North, South, East or West
In school they taught us – Never Eat Shredded Wheat – a mnemonic device that was easy for us kids to remember, since what children do you know who like that stringy cardboard-tasting breakfast? The kind that grandfathers eat, along with oatmeal and instant coffee.
Recently I moved "back East" from San Francisco and to most that might mean back to the east coast, back to my origin, in Maryland. But no, not this time. This move took me even farther east, across the ocean and to the European continent. To Germany, specifically, where if I were to tell people that I moved East, they'd immediately think of the recent anniversary of the fall of the iron curtain, strange accents, and a woman pealing a cucumber with the title: My First Banana.
East is really a matter of perspective, of how far east or west you are when you say it.
Actually, from San Francisco, one might misconstrue east, and think East Bay, Berkeley or Oakland, East Coast, or even Far East, which, then again, from that side of the continent, would seem to make more sense to call that West. But our current perception stems from the middle-aged belief that the world is flat.
Galileo, look what confusion you've brought upon us. It's all gotten so discombobulated since your theory was tested and adapted. Why couldn't you just have kept it to yourself? Then maybe Columbus wouldn't have bumped into this Western continent while he was sailing the wrong way to get to the East.
We also wouldn't have wiped out the many tribes of the Americas, and maybe their heathen ways would now be synonymous with the modern West. Maybe we wouldn't equate it all with Cowboys, and the Marlboro Man.
Which brings me back to the "East's" perception of our West, through commercials, and especially tobacco ads. Since up until a few years ago, they were still allowed to run commercials in theaters before films. Like trailers for westerns or action movies. That's how they proliferated the tough image of the painted desert, these monumental stones, untouched by humans, except for the ranger riding his steed. Gone is the sacredness that it once embodied for a whole people – who now run a giant hotel and campground where you can watch the sun rise over their country, which is squished into the center of ours.
When I tell people here that most tobacco comes from Virginia, and there's even a town in Maryland called Upper Marlboro, they look at me kind of funny and say, "But the Wild West and cowboys, and huh? Welcome to Marlboro Country?" Never having thought that the tobacco plant couldn't possibly thrive in a desert climate. That it might need nutrients and water to grow. That if it dried as fast as it would in that desert, then it wouldn't be smokable.
Of course the actual process of tobacco culturing is something that people here in Central Europe don't like to think about. They just want to smoke it, and not worry about its origin. Not wonder why it keeps getting more expensive. Not be forced to go outside into the cold in order to light one up. Not even consider that it might be in the tobacco industry's best interest to keep them addicted – so they'll keep spending four, five, six Euros a pack.
I do have to wonder if Galileo or Columbus were smokers, though. When the big G observed our earth's rotation, did he think about the economic and health impacts of a spinning world? Sure Columbus did. He told the Spanish Queen that he was going to make them rich with spices – things that make your taste-buds prickle – not with something that eventually numbs them so we taste nothing but the film of ashes on the roofs of our mouths.
Moving "back East" I can see how our westward expansion has corrupted us. How influences of that myth of a never-ending new frontier have caused us to expand beyond our capacity. We forget that the West ends somewhere. That space (the final frontier) is not just the continuation of that expansion. We've nearly given up or pursuit of colonizing the stars, because surely that's the only thing that might pique any economic interest in them: More people whom we could sign up as addicts. More people who will keep spending never-ending sums of money for that dream of the West. That dream of shredded tobacco and never eating shredded wheat.