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Entries in addiction (3)


Blue Highways: Spotsylvania Courthouse, Virginia

Unfolding the Map

The events of the past three weeks, particularly with gun violence in the US, stirred me to write this post as I did.  My intent is to add to the national thought surrounding the recent tragedies, not to stoke antipathy among any readers.  Of course, I have my opinions and I share them with you as a thoughts and reflections for myself.  William Least Heat-Moon (LHM) laments the loss of boys' ability to play war.  I lament the loss of boys and girls in Newtown, Connecticut and other places because we as a society can't seem to come to terms with the violence that permeates our culture.  At right is the Virginia state bird, the Northern cardinal.

Book Quote

"Three children raced from under the oaks out over the grass to reenact the battle with guttural gunshots from their boyish throats."

Blue Highways: Part 10, Chapter 1

A memorial to Ohio soldiers killed in the Civil War battle at the Spotsylvania Court House. William Least Heat-Moon remarks on the names of some of these men in Blue Highways. Photo by "cowpie21" and hosted at Wikimedia Commons. Click on photo to go to host page.

Spotsylvania Courthouse, Virginia

As I write this past, the day after Christmas in 2012, the holiday joy has been saddened by recent gun violence that have shaken the nation and could create a sea-change in how Americans perceive and regulate gun ownership in the United States.  Or not.  I will admit that I've only chosen part of LHM's passage to fit this post.  The full quote goes on to lament that in the age of the nuclear weapons, boys who want to play at war will have to find their inspiration elsewhere.

There has been a lot of carnage over the past few weeks: twenty schoolchildren and six school staff killed by a disturbed young person who then turned his gun upon himself, in Newtown, Connecticut; firefighters lured to a fire by a deranged man, who then shot four of them as they got out of their truck and whose note said that he was doing what he loved best - killing people.

It occurs to me that boys have found other ways to inspire themselves to play at war, sometimes with tragic results.  The United States, so prudish about sex, has glorified violence to the extreme.  Movies and television have pushed the extremes of violent depictions.  The cartoon violence that I grew up with has turned into graphic depictions of throats slit, bullet wounds, spurting blood and separated body parts.  A recent study of the James Bond films has determined that seriously violent acts in the long-running series have doubled.  My wife and I recently started watching an HBO series called Game of Thrones, and we see at least three or four extremely violent acts such as beheadings and bludgeonings per episode.

Video games provide kids with another access point to violence.  First-person shooter games such as Call of Duty and Halo are extremely popular.  I am not going to moralize on the games other than to note that there are some, perhaps with addictive personalities, who spend a lot of time on these games where death simply means that one can get back up again and continue shooting or start a new game.

When these cultural influences are mixed with our gun culture in the United States, it can become a very volatile mix.  There has been much written about the interpretation, or what "should" be the interpretation, of the Second Amendment of the United States Constitution.  The actual text of the Second Amendment reads: "A well regulated militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed."  Does the right to bear arms as spelled out in the Constitution simply apply to the time when the US did not have a standing army and therefore arming volunteers was key to keeping the fledgling Unites States secure?  Or, did it intend to help the citizens of the United States defend themselves against a potentially tyrannical federal government?  Did the amendment intend to allow people to keep and bear any arms, or can the federal government infringe on some rights and not others.  Unfortunately, the answers to these questions have not been clear and our inability to come to any meaningful answers has had a direct bearing on our culture and our public and contentious moral quandary comes front and center after every new tragedy that involves the procurement and use of weapons hits the media.

I think that at the root of our problem is America's addictive personality.  We may be addicted to violence, and addicted to the tools of violence.  People who are addicted to anything, whether the addiction be to drugs, alcohol, sex, or anything else, gradually increase their tolerance and also become numb to the effects of their addiction.  An addiction over time means that those who are addicted usually want more of what they are addicted to and at the same time, are unaware of the chaos that they bring to those around them.  Often loved ones, family, and friends wring their hands over what to do to help the addicted person, and yet are afraid to confront them, fearing their erratic behavior and possible rage.  It's easier to turn away than deal with the problem, especially if the problem is also partly enabled by the behavior of those who want to help.

As I watch the debate unfold over the latest tragedies, I see addiction.  We have enshrined the right of the purveyors of violence (video games, television, movies) to continue to provide their product in the name of Constitutional free speech.  Some propose that the solution to the problem is to provide more tools of violence, weapons, to everyone or at least well-trained individuals to protect us.  To me, this is similar to a an alcoholic arguing that he or she will be okay if they just get another drink to steady their nerves.  On the other hand, nobody in the United States seems to want to confront the hard problems of addiction and mental illness.  In the 1980s, the government cut funding for services to the mentally ill and since then those who would have previously been in treatment have had to get by on their own.  When our own failings as a society are brought to light, it's often easier to blame our "gun culture" than consider some of the deeper problems we have.

I am not blind with naivete.  I grew up with guns and saw the best and worst of them.  I also grew up with addiction and to this day I'm surprised that, when these two things mingled in my family, nobody got killed.  I still remember insisting to my father that he let me carry the gun when he demanded that we go on an evening deer hunt and stumbled out of our camp and into the hills.  When my father died, the Savage Model 99 rifle, along with a shotgun for hunting quail, stayed in a closet in my mom's house until she decided to give them to a cousin.  I have a twinge of regret that they are gone, but I don't really miss them.  I benefited from having guns in the form of venison meals and quail dinners, but I realized how dangerous they could be in the hands of individuals who, for whatever reason, should not be carrying them.

As we go through another round of debates, I would encourage us to not only debate the proper use and scope of the tools of violence, but also add the deeper roots of our cultural addiction to violence to the conversation.  And I encourage us to remember the martyrs of our societal moral quandary: the Newtown 26, the Rochester firemen, the Columbine dead and wounded, the Aurora dead and wounded, the Tucson dead and wounded and all the others who have been killed in our culture of violence.

Musical Interlude

Robert Earl Keen's version of the song Sonora's Death Row is a great illustration of the tragedy that comes with combining our various forms of addiction.  The rough and wild Old West was a gun culture, and full of all of the temptations of substance and sex money could buy, and it sometimes didn't end well.


If you want to know more about Spotsylvania Courthouse

National Park Service: Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania
Spotsylvania County: Spotsylvania Courthouse
Wikipedia: The Battle of Spotsylvania Court House
Wikipedia: Spotsylvania Courthouse

Next up: Cuckoo, Virginia


Blue Highways: Klickitat, Washington

Unfolding the Map

We join William Least Heat-Moon for a barbecue with the three hang-gliders in Klickitat, Washington.  Hang-gliding is described as an addiction to risk, to put it all on the line, but to not push the envelope too far.  Sound familiarly like keeping things in balance?  I explore a little from my own experience why it seems that people from small towns might take more risks.  To locate Klickitat, fly to the map!

Book Quote

"Alba Bartholomew lived in Klickitat, a company town of seven hundred in the narrow vale of the Klickitat River.  His little frame house was like the others on the street except for the windsock blowing on the roof.  He worked at the St. Regis sawmill, where he ran a stacker.  It wasn't the most interesting of jobs.  The mill got much of its timber from the Yakima Reservation twelve miles north.  St. Regis was the reason for Klickitat, and when the Yakima's big ponderosa were gone, people feared the company would pull out and Klickitat would go the way of Liberty Bond.

"'....I think the real answer to why we fly is because it's addictive.  It's a buzz to put everything on the line.  Whenever we go up, we're subconsciously asking the most important question in the world - asking it real loud - 'Is this the day I die?'"

Blue Highways: Part 6, Chapter 8

Klickitat, Washington welcome sign. Photo by a Klickitat resident and in the public domain on Wikimedia Commons. Click on photo to go to site.

Klickitat, Washington

I'm making a little bit of a correlation in this post.  As I learned in my statistics classes, correlation is not causation.  However, one can make a few intriguing suggestions about how things may work through examining correlations.

My correlation, which I am highlighting with my pairing of the two quotes above, might or might not be apparent.  This chapter of Blue Highways is all about three guys who hang-glide.  LHM sees them, meets them, and is invited to the home of one in Klickitat to talk more about hang-gliding. I find it very interesting that LHM describes the town of Klickitat as small and with nothing much besides a dependency on a lumber mill which, if his words are any indication, may close down in some unknown but not too far off future.  (Note: the lumber mill has been closed since 1994)

Just a few paragraphs down the page, one of the hang-gliding guys talks about flying as an addiction, and the thrill of risking oneself to the point of questioning whether the risk will be the last action one ever takes.

It all makes me wonder whether there is truly a correlation between two things exemplified in these paragraphs.  Might living in a small, out of the way, dependent town, lead one to be more open to risk?

Now wait a minute, you might say.  Small towns are often a bastion of conservative values.  People in small towns may live there because there is less risk.  There is often less crime, for instance, and the closeness of small communities often shield its members from other types of risk.  I wouldn't disagree.  After all, I lived in a small town that was remarkably free of issues that plagued more populated areas.

But I wouldn't necessarily agree either.  In my small town, there was little crime, but there also were people who we considered "characters" who might have been locked up in other places.  We didn't have gangs, but we did have families with reputations as fighters who'd just as soon hit you as look at you.

I've argued before, however, that as peaceful, friendly, folksy and pastoral small towns can seem and feel, they often have a dark and sometimes violent undercurrent that is less apparent than it might be in cities.  Small towns can be dark, dysfunctional places, where alcoholism, drugs, and abuse of the emotional, physical and sexual varieties are revealed if someone cares to pull back the curtains hiding them.  I wouldn't trade my small town childhood for anything, because it taught me about the best and the worst that humanity offered.

In isolated small communities, is it any wonder that someone might find risk and danger compelling?  One interesting fact that may support my argument is that small towns and rural areas are overrepresented in the US military.  In 2005, the Heritage Foundation examined U.S. Census data and found that rural areas are overrepresented in the military as compared to urban areas.  While there are most likely many factors that contribute to this statistic, including that rural areas tend to be poorer with less opportunities for employment of young people than urban areas and that there is a higher percentage of conservative-minded people who may view military service in a patriotic sense, I also think that a desire to undertake risk as a way to break free of convention might serve as an additional motivating factor.  The desires that drive young people in cities to gather at Occupy protests currently around the country, to assert themselves in a cause that they can rally around and believe in with like minded people in a structured way, may also come from the same psychological place that encourages young people in rural areas to join the military and do service.  Both choices offer a set of risks and rewards.

When I lived in a rural area, there always seemed to be a number of young people who were always willing to risk.  You probably find the same thing in cities but in small towns it stands out a lot more.  These were kids who were on the forefront of experimenting with drugs, alcohol and sex.  Of course, a lot of us did those things, but small town kids always seemed to take it one step farther.  Some of them paid dearly for their risk-taking.  Alcohol maimed and took the lives of more than one young man and woman when it was mixed with driving.  Somehow, rural areas the loss of someone young is extremely tragic because it is so noticeable, so out in the open, and the grief of parents is on display and not lost or buried in a newspaper column in the back page - it is most likely going to be on the front page of the local paper.

Despite the tragedies, we teens in small towns still too risks.  Why?  Because there was little to do in a small town on the Northern California coast, just as there was little to do after hours in a midwestern plains town, or a town in the South, or a small mountain town.  We took risks because we were young, we wanted to impress the girls/boys, and we wanted to feel like we were in control of our own destinies.  We wanted to feel like we were making our own decisions, even if they were bad decisions.

Today, as an adult of 47, I understand better the idea of risk and reward.  I could, if I wanted to, take hang-gliding lessons which would be a somewhat dangerous but understandable way of taking a risk.  I could do a parachute jump.  I could get a motorcycle to ride the open road or devote my time to mountain climbing or spelunking.  All of these are dangerous but they are considered hobbies that involve an adult's choice.  In those activities, I might still catch a little of the thrill I got by stepping outside the boundaries imposed on me as a teenager.  After all, when all is said and done, humans don't really belong in the sky any more than they belong on a speeding piece of open machinery on an asphalt road or rapelling down into the bowels of the earth.  We do it to push the envelope, to test our limits.  No matter what, we are always like children in that very few of us can ever leave anything just as it is and be content.

Musical Interlude

What's the opposite of taking risks?  Why, it's never doing anything.  As is usual, we find in LHM's travels and quotes that life is a balance, this time between risk and safety.  It's neither good to be a total risk taker.  But, as the Barenaked Ladies point out in their song Never Do Anything, neither is it healthy to never risk nor accomplish anything.

If you want to know more about Klickitat

Klickitat Horizons Community Blog
Klickitat Mineral Springs
Wikipedia: Klickitat

Next up: Dallesport, Washington


Blue Highways: Lake Charles, Louisiana

Unfolding the Map

Click on Thumbnail for MapUp over the bridge, the lake curving under us with smoky refineries and a gleaming casino at the water's edge.  We'll pass right by Lake Charles, and head north with William Least Heat-Moon toward Shreveport.  Click on the map thumbnail to see where we are located now.

Book Quote

"At Lake Charles, another sinuous parabola of bridgeway, an aerial thing curving about so I could see its underside as I went up.

"The city stretched below in a swelter of petrochemical plants and wharves. I got through only with effort and pressed north to state 27."

Blue Highways: Chapter 3, Part 14

Lake Charles, Louisiana. Photo hosted at Click on photo to go to host site.

Lake Charles, Louisiana

Lake Charles was always a little bit of a mystery to me when I passed by it a couple of times on the way to and from New Orleans from Texas.  The freeway, I-10, would suddenly rise on a bridge over the lake.  On the shore to the south, petrochemical plants smoked away and there, in the midst of the plants was a large casino.

It seemed to me to encapsulate the major addictions of the American psyche.  One addiction, our constant need for petroleum and petroleum-based products, is pretty apparent.  Where would America be economically if we didn't use the 25% of the world's oil that we use?  (That percentage puts U.S. use first among all nations by a wide margin.  The country next on the usage list, China, uses only nine percent of the world's oil.)  Most of our usage goes to automobiles, so our oil addiction feeds our addiction to auto travel.  I'm not saying this is bad - I certainly wouldn't be where I am today without access to a vehicle.  However, I'm saying that one day the gravy train will end as oil is such a finite resource, and coming off of our addictions will be a hard withdrawal.

Our addiction to oil makes it possible for Americans to travel to places like Lake Charles, or Gulf Coast Mississippi, or to various Indian reservations, to feed another addiction, gambling.  It makes it possible even for us to visit the grandaddy of all places devoted to cashing in on addictions, Las Vegas.  As a country, we love to gamble!  In 2004, it was estimated that 54.1 million Americans visited casinos (  Of course, the recent economic troubles in the United States have cut deeply into our ability to both travel, because fuel costs more and even addicts will cut back a little on their habit if money is tight.  The casinos, and really, everything associated with leisure and entertainment, has been hit very hard in the recession.  So, I can't imagine that times are really good in places like Lake Charles right now.  Places that depend on these industries will do well when the times are good, but really take a hit when times are tough.

I didn't ever stop in Lake Charles, but know a person who grew up there.  She is the wife of a graduate school colleague of mine, and they would make many trips from New Orleans to Lake Charles to visit her family.  They now live in Houston, a little closer to Lake Charles, and I'm assuming they get to see family a little more often now.

Nellie Lutcher, a pioneer R&B and jazz pianist who was well known especially in Los Angeles where she often played in joints on Central Avenue, recorded a song about her hometown.  The song is called the Lake Charles Boogie.  I give it to you here, from YouTube, for your listening pleasure.  It's not every place that can inspire some fine rhythm and blues!

If you want to know more about Lake Charles

City of Lake Charles
Lake Charles American Press (newspaper)
Lake Charles Convention and Visitors Bureau
Wikipedia: Lake Charles

Next up: Rosepine, Anacoco, Hornbeck and Zwolle, Louisiana