Category Archives: Human Nature

When Buying a Pack of Cigarettes Is Like Buying a Condom

I smoked. I started when I was 16. Cigarettes were twenty five cents in 1959. I posed with a cigarette dangling from my lips as an 18 year old in the Air Force, imitating the movie actors in the World War II movies. When I was twenty I was stationed in Germany, where waiters in even moderately priced restaurants would appear out of nowhere when you took out a cigarette and light it for you. I smoked until I got out of the Air Force at 22, then quit. Then started again. Then quit. Then started again. Then quit when I decided I didn’t like the way it made my hair and clothes smell. Cancer was bad, but smelly hair and clothes were intolerable. Then I started again when I got a sudden urge, but didn’t even finish the pack. I was about a one cigarette a year smoker for a few years. Then, finally, I quit for good in my early thirties.

Last week I got a text from my wife. “Could you pick up my prescription at CVS and get me a pack of cigarettes?” I thought it was some kind of a joke and that I wasn’t getting it. My wife never smoked and I didn’t think she was starting now. I didn’t get the cigarettes.

But it wasn’t a joke. She wanted a pack of cigarettes – for a school project. She’s a school nurse and every year she has to prepare a presentation for the elementary school kids about the dangers of smoking.

I made a special trip to a liquor store to get a pack of cigarettes. It was embarrassing, like it is for a teenaged boy going into a drugstore to buy a condom to put in his wallet in case he gets lucky. I hoped nobody would see me. The conversation with the clerk was awkward. I asked for my old brand, paid six dollars and change, and put them into my pocket. I left the store quickly. I felt the old urge quickly. I dismissed the old urge quickly. It’s been about 36 years since I smoked. It’s a strong urge.

My wife crumpled up the cigarettes and put them in two jars filled with water. She let them sit overnight and took them to school the next day. Each jar was labelled, “Smell this.”

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To Think in Solitude and to Remember

As soon as I silently intoned “Well, I’ll be damned,” the memories came back. Memories of white French plantation owners who, after the world’s only successful slave revolt, came to the United States by the shipload with their families, domestic slaves, African mistresses and children of color. Of a slave woman who had to choose between freedom with her lover or leaving with her master and keeping “her” children, one of which was fathered by her master and one the child of her master and his wife. Of how masters and slaves struggled for power amidst consuming fear on both sides, but sometimes also amidst love and mutual dependency.

I had just walked through the door of the Monocacy National Battlefield Visitor Center outside Frederick, Maryland, where I was expecting to learn of the battle that saved Washington, DC during our Civil War. But as soon as I entered I was met with an exhibit detailing news about the recent discovery, supported by an archaeological dig just last summer, that one of the Park’s six farms had been one of the largest slave habitations in the mid-Atlantic region. That “…from 1794 until 1827, the present Best Farm was …a plantation known as L’Hermitage. L’Hermitage was established by the Vincendieres, a family of French planters who came to Maryland from the colony of Saint-Domingue (Haiti). In 1800, as many as 90 enslaved laborers toiled at L’Hermitage, making the Vincendieres family among the largest slave holders in the state.”

Best Farm at Monocacy National Battlefield Park

Here’s the thing. On the drive up I had been listening to Isabel Allende’s “Island Beneath the Sea,” a deeply researched historical novel. The first half of the book is about relations between slaves and masters in Haiti during the time leading up to the 1791 slave revolt that evolved into the successful Haitian Revolution. The latter half of the book picks up the story in New Orleans, where thousands of French planters fleeing Haiti with their households and human property landed as refugees. But, apparently, they did not all go to New Orleans. Many went to other places, including Charleston, Savannah, Baltimore – and even Frederick, Maryland. And, to my surprise, the story had just come to me in a tangible way on a lazy Sunday afternoon drive with my dog. First it was in my ears. Then it was in my mind. Then it was in my memories.

I drove from the Visitor Center to the Best Farm site.

Now it was under my feet. No one was there except for me and Dusa Dog. No matter where I walked at this historic site, I felt I was intersecting a path made by a real-life character similar to those portrayed fictitiously in the book. Yes, I felt it. Feelings are real, no matter what the catalyst.

I was awe-struck with the interconnectedness of human history.

Now I will go there from time to time to think in solitude and to remember.

Note: To read more about the archaeological dig at Best Farm, read this Washington Post article.

Of Snow and Community

On February 11, 1983, just a few months after we had moved into our newly constructed home, the Mid-Atlantic was experiencing a snowstorm for the record books. I went out with the little snowblower we had brought with us from Minnesota and cleared a walking path to the end of our 240 foot long gravel driveway. My wife and son soon joined in with snow shovels, widening the path I had made. When we got to the street we just kept going, beginning to clear a path on our street wide enough for a single vehicle.

When our neighbors saw us, they joined in. There were only about six families living in our community at the time, as the rest of the homes were still under construction and mortgage rates were astronomical. (Note: Mortgage rates, 30-year fixed, peaked in October 1982 at 18.45%.)

We didn’t stop until we had cleared all the way to the main road.

Dusa Dog the Temporary Canine Goth Fashionista

My little blind dog, Dusa, now has staples that look like zippers across the right side of her face and on the top of her head. (Staples are the new stitches.) She also has a wound on one shoulder, on a front leg and under her mouth. She has a laceration under her right eye. For the next few weeks she will be sporting the canine version of Goth fashion with multiple piercings and a large blue collar to keep her from scratching at her wounds with her hind legs. When she is sniffing around the kitchen floor and under the dinner table she will look like a strange vacuum cleaner on four legs with a wide blue attachment.

Walking Away Didn’t Help

The attack happened quickly.

We were walking in a park where we walk almost every day. This park is a large park with several athletic fields and signs saying pets must be on leashes at all times. It is not a designated “dog park” where dogs are allowed to run freely within an enclosed space. We were walking after 9 A.M. because most of the people who walk their dogs earlier in the morning allow their dogs off the leash. This is not generally true of dog owners who walk their dogs later in the day. I would say this is more an evolved tradition rather than an indication of the law abiding nature of the different groups of dog owners.

We were walking on a sidewalk by a parking lot when a married couple we had recently met a few times drove by and pulled their car into a space in the direction we were walking. Knowing that their dog is usually off his leash, Dusa and I started walking away to avoid getting too close. It has become standard practice for us to cede the right of way to dogs who are off their leash.

Here’s what happened next. The couple let their large breed dog out of the car, accompanied by a small breed dog they had been taking care of for a friend. (In my opinion, the breed of the dogs is irrelevant.) Unprovoked, at least by anything a human would understand, the small breed dog immediately came growling and charging at Dusa. Dusa responded with growling, but since I had her leash on I was able to restrain her. This, of course, didn’t do any good because the small breed dog was not restrained.

The rest is a blur, but this is for certain: The couple’s dog, a large breed dog who usually walks placidly alongside his owners carrying a blue frisbee in his mouth, followed the small breed dog and came charging and growling straight at Dusa. The next thing I knew he had Dusa’s neck and part of her head in his mouth. It was a very violent scene.

I didn’t know what to do. Pulling on Dusa’s leash was not an option while the large dog had her in his jaws. I thought of kicking and hitting the large dog to drive it off, but decided on grabbing him by his collar from behind with my left hand, because I had Dusa’s leash in my right hand. I had to get into the fight to accomplish this. Moments after I grabbed him, his owner got there and somehow got him away from Dusa.

“I Never Thought He Was Capable of Anything Like This”

It was a matter of seconds. I looked at my trembling and defeated little blind dog and saw that she had a puncture wound on her head. I told the owners of the large dog, now at a safe distance and with their pet on a leash, that I would take Dusa home and put some antiseptic on her “breaks.” I was so shook up I couldn’t think of the word “wound.” The large dog’s owners are very nice people and they were very sincerely upset and sorry about what had just happened. The man said, “I never thought he was capable of anything like this.” This struck me, because it’s approximately the same words we have all seen many times in newspaper stories about all breeds of dogs who, out of the blue, have attacked children.

Instead of going home, I went immediately to Dusa’s vet. It was then that the full extent of the damage became known and that Dusa had her wounds cleaned and stapled together. The vet said that Dusa was actually “very lucky.” I shudder to think of what “very lucky” meant.

I puzzled over some tiny punctures on one of Dusa’s front legs and realized they could have been from the small breed dog. The small breed dog was quickly forgotten once the larger dog got involved, but could have been there.

Who Is To Blame?

So, what went wrong and who is to blame?

What went wrong is the easy part, though many might reasonably disagree. The special cause of out-of-character behavior on the part of the big dog that day was the small breed dog’s actions. The big dog, normally quiet and peaceful, followed its natural instincts as a pack animal and got drawn into the fray by the small dog. If the small dog had not charged at Dusa, I’m certain the big dog would have gotten out of the car and marched on its happy way with its cherished blue frisbee in its mouth, as usual. Its owners and I would have exchanged a few pleasantries from a distance.

Who is to blame, besides the authorities who rarely enforce leash laws? In a case such as the one I’ve described, where other dogs not on their leashes charge at your leashed dog, it’s pretty certain who is at fault: the owner of the unleashed dog(s). I’ve been told that this is the case in the eyes of the law even if your dog on its leash actually starts the fight. If your dog is off its leash, you are by definition not in control of your dog.

People have encouraged me to sue and ask if I gave the other dog owners a piece of my mind. No, I did not. I don’t feel this way, though the thought did occur to me very briefly. The owners of the other dogs involved are no different from so many others. It could just as well have been the fault of many other dog owners. They all want to see their dogs romp freely and be dogs, even where leash laws are posted. I understand this and am not previously (and possibly in the future) without sin, which is why I have tried to keep from sounding self-righteous here. Most dog owners believe their dog is not capable of seriously injuring another dog because they never have, or because of their breed characteristics, or because their dog “would probably just roll over if another dog wanted to fight.”

Did Dusa “Diss” the Little Instigator?

What about Dusa? Does she have any fault? Did she bring this on herself? Did she send out a dog vibe unrecognizable to humans that “dissed” the small breed dog who instigated the whole mess? Does the fact that Dusa is quick to respond in kind and might attempt dominance if a dog in her immediate proximity snorts, growls, breathes heavily or displays any other sign of canine aggression have anything to do with it? It might, except for one thing. I have her on a leash. I have control over her. Unless I allow it, she cannot act upon her instincts. (Okay, there’s the self-righteousness you’ve been waiting for.)

I have never seen Dusa attempt (remember the leash) to charge another dog without provocation… What? This sounds familiar? Where could you have heard this before? (Smiley face.)

Note: For another blog about Dusa see bit.ly/auc6mh

The Astronomically Low Probability That You Would Be You

Each of us is all the sums he has not yet counted: subtract us into nakedness and night again, and you shall see begin in Crete four thousand years ago the love that ended yesterday in Texas.”  Thomas Wolfe, Look Homeward Angel

“Here we go again.” These are the words you should be thinking when attending a wedding. Or looking into the face of your newborn child. Or maybe even when you stare across a crowded room and lock eyes with one particular member of the opposite sex.

We are the sum of all the men and women we are descended from.

The author's great-great-grandfather, who had to survive the Civil War for there to be this author

In every generation for as far back as humans have existed, those men and women had to survive, sometimes against tremendous odds. They had to meet. The had to be available in geography and in time. They had to copulate. And someone had to sustain their offspring to maturity to keep the cycle going.

Had the soldier not survived the war. Had the trolley car not been missed. Had the college not been selected. Had the job not been offered. Had another guy asked your mother to dance first. Had “Match.com” selected different matches. Had the teenaged girl been supervised in the afternoons. Had the mother successfully avoided unwanted intercourse. Had birth control been used. Whatever might have prevented that particular man, your biological father, and that particular woman, your biological mother, from bringing together their 64+ trillion unique combinations of genes, would have resulted in there not being the you that you are.

There, but for the grace of God, go I? Not entirely true. As an old proverb says, “Breed is stronger than pasture.”

Think about your ancestors. Subtract yourself into nakedness. Do it…

Taking A Creative Risk: Commenting As A Writer

I think it’s time for me to comment on the previous post, “Enchiladas, Margaritas and Illegal Immigration,” this time as a writer.

As Greg Levin says in his comment on that post, I took a “creative risk.” The risk was that some people would not read beyond the first paragraph. This would cause one side to think I am completely in agreement with them and the other side to think I am completely bigoted. Both of these first impressions would be completely wrong, as you would see by reading all 440 words.

My main goal was to show the ambivalence of the American people towards illegal immigration by personifying it in myself. I try to give discerning readers a hint of this ambivalence in the first paragraph by contrasting the major issue of illegal immigration with the petty issues of littering and pressing “1” for English.

In the second paragraph, continuing the imagined discussion with illegal immigrants, I come to the realization that all of my feelings are not negative. Then, in the third paragraph I reveal my confused feelings with the “reprehensible, disgusting lawbreakers with adorable children” declaration and by saying I would do as they have done if in their shoes.

In the last paragraph I contrast the stereotypical symbols of Mexican culture, “enchiladas and margaritas,” with a very beautiful piece of classical music by Mexican composer Manuel Ponce.

These were my intentions and writing devices.

Enchiladas, Margaritas and Illegal Immigration

Let me get this out right off the bat. You were not invited to come here and you did not wait your turn. You jumped ahead of tens of thousands of people in other countries who are doing their paperwork and waiting years to enter the U.S. legally. You littered on the way up, for God’s sake! Do you think this is fair? And it really pisses me off that now I have to “press 1 for English,” thank you very much.

Yes, I did see the movie, “Day Without a Mexican” and I do realize what could happen if you all left at once. Yes, I know there are many jobs waiting for you when you get here and many businesses that want your labor, especially at a low price. Yes, I know that you serve honorably in our military in very high numbers. Yes, I do know that your children want badly to speak English and blend in with all the other teenagers, just the same as all previous generations of immigrants. Yes, I can see that you have a work ethic. In fact, by toiling in the lowest paid jobs and holding your heads up, you are bringing back the dignity of all honest labor. We were losing that before you crossed the river.

Actually, I love to see your teenagers who have been here a while and are so completely American, but who can speak Spanish when they want to. It makes me glad I’m an American. And I love to see you out with your families. Your kids are adorable, by the way. And when I was in that long line of people waiting for the H1N1 flu shot, I didn’t want anybody to ask you for your papers. (See “In Line for the H1N1 Flu Shot“)

So, let me sum up. I think you are reprehensible, disgusting lawbreakers with adorable children. But if I were you, I would do exactly what you have done, especially if I thought it would be best for my family. If you are here because we collectively lacked the will to keep you out and because we all have lawns that need tending and houses to be built, we are complicit. If I could wave a magic wand and send every one of you back to where you came from, I would not do it. Nor do I believe most Americans would do it, though most of us would like to get back in control of our immigration situation.

By the way, did I mention I love enchiladas and margaritas? And that song, “Estrellita” by your composer Manuel Ponce…well, who knew!