Got Them Smart Balance Blues

On our recent Minnesota trip, we stopped in St. Paul to see daughter Maja, who is recovering from a prolonged and serious illness. The visit was a short one because she tires easily, but we were able to attend the local farmer’s market and have a lovely lunch together.

When I was young, I didn’t think much about parenthood, not really. It was something that happened to a person almost accidentally. Where you had these children, you fed them, clothed and sheltered them, and dithered about them more or less constantly. Eventually the children would grow up and move away, and then you would go back to what you were doing before all of this occurred. That’s what I naively thought it would be.

Not so. It turns out that you are always the parent, as long as you live. And while your own parents are still alive, you are always the child as well. When Maja first became ill, she was living in Peru, and Peru was in lockdown because of Covid. No one was allowed into the country. Fortunately she received excellent medical care, and some of our anxiety back here in the States was allayed by episodic reports from her caregivers.

But in a way, it was similar to having a child fighting in a war zone thousands of miles away. You knew their life was being threatened, but so far away and so little you could do.

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Cartoonist/satirist Garry Trudeau has been doing his thing for fifty years. I have been enjoying him for exactly that long. During the era of the Viet Nam War, his was often one of those lonely voices of sanity crying: What are we doing here?

Viet Nam Blues, by J.B. Lenoir

There is a consistent thread through his career, and that is concern for the men and women who serve in our armed forces. The U.S. has a long history of praising these folks when we need them, and forgetting about them when the shooting stops.

This strip is an example of Trudeau’s pro-veteran writings. Humorous, insightful, and rueful all at once. (Here is more to read about RTM.)

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Battle fatigue, shell shock, combat disorder, operational disorder, combat neurosis, PTSD. All of these are terms that have been used over time trying to classify and describe what happens to a normal man or woman who has been in a combat situation. What they all point to is that being under fire and doing what must be done to survive changes people in ways that are not visible, but are very, very common.

How could it not be so? War is such a pathologic situation, that even preparing for it is mind-altering. One goes from a world where killing another human is forbidden except under the most dire circumstances, to one where it is expected that you will do so, and you are trained in the multitude of ways that this can be accomplished.

If we are serious about making a difference in the lives of these warriors, we need stop saying that “if you have a problem, come and see us.” We need instead to start with the premise that we know that what we have asked them to do changed them. A little or a lot, but changed them. Then make help available in adjusting to civilian life, to all.

Here’s a well-known philosopher discussing how language can obscure rather than illuminate.

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Gather ’round children, and I will tell you a tale of a giant, about a foolish thing that it did, and the wonderful events that happened when The People rose up against it. A tale of overreach and of hope.

Once upon a time there was (still is, actually) a giant whose name was ConAgra. ConAgra made food for The People and put it in packages so that it could be sold everywhere. Most folks never gave the origins of that food a thought, and they were not aware that it came from the giant at all.

One of these products was called Smart Balance, and was a spread used to make bread easier to eat and not get stuck in your throat. It was tasty and seemed a good and fairly healthy thing to put in your stomach. Until this past September, that is, when millions of The People who had been eating this stuff regularly noticed that it had changed. It didn’t taste as good, it didn’t melt as well on your toast, and when you tried to fry an egg with it there was a barrage of spatter that came from the pan.

So The People rose up, took their pens and computers and wrote angry letters to the giant, saying all sorts of unpleasant things and threatening to stop buying Smart Balance at all. They were upset and articulate, which are two things that giants seem to really dislike.

Then Conagra sat in its cavernous hall and pondered the situation. It had changed the spread to save a little money, but now it seemed that might not have been the best idea they’d ever had. It saw only three things it could do to get out of the mess that it had created:

  • Deny that anything had changed and that The People were full of beans
  • Admit that they had changed the stuff, but it was for the good of The People and they should be grateful
  • Admit that they had made a bonehead play and were going back to the old formulation of the product

Surprisingly, for giants are not particularly fond of admitting mistakes, ConAgra backed down and said that they would get the old spread back on the shelves as quickly as they could.

And The People rejoiced and were glad.

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News of the drying-up of the Mississippi River has finally reached Paradise. Stories of landmarks and of trading ships are testimony to the severity of the problem. I read of a young lad named Huckleberry Finn who had been preparing to take a cruise down to the Gulf with a friend of his, but has put the trip on hold because his raft might not have shallow enough draft to get there.

He seemed quite put out about the whole thing.

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Rain in the Valley, by The Steel Wheels

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