Friday, July 30, 2010

Anne's House

A friend recently returned from the Netherlands where she visited Ann Frank’s house. You remember Anne, don’t you? She was the Jewish teen-aged girl who hid with her family in her father’s office building in Amsterdam after fleeing Nazi Germany.
Annelies Marie "Anne" Frank, who was born 12 June 1929 in Frankfurt am Main and died in March 1945 in the Bergen Belsen concentration camp, is one of the most renowned victims of the Holocaust, according to Wikipedia. She was a meticulous and talented writer whose diary documenting her experiences hiding during the German occupation of the Netherlands in World War II became a widely read book and the basis for several plays and films.
She was born in Frankfurt am Main in Weimar Germany and officially considered a German until 1941, when she lost her nationality due to the anti-Semitic policies of Nazi Germany. The Frank family moved from Germany to Amsterdam in 1933, the same year as the Nazis gained power in Germany and by the beginning of 1940 family members were trapped in Amsterdam due to the Nazi occupation of the Netherlands. As persecutions of the Jewish population increased in July 1942, the family went into hiding. Two years later, the group was betrayed and transported to concentration camps. Anne Frank and her sister, Margot, were eventually transferred to Bergen-Belsen where they both died of typhus in March 1945.
That Anne Frank.
I’ve never visited the Anne Frank house—now a museum—in Amsterdam, so my friend brought back the museum’s guide and I’ve been reading it over the past few days. It’s a wonderful book that, in somewhat stilted English, documents the incredible faith and strength of a small number of persecuted people who knew that death was a whisper away. It’s a formidable testament to strength and trust, to the foibles of humanity, and to the abilities of a few to defy the will of the many.
It’s been years since I read Anne Frank’s diary. My first contact with it was when I was 10, my second when I was 20 and fascinated by the horror of all things Holocaust. Even then I was too young to comprehend the full impact of it all. I was raised as a postwar French child, and by the age of eight I’d heard enough invasion and Nazi tales to last a lifetime. My parents had friends who’d survived the camps; the tattoos still alive on their arms, vile reminders of malevolence never to be forgotten. Some of these friends  never wore short sleeves after being rescued from the camps.  At that time, France had not yet owned up to its own role in deporting thousands of Jews to places called unknown. That came much later.
Seeing the photos of the tiny spaces filled by Anne Frank’s family, of the walls decorated with photos of American movie stars, of the maps where the movement of the Allied armies was tracked by Anne’s hopeful father—all these things chilled me. We live in comfortable times today and it’s good to be chilled, to be reminded of history’s wickedness,  Thanks, ST.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010


So imagine this: Somewhere in the Rockies or Great Dismal Swamps, a group of heavily armed American men are planning terrorist activities to be carried out by other members of their persuasion throughout the world.  The men are religious fanatics whose interpretations of the Christian holy books are dubious at best and generally frowned upon by more mainline Christians. They call for an end to educating women; they disavow music, the arts, freedom of expression and faith. They use the Internet to make demands upon foreign governments and post videos of beheadings, stonings, and other brutal forms of execution. They kill with impunity. They take and slay hostages. They often use places of worship for recruiting purposes.

Carry this scenario a bit farther: Imagine that in the face of worldwide censure, the US government claims it is powerless to act against such a group because the men are too well hidden, too powerful, and too ready to visit violence on those who oppose them? Is this likely? Probably not. This is because in most nations, including this one, the government operates on the basis of national accountability—not always, of course, and one can find blatant examples of many governments’ disregard or contempt for national responsibility. But by and large, civilized governments respond to the acts of citizens. If a group—any group— threatens the well-being of its own country or other nations, then action is called for.

The concept of governmental accountability in many Third world nations is shaky at best. In places such as Pakistan, Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan and to a lesser extent Indonesia, Saudi Arabia, Yemen, the Sudan, and the horn of Africa, it is in effect non-existent. Essentially, these nations have abrogated their rights to play a useful role in the international community. They should be shunned but they’re not. They’re pariah states whose economies are rescued and bolstered by international aid, oil or other natural resources, and the business of other nations—supposedly more civilized or rational—who need to increase their spheres of influence.  As such, China is a friend of many outcast states. So is Russia. And so is the United States.

There are no simple answers to the terrorism issue. We are fighting two unsuccessful wars of vengeance which appear to have remarkably little effect on the habits of terrorists and Jihadists. Perhaps it’s time to make the countries breeding and training terrorists, and the nations directly supporting them, responsible for their actions. Blockades, embargos of all goods save food and health supplies, and trade interdictions would not be more expensive to enforce than is the waging of wars on two fronts. In the US, businesses that even indirectly deal with terrorist clients should be persuaded to do otherwise, investigated and if necessary charged and tried.

Alan Keyes, perennial presidential candidate and political activity, said it best in a 2002 speech.  “Every leader, and every regime, and every movement, and every organization that steps across the line to terrorism must be banished from the discourse of civilized human life.”

Amen to that.

Saturday, July 24, 2010

Wasp Attack!

Every year about this time I fall victim to a ground wasp attack, a mud dauber ambush, if you will, that leaves me with swollen arms and legs and woozy from the attendant Benadryl. This year I was stung 12 times, down from last year’s 17 but up from the nine in 2008.
I am, most of the time, one with nature. Or maybe one-half; I capture indoor spiders and put them outdoors, rescue praying mantises, feed ladybugs. I never, ever, catch lighting bugs and put them in jars. I move desiccated worms off the sidewalk, adopt homeless snakes, trap mindless moths and give them a second chance. And then comes the wasp attack and I counterstrike with rage and a family-size can of Wasp Whup Ass which allows me to spray the little black and yellow bastards from 15 feet away.

Mud daubers come in three varieties—solid black, iridescent blue and black and yellow.  The last are my nemesis. They can be up to one inch long, They build nests in the soil, in the cracks found in buildings and, notably, in the openings and tubes of aircraft speed and altitude measuring systems. Mud daubers are thought to be responsible for the crash of Birgenair Flight 301 that killed 189 passengers and crew in 1996.

They have one attribute: they prey on black widow spiders.

When they attack, they do so in numbers. Yesterday’s assault occurred when I accidentally ran over a nest of them with a wheelbarrow. Suddenly, my right leg was on fire, followed by my left arm. I high-tailed it into my garage and a winged platoon followed. One ambitious little soldier got into my shorts and stung me twice on the butt. I suppose I should be grateful, it could have been worse.

I seem to be recovering more quickly from the stings than I did last year, which leads me to believe I may be developing some sort of immunity. Or maybe they went easy on me. I am working on acceptance. There’s every possibility that I will be stung next year and the year after that.  What was it Alfred, Lord Tennyson said? Nature, red in tooth and claw. He forgot the stingers.

Friday, July 23, 2010


About six weeks ago I began an exercise program which for me is intense—forty or so minutes of curls, push ups, sit ups, pulls and pushes against large elastic belts that offer resistance, lunges and squats with a 40 pound weight vest, extensions of this and that.  There are about 25 exercises in all and I’m feeling pretty good about it all, even as I try to figure out why, this time, the regimen took.

Because this is not my first attempt at this; I’ve been wanting to do it for more than a decade and over time have bought and resold treadmills, workout benches, weights, strange contraptions to help tone my non-existent abs and pecs. And I’ve given up after a day or two. Many years ago I practiced martial arts and went at it three days a week, three hours per session and I loved it. My ambitions then were to become a sort of Franco-American Bruce Lee/Jacky Chan but that didn’t happen. I was a slow learner and the intricacies of the katas´tgook me years to learn and one day I got hurt and my enthusiasm waned. Then one day I got hurt and my enthusiasm waned. I folded my gee never put it on again.  

Now my ambitions are different. I plan to become the envy of men half my age, with an eight-pack stomach and as-yet unnamed muscles defining my front and back with grace and elegance. Though there’s a good chance that won’t happen either, it keeps me going. Half of the exercises are done outdoors in my backyard, and I use a weeping willow as a stationary post for the pushing/pulling stuff. I get bitten and stung by wee bugs as I’m huffing and puffing, but this simply strengthens my resolve. The neighbors look at me strangely as they barbecue and I grunt.

I don’t necessarily enjoy the exercising but I do like the aftermath, the sense of accomplishment even if it is small. I can’t notice any change in my body yet, but my butt seems to fit better in the bucket seat of my old Porsche. I am told that it takes about 90 days for the body to react to a change in behavior—longer if you’re older—and I’m willing to wait. I’m patient, this time around. I’ve also heard and read that it takes about 21 days to establish a new habit, so it appears I’m over the hump. Check me out in 45 days. You'll be amazed, or so I'm told.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

The Sound of Progress

PA DANG! This I am PA DANG! told is the PA DANG! sound of progress PA DANG! More specifically, it is the sound of a pile driver PA DANG! operating a couple of hundred yards PA DANG! from my house. It starts at 7 a.m. and ends at 7 p.m., pounding into the soil fifteen minutes on, fifteen minutes off.  PA DANG! The pile driver is pushing giant metal rods about fifty feet into the red Virginia clay and these, in time, will support a new elevated subway line.  There is approximately one PA DANG! per second,  so a little quick math tells me there are roughly 21,600  PA DANGs! per day, or 151,200 per week. Any way you cut it, that’s a lot of PA DANGs!

The project, which will completely alter the life of my small Northern Virginia town, is all about taxes and revenues.  The hope is that building up the area with massive parking lots, office buildings and fast food franchises will prove inviting to new businesses great and small. This, in turn, will lure more potential homeowners and renters into an area that presently is mostly freeway, large malls and car lots. Yes, there are parks and walkways included in the presentations made to the local citizenry, and I’m sure a few industrial sculptures will find their way here as well. But to the best of my knowledge, there are no provisions for school, hospitals, police or fire stations. This is worrisome as the schools, elementary, middle and high, are already operating at more than maximum capacity. In fact, most of them are already festooned with temporary trailers that have become permanent fixtures of the landscape. What worries me as well is that this project will add square miles of impermeable surfaces to an area already prone to poor drainage and erosion.

Everyone is very excited about the project, save for the people who —like myself—already live here. We’ve attended dozens of meetings held to educate us to the benefits of this enterprise, and we’ve noted our concerns, but here’s the problem: when you start dealing with hundreds of millions of dollars invested to generate even greater sums in profits, the little voices get lost.

The first time I heard the PA DANG! of the pile drivers, I couldn’t for the life of me figure out what it was. A day or so after the noise began, bulldozers came and tore out a large chunk of the woods situated just beyond my house. Sometime earlier this week, a couple of portable toilets magically appeared exactly in my line of sight to support the workers who make the PA DANGs!

In the very long run, my small 1960-era house will probably increase in value, and so, of course, will my taxes. Whether I benefit from this will depend on my surviving the tens of millions of  PA DANGs! scheduled for the next five or so.

Frederick Douglass once said that if there is no struggle, there is no progress. I’m struggling. This must be progress. PA DANG!

Monday, July 19, 2010

Location Location Location

Bad Writing. "On a late winter evening in 1983, while driving through fog along the Maine coast, recollections of old campfires began to drift into the March mist, and I thought of the Abnaki Indians of the Algonquin tribe who dwelt near Bangor a thousand years ago."  Norman Mailer in Harlot’s Ghost by Norman Mailer, Random House, 1991. This, book, incidentally, was the first novel to cost more than $30. To the best of my knowledge, recollections rarely have drivers’ licenses.

Not far from where I live is a small house with a plaque over the front door that reads Harbor View.  The nearest harbor, as far as I know, is about 12 miles away in Georgetown, the historic riverfront district of Washington, DC. The Harbor View house sits at the intersection of two medium-traffic roads and the view is that of a traffic light. I see the home owner mow his lawn, mulch his flower beds and fertilize his tomato plants. In the winter, he shovels snow like the rest of us. I’ve never asked him about the plaque.

I’ve always wondered about the names of communities that have little to do with an actual natural site, places like River Front, Creek View, Hillside or Wooded Glen. I live on
Idylwood Road
. It’s neither wooded, nor idyllic since a major arterial highway is only a couple of hundred yards from my back yard. It used to be called
Lemon Road
, named after the farmer who owned the land, but sometime in the murky past someone decided Idylwood was better than Lemon, and that was that.

A friend recently told me that developers are building ‘estates’ near her home. As far as I can tell, an estate is a particularly large, ostentatious house that shouts to the neighbors that you’ve got more money and less taste than they do.  I’ve been in a few of them—four cropped up in my neighborhood several years ago after a half-dozen post-Korean war three-bedrooms were torn down—and I was taken by the fact that these new homes had bandana-size yards (though the owners all had little lawn tractors) and almost no furniture. There were a huge home entertainment centers with many speakers hung from the wall, a few pieces of leather-covered furniture, and a kitchen dominated by not one but two microwaves. Possibly to make sure you never run out of popcorn while you’re being entertained.

Just a few blocks from me is Crawfish Run. Aside from a culvert that acts as a storm drain, there’s no water to be found and, I imagine, no crawfish either. In a nearby community, there’s
Duck Pond Manor Drive
but the duck pond was filled when it developed a leak that threatened a manor owner’s basement.

The best, however, is Sunset Hills, a county-run apartment complex situated in an eight-acre bowl of red clay and dust. Residents say there hasn’t been a sunset there since 1974.

Saturday, July 17, 2010

Living Alone

For most of my adult life, I’ve lived alone. It’s a test, a blessing, too often a curse, always a challenge. Telling others my situation elicits one of two reactions. From women, there’s a hint of pity and consternation. Living alone at my age is seen as somewhat of a shortcoming, implying a lack of something or other—a man unable to commit? Perhaps found wanting? Or guilty of unforgivable infractions?  Were I recently divorced or widowed, the feminine reaction might be something different, but my divorce was finalized almost 15 years ago, and I no longer have excuses.

My male friends have different reactions. Many are envious, equating my present with their youths when they were single, childless men with few responsibilities other than planning their Friday nights. Many think I have a life far more active than it really is and I don’t disabuse them.

I’ve mastered most household chores from doing the laundry to waxing the floors. I can iron a shirt, shine shoes, sew a button, mend a hole in jeans, change a vacuum bag. I cook adequately, take care of the yard, house and cars, pay all the bills on time, take the cat to the vet when necessary. I’m somewhat lax about the content of my freezer—there are items there from 2008, but hey, isn’t that what freezing is for?—but by and large I run a tight ship. More than one person has said I would make an excellent, old-fashioned wife.

The major problem, of course, is that it gets lonely at times. My house is often quiet; I rarely play any of the 400-or-so CDs I have. The phone weighs a thousand pounds, and I don’t like admitting to loneliness. I prefer to call it solitude. Still, it’s too easy to isolate, to refuse invitations under one pretext or another, thinking that when I am by myself, at least I’m in good company. And that, of course, is not necessarily true. Within addiction circles, it’s often said that a mind may be a terrible thing to waste, but it can also be very dangerous territory, a neighborhood unsafe to travel alone.

I have rituals based on the days of the week. I exercise, write, compose songs, shop, cook, eat. I go to 12-step meetings. At times, these are often the only contact I might have with others and when that feels OK, I know I’m in trouble. Lately, isolation has felt OK too many times. I’ll make the necessary changes because one of the boons of recovery is a nascent awareness of what is good or not good for me. I don’t necessarily abide by this knowledge, but at least it is there.

Which means at this time, I should go to a meeting.

See ya!

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Writing--Part Whatever

In recent times, I’ve read several books, both fiction and non-, that have persuaded me that the art of editing is lost. In these published works are images, sentences and entire paragraphs that are so poorly written they must be noted. Herewith and now, I am starting a new feature in this blog. It’s aptly named Truly Bad Writing, and I will attempt to catalog what I—and others—find. Please join in. Send your entries to under a Bad Writing heading.
Here is my first entry, from a novel titled Adam by Ted Dekker. Ready?
“The world seemed to have rolled over and exposed an underbelly not even she could stomach.”

‘Nuff said and now back to the serious stuff.  I’m in the process of finishing the first draft of a book that will become the second part of a trilogy, and have found this to be one of the lonelier endeavors I’ve ever undertaken.  Why, you might ask? I’ll tell you.

Winston Churchill, noted cigar smoker, alcoholic, war hero and wit, once said that “writing a book is an adventure.  To begin with, it is a toy and an amusement. Then it becomes a mistress, then it becomes a master, then it becomes a tyrant. The last phase is that just as you are about to be reconciled to your servitude, you kill the monster and fling it to the public.” Not a bad quote, but not all encompassing.

I would add that a book is an unshared obsession, a misunderstood addiction, and a friend that deserts you when the going gets rough. And honestly, I don’t think this unkind observation is unearned. Think of a spoiled child, a juvenile delinquent, a son or brother who basically talks back to the person in charge, sneers, gives the finger, and then stays out until three in the morning smoking dope with his friends. Well, at least that’s my book.

I’ve been stuck on page 291 for a couple of weeks. I know what needs to be written and how, who’s involved in the book’s denouement. I know what needs to be said by whom and when—it’s all there waiting to be written, but I’m not doing it. I suppose there’s a fear of finishing, of saying good-bye to an entity I’ve known very well over the past two years. There have been too many good-byes in recent times. There’s panic involved in conjuring up what’s next.  I’ve been incredibly fortunate these past few years insomuch as I’ve been able to work from home, make almost no money and live off the income earned a decade ago. Now I’m running out of money and looking for work, and whatever writing I do in the future will be part-time, at best.

And then of course, there’s the fear I’ll come up empty. I have many, many ideas, but most of them will not translate into book-length manuscripts—whether through lack of talent or lack of interest.

So the future right now looks a lot like the eye of a needle. Hm. Maybe a novel on an aging writer who lives by himself and hasn’t sold anything in a while and…

Monday, July 12, 2010

Olé Espana!

Ick. What an ugly game. A Dutch team, frustrated no doubt, played largely defense against Spain while offending everyone. A referee who obviously thought he was the most important man on the field did his very best to constantly interrupt the flow of the contest, making it feel strangely like a video game version of the match.  The tumbles, rolls and falls taken by members of both teams were worthy of Cirque du Soleil acrobats while the players’ expressions of pain, disbelief and outrage over real and imagined transgressions could easily have graced the stage of a Noh performance.

Spain won 1-0. The best of the finals, though, was the Germany-Uruguay match which featured five goals and unparalleled levels of play with the Germans clinching third place in the cup.

International matches always have some level of oddity. This one featured a British-born octopus capable of foretelling the winner of games.

Paul the psychic octopus maintained his flawless performance in the World Cup by correctly predicting Spain's victory over Holland in the final. His rival, Singapore Mani The Psychic Parakeet incorrectly predicted a win for Holland.

According to London bookmaker William Hill, gamblers wagering on the mystic mollusk’s predictions have won up to half a million pounds during the month-long tournament. This is as close as the Brits got to success in this World Cup.

The octopus, born in Weymouth in 2006 and now residing in Germany’s Oberhausen Sea Life aquarium, correctly predicted the outcome of all six matches involving his adopted homeland by choosing to eat a mussel from boxes emblazoned with the flags of the German team and its rivals. Paul narrowly avoided becoming calamari after his prediction that Germany would be defeated by Spain came to pass.

Enough silliness. The US team did as well as could be expected and better than ever before in a Cup. There’s a good chance that the 2014 matches will see the American team continue its climb to success, but it’s important to remember that soccer is still a young sport here, despite the fact that it is played by more  kids than any other sport. It takes time to develop a team, and even longer to develop a following. Hopefully in four years, some excellent young US players will become pros…

Here are some interesting stats on this year’s competition:
  • The championship has been awarded every four years since the inaugural tournament in 1930, except in 1942 and 1946 when it was not held because of the Second World War.
  • The 19 tournaments that have been contested have been won by eight different national teams. Brazil have won the World Cup a record five times, and they are the only team to have played in every tournament. The other teams which have won the World Cup are: Italy, with four titles; Germany, with three titles; Uruguay, winners of the inaugural tournament, and Argentina, with two titles each; and England, France, and Spain, with one title each.
  • The World Cup is the world's most widely viewed sporting event; in fact, it may turn out that yesterday’s match may become the largest viewed event in world history. An estimated 715.1 million people watched the final match of the 2006. FIFA World Cup held in Germany and FIFA now estimates the Spain/Holland match viewership at close to 800 million. .
  • The next tournament, the 2014 FIFA World Cup, will be held in Brazil.
Now go out and kick a soccer ball around.

Thursday, July 8, 2010

Stupid Money

Headline in today’s Washington Post, above the fold: Moneyball, NBA Style. The piece goes on to describe three players who are free agents and will play for the NBA with each earning $100 million or more. Lesser players are below the fold. They’ll only get $75 to $90 million.

Now jump to the very same newspapers, same day, Metro section, above the fold. That story deals with a Washington, DC, homeless man who organized a basketball league for underprivileged kids, then apparently absconded with the $1,000 in sign-up fees he’d wheedled from families who could ill afford it. That headline reads: The Court of Vanished Dreams.

Let’s be honest. Paying someone $100 million or more to throw a leather ball through a metal hoop is stupid money. While I’m sure the players involved spent many hours honing their skills, the fact remains that throwing things through other things has probably less social value than any other endeavor I can currently think of. It does not better society, nor provide a worthwhile service like collecting trash or recycling. It does not increase the safety of the neighborhood, help cure diseases, foster literacy, tend to the ill, or enable my library to remain open longer hours in the evenings to serve a community that cannot get there during the day because its members are working.

I’ll say it again. Stupid money. (As an aside, I’ll admit I’ve been wanting to write about the stupid money involved in collecting rare cars, some of which are bought for more than eight or nine million dollars. But in retrospect, that’s lunch money.)

Now let’s talk about the homeless basketball guy. His name is James Russell; he is gone, allegedly pocketing about a grand in neighborhood money. A reporter found Ruseell in New Jersey, and he promises to pay the money back, but I wouldn’t hold my breath. Being homeless, he probably needed the $1000 but that doesn’t in the least excuse his behavior. What’s interesting is that Russell involved another homeless man, Wade Simmons, to coach the would-be league, and that man, a recovering addict and convicted felon, got his act together to do just that. In anticipation of being given some responsibilities and a measure of trust from others, Simmons cleaned up, found work and rented an apartment. He told the kids not to give up and is coaching now. Still, the kids have no uniforms, and no sponsors.

You know where I’m going with this. If the $100+ mil NBA players were willing to donate one one thousandth of their big bucks to volunteer leagues such as the beleaguered one in downtown DC, it would make one hell of a difference. And it wouldn’t be stupid money anymore.

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Jury Duty

I was dismissed from jury duty today. It was an armed robbery case, and before anything got started the judge asked if anyone felt he or she might not be qualified to serve. I raised my hand, explained that many, many years ago I had been threatened by a man who was quite deranged and had shoved a handgun in my face, loosening a front tooth. After a quick huddle of judge, prosecutor, defender and accused, the judge told me my services would not be needed today. Or, for that fact, for the next three years.

The incident I was referring to was an anti-war demonstration during the 70s. The man wielding the gun was a cop at the end of his rope. I was one of three dozen people covering the event for The Washington Post, and I do think the policeman might have shot me had a reporter friend not interceded. I’ve been wary of guns ever since, and handguns in particular. I happen to believe that a crime committed with a handgun should be punished three or four times as severely as the same crime without use of a weapon. In other words, if a robbery gets you a year, the same robbery with a handgun will get you four.  Simple, clean, and understandable by even the stupidest of would-be criminals.

We know, of course, that this country is over-run by handguns, and that the gun lobby—largely personified by the National Rifle Association—will combat any legislation that might make handgun ownership a bit more difficult than it is. A good example of this is the loophole exercised by a person wanting a gun now. Gun shops have to abide by a waiting period between gun purchase and gun delivery, ostensibly to allow the shop-owner to do a background check on the buyer. But go to a gun show and anyone—anyone at all—can buy multiple handguns as well as the necessary ammo and have them immediately. Plunk your dollars down, get your gun. Sort of like McDonalds with bullets.

My revelation during the voire dire apparently persuaded the defending attorney that I was not one of the peers her client might appreciate on the jury, or with whom she wanted to deal. To tell the truth, I wonder now, mere hours later, whether I should have kept my mouth shut.

Had I not stated my views, I probably would have been among the 13 jurors deciding the man’s guilt, as well as the appropriate punishment.  If the accused was indeed guilty, I could have lobbied for the maximum possible sentence, and possibly kept a bad guy off the streets for a little while.

But that’s not the way it’s supposed to work. I’m not in France, where the Napoleonic code of guilty until proven innocent still holds sway. That’s a good thing. Jury’s are meant for justice, not vengeance, and I’m really not sure which I wanted this morning: to determine guilt, or get even for something done to me long ago.

Monday, July 5, 2010

Guns! Yippee!

No matter how you turn this one around, it’s a bad idea.

My home state of Virginia recently enacted a law allowing concealed weapons in bars and restaurants. Let me simplify this. It means the next time you belly up to have a brew at your favorite establishment, the guy—or lady—next to you may be packing. Now here’s the deal: said pistol packing papa or momma is not supposed to be drinking alcohol, but then, you ask quite logically, why is s/he at a bar? For the ambiance? The sarsaparilla? The juke box? Or maybe to try out a new pick up line: “Hey, see this bulge? It’s not what you think it is…”

The US has by far the highest number of gun deaths in the world, about 100,000 a year. That’s a lot. As a matter of fact, it’s about half the total of all gun deaths in countries not at war. The rest of the world cannot comprehend the country’s attachment to firearms, nor can it fathom how a “well-armed militia” translates into a guy in a bar.

Lets see now… There have been the assassinations of President Abraham Lincoln in 1865, and of Presidents James Garfield, William McKinley, and John F. Kennedy, as well as Robert F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King, Jr.. More recently, the Columbine High School massacre, the Beltway sniper attacks, and the Virginia Tech massacre, have pretty much demonstrated that guns, indeed, do kill people. It’s hard to convince that any of the above tragedies would have occurred if the shooters had had knives instead.

Guns, basically, are cowards’ weapons, allowing someone to deal death from a distance, to kill without getting bloodied or even disheveled. I’ve never heard of a drive-by stabbing…

Most people who own guns to protect their families are probably well-intentioned and ill-equipped to handle armament. Sure, some people are well-trained, but that’s a minority. There’s an excellent reason for the frightening number of accidental shootings that leave innocents dead and maimed…

As it stands, during a national gun survey held in 2004, 38% of households and 26% of individuals reported owning at least one firearm. This corresponds to 42 million US households with firearms, and 57 million adult gun owners. Sixty-four percent of gun owners or 16% of American adults reported owning at least one handgun. Almost half (48%) of all individual gun owners reported owning four or more firearms. Men more often reported firearm ownership, with 45% stating that they personally owned at least one firearm, compared with 11% for women. The otal numbers of firearms in the US is 223 million. Yes, million…

Now here’s some fun stuff:

Number of federal safety standards that apply to the manufacture of teddy bears:
Number of federal safety standards that apply to the manufacture of firearms:
Number of guns federal firearms licensees have reported stolen or missing since Sept. 13, 1994 when the Clinton Crime Bill made reporting a requirement:
Average number of firearm thefts that occur every year in the US:
Number of federal firearms licensees in the US:
Number of ATF agents to regulate them:
Number of handguns produced by US manufacturers every minute:
Percentage of Americans who agree that "companies that manufacture guns with no hunting or sporting purpose should be held financially responsible when these guns injure or kill people":
Number of violent crime victimizations committed with a firearm in 1993:
1.3 million
Number in 1995:

You, know, despite the number of guns out there, I just don’t feel all that safe. Or maybe it’s because.

Sunday, July 4, 2010

The 4th

“What it feels like,” said a friend of mine, “is like I’m the last kid on campus after everyone has gone home. That’s the way I feel every 4th…”  A familiar feeling, that.

The 4th of July is a great holiday, quintessential Americana, burgers and beers, sunburn, sweat, sparklers, a measure of good cheer and heat exhaustion.

For years, when I lived in downtown Washington DC, I dutifully trekked to the Mall with friends and picnic baskets full of excellent food and even better wine. We got there early, staked out a spot in the shade and proceeded to drink, slowly at first and with a vengeance as the fireworks hour neared. Joints were passed and I remember one stultifying summer when a motorcycle cop saw us puffing away, rode his Harley up to where we were sitting, and asked for a toke.  By the end of the day, we were very, very drunk, and so was pretty much everyone else. It was fun, in a way. With hordes of others in similar states of intoxication, we staggered back to our cars and hour-long traffic jams, or we walked home and left the cars parked for another day. As Thanksgiving is the day of alimentary excess, so is the 4th devoted to inebriation.

The 4th is the only day of the year when I have a vague desire to drink. No, that’s not right.  I don’t want to drink, but I want to be part of the celebration, and that celebration, for most people, involves drinking. The 4th is a high-relapse day for those in recovery. It’s easy to pop the top of one beer, then three, then what the hell, where’s the Wild Turkey?

Maybe it’s the heat, the fireflies, the marching bands and uniformed vets; maybe it’s the fact that what we’re dealing with is a very strange disease here, an illness that tells you you’re well and able to partake, able to control, able to act and react responsibly when really, you’re none of the above.

Two years ago I was on the top level of a parking lot, watching the shells burst overhead and oohing and aahing with the best of them. Next to me was a blanket full of twenty-somethings and a cooler overflowing with bottles and cans of Jack Daniels Lynchburg Lemonades.

For a minute or so I would have gladly traded most of my earthly goods for that cooler.  Then the moment passed. Thank heavens for that and have a happy 4th!

Saturday, July 3, 2010

Rescue Me

Lately I’ve been fascinated with the series Rescue Me, a long running show on FX starring Dennis Leary as an alcoholic New York fireman best by family ills, ghosts and the after-effects of 9/11.

It’s rare for me to get sucked into a TV show. The last thing I watched with any consistency was Seinfeld which I considered to be the best America had to offer anyone in decades. I went through a small Sex in the City period before deciding I really, really find Carrie unappealing; she embodies just about everything I dislike.

So, incidentally, does Leary, whose Tommy Gavin, firefighter extraordinaire, is a cheat, a liar, a drunk, a shameless womanizer whose propensity for violence is never very deeply beneath the surface. Gavin’s life is a dance of falsehoods. No one, not even he, is capable of breaching the wall of hypocrisy he has created. His struggle to merely survive is epic in proportion, yet survive he does, haphazardly avoiding death and dismemberment in fires and relationships.

His courage as a firefighter is never in doubt, but one wonders if it’s suicidally driven, whether he wants to join the 343 brothers-in-profession who died in the Twin Towers. His rescues of hapless citizens trapped behind walls of fire are always about him, never about the rescued. He constantly defies orders, talks to dead people, converses with Jesus and Mary Magdalene, drinks, joins AA, relapses, sinks to greater depths. His wife leaves him, taking his children. He chases them cross country without getting them back.

In short, he’s a fascinatingly built personality, one of the best one television has today, and flawed characters are always more appealing than perfect ones. Women find him hot. His alcoholic behavior is so typical of those with the disease that it becomes almost foretellable. Anyone who has spent some time in the rooms of AA has met a Tommy Gavin, has heard his stories, witnessed his tragedies and shaken his head in disbelief. When will this guy hit his bottom? Will he ever get straight or will he die first? With Tommy Gavin, the question is never far from mind. He portrays the resourcefulness that enables practicing alcoholics to survive, sometimes for decades, sometimes for lifetimes. He manipulates time, space and others with the skill of a juggler and his charm is pure magic.

Long ago I used to attend an AA meeting strictly for the helping professions—cops, firemen, counselors and nurses. The talk before and after the meetings was all bravado and cockiness, and I ceased going there after a while because it was obvious that my binging and misbehaviors had not been of the epic proportions talked about by the others. I felt strangely lacking, a drunk who didn’t fit in well with the heroes around the room.  Now I’m grateful that my alcoholism was garden variety. No flames, no fire-axes, no valor or great courage. I’d make a terrible drunk fireman, or cop, or nurse, and thank heaven for that…   

Friday, July 2, 2010

Stieg! Stieg!

It’s a Stieg Larsson world and I, for one, am glad of it.

Perhaps you’ve been too busy fighting an oil spill, a war, or perhaps some nasty divorce rumors to keep up with Larsson’s career. The Swedish writer is notable for a number of reasons.  First, he’s dead.  Larsson died in 2004 following the delivery or his fiction trilogy to his editing house. Second, he is, at least for now, famous. His three books, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, The Girl Who Played with Fire and The Girl Who Kicked The Hornet’s Nest are the most talked about novels in a decade. Third, the books are pretty much unlike anything recently published in the US. Aside from a Latin American author now and then or a Russian dissident writer, this country is not known for embracing writers from other cultures. And Swedish? Fourth, Nora Ephron spoofed Larsson’s tomes in the latest issue of The New Yorker, a nasty and unanswerable literary slap in the face since the man has passed on and probably will not be able to respond in kind with a pastiche of Sleeping in Seattle.

The first of the trilogy, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, takes some getting used to. At more than 500 pages. it’s a big book and a slow starter. People are constantly drinking coffee and making open-faced sandwiches as the two archetypal protagonists, Mikael Blomkvist and Lisbeth Salander, struggle with issues of varying importance, all of which are described in painstaking detail. We get to see the inner workings of a financial magazine as well as how the Swedish foster parent/trusteeship system operates. We get ruminations on what it means to be a journalist, and is it ok for the State administer a young woman’s life?  There are dozens of characters and even more umlauts and always, there is coffee and cake.

It’s sometimes tough stuff to get through, but what makes it really interesting is its quintessentially European-ness. No American publishing house would allow a mystery writer to spend as much time on back-story as Larsson does. In fact, an argument could be made that more often than necessary the back-story becomes the main story before being relegated to secondary status again.

The characters are both engaging and shallow. Blomkvist is a reporter and part owner of a financial magazine. He is divorced and not quite childless, and involved for years in an affair with the married editor of the monthly. He talks a lot, works a lot, is both boorish and strangely emotional. Salander is a ward of the state, a pierced and tattooed proto-punk with a serious chip on her shoulder. Oh, and she has photographic memory. And she is perhaps the most accomplished hacker in Sweden. She likes coffee and sandwiches too and rides a Kawasaki motorcycle. Everyone else drives Volvos.

The story is too complex to describe here, but well worth reading. The translation from Swedish is adequate if not entirely elegant, and Larsson, bless his soul, goes out of his way to avoid becoming a travelogue writer.  The writing is very different that found in most of the whodunit best-sellers of the day and this, personally, makes me very happy.

No doubt US editors and agents are now combing through the works of previously unknown Danish and Norwegian writers hoping to find another Larsson. I say go for it, and pass the coffee pot. Tack så mycket!

Thursday, July 1, 2010


I have four computers, six guitars (two acoustics, one slide, one pedal steel, one Fender Strat), probably about 20 pairs of shoes. I have four cars, three bicycles, five pairs of online skates, three fishing rods, more tools than I know (both metric and SAE), maybe two thousand books, 400 CDs, 125 DVDs, three TV sets, an old Xbox, five tennis rackets, two hockey sticks, 500 VHS tapes. A hundred or so T-shirts, 14 shorts, 12 jeans, six pairs of cowboy boots, two lawn mowers, four shovels, two really big trashcans. And that’s just the beginning. I won’t go into the cans of tuna, bottles of soy sauce, frozen hunks of fish, 1287 tea bags (that may be an exaggeration. I really didn’t count them.), strings of Italian sausage (hot and mild) as well as the occasional packet of andouilles, chorizos and bratwursts. I also have sauerkraut, six types of Indian curry sauces that all look and smell the same though they have different names, at least five pounds of assorted cheeses, and one bag of tofu chicken strips. Since I sell a lot of stuff on eBay, I there’s an eclectic collection of empty cardboard boxes and many rolls of packing tape in the basement. I have 18 pairs of sunglasses.

It’s time to lighten the load.

Actually, I’ve been trying to do that for several years. Not to pat myself on the back but not that long ago I had 15 guitars, eight cars and two motorcycles, plus one trailer. So there’s progress, if not perfection.

How I acquired all this stuff is something of a mystery. Forty years ago I moved from place to place with one duffel bag. Not that much later, my belongings would fit into a medium-sized van. Now I’m looking at a full-sized Mayflower moving truck.

Starting about 20 years ago, stuff started sticking to me.  Musical instruments were particularly adhesive. I’ve always loved guitars—their shapes, smells and sounds—and I started buying and reselling them for very little profit, and then one day I saw an accordion and had to have that. I never learned to handle it, but it was a thing of rare beauty, a vintage Red Crown made in Italy and I resold it to someone who played classical music on her accordion and had been looking for a Red Crown for years. So then I bought an accordion to keep for myself, learned to stagger through Frères Jacques and promptly decided I should stick to the guitar.

I have drums and oodles of electronic gizmos and pedals to change the nature of any given sound. I have a sixteen track mixing board that, to this day, I do not know how to operate.

I think that within a year or two I will have the mother of all garage sale, and put price tags on just about everything that can be moved. I will lose my shirt in the process, but that’s OK. I think it might be worth it for the sheer, unencumbered freedom of it all.

Maybe I’ll do a Thoreau, move to Kerr Lake and make it my own Walden Pond. No phones, cell or otherwise.  There’s a beach on the lake just like the one outside Concord. A lot fewer people though. Ah well, there’s time to consider it. In the meantime, anyone interested in 17 pairs of sunglasses?