Guns or butter, Bread and butter, Bread and roses, Guns ‘n’ roses

When I was growing up, playing with (toy) guns was daily reality. I had a pair of six-shooters, a white hat, cowboy boots, and spurs that jingle, jangle, jingle. Later I got a Fanner 50, then a Rifleman rifle.

We usually shot imaginary bad guys. The TV shows we watched (Gunsmoke, The Rifleman, Bat Masterson, Wyatt Earp) didn’t involve shooting Indians. The bad guys were usually white settlers like us.

We didn’t usually shoot each other, as that involved too much argument/negotiation – “I got you!” “No, you missed!” “Did not!” “Well, you just winged me!” Then I’d have to pull out my red bandana, fold it into a sling, tie the knot with my teeth, and play one-handed for a while.

Our parents gave us weapons for Easter. My sister and I in a gunfight.

We had a backyard shack that served as a hideout, fort, or saloon to fit the scene we enacted. We were too young to realize that Miss Kitty was a madam and all those saloon girls were prostitutes, so they didn’t figure in our adventures.

When we went to the doctor and got a shot, we’d wear a sling and pretend we’d been shot in the arm. If it didn’t actually hurt (only tetanus shots hurt), we’d punch each other in the arm to make it hurt so it felt more real.

I also had an M1 with wooden stock, steel barrel, and rubber bayonet. The next door neighbor dug a foxhole in his garden so we could hide out to shoot Germans. We threw dirt clods as grenades. Our WW II education was mostly from the TV show “Combat!”, which took place in Europe, so we never fought the Japanese. I had a helmet and olive drab fatigues.

Most of my toy guns were cap guns for realistic noises. Since caps cost money, we usually made noises with our mouths instead. Caps were a special treat. The kids who could make the best shooting sounds were admired. My M1 replica had a metal strip in it so, when you pulled the trigger, it made a clicking sound like a dog training clicker. This meant no money need be spent on caps and we could save our mouth noises for exploding grenades. As for shooting real projectiles, I had a pump action gun that shot ping pong balls and a dart gun that shot ducks on a rotating tripod. While I inherited a couple of BB guns from older sibs, I hardly ever shot them. They tell me that dad set up a range in the dining room of our old house and they shot there. We moved out of that house when I was a year old and the new house didn’t have an acceptable shooting gallery. The back yard was forbidden for that.

When I became a conscientious objector and met with a draft counselor, he asked about my history with guns and if I’d thought about what I would do if I had children. We discussed how kids can make a gun out of anything, so forbidding toy guns may just drive gun play underground. He told me of a family that treated their house like a saloon in some of the old westerns, where you had to check your guns at the door. That way their kids, and all the neighborhood kids, would be a bit more conscious, but firearms could still be incorporated into their play. When the time came, my kids had little interest in playing with guns.

Real guns

Real guns didn’t enter my life until later. My best childhood friend moved away. I went to visit him and we went outside with a BB gun – he and I and his neighbor. The neighbor shot a songbird. We saw it fall from the tree; all of us astonished that he’d hit it. As we bent over the dead bird with one missing eye (an amazing shot), I felt sad. The excitement of hitting something was replaced by the realization of the senselessness of it. We had killed without reason. I did not enjoy the rest of the visit.

When I was 18 I worked a job with overnight shifts. I was in the office with one other person. Just before quitting time, several things happened in close succession. I felt the heat of something passing closely over my forearm. I felt the sting of bits of plaster striking my arm from the wall just behind me. I heard a gunshot. I saw my co-worker, .32 caliber revolver in hand, with a shocked look on his face. I looked at the hole in the wall and realized he missed me by about an inch. I hadn’t known he was armed.

Later that same day we were hanging out at someone’s house, drowsy after our sleepless night. I was reading. I was roused by the sound of a gunshot. I looked up and saw an acquaintance with a neat little hole in his chest, just to the left of center. A shocked look was on his face, matched by the look on the face of the person facing him with a gun in her hand. She later told me she pointed it at me first but, since I didn’t look up, she turned and aimed at R as he came through the doorway. That got a better reaction.

R headed straight for the stairs and down to the street. I caught up with him and a voice from behind yelled, “Make him lie down and wait for the ambulance!” I soon heard sirens. When I asked where he was going, he said he knew where my car was parked, so he was walking to my car, figuring I would follow him there and drive him to the hospital.

After exploratory surgery and removal of the bullet, he returned to his parents’ home in another state to recuperate. He was recovering slowly, since they had cut open his ribs to trace the bullet’s path to check for damage. (It had grazed his aorta and punctured his lung in several places as it rattled around inside him, bouncing off ribs both front and rear.) I moved out of state and it was much later that I learned no one had been charged in the shooting. The shooter was a minor, as was the victim. The weapon owner was a paid informant for the police and FBI, so she was not charged. The person who had nearly shot me that morning was also a paid informant, so he was also not charged (having been the person who left a loaded weapon accessible to minors). It seems the lack of charges should have blown their covers, but I wasn’t around so I don’t know how they explained that. The upshot is that people being paid to keep track of potential violence on the left and in the anti-war movement (this being 1971) were actually responsible for the only violence that affected me personally.

A year or two later I was at the home of another acquaintance who wanted to show me something he had just gotten. It was a .45 caliber semi-automatic pistol. I started to shake. He removed the magazine, inspected the weapon, then tried to hand it to me. I left instead.

Another year went by. I was at a friend’s house and we were in the backyard. Over the fence I saw folks in the next backyard. One was the former co-worker from above. He had a firearm in hand. I told my friend I was going inside and would explain when we got there. I did not want him to see and greet me, thinking I was his friend, nor did I want to witness another “accident”.

So that’s one reason I’m not a big fan of firearms or unfettered access to them. [For those who would recoil if I were to compare the requirements to operate a car vs operate a firearm, by pointing to the second amendment to the Constitution, let me just emphasize the beginning of that amendment, the part that people conveniently ignore: “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.”] As for whether toy guns inure us to violence and lead to real violence later on, I’ll leave that to someone else to figure out. Didn’t work that way with me.

TV Violence

is another topic too big for me, but we’ll touch on it anyway. I am currently studying the history of the cold war with Professor Alfred McCoy. We’re looking at the CIA’s change from gathering intelligence (its original mission under President Truman) to covert operations (under Director Allen Dulles during the Eisenhower and Kennedy presidencies). Lest you beatify the Kennedy brothers (President Jack and AG Bobby), it was on their watch that the CIA expanded its covert ops – from 170 major operations in 8 years under Eisenhower to 163 of them in 3 years under the Kennedys. See “Legacy of Ashes: The History of the CIA” by Tim Weiner (2007).

It was in this environment that we were greeted with the TV show “Mission: Impossible” in 1966. The IMF (Impossible Missions Force) was a covert operation that took down enemy governments in the way the real CIA took down elected governments in Greece, Guatemala, Iran, the Congo, and Chile; and attempted for years to overthrow the Cuban government, including multiple plots to assassinate Fidel Castro (with poisons in his food, exploding cigars, prostitute assassins, a Mafia hit order, etc), not to mention an armed invasion.

In 2001 (the year of the World Trade Center bombing), when the US needed to justify torture, “extraordinary rendition” (kidnapping for the purpose of torture to be carried out in secret sites), and “enhanced interrogation techniques” (torture), we were presented with the TV series “24”. The premise was a fascinating one – a series that took place in real time – each of 24 one hour episodes covered one hour of a single day. Each season used the “ticking time bomb scenario”. This is a philosophical/moral question in which you are asked, “If a person has knowledge of an imminent threat and will only give up the information if tortured, is torture justified?” You can probably guess the show’s answer. There is one glaring problem in the scenario: torture doesn’t work. People who are tortured will tell interrogators what they think said torturers want to hear in order to stop the torture. Truth has little to do with it. This has been covered extensively by Professor McCoy in works such as “A Question of Torture : CIA interrogation, from the Cold War to the War on Terror” (2006) and “Torture and Impunity: The U.S. Doctrine of Coercive Interrogation” (2012).

When we are greeted with real news footage of police killing people during traffic stops, TV responds with more cop shows than I can name or count, showing officers as always the good guys, looking out for Special Victims and going the extra mile to stop the bad guys, using the latest technology. Any time they use violence, it is justified. There is the occasional “bad apple” to make a plot point, but he is quickly rooted out by the good guys. If real cops shot as many people as TV cops do…

TV police shows have the subtle side effect of normalizing what we see. Every week on every show, bad things happen and the police save us. Soon we start to see the world that way. Bad things happen every day. We begin to think that violent crime is much more prevalent than it actually is. We welcome intrusion into our private lives to protect us from that violent crime. We think the police always shoot the right person. The charged are always convicted, the convicted are always guilty. We like to think we are too sophisticated to be fooled by this but the statistics tell a different story. Per the University of Michigan School of Law, more than 3200 previously-convicted people have been exonerated since 1989. (The Innocence Project was founded in 1992.) 134 of them had been sentenced to death.

What we see from the two graphs above is that crime (both property crime and violent crime) has been on a downswing for the past 30 years, while we believe that crime is on the upswing – with the caveat that we tend to believe crime is up nationally, but not so much where we live. That certainly looks like TV is working. By showcasing crime, we believe that crime is on the increase and, therefore, increasing surveillance and policing is a good thing. It also shows that we have some knowledge of where we live and we know that what we believe isn’t true in our own lives – or that we think we live in a great city and the rest of the country is going to hell in a handbasket.

And, of course, TV cops solve all crimes. The same Pew study shows that fewer than half of all crimes are reported, and fewer than half of those reported are solved.

Just in case you didn’t know why “Bread and Roses” was in there with those other phrases.

If I only had a brain

I spent a good chunk of the day in a PET scanner. They were looking for markers of Alzheimer’s Disease. When it was over, they assured me they saw no brain. On the other hand, I’ll glow in the dark for a few hours from the radioactive tracers they injected in a vein. Since it’s a sunny day, no one will notice.

I just received a certificate (Suitable for Framing) thanking me for 20 years of participation in a longitudinal study of the children of people with Alzheimer’s Disease. That means there is money to study this. In high school I was in a longitudinal study that was to follow us every five years for the rest of our lives. The funding ran out before the first follow-up. I only learned that when I happened to take a course with one of the principal investigators 25 years later.

The Alzheimer’s study started with a series of cognitive tests repeated every few years to see if they could detect changes sooner if they were looking for them (and looking for more subtle changes than one might see in daily life), and to see if the children of folks with SDAT (Senile Dementia of the Alzheimer’s Type) deteriorate faster than the general population. (In other words, if my dad had SDAT, am I more likely to get it than you, if neither of your parents had it?) Over the years they have added studies. I’m in another to see if there is a correlation between aerobic fitness and cognitive function. The one I took part in today is to see if they can see changes in the brain before they see changes in performance.

While we don’t know how to prevent, cure, nor treat this disease, these studies may help down the road. If we develop means to prevent, cure, or treat the disease, knowing who is at the greatest risk of developing it, and recognizing it in the early stages, will guide those treatments.

They fed me lunch since I was there much of the day and one of the tracers needed an hour to worm its way into my brain (and it arrived shielded in a cool tungsten cylinder inside of a special box). The good news is this study was the day before I started serious dietary restrictions for a screening colonoscopy. (Totally unrelated, just one of those things you get to do once per decade after you turn 50.) For three days I can’t eat anything good for me. (No whole grains, beans, seeds, raw vegetables, fruits with skins or seeds.) Then comes the fun part – a clear liquid diet for a day (the liquids can’t be red or purple, so I guess Scotch and tequila are okay), GoLytely for two hours (followed by diarrhea for the next several hours), then more GoLytely from 1-2 AM and nothing else after that. At 6 AM, a 7 mile bike ride to the Digestive Health Center for the study. (The second dose of GoLytely starts 6 hours before the procedure.) Someone else has to drive me home, but that someone isn’t up at 6 AM. They’ll pick me and the bike up and take us home to sleep.

I haven’t been able to find out who named GoLytely, but I admire them. It is a multi-level joke. You don’t go lightly at all. It completely evacuates your bowel so your colon is clean enough to eat out of. (Don’t try that at home.) It also contains electrolytes so as not to dehydrate you or mess with your cardiac rhythm when you poop out all of the electrolytes you had in you when you started. Everyone complains about the taste but, really, it’s no worse than Gatorade. It’s sweet and salty. Of course, I have said more than once in these pages that Gatorade is best suited to pouring over a winning football coach’s head, so take that with a grain of salt; or a gallon of GoLytely, which is how much you have to drink – 3 quarts over a 2 hour period, drain that over the next few hours, then another quart 7 hours after finishing the first 3. That, of course, means a night without sleep, since between finishing the first 3 quarts at 6 PM and starting the last quart at 1 AM, you’re busy with the first three quarts running through you and taking with it anything in the way. I recommend scheduling your colonoscopy in the afternoon.

GoLytely is polyethylene glycol, NOT to be confused with ethylene glycol, which is antifreeze. One will make you poop for hours. The other will kill you.

Imperialism for breakfast

In 1978, Ernest Feder published “Strawberry Imperialism”, a study of the transformation of Mexico from corn and beans grown by subsistence farmers to feed local markets, to corporate farms producing strawberries and other fresh produce for export to the United States. The book was originally published in 1977 as “El Imperialismo Fresa: Una Investigación Sobre Los Mecanismos de la Dependencia en la Agricultura Mexicana” and, as a Spanish Language Learner in Cuernavaca, Morelos, Mexico in 1982, it was the first important work I read in my new language. I re-read it for this post.

In 2022, Ruth Conniff published “Milked: How an American Crisis Brought together Midwestern Dairy Farmers and Mexican Workers”, an examination of rampant consolidation in the dairy industry and how that industry meets its labor needs. Reading it inspired me to re-read Feder.

So what does it mean about your strawberries and milk for breakfast?

Image from Lolly Jane

America’s Dairyland was home to nearly 16,000 dairy farms in 2004. Fifteen years later, ⅔ of those farms were gone. In 1993 there were 30,000 dairy farms, so nearly half of those were already gone in 2004. A 1998 paper “The Changing Face of Wisconsin Dairy Farms: A Summary of PATS’ Research on Structural Change in the 1990s” looked at the size of herds broken down into five categories, with the largest being 200+. By 2022, Conniff was looking at 1000 as the cut point for large herds. While she may focus on the last 15 years, the crisis has been decades in the making.

America’s Dairyland still leads the US in cheese production, but California produces more fluid milk. California has almost 50% more cows on 1/10 as many farms.

To match the US farm labor crisis, Mexico had a farming crisis of its own. In the aftermath of NAFTA, corn prices plummeted as the US flooded Mexico with cheap corn. While Wisconsin had many small dairy farms, Mexico had many small corn, bean, and squash farms. 900,000 farming jobs were lost in Mexico in the decade after NAFTA was signed. The US shipped cheap corn to Mexico and Mexico shipped cheap labor to the US, sometimes in the same containers, according to John Peck of Family Farm Defenders.

One might argue that this is a win-win, but one would have to ignore the growing dependence on chemical farming and depletion of topsoil, the exploitation of undocumented workers, increasing need for antibiotics on farms, and the problem of what do with tons of manure. Cows in concentrated farming operations (CAFOs, or Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations – note that they don’t even call them farms) produce too much manure to spread on fields safely – it ends up stored on site (where it can wash away in heavy rains) or spread too thickly on fields, where runoff causes contamination of both ground and surface water.

Conniff traveled to meet Wisconsin dairy farmers and their undocumented workers, then spent a year living in Mexico, where she met with the families of those workers. [Interviews conducted in Spanish were translated by the author. The native language of some of the workers is Nahuatl, but they all spoke some Spanish.] Oftentimes, once one person is established in Wisconsin, other family members and neighbors migrate to the same farm, sending money back home to support families, build houses, and start businesses. Wisconsin gets the labor it needs to run large dairy operations and Mexico gets capital to build houses and start small businesses. Sounds good, eh? Just one problem – it is all illegal.

Conniff touches on the irony of Trump-supporting farmers who rely exclusively on undocumented immigrant workers to run their operations. While US law allows temporary work visas to migrant workers to come for a harvest season, there is no legal means for a farmworker to immigrate here to work year-round on a dairy farm. The stereotype is that these undocumented workers “steal” jobs from US-born workers. The reality is that farmers can’t find US-born workers to work the long hours at low wages that the dairy industry relies upon. Milking used to be done twice daily and is now routinely a 3 times/day chore. That means long hours and/or multiple shifts. Even the children of dairy farmers tend to eschew the work of their parents.

My personal involvement in this world was treating many farm workers for on-the-job injuries, from things such as being stomped, kicked or thrown by bovines, to slipping and falling into the large fans that move air through a dairy barn. Most are not insured and don’t qualify for Medicare or Medicaid. Few of them spoke English, making the process of being hospitalized scarier, especially when one lacks documents to be here. Their bills are written off as “charity cases”, but that doesn’t mean that hospital billing departments don’t try to squeeze blood from a turnip to collect. (One of the best parts of my job was I didn’t care whether or not the hospital got paid – I only cared if people got better and went home.)

I also found that, when I spoke with farmers about their work, those who worked their own farms had almost universally given up milking cows and switched to beef or cash crops. A dairy farmer cannot take a vacation, even a day off. Unless you are big enough to hire others to do much of the work, it has become too much. Farmers of my generation want to slow down, and most don’t have kids who want to go into the business.

Forty years earlier, Ernest Feder looked at the forerunner of this problem – a pre-NAFTA world, but one where US capital was already taking over Mexican agriculture. He begins by saying he isn’t “interested in the strawberry industry as such. It serves as an example of the domination of the agricultural sector by capital and foreign technology”. He quotes an unnamed businessman about a world in which “everyone is fucking over everyone else, with the objective that none of this enters the public consciousness”. [All translations by hfcc.]

By this time, Mexican agriculture was already well on the way from an indigenous agriculture to meet local needs to an export-oriented agriculture to meet luxury wants in the US. He notes that US capital controlled:

  1. all factors of production (what to grow, how to grow it)
  2. the prices of those factors
  3. production processes
  4. marketing processes
  5. return on investment and how those returns are distributed.

As a result, the Mexican agricultural system was already developing into an arm of the US agricultural system, with essential decisions made outside of the country’s borders, for the benefit of others. Thus, the way was already being paved for the post-NAFTA invasion of US corn to further disrupt the Mexican farming economy. Feder rightly refers to the process as the “colonization of Mexican agriculture”.

Communally-controlled lands (ejidos) were taken over by industrial agricultural firms under foreign control under the guise of increasing efficiency. Feder notes “the myth”, perpetrated by these controlling interests, that “big business is more efficient than small farms”. He notes that “numerous economic studies have shown that small producers in Mexico are as efficient, if not more so, than large producers.”

Feder notes that prices were controlled by the processors so, when harvest was in full swing, processors would tell small producers that they had more product than they could handle, so they offered a reduced price. The farmer had the choice of taking less money or dumping the crop. Even when farmers had a contract with the packing house, the contract contained an out where the packinghouse could reject a crop at their sole judgement. (While this can be reasonable, in that poor quality and unsellable crops could be rejected, he quotes a local observer that “the packers robbed the farmers without modesty”.)

Mexico was the testing ground for the “green revolution” – a movement sold as a means to end world hunger, but actually a means to extend US agricultural dominance to the world – by selling patented seeds that required further inputs (fertilizers, pesticides) also purchased from the same large US-based firms. This ultimately led to Monsanto suing midwestern farmers for “stealing” their patented GMOs when Monsanto seed invaded neighboring fields. Monsanto has since agreed not to sue if farmers can prove that their possession of Monsanto seed is inadvertent and minimal. That doesn’t change the fact that said farmer cannot sell a crop as organic if it contains GMOs.

Image from Civil Eats

I must admit that, after decades of reading scientific papers, I read Feder’s work with a more jaundiced eye than I did 40 years ago. He raises questions and casts doubt, but makes unsupported claims. In discussing price fixing, he shows statistics demonstrating that prices paid to farmers were discounted at the peak of harvest, but adds “in reality, the official statistics underestimate the real discounts…” (How do we know this reality? Because he said so.)

This is not to say that Feder’s analysis is wrong – just that it is difficult to prove. His long history of scholarship in this arena lends him the benefit of the doubt. His evidence fits an established pattern.

Any analysis of fresh produce is made difficult by the nature of the product – it is highly perishable and relies on appearance for sales. Thus, a product may be nutritionally fine but unsellable to a market trained for visual perfection. When prices are set by supply and demand, they will go down at the peak of the harvest, when supplies are plentiful. To prove abuse of the system is difficult and requires analysis of trends over time and accounting for qualitative variables.

He makes a good case regarding the overestimation of the benefits to Mexico of the strawberry industry, noting that job creation is wildly overestimated by ignoring the short season. He also notes that the pay to strawberry pickers and packinghouse workers is much lower in Mexico than in the US, so even this benefit accrues more to the industry than to the workers. Feder quotes a local observer that “the strawberry is a poverty magnet”. People relocate for short-term jobs and end up living in the streets or spending their pay on transportation back home every night. Cities swell with short-term residents and services can’t keep up.

Those short-term workers take jobs without knowing the pay or benefits, as asking results in the response “We don’t have work for you today”. When there is work, it is under dangerous conditions. The Zamora Herald noted that “a high percentage of farmworkers suffer pesticide poisoning. Symptoms include fainting, vomiting, headache…after using insecticides without adequate protection…often with fatal results.”

While Feder’s information is not current, I use it to illustrate the continuing pattern of the abuse of Mexican farmworkers in both Mexico and the United States (just as he uses strawberries as an illustration of a larger pattern). He notes that “foreign capitalists like to argue that the transfer of capital and technologies to underdeveloped nations improves the working conditions. The processing of strawberries is an example of the falsity of that argument.” He reports 18 hour days (standing at a large table in a cold packinghouse with 80 others and not being allowed to talk) are common during peak times. While the specific abuses may be different, the pattern is unchanging.

So what is the future of agriculture and how do we feed the world? Is the family farm just a colorful relic of America’s past? Is industrial farming the only way to feed 8 or 10 billion people? Or can a return to a locally-based, chemical-free agrarian system save our soil before we deplete it completely, and provide us with enough nutritious food to sustain us? Stay tuned.

1830 the world’s population was One billion
1930  2 billion. (doubled in 100 years)
1960 3 billion
1975  4 billion. (doubled in 45 years)
1987  5 billion
1998  6 billion
2011 7 billion
2022 8 billion (doubled in 47 years).

About the authors: While you know the half-fast cycling club blogger as a half-fast bicyclist and retired health care worker, he worked with Young World Development under the auspices of the American Freedom from Hunger Foundation half a century ago (okay, a little more than that, but who’s counting?), so food and land use issues have been on his mind for a while. At the time “Strawberry Imperialism” was published, he was Produce Manager of the largest grocery coop in the midwestern United States and worked with the Farm Labor Organizing Committee. He has lived in America’s Dairyland for 60 of the last 70 years. So while he may be full of hot air, he came by that hot air honestly. He is currently home sick, which makes reading and writing a better use of his time than going out in 36º (2º C) drizzle to ride a bike.

Ruth Conniff is a journalist in Madison, Wisconsin. Former editor of The Progressive magazine, she is now editor of the Wisconsin Examiner. Her work has also appeared in the Nation, New York Times, Los Angeles Times, Washington Post, and Isthmus of Madison.

Ernest Feder was a rural economist from Germany who wrote extensively on land use in Latin America. His books include Feudalism and Agricultural Development: The Role of Controlled Credit in Chile’s Agriculture, Perverse Development, Dairy Dilemma, Social Opposition to Peasant Movements and Its Effects in Latin America, Lean Cows–fat Ranchers: The International Ramifications of Mexico’s Beef Cattle Industry, and The Rape of the Peasantry: Latin America’s Landholding System. The titles alone make me want to read more of his work.

Forgetting where your keys are, or forgetting what your keys are?

One of the definitions of Alzheimer’s Disease is that it is normal to forget where you put your keys. It is not normal to find your keys and not know what they’re for.

My father died of Alzheimer’s Disease (AD, also known as SDAT – Senile Dementia of the Alzheimer’s Type) at age 78. He recognized no one around him. My mom, on the other hand, died at age 93. She not only knew who I was, but knew that, since it was Monday, it was my day off and that was why I could be with her all day. The fact that she was dying went unsaid. She died just as it got dark that evening.

How does one die of Alzheimer’s Disease? Forgetfulness goes beyond just “what are these things for?” to forgetting how to chew and swallow. The immediate cause may be dehydration or malnutrition but the ultimate cause is the disease. My father’s autopsy report mentioned cardiac arrest and multiple organ system failure…duh. He died when his heart stopped beating, not really because it stopped beating. He could have remained alive longer with IV fluids and a feeding tube, but to what end? He had made that decision long before, as have I. If you have not done it yet, write an Advance Directive – a document that specifies what care you want (and don’t want) in the event of a terminal condition. I know – you don’t want to think about that. Death happens to other people. Guess what? It happens to all of us. But you’re not old. Guess what? Not everyone dies of “old age”. Ultimately, there is one terminal condition in life – it is birth.

Alzheimer’s is only definitively diagnosed after death, from examining the brain. In his case, they even left that out until we demanded an addendum to the report. They had examined his brain but neglected to include those findings in the report. With research, we may be able to diagnose the disease short of death; maybe even treat, cure, or prevent it.

An aside: you may notice that “cure” is a rarity in medical science. We tend to “treat” disease by administering medications to control symptoms – medications that often must be taken for life and at great cost. We don’t “cure” a whole lot of diseases. The cynical among us may say that there is little profit in cure and a lot of profit in lifelong treatment.

Prevention of SDAT may well hinge on a lot of the same factors as many diseases – eat well, sleep well, stay physically active, control blood pressure (and have the right genes).

The PBS series Nova produced a documentary on the WRAP (Wisconsin Registry for Alzheimer’s Prevention) study. It is an hour well worth your time. There were damp cheeks in the program, on both sides of the screen.

The project enrolls the children of people diagnosed with AD (and a control group of people without a familial history) and follows them longitudinally. Every few years, participants complete a lengthy questionnaire (with another completed about them by someone who knows them well) and complete a lengthy battery of neurocognitive tests. Additional optional studies include MRI, functional MRI, and PET scans; lumbar punctures; and treadmill testing.

As a test subject, some of this is difficult, as it involves testing to failure. How long a digit span can you recite backward after hearing it once? You get longer and longer spans until you fail. How steeply can you walk up a treadmill at a set speed? You go until you can’t.

Can we see changes in brain structure and function before one develops symptoms of the disease? Does cardiorespiratory fitness delay or prevent onset of disease? Can we see biomarkers of disease in the brain or the cerebrospinal fluid prior to recognizable disease onset? If so, can we address those markers and influence the disease path? These are a few of the questions the study aims to answer.

What’s it to you? Research shows the children of those with AD are more likely to contract it themselves. My father, his brother, sister, and mother all died of AD. On my maternal side, I have questions about a couple of aunts. But you’re not me. According to the Alzheimer’s Association, “1 in 3 seniors dies with Alzheimer’s or another dementia. It kills more than breast cancer and prostate cancer combined.” The longer you live, the greater are your chances of developing Alzheimer’s Disease. If you are a woman or person of color, your risk may be higher than if you are a white male. Per 2022 Alzheimer’s Disease Facts and Figures “Structural racism pervades many aspects of life that may directly or indirectly alter dementia risk.”

Maybe a coast-to-coast bike ride will help prevent Alzheimer’s Disease. That would be icing on the cake. For today, I’ll ride my bike through the snow to the library.

It is snowing. It is the day that US taxes are due. Does that have anything to do with why I am writing this today? It was in 1716 that Christopher Bullock wrote “Tis impossible to be sure of any thing but Death and Taxes” (though for the uber-wealthy, even taxes are not a sure thing).