christmas, by Sarah Palin.

palin book cover

That’s right. Sarah Palin is out there protecting the very heart of Christmas. According to HarperCollins,

At a time when Christian values are challenged—when the greeting “Merry Christmas” has been replaced by the supposedly less offensive “Happy Holidays”—Governor Sarah Palin makes the case for bringing back the freedom to express the religious spirit of the season.

You guys! You maybe didn’t notice it, but we totally lost our religious freedom when ACORN elected Baraq Hussein Obama (Mujahideen, Kenya, Africa) as President of These United States. We are no longer free to wish anybody “Merry Christmas.”

You're either with Christmas -- or you're with the terrorists!

You’re either with Christmas — or you’re with the terrorists!

But happily Sarah Palin (Patriot, Macy’s, Grizzly Mama Department) has written her name on a book that tells oppressed Christians how to fight back against the tyranny of being forced to say those two most loathsome words in the English American language: Happy Holidays. Here are some of the former Governor’s peppy Words of Wisdom:

An angry atheist with a lawyer is one of the most powerful persons in America.

Totally true, you guys.You think Magneto was tough? You think The Joker was mean? You think Lex Luthor was cruel and relentless? Pffft…those guys were pikers compared to Angry Atheist (and his evil sidekick Lawyer). Angry Atheist is so tough, so mean, so cruel that Marvel Comics is afraid to write about him. According to Palin,

Atheism’s track record makes the Spanish Inquisition seem like Disneyland by comparison.

Also totally true. Think about it, you guys. The lawsuits brought by atheists to prevent Christian displays on public property are SO MUCH WORSE than the expulsion of 800,000 Jews from medieval Spain by the Tribunal del Santo Oficio de la Inquisición. A couple centuries of torture of Jews and Muslims (and what the hell, a few hundred Lutherans) — that’s like a day playing with koala bears compared to the agony of having to hear people say “Happy holidays.” Seriously, ask yourself this question: would you rather live in a world where 5th grade students in public schools are denied the freedom to stage a play about the virgin birth of the Christian savior, or one in which a government agency legally uses torture to punish and/or convert citizens who disagree with religious orthodoxy? Think about the little children!

"Say it! Say 'Merry Christmas' and this will all be over."

“Say it! Say ‘Merry Christmas’ and this will all be over.”

The Atheist Commie Muslim assault on ‘Merry Christmas’ is taking place on several fronts, some of which will totally shock you. As Palin points out,

Walgreens twenty-four page nationwide circular used the world ‘holidays’ thirty-six times without one mention of Christmas.

Seriously? I had no idea Walgreens was the drugstore of the Devil. I mean, c’mon, they seem SO American. They invented the malted milkshake, you guys! How did they manage to hide their fiendish nature from the American public for 112 years? Atheists are some sneaky anti-Christmas bastards.

I bet Charles Darwin never understood this: If the world could be described as truly  ‘survival of the fittest,’ why would people collectively be stricken with the spirit of generosity in December?

Yeah, explain that, Charles Darwin. Let’s see you explain the evolutionary benefit of people around the entire globe most of the world large parts of — uh, let’s see you explain the evolutionary benefit of people living in those bits of the world where Christianity is the dominant religion suddenly feeling particularly generous during the month of the winter solstice. You can’t, can you — and not just because you’ve been dead for more than 130 years, but because there IS no evolutionary benefit. Sarah Palin understands that everybody in the world people feel generous in the month of December because of Special Jeebus Magic.

In which Jolly Old Saint Nick doffs his cap and wishes Mary and Joseph a Merry Christmas

Jolly Old Saint Nick bathes in the light of Special Jeebus Magic before taking to his flying-reindeer-driven sleigh to deliver gifts to Good (Christian) Boys and Girls.

Sarah Palin wants all Americans to live in a world where we no longer have to be terrified to say “Merry Christmas.” She’s SO brave, you guys. But still, would it kill anybody to wait to celebrate the War on Christmas until after Thanksgiving — the day we’ve set aside to thank God and Jeebus for letting us share a meal with those natives who survived the diseases we brought to the Americas (before we had to slaughter the savage bastards in order to expand the territory we seized from them and exploit the land’s natural resources).

I suppose I shouldn’t complain too much. Somebody has to protect the heart of Christmas from atheists and other Heart-of-Christmas-haters. Kudos to Sarah for standing up and writing putting her name on a book that’s sure to turn the tide in the War on Christmas (all proceeds, by the way, are being donated to a fund to support former half-term governors of states from which you can see Russia).

"Santa, all I want for Christmas is to sell a metric buttload of books."

“Santa, all I want for Christmas is to sell a buttload of books.”

And so, as Tiny Tim observed, God bless us, every one.

Editorial note: Except John McCain. Curse you John McCain, for inflicting Sarah Palin on an unsuspecting public. May you be boiled with your own pudding, and buried with a stake of holly through your heart.

that’s why everybody does everything

Last week we almost had a U.S. Science Laureate. You know, an American scientist who’d travel around the nation talking to folks, giving interviews, speaking at schools, fostering a greater understanding of science and the scientific process, trying to inspire more young people to enter the sciences. It would have been an honorary position, like the U.S. Poet Laureate. Well, mostly honorary. The Science Laureate would have received a stipend of US$35,000, which is also the amount provided to the Poet Laureate. In fact, this is possibly the only time in U.S. history when a poet earned as much as a scientist.

Anyway, we almost had one of those. The Science Laureate bill was on the fast track because members of both parties considered it innocuous. Everybody expected it would pass easily.

But no. Congressional Republicans decided to quietly pull the bill creating the Science Laureate position. Why? Because some conservative Republicans thought President Obama might appoint somebody…

“…who will share his view that science should serve political ends on such issues as climate change and regulation of greenhouse gases…. [It’s] a needless addition to the long list of presidential appointments.”

In other words, Republicans had two concerns. First, there was the danger that a Science Laureate might deliberately and willfully talk to people about actual science. Second, it was necessary to kill the position because Obama wanted it. 

There’s a third reason Republicans opposed creating a U.S. Science Laureate:

not quite yet

In the 1930s the Banner Coal Company explored “an unusually good grade” of coal in central Iowa, just a few miles south of Des Moines. The vein was rather shallow, buried beneath only forty feet of soil and shale. The shallow depth and the fragile ‘roof’ made mining the coal problematic. Traditional mining techniques wouldn’t work. So the company resorted to the open pit process.

Open pit mining wasn’t new. The practice had been used in the U.S. for a century–since the 1830s. The Banner Coal Company knew how to wrench the most product from the earth with the least fuss (and the most profit). They brought in the largest electric dragline excavator in the country (spectators traveled for miles to watch the massive machine at work) and for the next two decades they hauled coal out of the pits. It was the largest strip mining project in Iowa history.

By the mid-1950s, the coal was gone–and when the coal was gone, the coal company went with it. They sold the land–some 220 acres–to the Iowa Department of Natural Resources, which intended to turn the area into a wildlife management area. The operative term there is intended.

Half a century passed without much being done. The pits slowly filled with groundwater. Natural flora grew wherever there was enough soil to support it. Growth on the waste-rock and tailings was spotty to say the least, and the only plants that grew were brought there by wind and wildlife. But the wildlife came, drawn by the water. It came, settled, made nests, created dens. It wasn’t just animals–kids were also drawn in by the deep pools of dark water (that attraction almost certainly heightened by parental warnings against the place).

In addition to the 80 acres of former-pit-turned-lake, the landscape is dotted with strange little pocket marshes and hidden sloughs where turtles and frogs squat with cranky blackbirds and condescending herons. In 2002 the Department of Natural Resources finally decided to turn the site into a state park. They built bicycle trails (for both casual cyclists and adrenalin-crazed mountain bikers), they set up picnic tables, added a boat ramp, and brought in other amenities.

Despite the work that’s been done, the area still has an odd, semi-feral, almost post-apocalyptic feel. There’s a sense that Nature is patiently and unceasingly trying to overcome the damage done by thoughtless humans. Trying, but it’s been a struggle.

I feel strangely at ease here. As much as I despise the damage done by the Banner Coal Company, I can’t get too pissed off at them. In the 1930s they had little knowledge about the long term effects of this type of mining operation. In their ignorance, they created a landscape that feels wounded–even mutilated. And yet it’s a very compelling landscape, partly because of the harm that was done and partly because of the organic regrowth that hasn’t quite been able to repair the damage. Yet.

I like that yet. It’s a good yet. A comforting yet. Some day this area will lose its post-apo air. It’ll just be an unusual lake. Some day. But not quite yet.

bullshit is not news

So a couple of days ago a political pundit name Hilary Rosen was talking about the whole constellation of policies that have been labeled as the ‘Republican War on Women.’ She mentioned that Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney often cites his wife as his source of information about women’s issues, including how the economy affects women in particular. And then she said this:

His wife has actually never worked a day in her life. She’s never really dealt with the kinds of economic issues that a majority of the women in this country are facing in terms of how do we feed our kids, how do we send them to school and how do we — why we worry about their future.

It seems obvious from the context that what Rosen was saying was that Ann Romney has never been employed a day in her life–which is accurate. But of course the conservative media immediately pilloried Rosen for ‘insulting stay-at-home-moms’ and ‘attacking Ann Romney.’ The other news outlets responded like sharks in chum-filled waters.

Mrs. Romney went on FOX News (the safe conservative ‘news’ channel) to defend herself. She said this:

My career choice was to be a mother, and I think all of us need to know we need to respect choices that women make. Other women make choices to have a career and raise a family, which I think Hilary Rosen has actually done herself. I respect that, that’s wonderful. But there are other people that have a choice, and we have to respect women and all those choices that they make.

It doesn’t need to be pointed out that a parent (father or mother) electing to stay home and care for children is a legitimate choice. It apparently DOES need to be pointed out, though, that it’s not a choice every parent has. A lot of parents who would like to make that choice simply can’t–sometimes because there’s only one parent, sometimes because it takes two incomes to pay all the bills. When Ann Romney says “I think all of us need to know we need to respect choices that women make,” I can agree with her wholeheartedly. But I can also say that for a lot of women those choices include affordable contraception and, if necessary, easy access to safe abortion services.

Hilary Rosen’s choice of words may be unfortunate, but she was right. Ann Romney has never had to face the choices made by most working moms. She’s never had to wonder how to pay the bills at the end of the month, she’s never had to worry about finding affordable day care, she’s never had to worry about being late to work (and possibly risking her job) because of an unexpected kids car pool crisis, she’s never had to choose between having lunch or running a necessary errand over the lunch hour, she’s never had to feed her children breakfast and prepare their lunch and insure they’re properly dressed while preparing herself for the work day and getting everybody out the door on time. Ann Romney has never had to lose a day of pay in order to stay home with a sick child, or worry about affordable health care. When she was diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis, she included riding dressage as part of her treatment plan (her horses are valued at over US$250,000). She’s never had to worry about being refused health insurance because she had Multiple Sclerosis as a pre-existing condition.

Ann Romney is a fortunate woman, and nobody should criticize her for her good fortune. But if her husband is going to cite her as a source of information about how the economy affects women, then it’s appropriate for people to point out that even if she’s a really nice woman, she doesn’t know jack-shit about being a working mom. She’s never had to struggle with the crises that face employed mothers on a daily basis. Hilary Rosen, on the other hand, actually IS a working mom. She HAS had to face those issues. When she points out that Mitt Romney advocates policies that make life more difficult for women in general and working women in specific, policies that restrict their choices and limit their options, and when he cites his wife as an adviser, then it’s okay for for people to evaluate whose opinions are more valid: Hilary Rosen or Ann Romney.

For this non-story to be turned on its head, for Ann Romney to be portrayed as a victim and Hilary Rosen as a villain, is an example of how the modern news media is less about delivering the news and more about creating controversy to drive up viewership and guarantee advertising revenues. This is not news. This is just bullshit being reported as news.

joel stein is a dick

The only thing more embarrassing than catching a guy on the plane looking at pornography on his computer is seeing a guy on the plane reading “The Hunger Games.”

Yeah. That’s Joel Stein in a short (but not short enough) rant called Adults Should Read Adult Books written for the New York Times. Stein says, “I have no idea what “The Hunger Games” is like… I don’t know because it’s a book for kids. I’ll read ‘The Hunger Games’ when I finish the previous 3,000 years of fiction written for adults.”

It can’t be easy to be such a pompous dick. It must take a great deal of practice, so I’m willing to give Stein some credit for his dedication. And I wouldn’t want to deny him the right to object to any genre of literature; after all, I’ve been known to make the occasional disparaging comment about Romance fiction. But I’d never suggest there’s anything wrong with somebody who chose to read Romance novels. Stein’s absolute rejection of the value of Young Adult fiction isn’t what makes him a dick. That just makes him ignorant.

No, what makes Joel Stein an Olympic caliber dick is that he sets himself up as an arbiter of what is appropriate for adults to read when he has written a soon-to-be-released nonfiction book called (and I’m not making this up) Man Made: A Stupid Quest for Masculinity. The book is apparently about Stein’s panic at learning he is about to become the father of a son, and trying to discover what it means to be a ‘man’ by (and really, I’m not making this up at all) briefly engaging in testosterone-driven tasks. He spends three days (3!) in some form of military basic training, he spends a 24 hour shift with the fire department, he goes camping (with…and lawdy, I wish I was making this up…the Boy Scouts), he does some home repairs. In other words, he pays a fleeting visit to what he believes is the world of manhood in the hope that he’ll learn something profound about masculinity.

Then, in this wee little rant, he writes “You can’t take an adult seriously when he’s debating you over why Twilight vampires are O.K. with sunlight.” And that is what makes Joel Stein a dick.

Joel, bunkie, this is where you make your mistake. Men read Young Adult fiction and aren’t embarrassed by it.