Thursday, March 31, 2011

Bad Things

Last February I wrote about the horrendous murder of Genevieve Orange who lived not far away from me. She was beaten to death and raped by Mark E. Lawlor, a pretty sorry excuse for a human being who had no reason to kill the young woman other than he was high on crack and the opportunity
presented itself. The State of Virginia here Lawlor was tried sentenced him to death. I don’t know if this is good or not.  One of the concepts I have tried to live by most of my life is not to take away anything I can’t return or, for that fact, break anything I can’t fix. If the state executes Lawlor, it is
doing the irreparable.

More recently, two articles in my morning newspaper caught my attention.  One dealt with a young woman who had been victimized by crime not once but twice. Fifteen years ago Mia Ramos was working in New York City and preparing herself for the university life. She was one of those thousands of people who take small jobs to pay for their education. In her case, it was at a Footlocker store in Manhattan.

One day, five minutes after the store’s closing time, Ramos noticed three men were still in the store. Nothing unusual there, she thought, but then one of the men pulled a gun. Then he took her to the store bathroom and raped her.  Eventually the guy was caught. His name is Norman Thompson and he still in prison, though he will probably be paroled soon.

Last summer, Ramos came to nearby Montgomery County in Maryland with plans to enroll in law school.She got a job a few miles from where I live at a Blockbuster store where I was a member. At closing time one night, two men rushed into the store and the nightmare happened again. Ramos was not raped this time, but she was held captive and relived every moment of the earlier terror. There again, the men were caught. Xavion Butler and Chancellor Dowden are presently out on bail. I
don’t understand this but suppose there is some reason for their not being in jail or prison.  Mia Ramos’s story was on the front page of today’s newspaper.

The second incident, in some ways, is worst. It tells of a Domino Pizza delivery driver who was killed because the three freaks who had ordered the pizza and wings decided they didn’t want to pay for it. So they shot Paul Bennett in the head, took the pizza and wings, ate most of their loot and tried to sell the rest on the street. The three guys were caught and are not out on bail, which is a small mercy.

This sad tale made the back of the Metro section, and I don’t know which editor decided on story placement. It shares the page with a piece telling us Washington  DC’s former mayor, Marion Barry,
was caught driving a car with inactive tags.

Mia Ramos’s most recent assailants may or may not show up for their trial. If they do, they will more than likely get a light sentence because their crime, by modern standards, is not that serious. Paul Bennett’s killers will undoubtedly plead a horrible childhood and other mitigating circumstances.

I’ll try to follow both stories, which have left me shocked, bereft and uncomprehending. Stuff like this bolsters the right-wing demon in me. I want to become Bronson or a comic book hero who does not treat criminals with any degree of kindness. I want to crush, cripple and maim; I want a
semi-automatic and I want to tattoo these peoples’ guilt across their foreheads.  I want revenge for the crimes committed on others by others.

Luckily I am the age that I am, have no experience with guns, and would make a piss-poor vigilante, which, I suppose, is a very good thing. For everyone involved.

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Liar, Liar Pants on Fire!

Is lying against the law?

Technically, yes, if you are under oath, but what of other lies, the small and great ones we tell every day?  At stake is a Constitutional issue worth exploring.

We all lie. Recently, a judge in San Francisco defended the right to lie as a basic free-speech issue, explaining in some 35 easons why we avoid telling the truth. He cited among others protecting our rivacy (No, I really don’t live here); making others feel good (Have you been
going to the gym?); avoiding recriminations (Really, it only cost $20); and voiding hurting the feelings of others (It’s not you, it’s me.)  His last reason—and a sweet one it is—was
protecting innocence (The tooth fairy will come tonight.)

Now take an inveterate liar ike Xavier (or Javier) Alvarez. He told big ones. Alvarez lied about serving n Vietnam and being decorated. There are laws against this, namely the Stolen Valor Act which specifically targets those who would falsely claim military heroism.  Alvarez did just that: After winning a seat on the board of directors of a California water district, he claimed to be a retired Marine who was wounded in combat and subsequently awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor.  Bussssted.

Alvarez was charged and convicted, but a district judge overturned the conviction citing freedom of speech issues. In 1964, a landmark free-speech case found that “false speech is
not subject to a blanket exemption from constitutional protection.” According to the Washington Post, “as recently as last year… the court’s list of ‘well-defined’ unprotected speech included only ‘obscenity, defamation, fraud, incitement, and speech integral to criminal conduct.”  Dissenting judges disagree, claiming that false statements of fact are not
protected by the First Amendment.

Here’s what I think is interesting. Laws, quite often, are enacted precisely to exonerate the
truth-teller and punish the liar.  As a matter of fact, aren’t most legal issues matters of he-said/she-said? Granted, it’s not often that simple and the line dividing truth from false can be a very faint one.  But think of most serious crimes—murder, assault, robbery, rape. Isn’t it the word of one against that of another? 

It’s hard to imagine a world where day-to-day lying might be really punished. Relationships would end before starting, and even the simplest of promise would become a contractual quagmire.  Intent, rather than actual statements would then be at the heart of any legal argument. Did the defendant really mean what he said, or was he lying through his teeth? If the former—he thought he was telling the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth—he’s innocent. If he was embroidering or knowingly misleading others, off to the pokey with

I could go either way. I recall reading a while back about a turn-of-the-century situation where a man became in intimate with a woman after promising marriage. After the act, though, he reneged. He was found guilty of breach of promise and, if I remember correctly, forced to wed the lady, perhaps not the best outcome for either party.


Friday, March 25, 2011

Goethe, Dominos, and Black Swans

It’s been a good year for disasters. Three months into 2011, the planet has already undergone 76earthquakes ranging from six to 9.9 magnitudes on the Richter scale. The death
toll in Japan alone from the recent quakes and subsequent tsunami will certainly surpass 100,000.The number continues to grow as affected coastal villages dig out.

In Japan, a secondary, very real fear comes from the failure and breakdown of affected nuclear plants which could spew radioactive material into the atmosphere. Prevailing winds would then carry this deadly dust to the rest of the world.

The Japanese have always been victimized by earthquakes and tsunamis and so have largely adjusted their lives to the whims of a capricious Mother Nature. Their architecture is designed to accept tremors and does so hundreds of times a year—lesser tremors, of course,
that those generated by the latest shift of the planer’s plates. What they did not anticipate, or perhaps chose to overlook, was the potential effects of natural disasters on something that, once unleashed, cannot be controlled again.

All nations using nuclear power to generate electricity have made a deal with the devil. Think Faust on a national level—we trade our souls for a cheap power source and in doing so we
believe we exert some form of control. Actually, we control nuclear power much as we control sunlight, that is to say not at all. We pretend that by drawing the shades we exert some sort of power over a star. With nuclear power, we have  done much the same by surrounding the beast with concrete, water, valves and cooling ponds, all of which are fallible. We do not know how to really tame the core of a runaway reactor though we should have learned a lesson or two from Chernobyl, and the next nuclear tragedy is not a probability, it is a certainty.

Such things have a domino effect. Natural tragedies wreak havoc with commerce. The aftershocks are felt worldwide as markets reflect uneasiness and fear, and nations weaken.

A new term has recentlyentered the vocabulary. Scientists speak of ‘black swans’ when referring to a wide array of possible destructive events. The phrase was coined and
popularized by Nassim Nicholas Taleb, a New York University professor of risk engineering and author of The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable. Black swans include
any number of tragedies that could have been foreseen. The September 11 attack comes to mind, as does the ravage of New   Orleans by Katrina, the eruption of Mt. St. Helen, and the possibility of solar flares that would knock out a good percentage of the planet’s power grids. Here’s a simple, very real example: a fault runs through CharlestonSouth Carolina. It has devastated that area before, in 1886, with a quake estimated at a magnitude of 7.3, that
killed 60 people and was felt as far away as Wisconsin. The area has a very real seismic
history, scientists believe, yet the population at large does not believe Eastern Americans cities are vulnerable.

Such events reverberate. We should be prepared for them but seldom are. As go individuals, so do nations. We forget pain, we take little stock in history, and we are amazed when it
repeats itself. Perhaps we’re getting what we deserve.

Monday, March 14, 2011

Twenty Years

Last week I celebrated 20 years of not putting any addictive substances—alcohol, marijuana, pills, ec.—into my body. It’s been an interesting two decades. On the one hand,
sobriety has kept me alive, of this I’m persuaded. Twenty years ago I was
actively addicted to any substance that would change my outlook, allay my panic
attacks, and give me some relief from the terrible angst that beset me daily.
On the other hand, I often wonder whether, with discipline, I could have led a
life allowing me to partake from time to time without due consequences.

On two separate occasions snce 1991, I accidentally drank some alcohol. It was my fault both times; in he first instance, I left my drink—a glass of iced tea—unattended at a party
and picked up someone else’s. It was an iced tea as well, but it had a generous
amount of vodka in it. The second occurrence happened when a hostess served me
what she thought was sparkling cider. It was champagne. Both times I made my
way to the kitchen and, as discreetly as possible, spit the liquids out.

Three years ago, following sme minor surgery, I was prescribed painkillers known to be addictive. I took tem for four days then switched to Tylenol.

Here’s the thing, though: I am never very far from a drink, or from some psychoactive substance that would alter my consciousness. Recently, I hurt my back, and the doctor prescribed Flexeril, also known as cyclobenzaprine. Flexeril is a muscle relaxant; it
relieves the discomfort caused by muscle injuries and, taken just before I went
to bed, it helped me get to sleep when no supine position was pain-free. In no
time at all I started obsessing about what I would do if I ran out of the drug.
Would I ever be able to sleep again? Surely the wise thing would be to get
another prescription filled quickly—I might lose the first one, and at any
rate, wouldn’t it be sensible to have some extra pills in case I hurt myself
again? If I didn’t need the Flexeril, I could always throw it away or pass it
on to ailing friends.

This is called addictive thinking. It never, ever goes away. There is a part of me that has not
forgotten the first few times I drank or did drugs, and the pleasures derived
from such experiences. I will put aside the memories of the much more frequent
miserable times, the aching, trembling and vomitous feelings that came with
over-indulgence. I will forget the pain, the embarrassments, the costs in both
money and emotions.

Its rare now for me to undergo the treacherous and euphoric recall of earlier years, but the
remembrance is there, just under the surface. I suspect it will always be there.

But twenty years… Imagine that…

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

We're Number 10!! We're Number 10!!

Somehow the fist-waving chant of “We’re Number 10” simply doesn’t make it. In the nation that originated 20th-century concept of “We’re-the-best-just-watch-us-go,” the calamitous drop from number one to something far less is a better pill to swallow, but there it is, it’s true, my beloved adopted country is no longer the place to be. It’s tenth. It is tenth after a slew of European countries and, yes, Canada. Even the hosers have hosed us. 

This revelation took into consideration life expectancy (Japan is first); perception that working hard will get you ahead (Cambodia); satisfaction with living standards (Denmark); higher education enrollment (South Korea), and a slew of other inputs.  Number one, if you’re interested, is Norway, closely followed by Sweden and Finland. Who would have thought there was really something in Finland to be happy about? Australia and New Zealand are next, followed by Switzerland and The Netherlands, two tiny European countries almost no one ever thinks about.

According to Newsweek, the problem is that the United States has been too successful in its pursuit of freedom and democracy for all. In politics, the elect are listening to the citizenry too well, and what does the citizenry want? Well, mostly it’s focused on the past or immediate present. It doesn’t want change. It figures we’ve done well by pursuing programs that have worked, so in the eyes of the great unwashed, there is no real reason to alter anything. That includes subsidies, government (federal, state and local) programs that cost too much and simply don’t work that well, and tax breaks. We have told our representatives that what we want is more of the same, and they’ve listened.

Right now, the US government spends about four dollars on the elderly for every one dollar it spends on youths under the age of 18. We are, in other words, far more focused on backing a dying horse than on training a promising colt. Fund reductions have weakened the furthering of education, scientific research, NASA, and infrastructure. We are doing this at the precise moment when countries like Germany, Korea and China are committing to the exact opposite by funding research into alternative energy sources and other future-oriented endeavors while even as they cut the subsidies that cost their respective countries the most and offer the least.

Our national lack of initiative has already cost us dearly. America is no longer a true mover and shaker—though we still think we are—but is becoming increasingly insular. Exports only account for 10% of our economy as compared to 50% in many European nations.  Such statistics inspire hidebound behaviors in the US and entrepreneurial ones overseas. Your television, cell phone, washer and dryer, your clothing and shoes, the flowers in your vase, even the prescriptions you take daily, all come from overseas. In fact,  you would be hard-pressed to find much anymore that is American-made in a European household.

Here’s another problem. We are not even optimistic about the future. In fact, on that scale, we’re 86th. That’s sad.

Friday, March 4, 2011


Here’s a fun fact. The Nation’s Capital, Washington, District of Colombia, political center of the Western world and seat of Congress, the White House, the Supreme Court and the U.S. federal government as a whole, has an HIV/AIDS infection rate of three percent. Come to think of it, that’s not fun at all. It is frightening, embarrassing, and shameful. In West Africa where it is believed the disease originated, nations have declared such a high rate an epidemic.

It’s not that Washingtonians fornicate in the streets or practice other forms of unprotected sex. No. It is drugs, pure and simple. Heroin, to be exact. DC streets are still awash with the stuff, and the war on drugs—a failure through and through—has done nothing to alleviate the situation. Heroin users do not have discretionary funds. They routinely employ needles used by other, infected addicts, and the transmitted disease is in turn passed on to others either sexually or with the same infected needles. Attempts to stem HIV/AIDS have involved police crackdown, public education and free needles for the addicts who need them. The latter program, which targets the type of user who is not interested in hearing about counseling, 12-step groups or recovery, ended a week ago. Budget cuts.

Basically, DC’s PreventionWorks! operated out of a worn and tired van that made scheduled stops so addicts could turn in old needles and get fresh ones. PreventionWorks! is credited with saving many lives in the inner city, and now the recently elected mayor and council have decided the program is not worth its $300,000 annual budget. Just so you get the facts straight, DC Council Chairman Kwame Brown was recently chastised for ordering a fully-loaded Lincoln Navigator from the city for his personal use. The vehicle’s lease is $2,000 a month.

According to the Washington Post, “the average cost of lifetime care for someone with HIV/AIDS is about $385,200.” That an expense paid for by DC taxpayers and, to a lesser extent, federal taxpayers as well.

We are used to the short-sightedness of our elected officials. I guess this is just another sad example.

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Bad Time Charlie

I love Charlie Sheen. There’s nothing like watching a drunk dig his own grave, not realizing that his inane diatribes are being taped for the comic relief of thousands in recovery.  Maybe it has to do with the fact that his father, Martin, has been in Alcoholics Anonymous for years (I’m not breaking anonymity here, since Martin outed himself a long time ago.) Or maybe the drug cocktails Charlie has been ingesting have finally had the effect he wanted and, as it says in the AA Big Book, he has found much of heaven and [has] been rocketed into a fourth dimension of existence of which [he] had not even dreamed.”  I don’t know and it doesn’t matter. I watched Charlie’s latest interview on Good Morning America and he seemed to be channeling Richard Nixon.

I find the furor surrounding this unfortunate man’s delusions interesting. Sheen Jr.’s rants have had unexpected repercussions both in and out of the 12-step community, where his criticism of the Big Book is seen as heretical since hundreds of thousand of people in the past 70 years have found relief in AA literature. Charlie, briefly put, is a ticking time-bomb, and there’s sad solace to be found in knowing that, when the things explodes, it will do far more harm to Sheen and his family than to anyone else, 12-step adherents included.
In his present state, Charlie epitomizes everything that qualifies him as a stone addict and alcoholic. He is in total and complete denial in regard to his situation; he is grandiloquent and full of himself, a far cut above mere mortals, a man of tiger blood and magic DNA; he knows his situation better than anyone else—he is not an addict, and if he was, he cured himself by blinking. He also seems to be under the impression that the powers-that-be who initially hired him to star in a so-so TV show will be willing to abase themselves to keep him under contract. He’s wrong. Hollywood is littered with the corpses of successful actors who, becoming too troublesome to the mother studio, are discarded.  Fatty Arbuckle didn’t survive and neither will Charlie. Right now, his slapstick interviews have a vague, train wreck type of allure, but YouTube is full of that sort of entertainment.

One who did survive, Robert Downey Jr., has found far more success and fame in recovery than he ever did as drunken tabloid fodder. There’s a lesson to learn there but Charlie’s not ready yet. He hasn’t bottomed. In fact, let’s face it, right now Charlie S  is in hog heaven. He’s living with two women, one of whom is a porn star. He has unlimited money, very little interest in anything outside of himself, and an avid audience watching him self-destruct. He is the subject of millions of Tweeters, the darling of the paparazzi, and his real-life is far more entertaining than that of his sitcom character.

So here’s my advice Charlie: Go for it. There’s a pretty strong possibility that you’re gonna die before you should, but what the hell, live fast and leave a beautiful corpse. Except that the latter probably won’t happen. The mortal remains of addicts are seldom pretty. So good luck with that…