Thursday, April 30, 2009

I Suppose I'm Not Crazy

As promised, here is the latest update on my sleep condition and my dealings with the VA in regards to that and also my “behavioral health” issue.

*There are actually two posts today, so please don't miss "Health Advisory" below.

Early this week, I received a phone call from the local VA satellite office informing me that my sleep study has identified no “significant sleep abnormalities.” While this is good news, in that I suppose it indicates I have no serious physiological problem, it does leave me some aghast at how poorly most people apparently sleep. But I, apparently, “slept peacefully with mild snoring.” I was unaware I snored, so I do wonder if this was the consequence of having sensors superglued to my head and accoutrements taped over my nose and mouth. In fact, it’s amazing that anybody at all gets normal sleep readings when wired to so many sensors. I was also pleased to learn that I “didn’t forget to breathe.”

The next phase of this ongoing diagnosis (or at least analysis to determine if there was anything at all TO diagnose) was a meeting with a behavioral health specialist within the VA system. I was under the impression that this was a standard procedure for anybody who had made the admission that they are indeed depressed about being tired and unable to sleep, but I was told during my appointment that it was my general practitioner’s attempt to make sure we’d covered all our bases.

At any rate, he was a nice chap, and not a psychologist, as I had expected, but actually a psychiatrist. Naturally cordial yet soft-spoken, he began by asking me what my expectations were from our meeting. After explaining that since I felt no particular need for medication for any of my symptoms or difficulties, that I was unsure. For, at my highest of highs, I am not abnormal or uncontrollable, and at my lowest of lows I remain uninterested in offing myself, I was not a threat to either myself or others. Life, after all, naturally propels us into a series of highs and lows and, so long as their extremes pose no physical threat to oneself or any others, they are simply the expected responses to the typical vacillations of life. Medication, I told him, was unnecessary, and I also wished to do nothing that jeopardized my alertness, numbed my senses, or forbade me write with the clarity (feel free to laugh) that I possess at present.

I also told the psychiatrist that since his purpose within the VA system was mostly to determine pharmacological interventions for patients in need of such things, my visiting him in the future would be a waste of his time. Bad idea.

“I prefer that you allow me to determine what is a waste of my time or not” he replied, quite firmly.


At any rate, these weighty questions out of the way, I talked his ear off for an hour about what I’m up to, plant photography (he also has an interest in such things), writing, and expectations for future travel. To my great delight, he patiently listened. As my one-hour yakking session ended, he asked how he could best help me in the future. Digging into my pocket, I handed him a business card.

“Well, you could read the stuff I’ve posted and tell others about it, if you’d like.” Speechless, he took my card. I am unsure if his silence was the consequence of my having just shamelessly marketed to a VA psychiatrist, or because it was just so unusual a response. Others, I presume, ask to meet again with somebody who doesn’t mind listening to them talk. He elected not to schedule me for any further visits, instead writing “PRN” on the paperwork, which translates basically to “as needed.” I, not feeling like I need such a thing (either medication or to have some poor guy endure me running my mouth for an hour), have no plans to schedule any further visits.

To make a long story short, this whole affair has yielded very little in the way of medical diagnosis. On one hand, this is good, since it indicates there are no major medical problems which are in grave need of addressing. On the other, however, it leaves me as clueless as I was before as to how to alleviate the symptoms I have been feeling (tired all the time, cranky, unintelligible, etc). My best solution, therefore, is to devote my efforts to wrenching myself into more routine sleep/wake habits. This I have already begun working on in the following ways: First, during the day, stay awake and avoid taking excessive naps. Second, sleep at fairly normal hours when it is dark (not 3AM to 10AM or whatever else I’ve been doing lately). Third, during waking hours, expend some energy on a regular basis, eat meals at similarly regular intervals, and show all signs of actually being alert and awake, not run down and miserable. In theory, after a period of readjustment, my circadian rhythms will grow accustomed to the new, normal routine, and I will sleep more soundly, wake more rested, and not spend most days in a miserable funk. This is the theory. We’ll see how it works in practice.

And so, I have been seen by doctors, social workers, psychiatrists, nurses and sleep study technicians, and to my relief walked away with no diagnosis of either a sleep disorder, OR PTSD. While such things may, in fact, exist (I am reluctant to say, since I truly don’t know), at least they aren’t sufficiently pervasive and troublesome to require ongoing medical treatment, drug intervention, and therefore excessive worry on my part. It is relieving, frankly, to know that no major problem exists. I am now left to summon the immense self-discipline necessary to change what portion of this I can through routine, normal circadian rhythms, diet and exercise. Some days, obviously, will be poor ones, but some days will also be better. The greatest struggle is not being an awful grump, not blowing up on people, and not retreating from the public to avoid embarrassing altercations. My family, unfortunately, are the ones who will see me at my worst. They will need lots of prayer. For me, however, it’s just one day at a time.

Copyright © 2009, Ben Shaw All Rights Reserved

Health Advisory

With disease information hitting all media venues at a cyclic rate and terror spreading about the possibility of an all-out H1N1 pandemic, I think it is high time that I, as a classically-educated biologist, skilled military tactician and logistician, and creative survivalist step in with some suggested measures of my own. Supposed experts are coming out of the woodwork with such eloquent admonitions as, “wash your hands,” so what’s one more voice; especially one from a guy who’s read a lot of graphic novels and books about zombie attacks? I’d say it’s all good advice. But first, there are two caveats. Foremost, this is a joke (albeit inappropriate and tasteless). Second, I’ll just go ahead and apologize up front. Sorry.

Since H1N1 is a considered a highly-contagious viral airborne pathogen, concerned persons worldwide are advised to purchase and don surgical facemasks to greatly reduce the potential of inhaling airborne salivary contaminants sneezed out by others. For about ten days, Michael Jackson won’t be the oddball. In fact, we will all be cool like him. Additionally, burkas may now be recognized for their medical advantages. No longer is it an issue of accommodating religious or cultural sensitivities, but health beliefs, too. If one is a hypochondriac in the throes of absolute panic about health, a space suit may also be worn. Should be it be desired, a tin foil hat will keep H1N1 from reading your brain waves. If you are a hypochondriac that no longer even leaves the house, continue to stack newspapers in your foyer, eat your macaroni and cheese, and still wear the tin foil hat. It will keep the virus from knowing you’re afraid of it.

Like all the other self-described experts, I, too, will sing the praises of repeated, obsessive hand-washing. Not only does this support the soap industry and indirectly the hand lotion industry, but also the manufacturers of rubbing alcohol. Should one believe it necessary, alcohol baths are a superb way to ensure total body sanitation. Please be careful, however, to avoid excessive breathing of the fumes, open flames, and certainly do not smoke while engaging in such a cleansing measure. Cigarettes, after all, were packed by the deviant swine in the tobacco industry, and may be contaminated.

Viruses, in general, are intolerant of ultraviolet light, so a more holistic option for reducing the likelihood of infection is nudity in total desert isolation. If you are prone to malignant carcinomas, be mindful of time spent nude with direct exposure to sunlight. The sun may kill all but the hardiest of pathogens (known loosely as extremophiles), but does promote cancer, sunburns, and dehydration. Drink lots of water, preferably from bottles untouched by pigs.

While much attention has been given to the orsine (pig) source of H1N1, let us also not forget that it also bears a strong genetic resemblance to avian (bird) flu, as well as human influenza strains. While Egypt has undertaken the drastic measure of killing all the pigs within their borders, we may do our part by also killing all the birds. They may not be carriers, but at least it will make us feel better. Due to the social and moral backlash of dispatching the human carriers, desert isolation and the adoption of nudism may be the best manner to avoid human contact.

In terms of supplies, there are several other items that should be purchased in addition to surgical masks. At the top of the list are GM and Chrysler automobiles. Thus far, there are no confirmed cases in any locations where these vehicles are being manufactured, so we may be assured that we are driving new cars known to be free of H1N1 contamination. Additionally, we will be doing our patriotic duty of “buying American” and supporting two failing enterprises that are in grave need of a public rally to their cause. GM is working closely with federal TARP representatives to study the economic potential of certifying their vehicles pathogen-free. Results are expected by 2015.

While the threat of pandemic conditions still very much lingers, it would also be wise to invest in the construction of bomb shelters. While there is no threat of bombs at present, this will prevent right-wing extremists from being hauled away to FEMA concentrations camps that are being built throughout the country. No complex locking mechanisms are necessary on these bomb shelters. A simple sign (and it can be hand written) stating, “gone to live in a FEMA trailer in Texas” will suffice. The FEMA agents will turn their attentions elsewhere and depart your property.

The Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (SPCA) asks that we all spay our pets. They also advise that we should also avoid all intimate relations with members of the bovine and avian species. The Moral Majority is considering extending this health advisory to humans, too, since they are currently the predominant catalyst for H1N1 infection, and because H1N1 is best reserved for marriage between a consenting man and woman.

While it may have been at one time permissible to use firearms to defend one’s property and family from surgical mask theft and marauding tin foil recyclers, Dr. Phil has recently issued a report that, “this is not okay.” He has suggests that we instead consider writing letters to trespassers that explain how we feel about their presence on our properties. Since these messages may be written in diseased paper, immediately douse the letters in rubbing alcohol and burn them to prevent infecting an intruder. Unwelcome guests are also frequently deterred by FEMA signs, though it would be helpful if these were created professionally, not spray painted on plywood.

It is also advisable to purchase alcoholic beverages in large quantities. While staples (bread, milk, etc) may seem a better investment, they are comprised of wheat, barley, or harvested from cows – all of which reside on farms. These farms may have pigs, too. To reduce the risk of cross-contamination, the normally unacceptable empty calories found in beer are permissible. The ethanol itself in the beverages will sterilize whatever farm-grown components may be found within (barley, etc). When the pandemic reaches a crescendo that is difficult or impossible to tolerate, the memory of it can be easily reduced by the consumption of these alcoholic beverages, thereby also alleviating the likelihood of latent post-traumatic stress disorder. The whole experience will no longer be something you don’t wish to discuss or think about; it will be something you simply don’t remember. Please be sure to buy American-brewed alcohol.

Although they are manufactured in Brazil which, like Mexico, is to our south (and therefore suspect), the purchase of a few, high-quality Tramontina machetes will expedite the process of chopping wood for funeral byres, collecting kindling for sterilization fires, and eventually reducing hand-made, plywood FEMA signs to manageable fuel. To drastically reduce the possibility of purchasing a contaminated machete, immediately douse them in rubbing alcohol and burn them upon their arrival.

A final measure to preventing both the infection and spread of H1N1 is maritime refuge. Providing all ship passengers are screened and found to be healthy, a vacation at sea may be a suitable means by which to avoid all contact with infected persons. Yet even this is not without its risks. First, some vessels are not constructed for oceanic travel. Those that are not rated for such use should be avidly avoided. Second, be certain your vessel has ample supplies of alcohol, tin foil, and machetes to sustain a long stay away from infected lands. Ports are notorious for their disease transmission rates, and should be avoided at all costs. Finally, there are pirates in some waters which may attempt to hijack your ship for ransom or simply to take your machetes. But chances are, they will be unlikely to harass you if your ship is displaying a FEMA flag.

Lastly, if you already infected, please do not spitefully attempt to infect others as well. Simply write a letter about how angry it makes you feel, burn it as a health precaution, and visit a local doctor for some medication. Be prepared, however, to explain why you are wearing a burka, a tin foil hat, and carrying a machete and a lighter. Medical staff will also probably forward you to People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), who strongly advise that you never wear fur, and are collaborating with FEMA to construct nudist concentration camps in the desert to begin rehabilitation programs of UV exposure, public isolation, and mild immolation/sterilization techniques. Study results are due by 2020.

Copyright © 2009, Ben Shaw All Rights Reserved

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

The Red Truck

While driving this weekend, preoccupied with delivering one passenger swiftly and retreating for a nap after more than five, wearying hours on the road, I was pleasantly surprised with what I observed on a random roadside on the way to one of my destinations. There, in the perimeter of the front yard of what looked like an abandoned house, lay the truck I wrote about in “Spring, Come She Will.” On the way back through, I stopped for a photograph with my cell phone camera. It far exceeded my expectations.

It immediately reminded me of a writing that though only recently posted, seemed a distant memory. Hope fades quickly when confronted with stagnation. But in an instant, I was simultaneously sent back and propelled forward to a place I have dearly missed of late. A place where ambition hasn’t expired beneath the weight of infinite resignation. Where hope is still alive, and freedom isn’t schedule and financial flexibility, but the audacity to pursue great dreams.

All at once I was on the road again, but this time in a real, rough-idling Ford F100, and one no longer merely a figment of my imagination. While I possess neither the $17,000 for a 1952 Ford pickup nor the similarly large figure no doubt necessary to fuel it and replace obscure parts, something once dwelling solely in fantasy drew a monumental step closer to reality. Such a truck, such an inefficient but undeniably memorable means of transportation truly exists. Hope, therefore, still exists.

As does the whitewashed church with the choir in their long gowns whose singing pushes effortlessly though the weak, clapboard walls and echoes down the country road. The laughter of their children, running beneath the live oaks as their grandparents sit in lawn chairs and discuss their gardens and how this year will be a particularly good one for the tomatoes and peppers if the rain keeps up like it has been. And as a thick fog sets in, and the humidity rises in a way that always precedes a late spring thunderstorm, I will wish them and their gardens the very best and drive westward. As I drive late into the evening, the open windows occasionally blow in rain droplets and put an appealing chill in the air. Johnny Cash will warm the cab, though. "Love," he insists, "is a burnin’ thing."

To the west, through endless miles of fence rows and more miles of sparser vegetation, leaner cattle and drier air, there is an old farmer whom I haven’t yet met, who patiently waits for poverty to overtake his operation and land him and his wife in a small flat on the outskirts of a city they’ve spent their whole lives avoiding. Their children, long grown and tired of the stories about “the good old days,” never visit much anymore. But it’s all new to me, and I’ll listen to their tales and enjoy the cakes his wife makes, and strive to retell as best I can the memories of an aging, disappearing generation. We owe them that much; an era of men and women whose now-arthritic fingers sustained this nation through her darkest hour, yet whose children have forgotten to be thankful. We would be wise to preserve their legacy of self-sacrifice, of stubbornness and resolve. They ensured half a century of our abundance.

There are deserts to cross in blistering heat and blinding sunlight, where military scientists birthed the greatest of our fears and the mightiest of our comforts in a single test event. There are sunsets amid the dunes, and cacti silhouetted against a sky alive with late-evening color. There is beauty in minimalism, and newfound appreciation of such small blessings as a few, life-giving drops of rain. Whole civilizations rose here and fell in obscurity, leaving us to marvel at their tenacity, their odd creativity, and a few despondent ruins unscathed by a millennium of unforgiving heat. Hank Williams, Sr. enables the long, light drives into the distant Rockies.

There is a rocky surf to see again, and coastlines with tall grasses and elephant seals, and enthusiastic surfers in wetsuits out every Saturday morning at 7AM to catch the tide at its best. Some are still hung over, which makes our conversations all the more endearing.

There are other people still to meet. Park rangers that graduated at the tops of their classes in college, exhausted with all the hustle and emptiness of careerism and the pursuit of money, who are content to tend the trails and survive on interesting conversations with a handful of through-hikers. There are the downtrodden, or at least the downcast, who are amazed when you linger a few unnecessary minutes at the checkout counter and actually listen to their stories. Nobody was curious about them before, but it is a gift they will long remember.

There’s still the pretty girl, too; the one from my dreams with the long hair and the dark eyes. There is no search for her, but a contented journey until she’s found. She’s out there somewhere. And there are other places; scores of diners with greasy food and smudged silverware, and crowds of colorful, early morning characters discussing the oddest of subjects over the strongest of coffee; and they will be cordial. They will welcome strangers, because there’s a beautiful red truck in the parking lot, not a pretentious luxury car.

For, more than a conversation piece and a flash of antiquity to draw the eye, the red truck conveys a bold and heartfelt message: “I’m not in a hurry, here. I’m not driving somewhere; I’m journeying. This vehicle isn’t fast, or efficient, nor even reliable, but I still like it. I always welcome good cause to stop. And so long as there’s room for your bags, and if you don’t mind driving an old three-speed, 100 horsepower clunker with foot-operated windshield wipers, and stopping at every gas station and probably occasionally pushing, there’s certainly room for you. In fact, without you, this journey is in vain.”

Copyright © 2009, Ben Shaw
All Rights Reserved

High Country, Part V

*If you have not already done so, please first read the following:
"High Country, Part I"
"High Country, Part II"
"High Country, Part III"
"High Country, Part IV"

By dawn, after more than three hours of chasing cattle, screaming, and disorientation, the vast majority of the herd was restored to a single group along the riverside. While Carl and I continued to keep them in check, Diggy and Tim (who, curiously, I had not seen smoke in hours), searched for the few they knew to be missing. How they even counted what we had was beyond me.

Before he and Diggy had trotted off, he explained briefly what had sparked the nighttime stampede.

“Some cow was grazing just downstream of the herd with two of her calves. I knew about them, so I let ‘em be. On my next pass through that area, though, a couple of coyotes had one of the calves pinned against the bank and were getting ready to close in. I just fired into the air, since I couldn’t hardly see to shoot straight.”

“Spooked the whole herd” was all Diggy had to say about it.

“Well, either that or stand the chance of losing one. It was a gamble.”

“How many we missing?”

“Maybe a dozen, probably less.”

“How do you know when you have them all?” I dared ask.

“When we think we got ‘em all, spread ‘em a bit and start counting. Diggy already got a rough count.”

“Will they wander far?”

“Not unless they’re chased, and the coyotes are long gone. We’ll probably catch ‘em grazing upriver somewhere.”

An hour later they returned with seven, and with difficulty we spread the herd along the riverbank, all four of us riding their length and counting.

“I got 240” I announced.

“Same here,” replied Tim. “Carl?”

“242” he shrugged. “They keep moving.”

Diggy trotted up last. “We got ‘em all.”

“You sure?”

“No… Shit. Count again, I guess.”

Rather than try to count such a large group, we walked the horses into the herd, partitioned off mostly a quarter each, and counted our respective groups. Twice. To my pleasure, I arrived at the same number each time. Adding the figures a moment later, Diggy was indeed correct. We had them all. No calf was in a panic for a missing cow, no cow was frantic for a calf, and there were only a few steers in the first place, which made them easy to count.

“Well, we’ve successfully pissed away half the morning, worn out the horses, and deprived me of my beauty sleep.” Diggy spat out the last words in a way that suggested he was dead serious.

Tim lit his first cigarette, drawing for a seeming eternity before responding. “You’re ugly anyway, friend.” An exhalation of smoke oddly muffled his words. “Let’s get moving. Carl, you start in the back. Diggy’s too grumpy for now.”

We had a lot of ground to cover still, and already felt exhausted. My horse splashed through the blue water on the herd’s left as we started driving. It would be a long, long day.


To maximize on daylight, we drove them hard, switching out the rear with greater frequency. Even Tim, who felt reasonably confident Diggy knew how to aim south and ride, took a few turns in the back. I could hear him wracked with coughs between the dust and the smoking, but he yelled ferociously, and his horse seemed remarkably energetic despite her early exercise.

There were no halts throughout the day, no pauses to eat, and the only opportunity we had to even relieve ourselves was to trot a short distance from the herd, dismount, and hope the herd didn’t stray far in our absence. Arriving by dark wasn’t exactly the goal, but in the absence of a water source anywhere between the river behind us and the ranch to the south, stopping for another night wasn’t a viable option. Not only would the cattle need watering, but the horses would even more than them. The cows were walking all day, but the horses were actually working.

The threat of rain also posed a problem. After a long, rainless summer, more than a few minutes of showers would quickly transform the loose dust to mud, drastically increasing the likelihood of injury both to the cattle and to the horses (and therefore us). A serious rain would fill the washes and necessitate a change in route, too, which depending on the quantity of rainfall could be merely problematic or truly devastating. Silt buildups in the washes, possessing the consistency of quicksand, could swallow hoofed animals easily. Making haste was the only option.

Sometime mid afternoon, Diggy went silent in the rear, which was unusual. Turning back to check on him, I observed him trot into the herd, toss a rope and haul up a small calf into the saddle, and lash its feet effortlessly. Thus bound, it struggled little as he cradled it, though his horse didn’t welcome the extra weight. When I switched with him shortly after, I asked what was wrong with it.

“I’ve been watching it for awhile. Either it got trampled earlier, or it’s just lame. Either way, it’s slowing down everything. I’ll just carry it.”

“What do I do if I see one like that?”

“You won’t. I was watching the little ones pretty close. This here’s the only one havin’ problems.”

I was relieved. I hadn’t even a rope, and no knowledge of what to do with it if I did.

By early evening, driving the herd was becoming a significant challenge. They, too, felt the drain of an early awakening, the investment of energy running in panic, and now nearly a full day of walking. It wasn’t just the calves, either, but the entire herd. They were fat, lumbering, and increasingly uncooperative. Whomever was driving had to intensify yelling even further. We would all be hoarse by our arrival. And thoroughly disgruntled.

As the sun set and the clouds moved in from the east, they were illuminated magnificently well after the sun had dropped out of sight below the horizon. A dazzling array of orange and pink glowed in the western edge and to the east a deepening purple. Despite its beauty, it still signified trouble. We were racing the weather, the hour, exhaustion, an uncooperative herd, and all on horses that had been too long on their feet. They were slowing, too, and the wind was picking up, pulling cool air hard to the east into what presumably would be a storm. I tried not to think about lightning. We, high in the saddles, were the tallest objects out here besides the occasional rock outcropping or cactus. We were incredibly vulnerable. In the shadows of dusk, the thunder began rumbling in the distance and the breeze stiffened noticeably.

Without warning or explanation, the herd stopped directly in front of me. Immediately I doubled my screaming, mixing in more epithets. In a moment, however, I observed in the distant half light that they had nowhere to go. Tim’s horse was empty, and he was unlatching a gate. We had arrived, dry, with all our numbers, and not a moment too soon. A heavy drizzle was preceding the coming storm. God it was cold…

Riding back towards me, Carl wore an enormous grin.

“Damn fine timing on the rain” he croaked. “My ass is killing me. And I’m hungry, too. And hoarse.”

We all were. With only marginal coaxing, the herd swelled through the gate and began a racket around the water trough. The mud was already churning the holding pen into a disaster. If they wanted out of it, they’d have to go into the barn. Diggy deposited the lame calf in the pen, identified the mother, and we moved them into a separate partition to keep the calf protected from any further injury.

“She should be fine. Got so used to riding in the saddle that she actually fell asleep for a time. Y’all hungry? I half starved. I wanna steak.”

As Diggy went inside to start supper, Tim showed me how to rub down the horses, who didn’t much care what we did, so long as they were permitted to eat and drink uninterrupted.

“The thing you gotta do is make sure they don’t get chilled from the sweat or cool off quickly. You gotta cool them slowly, wipe ‘em down, walk ‘em around a bit and then rub ‘em again. Always check their legs for heat. This cold, wet weather ain’t much fun for them neither.”

Over steaks, green beans and potatoes, Tim mulled through the morning’s events.

“In hindsight, I should have just chased off those damn things. Firing might be okay if the herd’s awake, but not when they’re laying down. They panic, and they just see the others running. I guess that was my fault.”

Diggy had his own thoughts. “Shit, I still think we did okay with it. We didn’t lose none, and ‘cept for the lame calf, they’re all fine. Hell, even fasto here and the writer did well. What was your name again?”


“Yeah, that’s it. Ben. You wanna learn to rope sometime? I think you got potential. In fact, you learn roping, you could work out here. We could use another for our drives. God knows Tim’s ranch could, too.”

“Yeah, we’d hire you – you’re an ace on the horse out there. You sure you never done this before?”

“Never. I only rode a few times as a kid.”

“Well, you did great. Hell, everybody did. ‘Cept for Carl near killing his horse by being a big ‘un.”

“Hey, least I wasn’t giving my horse cancer with second hand smoke!”

“No just a swayback. Anyway, we did good. If you gents are free in the spring, wanna move ‘em north with me?”

We all agreed to it. Carl would take a long weekend. Diggy would ride over from the neighboring ranch, and I’d be the only suburbanite in Phoenix practicing lassoing in his back yard all winter. But I had a purpose. There were techniques that needed learning, skills that needed refining, and in the spring there would be cattle that would need moving. I wanted to be ready. I could get used to this life, I thought. It was savory.

Copyright © 2009, Ben Shaw
All Rights Reserved

Monday, April 27, 2009

High Country, Part IV

*If you have not done so already, please read the following:
High Country, Part I
High Country, Part II
High Country, Part III

In preparation for their relocation, the cattle had already been herded from the hillsides and staged in holding pens near the farmhouse. Thus spared this laborious task, there was little to do in the morning but open the gates and start moving, which we did soon after sunrise. The din was already annoying, and were it not for the aptitude of my horse being superior to my own, a few clever animals would have quickly slipped away from the herd and slowed us appreciably.

Forgetting what Carl had said about wide, indirect movements, I had spurred my ride directly towards the cattle that seemed hellbent on wandering far from the remainder of the herd. I imagine a dumber horse would have obeyed me, but mine appropriately swung wide, cutting off their escape, and let his size simply intimidate the recalcitrant back into the herd. As intelligent as he may have been, I anticipated a long day. In the rear, Diggy was already hollering epithets much louder than the cattle ruckus. For such a quiet man, he had the eloquence of one well acquainted with elaborate obscenities. Maybe that’s what cattle did to you.

With Diggy in the rear, Carl to the far side of me on the left, I on the right, and Tim in the lead, we pushed the herd into the river and stopped them there deliberately. This was their last chance to drink until probably the end of the day. They’d need every last drop. While our trip up had been a long but manageable day, the return, complicated with exactly 243 head of cattle (to be precise), would be painstaking and roughly half the speed we’d traveled yesterday. Our target for the night was the sulfurous river, which stood approximately between here and our southern destination. It wasn’t a preference, it was a necessity. There was no other water.

While the ride north had been a constant intake of gorgeous scenery and untouched landscape, preoccupation with cattle caused me to miss the vast majority of it now. The reminder, unfortunately, was trampled beneath the undulating herd. It was demanding (at least for me) because I was unaccustomed to watching animals wander and habitually responding with a tug to the reins to intervene. My horse, again proving he was smarter than me, simply took what was often an erroneous order, ignored the wrong direction, and did what he knew needed to be done. I found myself thinking of him more as a border collie than a horse. I did at least make an effort to improve, since I knew my lack of skill was causing him to trot more than necessary. An hour into the morning’s ride, steam was rising from his shoulders and hips. He’d need the water more than the cattle.

As we continued, I watched the others. Tim always rode a good 100 meters in front of the herd while Carl held fairly close to the rear left. I mimicked on my side, quickly realizing that it allowed the side riders to see the lead and effectively steer the herd in Tim’s direction. They weren’t being led, either. Cows don’t follow horse-mounted riders. Instead, Diggy’s endless hollering was actually driving them forward. He drove and we steered in Tim’s direction. Though it would bring choking dust and parched throats, I found myself looking forward to the trees and other vegetation diminishing. It was hard to not lose cattle in the short brush, and no doubt any that were lost would be blamed on me. After galloping hard to redirect a couple steers that were lured by greenery, I backed off the herd a bit. I felt sorry for my horse. All the same, he seemed to be enjoying this. He wasn’t a show animal; his scars, the brand on his haunch, and the unkempt mane all served as reminders that he was a work horse.

Mid-morning, Carl dropped to the rear and Diggy took up the far side in his place. Sure enough, just as suddenly as Diggy had gone silent, I heard Carl unleash a wave of yelling and rants unsuited for repeating. I guess that’s what you do when you ride in the rear. You yell at the cattle and keep them moving. I suspected that by noon I’d have my turn at it. Tim was the only one that knew this route intimately, so his position as lead remained unchanging. We would be doing the herding. He was just guiding. Overhead, buzzards circled, as if presuming something here would soon die. I didn’t like it.

Preoccupied as we were, time flew quickly, so Carl’s sudden appearance behind me was startling.

“Alright, bud. I’m all yelled out. And I smell like shit. Your turn. Just keep them moving, got it?”

“I think so.”

“Then get out of here.”

Turning abruptly, I trotted to the rear and found myself at a loss for words. Curse at them? Yell at them? Wave a stick? What do you say to cattle? When they started to lag after only a moment, the words came quickly. None of them were nice. At was undoubtedly comical to watch a man who had never herded cattle try to speak in complete sentences and use proper grammar. After one failed attempt with that, out came whooping, hollering, short phrases laced with profanity, and all uttered with an accent I was unaware I had. This was the consequence of watching too many westerns, I suppose. I tried to sound like Diggy, who I doubt watched many westerns since he more or less lived one. At least I was copying the real thing, not a spaghetti western.

As best I can describe it, running the rear involves pacing close to the herd and keeping them moving at something other than a stroll. Those closest to the back pushed forward, and so it went all the way to the front, and all amid the racket of bovine discontent, the stench of endless defecation, and the flies and dust. Had I been smarter, I would have brought a bandana to put over my face, but then I’d have to yell even louder to be heard through the muffle of fabric. As is, I just swallowed a lot of dust. Despite the reek, I was still hungry.

To my great relief, not an hour after Diggy replaced me in the rear, we arrived at the sulfurous river. Confident that the cattle would head for the water and not wander off (there was also little in the way of vegetation nearby to distract them), the four of us gathered a short distance upstream of the herd and let the horses drink their fill. Only Tim’s looked in the least bit refreshed. Carl’s looked the worst, no doubt because of the extra weight.

Tim spoke first. “I’d say we have about an hour before we can’t see much. Diggy, you cooking?”

“Always. Might be an awfully small fire out here though. Ain’t much in the way of wood here. Just brush on the bank.”

Tim lit another cigarette from the butt burning low in his hands. Coughing, he continued. “We’ll figure it out. These cattle aren’t going to go far. They’ll drink too much, get out of the river, and that’s the last we’re going to get out of them today. I figure two hour shifts tonight, just one of us on at a time. I’ll take the first one and the last one though, regardless of how the cards fall. I know you guys ate dust all day.”

“Do we do this on foot or horseback?” I asked, which drew a laugh from Carl.

“You wanna get run over by cows?” he asked, smiling. “You’re mounted. Always. And armed. These things are trained for saddle shooting.”

Tim piped up. “Yeah, BUT, make sure they see the rifle first, and make sure you obviously cock it if you’re about to fire. If you just shoot, they’ll throw you faster than hell. Only thing we got to worry about out here is coyotes anyway. And they’re usually pretty skittish.”

An hour later, after Tim grabbed a plate of beans, bacon and cornbread and returned to the herd, we sat around the small fire. It was going to be cold that night, sufficiently so that we’d all done what we could to gather enough wood to keep the fire all night. Tim, plate in one hand and reins in the other, was attempting to move some of the smaller calves into the center of the herd, many of whom were already laying down and terribly disinterested in moving. He met with only marginal success.

Diggy, was remarkably agreeable after a day chewing dust. Turning to me, he cheerfully asked, “so, you learn anything today?”

I explained that I had, though I still didn’t know the first thing about roping, which bothered me.

“I could teach you, but there ain’t no use in it out here. You could practice all night and still not be good at it in the morning. It takes a long time, and you gotta stick with it, too. You did alright, though, from what I saw. You sure you never done this before?”

I assured him I had not. My only experience with herding had been that day, or whatever I’d read in books or watched in westerns. I was a writer, not a cowboy.

“That’s a dumb word for it, anyway. Sounds like we’re supposed to be wearing chaps and huge hats and gunslinging. We don’t anymore. I just tell people I’m in the cattle industry and they figure it out quick. They don’t see no fancy suit, so they know I actually do work.”

“Hey now,” Carl defended, “I HAVE to wear a suit. And I still do work, too.”

“Yeah, but it ain’t work like this. This wears you out awful young. How old you think I am?”

“Forty?” Carl ventured a guess.

“Man, I’m thirty. It’s the sun and the long hours. “

I was astonished. Not only was he grizzled, but walked slightly hunched and limped when he got out of the saddle. With his beard, he looked more like a mountaineer.

“Why do you do it then?”

“Cause I love it. I’ll be moving to our northern farm in a couple of years. They just work the cattle in the summers up there, which ain’t bad, and in the winter, they fix a few fences and relax.”

“How is that different from here?”

“Well, we work these guys all winter, keep them fed and warm, birth ‘em in the spring, then divide ‘em either for the market or for the farm up north. We do the work, really. Up there, they just graze ‘em.”

Carl heaved himself up and hobbled towards his horse. Diggy started chortling quietly to himself.

“Something wrong, Carl?”

“Yeah, my ass hurts.”

“So does your horse’s, I’d say.” He laughed at his own joke and started gathering dishes.

At ten, I began my first shift on watch, gingerly mounting (I was sore, too), and took the lever-action 30-06 from Diggy.

“If you got any questions, just wake us up. I’d rather get woke up than lose cattle in the dark; got it?”

For two hours I sat in the saddle, listened to coyotes howl in the distance, and paced from one end of the herd to the other, stopping briefly to stoke the fire a couple times. It was cold, but beautiful. Miles from any well-lit city, the sky was spectacularly clear, revealing constellations usually too dim to make out. Even the Milky Way belt was visible. Several times, large meteors cut across the sky. Thankfully, the cattle didn’t move an inch. Waking Carl, I gave him the update that there was no update and turned in again, rolling as tightly as I could in the single wool blanket we’d all carried tied behind our saddles. The fire offered only minimal warmth.

As I was jolted awake by the sharp report of a rifle, as Diggy sat bolt upright muttering, “shit” Carl, next to him, was already on his feet. As he untangled himself from his blanket he turned to me.

“Get on your horse NOW. The cattle are gonna move for sure.” I could already hear them stirring behind us.

I barely had both feet in the saddle when a steer thundered by, swerved to avoid the fire, and galloped into the river.

Diggy had somehow almost ridden out of earshot already, but he called back, “spread out and go upriver a ways. That’s where they’re moving.” He disappeared into the darkness yelling at his horse.

Either the coyotes had attempted to grab a calf, or Tim had spotted something else that threatened the herd. Between the crack of a rifle and the approach of a predator, the cattle were startled, confused, and running blindly away from the noise and commotion. Yet none of that mattered right now. They were moving towards us. As I galloped upriver I couldn’t help but think, “this sure is a shitty way to learn about stampedes.” I had to get in front of the stragglers. Swing wide…

To Be Continued…

Copyright © 2009, Ben Shaw
All Rights Reserved

Sunday, April 26, 2009

High Country, Part III

*If you have not done so already, please first read the following:
"High Country, Part I,"
"High Country, Part II."


By the time our shadows fell long on the scrub vegetation, I had returned to warming my hands under the horse blanket. So long as I kept them there it was fine, but removing them only made it more painful. The horse’s back and blanket were still wet with perspiration, and being cold and damp wasn’t an experience I much enjoyed. If I was smarter, I would have used my pockets.

In front, Tim still smoked, which in the cooler air lingered long and low behind us. Diggy was characteristically silent, but his agitation with the hour was evident by his sullen hunch in the saddle. I expected he’d fuss at Tim before too long.

Carl, though no stranger to riding backcountry, was growing weary of it. Years of riding a desk instead had taken its toll with both his toleration for the discomfort of a western saddle and a number of extra pounds that only ground him more forcefully into the saddle itself. Oddly, I was more sympathetic for his horse than for him. He fidgeted frequently, which visibly annoyed his ride. He and I had ridden in the rear as he recalled techniques for moving cattle that he hadn’t considered in well over a decade.

“The secret to herding cattle is wide, indirect movements. If a calf strays out somewhat to the right, slowly start walking to the far right. That way he doesn’t feel like he’s being chased. Usually, he’ll just move back to his mother and you just keep at it. Basically, you just walk the perimeter; that’s all. It’s the guy in back that has it the worst. He just eats dust, can’t hardly see, his horse gets pissy, and it stinks back there. If he’s not inhaling dust, he’s breathing manure or flies. The way I always did it was that the back guy rotates out more quickly than anybody.”

“What about stampedes? What do I do then?”

“This isn’t the movies, man. Yeah, I haven’t done this in a good fifteen years, but I never remember a stampede. Something has to spook them badly, and since you’re already on the perimeter, you just move out of the way. The only way you’ll get hurt, and that’s just a maybe, is if you’re in a chute between some sort of obstacles and the horse spooks and throws you. But again, these guys are trained fairly well. Nah, the worst thing about a stampede is the aftermath – trying to find all the strays and get them back together. If that happens, you have to rope a lot of the stupid ones.”

“Carl, I’ve never roped anything before. I’ll probably end up making a fool of myself.”

He laughed. “Yes. Which is why in the unlikely event that this happens, we’ll leave you with the remnants of the herd and go get them ourselves. Hell man, I haven’t done it in years, either. I’ll probably volunteer to take the furthest strays so nobody sees me screw it up. If you don’t practice the skill, you lose it. I can type up a fantastic home sale contract these days, but roping? I doubt I still can. Let’s just hope it doesn’t come to that.”

Diggy turned around in front of us with a scowl. “The more y’all talk about it, the dumber you both sound.”

“Perhaps,” retorted Carl. “I grew up doing this.” Diggy muttered again. I was uncertain if he was always this sour, or if our presence was what particularly bothered him – and the quickly diminishing light.

It was cause for some concern, actually. Not so much because of the temperatures, but because of the reduced visibility. We had started out with no landmarks at all around us (save for the slowly approaching peaks now directly in front of us). Tim, presumably knowing the route, had simply struck out confidently. The shortcut he had planned, as well as the river, so I trusted he knew his location. But the notion of stumbling on horseback through rocks, bushes and now an increasing number of small trees was unappealing. The only sunlight remaining was touching the mountains to the north. After riding towards them all day, I presumed our destination was proximal to them. However, asking Tim would probably invite a reprimand for not trusting him. I elected to remain quiet. Carl seemed unconcerned – just fidgety in his saddle. Diggy was always grumpy, so it was hard to say. Tim, mostly silent, just kept leading and smoking. Maybe he enjoyed keeping us in the dark – literally.

Smelling wood smoke was the first indication that the four of us were not alone in wilderness. It was faint, but pleasant, and I wondered if there was food being cooked over it. Our destination ranch? A cabin? A cook fire for other riders? Before I had much time to consider it, we were ejected from the scrub, rocks and trees of wilderness into an enormous pasture (mostly dirt this time of year), and the rolling foothills of the mountains in the background. At the base of the hills there was light, too, albeit faint in the near-darkness. I heard cattle now, too.

At the end of the field lay a river, slow moving, and beyond it: short fields and the beginnings of hills. Also on the far side was a small ranch house, which seemed almost an adulteration to the landscape after a day without any sign of civilization. Drawing nearer, the interior was well-lit, smoke rolled gently from the chimney, and a profusion of barns, pickup trucks, and farm equipment littered the fields. Either this was our destination or we were blatantly trespassing. I assumed the former.
A dog barked and irritated the horses, commencing a litany of soothing remarks and reassuring pats from all of us. After riding all day through washes, basins and loose rocks, I had no desire to be bucked because a dog was underfoot. Tim dismounted and we all followed suit. I suppose his smoke-immune horse still had her limits. Handing her reins to Diggy, he strode off to subdue the barking. This was definitely our destination.

Five minutes later he returned. “They got supper on the table if you’re hungry. Roast chicken, gravy, and greens. Carl, don’t eat all of it, okay?”

“Thanks. Waddya think I am? A pig?”

“You really want me to answer that? Look at your horse. She’s a swayback now.”

Diggy spoke more eloquently than I’d heard all day. “Y’all can keep fightin’ like girls, but I’m gonna eat. Tim, here’s your horse.” He led his own off briskly.

Amid the pleasant aroma of dewed grass and cows and sweaty horses, I smelled food. Walking to the stable, we quickly pulled saddles, drew water, put out feed, and went inside for our own. Tomorrow would be an even longer day.

To Be Continued…

Copyright © 2009, Ben Shaw
All Rights Reserved

Saturday, April 25, 2009

High Country, Part II

*If you have not already done so, please first read the following:
"High Country, Part I"


Sometime around noon Diggy trotted forward to Tim and bluntly spoke: “Ain’t no way in hell we’re gonna make it by dark at this rate.”

“It’s possible. I still know the way.”

“Oh really?”

“Yeah.” Tim exhaled a cloud of smoke and turned in the saddle to look at me.

“See that mountain that a’ way?” He tossed his chin east to a single, long, low disruption on the landscape.

“I do.”

“That’s Sleeping Ute Mountain. I sort of figured he looks dead – what with his arms cross over his chest, but what do I know.” He looked forward again and seemed to have forgotten that he even spoke. He dragged hard on his smoke and I was amazed how his horse seemed unconcerned by the ash accumulating in her mane. Only his horse, I suppose.

The mountain did look like an Indian, but the exact nature of his repose (permanent or temporary), was difficult to determine. To our north was our destination, at any rate, and a much more profuse assembly of hills. Compared to the current dry, sub-desert around us, it was green up there. It received no more rain than did this parched section of southeast Utah, but the snow melt running from high on the peaks was ample to support grazing vegetation – however scant. Down here, they used hay all winter, which annually drained every penny of savings and placed the success or total failure of the year in the hands of a volatile meat market. They would never say it, but they prayed a lot. One year of high-priced hay would finish them, as would one particularly harsh winter that killed cattle, or disease in the herd, or a low per-pound market price. What anybody would relish this constant instability was beyond me.

Carl had explained it to me sometime in the past, with limited success. “They don’t do this because they ever get rich. In fact, most just get poorer at varying rates. But it’s just what they do. As hard as it may be, as thankless at it may be, and as ever near as total poverty may be, they still love it. It’s real work to them, and they pride themselves in doing something that most everybody else is afraid to do. God knows I didn’t want to do it, which still bothers my dad. He was expecting that I’d be the last generation. Nope. It was him. They’re dying out, really. Everywhere. Literally and figuratively. The older ones can’t get their kids to take an interest in it, so they sell the farms, cash in, and spend the rest of their days complaining about how nobody wants to work. It’s sort of true. More than that though, nobody wants to work their body to death and barely eke out a living. They’d rather be chubby, lazy, and have a little more luxury. Hell, I’m one of those folks, too.”

It still made little sense. I look around out here and I saw rugged beauty. It was a good place to visit, but not live. Tim, Diggy, and maybe even Carl all saw head of cattle per acre, sustainability, or calculated how many bales per winter. I imagine it detracted from the enjoyment of the landscape. Home is boring to those that live there, but they always miss it when they’re gone. What do these men miss? Long days, long winters, and sunburns? Tending cattle? The view? I hesitated to ask.

As I ruminated about cattle per acre, we drew abreast of a mid-sized river which, at this late in the year, was low but still steady. Tim dismounted and tied back the reins. Diggy did the same, and Carl and I followed suit. The horses wandered over and began to drink deeply. This was the first water we’d encountered since we left. But color was wrong, though. Maybe too much blue. I looked at Carl.

“Are the horses going to drink that? It looks like it has chemicals in it.”

“It DOES have chemicals in it. Sulfur. It’d make a show horse sick – if you could even get them to drink it. But these guys are used to it. Upstream, near the Colorado border, a few volcanic hot springs feed into it. It may still be a little warmer here, but I doubt you’ll notice it. You’ll notice the smell instead.”

He was right; it smelled like bad eggs, looked particularly caustic, and I wondered if it had any negative, cumulative effects on the horses. At any rate, I trusted Tim’s judgment. He knew this place. I also presumed the horses knew better than to drink something that was poisonous to them.

Tim kicked some larger river rocks out of the way and lay down in the pebbles of the bar. For the first time since breakfast, he’d paused his smoking. “There’s no way they can drink enough in a few minutes; we’ll follow this upstream for about an hour and then cut north again. It ain’t that much extra distance, since it runs mostly north anyway. We’ll let ‘em stop and drink whenever they want to, though. We got at least 15 miles still, and there’s no more water for at least 10 of those.

“Tim, it’s gonna be plenty dark by then.”

“Well thank you, Diggy. I hadn’t considered that. You want to lead the way? Actually, since I know you don’t, why not just burn a smoke here and relax. We’ll be fine.”

Diggy made no audible reply and responded with a gesture instead. His message clearly conveyed, he wandered off into the bushes to relieve himself.

A mile up the river we were confronted with the atrocious odor of rotting flesh, though the source remained unidentified. As it intensified we began to grow accustomed to it, though the horses were clearly more sensitive to it than we were. Within five minutes, it was evident: somebody had lost a calf – not even a yearling – a few feet back from the water’s edge. At least three or four coyotes trotted off in different directions when they spotted us. My horse, which had been otherwise behaving beautifully, acted like he would bolt at any moment. Using whatever soothing words came to mind, I reined him tightly, and hoped the total lack of concern from Tim’s horse would rub off on him. It appeared to work. The smell was atrocious.

“Well folks, let’s not do that with ours. We don’t have many that small anyway. Maybe a dozen.”

“Damn shame,” was all Diggy muttered and spat. Moving well beyond the carcass and out of the abysmal odor, we watered the horses one more time and cut north. We had at least ten miles remaining, and it was starting to cool off quickly.

To Be Continued…

Copyright © 2009, Ben Shaw
All Rights Reserved

Friday, April 24, 2009

High Country, Part I

By the time the sun hit the frost on the fence rails, we were already tightening the saddles and buckling the bridles. The horse’s snorts jetted fast tendrils of fog in the cold. Though they didn’t particularly like this long ride, they, too, were eager to not be stamping around in the cold. Breakfast had been cooked, the fires extinguished and the house shut tightly. We had at least twenty miles to go before quitting, and that was only as the crow flies. Between the buttes, the washes, and deeper basins, it may have been as many as thirty. We’d need every ray of daylight we could manage.

To complicate matters, nor was there any trail. Our path was the one we would make as we steered the horses over rocks that would all day pull at their shoes and slow our progress. It was amazing that, despite the modern world, moving a herd of cattle was still more efficient on horseback than by trailer. But, winter was coming soon, and they needed to be rounded out of the high country and fenced for the winter. At least here, sparse as the grass may be, they wouldn’t get lost in the snow, and they could find moderate shelter from the elements in the barns amongst companions.

Tim, who had done this run through at least a dozen late autumns, unconsciously scratched at his horse’s neck and smoked. His mount had to be the only one in the group that felt more comfortable with a rider that smoked like a chimney. The rest would spend the day behind him laying their ears flat and being bratty and uncooperative. To anybody’s recollection, his horse had known no other rider. She liked her smoker.

The rest of us: Carl, Diggy (I didn’t even know his real name), and myself, were all new to this. It wasn’t a dude ranch by any means, but something he needed help doing, and had enlisted the help of a few friends for the three day weekend necessary to bring back 250 head of cattle from the hills down to the low country. Carl had done this as a teenager working with his father before running off to college and landing a job in real estate – much to the frustrations of his father. I presumed Carl and Tim had met as teenagers, but neither talked about it much. Knowing I’d wanted to someday doing this, Carl had invited me of his own accord, and only with the begrudging permission of Tim. Diggy intimately knew this life, but from the perspective of a neighboring farm. They had brought their herd down the week prior, with Tim’s assistance. Just as farmers used to pool their resources for large equipment, they also pooled their people. They weren’t in competition these days; they were only trying to survive the razor thin beef market profit margin and rising operation costs. Horses and manpower, however, still came relatively cheap.

Diggy had already ridden from next door, and was impatient for the rest of us to mount up and leave, remarking at least three times that, “we’re burnin’ daylight, folks.” We knew this, but it was cold out, and early, and after a breakfast with far more fat and calories than I typically eat in a day, Carl and I, at least, were ready for naps, not a day of riding. We moved as quickly as we could. We were moving by 7AM, which I hoped wouldn’t be too late.

At least there wasn’t any wind that morning. As it was, my fingers, frigid in stiff leather gloves, felt encased in ice. I shoved them between the horse’s back and the blanket under the saddle. He didn’t need any directing with the reins at any rate. Unlike most of us, he’d done this trail before and knew the drill: follow the leader: Smoking Tim and his horse.

“Diggy, you wanna lead for a moment? I’m going to see if that washout down to the right is still open. If it’s no worse than last time, it’ll cut a good thirty minutes off getting to the bottom of this cut.” He rode off at a trot without waiting for Diggy’s answer, which from what I heard of it centered around bullshit and piss poor planning. The horses, free from the constant trail of smoke from the front, seemed to quicken their pace slightly.

We heard him whistle a minute later and adjust our route accordingly. Pushing down a terribly narrow path that ran diagonal to the slope of a deep basin, I found myself imagining what a fall would look like. If the horse lost his footing against the slope, I’d be pinned in the stirrup against a bunch of rocks (and in pain). If he lost is step the other way, I had at least a 50 foot slide/tumble through large rocks into even larger rocks. If he pitched forward, it would just hurt. Now I understood why people wore helmets. I, of course, had none. Tim would probably say that if I fell and hurt myself, it was clearly my fault for being a a novice. I admonished my horse to be careful, and I suppose he listened.

As we approached the bottom, the path’s angle decreased and soon opened into what they called basins but I always thought were just dirt canyons. The far side, a good quarter mile away, looked even more vertical and imposing, but Tim walked directly towards it. Diggy seemed unconcerned, so I pretended it was all good. Carl also remained silent. I was the only one here completely new to back country navigation.

An hour later, the basin behind us, after walking the horses up the slope, we could see the distant green of the mountains through the clear morning air. It was beautiful out here, and between the walking and the slow-rising sun, the temperature was cool, but pleasant. They call it God’s country out here, and I can certainly see why (until it snows). Nobody talked; it might have ruined the view. They lived with this scenery, but I wished dearly for a camera. This land was breathtaking.

To Be Continued…

Copyright © 2009, Ben Shaw
All Rights Reserved

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Skinny Living

In a recent e-mail exchange between myself and a well-traveled friend now residing in Europe, I revealed just how little I actually knew of European culture. I had spoken admiringly about how most Europeans are content with smaller houses, few cars, a less avid a pursuit of grandiosity, and seemed generally content with a less luxuriant lifestyle. I was quickly corrected: “Ben, if they had the money and the means to pursue such things, they would. Every one of them.” Apparently their “preference” for simpler living wasn’t that all; it was a matter of necessity. With higher income taxes and less to-pocket profit with their occupations, most have been forced to settle for less. I stand corrected.

But this segues into the concept of the American Dream, what it really is, if it truly exists, and if it’s all it’s cracked up to be. Despite its vague definition, most would probably describe it as home ownership and a little piece of earth to call their own. While certainly a fine pursuit, it has the potential to quickly run amok. Americans like big things, luxurious things, and opulence, perhaps to a fault.

I am in no way criticizing those that have the money and resources to buy large tracts of land and build large houses. Nor am I saying that I have no aspirations for such things. Furthermore, I am not suggesting that there should be limits on these ambitions. In fact, such a measure would stand to encroach on what I define the American dream to be: the freedom to make our own decisions, as silly as they may be.

What I find unfortunate, however, is the notion that a palatial home, new cars, and lavish living are the norm here. They should not be. Especially since striving to obtain these things comes with a heavy price. We all know people who live big, work tirelessly to maintain their extravagant lifestyle, but appear to have little time remaining to enjoy the fruits of their labor. Not to say that basking in a large home on the weekend isn’t nice, for it is, but are these expensive tastes truly worth their sacrifice?

For more than limiting one’s time to enjoy these possessions, they limit the opportunity to pursue something of much greater and lasting value: people. Even the fabric of the nuclear family is threatened with both parents working long hours to maintain their lifestyle, children away in school or with babysitters or daycare will into the evenings, and little time left to play with a child, read a book, converse with friends, or simply delight in someone’s presence. There’s no peace, but instead a frenetic effort to keep up with bills. And it’s a shame.

Granted, working, responsibilities and bills are all facts of modern day living that few can escape (those in jail have done a good job of it, however). If we want to eat, we need to work. And unless we wish to be turned out into the streets, we need to pay our rent or mortgage. But must everything be so big? Was that third car really an essential expenditure?

Stuff, without a doubt, is nice. But in the end, it is only that: stuff. Aren’t people a wiser, more savory investment of our time? Sure, they come with their fair share of difficulties and aggravations, but to know another and love another is far nobler than building a monument to our financial success (especially if we are left with no time to even appreciate it).

What, for example, makes a big dinner so perfect? The matching napkins and ornate silver? The expensive plates? The exotic food? I would suggest the company. Some of the best meals I have ever eaten were cooked over trash fires or boiled to death, and served on rickety plastic tables (if there were tables at all). The meal? Maybe Pop Tarts or instant macaroni and cheese. It was the people that I remember, not the food. The same applies to living in general. People, the relationships we have with them, and the friendships we have fostered through difficult times and amazing circumstances, are priceless, however intangible.

In the end, few of us are remembered for the monuments we built or the possessions we accumulated over a lifetime of hard work and dutiful labor. We are remembered for the love we exhibited to our family, the words we spoke to friends, and the joy our mere presence brought to another’s life. Our relationships, and others’ memories of them, are the most lasting, impactful legacy we will leave. Houses are bought and sold, gardens overgrow quickly, cars age and break down, and a new fad will soon replace whichever one we have so desperately sought to appeal to.

More than a grand estate and elaborate grounds, I would prefer A home, and one filled with people: friends, neighbors, family members, loved ones, barefoot children tracking in dirt, and a simple table upon which sit heaps of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches on paper plates. Nobody’s there for the food, at any rate; they’re there because they enjoy the company and they love each other. And none of us are too busy to relish that. We would be wise not to pursue plentiful living, but purposeful living. Let’s trim the fat a bit, and instead of keeping up with the Joneses, let’s invite them over for dinner.

Copyright © 2009, Ben Shaw
All Rights Reserved

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Please Enjoy The Music...

Until you sat in a college friend’s dorm and listened to George Carlin making a joke about Pago Pago, you had no idea such a place existed. Nor did you expect to be flying to it today, or learning that the United States owns it – American Samoa, the only US territory south of the Equator, a miniscule 76 square miles comprised of five, rocky volcanic islands. The flight from Honolulu was miserably long, and you’ve been awake for most of the night, but it’s time to smell the salt air.

Though simply the pride of saying you’ve been to a place named Pago Pago is pretty impressive, the reason for your visit is actually another accidental discovery: that the US National Park Service maintains a park in American Samoa, and you have the opportunity to see it. Sure, getting there is a nightmare, but more than worth it for the sunrise view as the plane makes its final approach to the single runway of Pago Pago International Airport. An hour later, you step onto the rattiest, privately-owned tour bus you’ve ever seen and prepare for a jolting ride down narrow streets, straight through Pago Pago and out to the peripheral village of Fagatogo. The bus abruptly deposits you in the market place, a wash of women in colorful outfits and children playing the way they still should in the states – with soccer balls and sticks. You have a boat to catch, which will take you out towards the remotest corners of the park to your home for three days – a coastal hut facing east on the second-most distant island in the chain.

While living in a completely primitive hut for three days isn’t what many could consider a good vacation, this one will be different. After years of busying yourself with pots and pans and vacuuming carpets, it’ll be nice to simply pick the lizards off the rickety plastic table, set them on the porch, and go back to your travel book about the history of the area. One beach, for example, has sufficient archeological evidence to prove more than 3,000 years of continuous habitation. That’s near Ofu beach, and you intend to see it when your boat guide Peter, who speaks excellent English (and only charges 11 dollars a day) motors his canoe around that side of that island tomorrow. Later in the day he will teach you to snorkel, and after years of taking photos of people and plants, you’ll be using an underwater camera to capture the most brilliant clown fish you’ve ever seen – erratically swimming through the rocks in the azure waters. In fact, under the water is more beautiful than above it. The colors are truly stunning.

What’s so amazing is that even though the Pacific is known for its fierce storms and unpredictable currents, this little clump of islands is remarkably calm. Pete (as he insists on being called) navigates small swells expertly, keeping the bow in the waves and chugging along with an antique outboard engine you pray won’t quit. Though the sea life scatters at the sound of the propellers, peering over the front, they haven’t heard the sound in the water just yet and you’re treated to a myriad of small fish, tiny sharks, jellyfish, and clouds of sand that indicate a ray just fled the scene. You’ll undoubtedly see one this afternoon when you get in the water. There’s no rush out here. There’s a bright blue sky, a deep blue sea, banana trees on the beach, and Pete won’t even let you carry your own bag. This is home to him, and he loves it. He’s excited to introduce somebody else to it.

You chug through the water towards your island hut. Once your bags are delivered and you’re changed into more tropical attire, you have a paradise to explore…

After two days out in the water, with Pete sailing you around the islands, you figured a day at the market on Fagotogo would be a nice relief from peering over the front of a small dugout canoe and floating in the shallows. Besides this, the more you ask Pete about the area and the culture, the more you wanted to see it, too, not just tropical fish, and the volcanic islands and azure water. Instead of sailing that day, he'd pick you up from your hut at 9AM and transport you back to town. As much as you hated to do it, you needed to get a couple souvenirs for people. You'd promised.

On the way back, you asked Pete more about how he found himself supporting the tourist trade. "Well," he sort of paused, "I grew up fishing with my dad, but he got tired of the water and only barely making enough to pay for fuel and a little food to put on the table. When he decided to give me the business and do other things, I refitted the boat for touring. I still get out on the water, I still see the fish, and these islands, and the water. I love it out here; and I love showing it to people."

It made sense. This was home, and he loved it. You asked a little about his family. He and his wife, Belga, had been married for fifteen years. It would have been at 18 if her father had allowed it, but he made them both wait. "You need a better job," her dad had insisted. When he started the tourism bit, Belga's father had relented. He’d waited five years for her, and it was worth it. They now had 5 children; the eldest being a 15 year old son (who Pete occasionally enlisted for extra help with large tour groups), and four younger siblings ranging from 8 to 12. When they weren't in school, they were raising holy hell around the house and in the surrounding streets. They sounded like normal kids.

"Can I meet your family?" you asked. It seemed more interesting than hunting for souvenirs - and more meaningful.

"Nobody's asked me that before," he remarked, surprised. "But yes, that would be nice. Certainly. Would you join us for lunch today then?" You immediately agreed.

As you stepped off the dugout, Pete, as usual, grabbed your bag and wouldn't let you carry it, despite your protestations. It's just what he did. "Follow me," he said, and you could see a bounce in his step...

Despite it being him that was carrying your bag, it still seemed like a long walk. You humped past the marketplace, which didn't really look that interesting anymore. You could stop for souvenirs some other time. Pete's family would be more memorable, and far more interesting that trinkets probably made in China anyway. Thirty minutes later, after wending through dirty, mud streets and through rows of ramshackle homes, you arrived at his. Four barefoot children were kicking a soccer ball off the walls and between each other in the street. A curious aroma of something spicy greets you from inside their small shack. It can't be more than four rooms - which you quickly confirm when you walk in. There's a main bedroom, a kitchen, a common area and one final bedroom. That's it. The seven of them all lived there...

You meet Belga, who is a plump happy woman adorned in bright colors and singing to herself as she bustles over a gas stove and a mess of ancient pots. You have no idea what she's cooking, but it smells fantastic, and it looks like it goes with the rice. You ask if you can help, but she shoos you out of the kitchen. “My dear, I cook for a crowd every day!” This will be good.

Silea, his eldest son, is a bit shy, but warms up quickly when you ask him about helping his father out on the water. "Yes! I got out sometimes, in the other boat. My father takes the rich people, but I get to take the curious people. I show them places even HE doesn't know about. Like the shallows along the far island where all the starfish and urchins are at low tide. The water turns gold in the sunsets." You see Pete smile, like maybe he does know about it, but he lets Silea THINK it's his special find. Let him have his fun.

As Silea gets called to help Belga in the kitchen, Pete introduces you to the rest of the children, who have been peering in the open door frame, their faces set in curiosity. You quickly forget the names, since they're fairly long and not like any language you've ever heard before. But they're eager to play soccer with you, and they're surprised that you actually know HOW to play. They thought all Americans played either football or hockey, which you explain is actually more of a Canadian sport. Before long, you, too, are barefoot in the street and running after a ball you're convinced they kicked poorly just to watch you chase it. It's still a great experience.

As Pete calls everybody in for dinner and you pull up benches and a few rickety chairs to the table, the most amazing thing happens. For the first time since you've met them, the children all quiet down. They all hold hands, quickly grab yours, as well, and Pete says a blessing, in his native tongue. Somewhat confused, you just listen...but then he repeats it in English. It was beautiful; a prayer to bless the food, the hands that prepared it, and the guest who honored them with her presence. It was touching, to say the least, and heartening to learn that you're among Christian brethren.

As you had anticipated, the rice dish was amazing. It tasted like curried fish served in a red sauce over rice. It also made your nose run a little, but spicy food is better when there's a bit of a zing to it. Dessert was some unidentifiable tropical fruit, though you can't pronounce the name of it and they didn't know the Anglicized word for it. It tasted like a mango, but less juicy, sweeter, with a hint of pomegranate scent to it. But it was yellow, not orange or red. Very sweet, too... After eating, you had to fight the urge to roll up in the corner for a nap.

As the table was cleared, the children were tugging at your shirt again to go back to soccer outside. Today was a Saturday, so there was no school. Silea told his father he was going to go out with friends and disappeared, and Belga kicked you out of the kitchen while she cleaned up.

After a little time with the children, you figure that you'd give Pete a break. Rather than motor back out to the island and your cabana that night, you'd just walk back to the market (it was a pretty straight shot), and meet him in the morning at the harbor. You had some shopping to do. Since Fagotogo was the staging point to the islands, you'd just stay at one of the many hotels in town. Pete assured you there were at least five.

At the market, most everything looked like trinkets, and more or less confirmed your hunch that it was all made elsewhere. But, you promised a souvenir for your family, so you settle on a stone chessboard with "hand carved" pieces. You assumed they were made in China, but they still looked nice. Of the many sets, the one made in shades of grey was most interesting. There was a dark grey side, a light grey side, and the board was checkered red and gray. It was intricate, but probably made elsewhere. It would suffice, though. Your family would cherish it as exotic.

Checking into the first hotel you came upon, you were given a room where the last occupant had to be a 400lb fat man. The bed sagged horribly in the center and looked dirty. You slept in all your clothes and used your pack as a pillow. Not very comfortable, but after a day of walking and playing soccer, it didn't matter. It worked, and you slept well...

The morning was gorgeous on the island, and the profusion of oxen and mopeds in the street gently awakened you soon after sunrise, getting you moving early enough for breakfast in the lobby downstairs. It wasn't much more than cereal and coffee, but it was ample to get you moving. You paid your tab and walked out to the harbor to meet Pete. This was your last full day. He would be boating you to your hut to pick up the remainder of your provisions, sailing you around the far island (the rockiest and roughest, but perhaps the most beautiful), and returning you to Fagotogo for the night. You'd bus to Pago Pago in the morning for your flight...

The more you thought about it, the most memorable experience you'd had during your stay wasn't the fish, or the islands, or the exotic little cabana on a remote beach, but spending time with Pete and Belga, and meeting a family that you found to be fascinating, happy, though definitely lacking in material provision. You decided to carefully broach that subject with Pete on the way back.

"Is there anything you guys really need down here that you just can't get?"

He sighed. "Not really. We don't have much, but I have beautiful wife, and five great children. We get by."

"But is there anything you guys really need but can't get?"

"Not really." He brightened as he thought of something. "Our radio broke this rainy season. It was sitting on the table and the roof leaked one night, and it hasn't worked since then. We used to listen to the music from Western Samoa, which is pretty nice. They don't really have good stations over here. I'd like to get a new one that can play..what do you call them? Tapes?" You fought the urge to laugh.

"Well, we have discs now that play music."

"Discs?" You didn't bother to explain. At any rate, he wanted it more for the radio.

"Anything else you need?"

"Oh no. God has been good to us. I work, my family is fed, my wife is maybe a little chubby, but she's more beautiful to me that way. We're happy." You vowed to send him a radio, somehow.

You explained that you'd really had a great time out with him and meet his family, and you wanted to send them all a thank you card when you returned home, so you asked if he had access to a post office. He did, though it was in Pago Pago and he typically stopped by there only once a month, but didn't get much of anything except tourists trying to ask him strange questions. You promised you wouldn't do that. You just wanted to say thank you more formally with a letter. He recited the address for you as you motored slowly into the harbor.

"Unless you have plans this evening, we have a gift for you," Pete suddenly announced, as he tied off the boat. He elaborated that his family wanted to take you out to dinner. He would not accept no for an answer, so you eventually relented and agreed to meet him in the market at dusk.

"What time is that?" He didn't know. Just dusk. Maybe 8PM? After he insisted on carrying your bags for you back to the hotel, you promised to meet him later. You needed a nap, anyway. The Pacific sun was wearing you thin after days on the water, repeated exposure, and probably not enough water to drink. An afternoon of soccer didn’t help much, either. It was time to relax. After the trip around the outside of the far island today, and photographing of some of the most colorful birds you'd ever seen, you were ready to take it easy.

At 8, you walked up to Pete and Belga sitting on a bench near the square. They rose to greet you enthusiastically. "We're glad you could come. My brother owns a restaurant here that has the best, I think you call it shawarma, on the island. He never really liked fishing, which is why I have the boats and not him."

He walked 50 feet to a long table and sat down. "My brother will bring out the food in a moment. They're gathering the dishes."

Sure enough, Jone walked out, arms laden with bowls and dishes, and his wife carried pitchers, and three dark-eyed daughters were carrying silverware and napkins. He, too, had beautiful children. They were all smiling, and after quick introductions everyone took their seats. After another bilingual blessing, you began another delightful, albeit strange meal. No WONDER they were all well-fed. As little as they may have had, their food was fantastic. Dessert was a candied pastry, similar to those in the middle east. You caught yourself wondering who invented it. Just like the shawarma, it was probably claimed by several cultures: the Arabs, the Indians, and the North Africans. At any rate, it was superb, and filling. Chatter throughout the meal was about work, about the children, and how Jone didn't like how boys were starting to stare at his daughters. Pete assured him he smacked Silea every time he caught HIM staring at a girl that way. "He may be the only gentleman on this island" lamented Jone. “And he's a cousin, so it is unfortunate.” You listened and laughed. Parents, it seemed, were the same everywhere.

After coffee to stave off a sugar coma, they asked you questions about America. Even though they were US nationals in American Samoa (a territory), they didn't have nearly the federal protection or oversight that the states enjoyed. Nor even the cultural exposure. You dispelled as many myths as you could, and tried to ignore the fact that you lived in a land of unhappy yet fortunate people, while here they were mostly impoverished, yet content. It had more to do with faith, anyway; not wealth.

As the even wore on and the children started to look tired, they let you help them clear the dishes and move them to the kitchen. They'd clean them tomorrow. Jone would be up early, anyway. It was Sunday, and they'd have a huge lunch to prepare before they went to church. As much as you now wanted to join them for that, you had to a flight to catch. Your trip seemed too short, as they always do. But a busy, hectic week awaited you after another 18 hours of grueling travel. This time you asked for a photo, and Pete said he wanted you in it. "You treat us like family, so you need to be in it, too!" He asked Jone to take it, who quickly figured out the focusing and took several of the whole family - smiling, tired, but happy."

You readied to leave for your fat-man's bed at the hotel down the road.

"Did you buy your souvenirs today?" inquired Pete. You told him you got a chess board for your family, but you weren't sure if it was actually made locally.

"My father makes some of them. What color are the stones? Grey and red?" They were.

"Yes, then my father made it. Promise me, when you get back home, and not UNTIL you're home, look at the king, okay? But not a moment before you're home, okay?" You promised, more curious than anything about what was possibly there. You hadn't seen anything, but really nor were you looking. Fair enough. You'd wait.

As you hugged his whole family, you handed Pete his payment for the three days of travel in an envelope; a meager $11 a day. You told him it had a thank you letter in it, so wait until he got home. You didn't tell him, but there was an extra hundred in there. They needed it more than you did. Maybe the kids could get a new soccer ball or something. Either way, you were sure he'd find something to do with it.

You slept in your clothes again in the fat-man bed. Heaven only knew what little things were on the sheets. You slept well, though. It's been a long week, and you had a lot of flying left to do, which was always terribly exhausting.

After more cereal and unimpressive coffee in the morning, you waited for another rickety bus to take you back to Pago Pago, negotiated security at the airport, and tried to settle into your seat to sleep away the long flight to Honolulu. Sleep or not, it would still be unpleasant

20 hours later, after a delay in LAX, you were finally trudging to your car in the parking lot and paying the ridiculous parking fee. You wanted nothing more than to simply sleep, but the short ride to the house came first. You'd throw down the windows, crank the music, and try to sing along so you didn't slump over the wheel in exhaustion.

As you locked the door and dragged your luggage up to your room, you found yourself missing Pete's irritating insistence on carrying your bags. You flop onto bed and look at the time. The sun was out, barely, and you needed sleep. As you prepared to drift off, however, you remembered Pete's admonition about the chess set and started rummaging to unwrap it from all the clothes you'd bundled around it to protect it during transport. Thankfully it appeared unscathed. Opening the bag with the individually wrapped pieces, you eventually found the king. Inspecting it, you found nothing at all. Strange. No markings, no text, just a stone king, though a beautifully carved one. You dig for the other one - the light gray piece.

Again, nothing. Was it a joke? Pete didn't seem the type. You check again, running your thumb over the green felt on the bottom. The light gray one had a divot! Carefully peeling back the felt, you expose a small hole, with what appears to be a paper rolled up inside of it. It looked like parchment. Grabbing it carefully with a pair of tweezers, you pull it out and unroll it gently.

"The Lord bless thee and keep thee,
The Lord make His face to shine upon thee
And be gracious unto thee.
The Lord lift up His countenance upon thee
And give thee peace."

It made sense now. All of it. Pete's faith was from his father's strong faith. You could picture him slowly carving each piece and praying over each set, and blessing the purchaser and his or her family and life, much like an old Hebrew builder prays over the door posts to a home. This was the man's ministry, and you were the honored recipient. Now you understood why Pete always looked asleep when you strode up to the boat. He was praying. And you suspect it did that quite often anyway in the back of the boat. YOU sure were - that the boat wouldn't capsize in the swells. But he knew it wouldn't, so he was praying for his occupants. He was blessing you, too, just as his father did in his own way.

Amazed, exhausted, overwhelmed, and missing Pete and Belga and Jone and all their children, you curled up to sleep. It was light now, and you were overdue for rest. Whenever you woke up, whatever time that may be, you would go radio shopping. Pete missed the music, and you intended to make sure he heard it. His story, his life and his family and faith, were certainly music to your heart....

*The above is a fictitious account, a mental hiatus from my norm, and probably reflects poor writing. Hopefully, however long, the story was worth the read.

Copyright © 2009, Ben Shaw
All Rights Reserved

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

I Like It Here

Nearly every time I turn on a television, read editorials, or browse the internet for interesting blogs, I am immediately confronted with several articles and reports that I not only believe to be false, but whose allegations are sufficiently far off the mark to be odious, offensive, and potentially destructive to my way of life if enthusiastically practiced. Their content, however, as well as their sources and purpose, are totally irrelevant. I mention them to illustrate that somebody (in fact MANY) have opinions profoundly different from mine.

As my anger rises at the absurdity of various claims or the sincerity with which propaganda is peddled, I will turn off the TV and throw the remote, discard the magazine, close the computer, or even storm about the house in a juvenile tirade about how stupid people are, how ignorant of facts they choose to be, and how their very existence jeopardizes my sanity. In truth, my life would be easier if they would shut up.

The same applies to strangers I have met who have audaciously and rabidly opposed my viewpoints, who resort to insults, name-calling, and what I consider to be even more preposterous claims in an attempt to discredit my convictions. It is a wonder I even venture into public at all. It often ends in my frustration, weariness, and occasional insult at the brazen remarks of others. My social life would certainly be simpler if I didn’t have to listen to these people, and if talking hairdos, self-professed experts, and propagandists would go away indefinitely. As before, the subjects of these conversations are completely irrelevant.

No doubt, however, many feel the same about me, or what I write, or the moral philosophies I pontificate as essential to robust and upright living, a successful country, national defense, international diplomacy, and so forth. Frankly, I’m fairly certain I irritate them no end. It’s somewhat humorous, really, to consider how divided the public remains on key issues, politics, and social virtues. But this is America…

What I have been doing, just as much as any whose viewpoints I oppose, is simply exercising my 1st Amendment rights under the US Constitution, which states, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.” Inasmuch as my rights are thereby defended to speak, worship, and believe as I so choose, so also are the rights of my opponents. Furthermore, any attempt on my part, or the part of anybody else to squelch the publication of such radically differing ideologies is a direct violation of the principles of our national, self-governing creed. As much as people disagree with me, or I with them, let us all speak our minds. We’ve purchased this inalienable right at high cost.
I was recently asked to participate in a documentary on the subject of growing up a Muslim in the United States. Among other questions posed by the Muslim interviewer, it was asked what I thought of Muslims in America. “Do they have a place in the US?” The answer, obviously, is an emphatic YES! Why not? Because I disagree with them? Because a few radicals adamantly oppose the United States and have armed themselves with the intent of killing all those not like them? It is unfair to target Islam as the sole progenitor of violent, anti-American sentiment. Just as violent and abhorrently wrong are the actions of a single veteran (Timothy McVeigh) to take innocent lives in Oklahoma City, or a man who feels compelled to murder abortionists because he is opposed to their actions, or a man (Theodore Kaczynski) who mails bombs to those supposedly encroaching on human freedoms through large-scale organization, or an animal rights activist (Daniel San Diego) that bombs biotechnology businesses because he opposes advancement in science. The lists are exhaustive, and represent a diverse (and deviant) set of ideologies gone awry. Every group, unfortunately, has a few of them. Muslims are by no means the only ones.

What makes this nation great is the fact we are free to disagree openly with others, free to worship differently, and even free to speak in direct opposition to the behavior of our government. We are free to do this without fear – from either our neighbors, our law enforcement, or our government. Few in the world have such opportunity. Political dissidents (those who dare speak their minds) in China and North Korea are routinely imprisoned and even tortured and executed. The wife of an opposition leader in Zimbabwe had her hands chopped off with machetes and was burned alive. A crowd of peaceful female protestors in Afghanistan was stoned by the opposition for daring to disagree with a marital rape law. Indeed, there are few places in the world besides America where we may openly disagree without fear.

And I fiercely defend that right. Although many veterans come home and hear hurtful and destructive remarks from the public or even families, it is the right of those persons to speak as they so desire (though it at times does betray their ignorance and misplaced anger). Similarly, as much as I wish to pull my hair out with a daily inundation of incorrect material online, in print, and in the news, I stand by their right to say as they wish. What makes this nation so great is that there are many men and women who have volunteered for difficult, dangerous and potentially deadly service to defend the right of those back home to adamantly disagree with them. They defended their own opposition, to put it bluntly.

If either the right, the left, or any other group were to make any effort to shut down the opposition, they would be directly infringing upon the rights we all enjoy as permitted and even celebrated in the Constitution. Actions to silence an opposition are unconstitutional, un-American, and truly destructive to the fabric of our country. If such a thing happens, we are in peril of national disintegration. What, then, are we to do about opposition? We present a more appealing alternative.

The fundamentals of good argument are for both sides to state their convictions, and then take turns briefly rebutting the other’s argument and provide additional reinforcement for their own. There is no place for silencing one’s opponents. Nor does simply negating the opposition function to advance the claims of the other. They must present a better argument, not just weaken their opponents.’ In fact, an attempt to silence an opponent’s argument simply betrays the weakness of their own.

For all its aggravations and difficulties, for all the needless debate and the creation of an argumentative culture, this is the better way, the RIGHT way, and the American way. For far more dear than having everybody agree with each other is the critical right to disagree without fear of harm. Billions worldwide truly ache for this luxury, yet we so quickly forget its significance to the foundational to this country.

So to the opposition: keep talking, keep arguing, and keep disagreeing. So will I, and may the better argument win. Just as you are in no danger for disagreeing, neither am I in any danger. We will settle our differences as civilized adults, as neighbors, and as Americans. For all you may yell, I, too, will yell. For all the ad campaigns you undertake, there will be others to disagree and present an alternative. When our government does something we disagree with, we will unite temporarily and yell at them together. And at the end of the day, we will still open doors for each other, still greet each other as neighbors and friends, and still cherish the one beautiful document that enables us bicker with each other. It would behoove us to do so courteously, for we are ultimately united in appreciating the same freedoms.

Copyright © 2009, Ben Shaw
All Rights Reserved
All materials contained herein are copyrighted.
Do not reproduce in any form without the express,
written permission of the author.
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