Sunday, August 28, 2011

The Dealer

So it’s Friday afternoon, a sunny day in Northern Virginia, post-earthquake and pre-hurricane. I am at Starbucks reading one of Larry McMurtry’s lesser books and it’s not very good, but when you’ve written half-a-hundred novels, you’re allowed an off-day. I’m sitting outside at one of the three tables allowed in front of the coffee shop by the local city council. Two Latino homeboys in wife-beaters, black pants and scuffed black leather shoes are at the table next to me with a young henna-haired tattooed woman. They are discussing the comparative merits of OxyContin, an opioid analgesic prescribed as a painkiller and listed as a Schedule II drug under the Controlled Substance Act, which means it has a high potential for abuse and continued use may lead to severe psychological or physical dependence.

Frankly, I don’t care if these kids want to fry their brains. I’m very big on personal choices. I figure everyone has read about the dangers of such drugs and if someone is stupid enough to want to abuse them, let ‘em. The girl is saying OxyContin makes her constipated and her comment is greeted with loud laughter and a few suggestive suggestion by the homeboys.

Soon another kid approaches. This one’s a nightmare—pale, white, bone-skinny, red-haired, no more than 18. He has a Blue Tooth earpiece screwed into the side of his head, madras shorts that reach his ankles, $200 sneakers and an expression bordering on the salaciously demented. He is greeted by the homeboys and given the perfunctory hug and back slap favored by athletes. The hennaed girl offers a gap-toothed smile. He sits down, reaches into a pocket of his shorts, takes out three tiny plastic Baggies and drops them on the table. The homeboys nod, the girl looks away, there’s a quick exchange of money and the Baggies are swept from the table.
I’ve seen this kid meth dealer before a number of times. He spends a lot of time walking up and down the strip mall, often alone but sometimes with a sidekick, an entrepreneur-to-be learning the tricks of the trade, I suppose. They’re relaxed, this is their little piece of turf, and I’m amazed at how openly they peddle their wares. Understand, this is Falls Church, a suburban community recently listed as one of the most expensive places to live in North America. Important and self-important folks live here—politicians, bankers, dot com millionaire and presidential aspirants like Newt Gingrich.

I’m looking at the kid and the kid looks back at me and there’s an implicit challenge there; an imaginary gauntlet is cast. I shrug, look away. The kid gets up, and as he’s walking off I ear him say, “What up?” to someone calling him. I hear him quote prices.

I’m pretty sure I am not the only one who witnessed the transaction, and in the coffee shop I see the barista shake his head and frown.  This is not good for business, this little sidewalk operation, but there’s not a lot to be done. Calling the cops is useless, there was a bank robbery just up the street a few weeks ago less than a quarter-mile from the police station and it took authorities a half-an-hour to get to the scene. The robber escaped on a bicycle.  Even if the police were to show and make an arrest, the kid would be back on the street in a heartbeat. 

Pretty weird; this isn’t The Wire, this is real life not in the inner city of a second-rate town but in the suburbs of the well-to-do. An unsettling snapshot that makes me glad the temptations found in glassine bags are long, long behind me.

Monday, August 22, 2011


Forget what you read in the papers, hear on the news or watch on TV. Most of it is bullsh*t (I know, I used to work in the media) designed largely to hold onto an image we have of ourselves. America the beautiful, the fair, the justly governed, the America of 10th grade history books, a nation of stalwarts whose actions benefit the nation first and themselves second.

That America is pretty much gone.  Now we are the America or profits first, national interests second, and even the companies and men we’ve come to admire in this new millennium are more interested in the bottom line than in improving the country’s lot.

Officially, nearly 14 million Americans are out of work, and another six million are scraping by with part-time employment. Officially, unemployment is close to nine percent, but if you were to count part-timers and those who have simply given up looking for work, that number soars to 16 percent. That’s a lot of people, folks.

Meanwhile, some of the key industries are steadily getting rid of their US workers so they can move their productions overseas where life and costs are cheaper. According to today’s Washington Post (OK, this number I believe) American multinational corporations cut 2.6 million US-based jobs between 2000 and 2009. They added 2.4 million workers in their overseas plants in that same period. That’s an awful lot of people out of work in this country, and an employment boom for the developing nations hosting US businesses.

The companies don’t like numbers like these to be made public. In 2000, for example, GE had 54 percent of its workers in the States. In 2009, that number diminished to about 46 percent. Apple (this should make you think twice about your iPhone and iPad) refuses to divulge its numbers which should tell you something, and IBM has more employees in India than it does in the fifty states. Procter & Gamble has only 35,000 employees in North America out of a workforce counting 127,000 worldwide.

According to, “More than 1.3 million additional Western jobs will vanish by 2014 due to ‘the accelerated movement of work to India and other offshore locations.’"

But here’s what’s really interesting. The companies that outsource are not necessarily happy with the folks they outsource to. An article in Outsource Blog claims, "There is research that proves that many companies that outsource either domestically or internationally don’t perform as well as before the outsourcing. In a study, the average user satisfaction deficit was 13 percent. Other criteria, like value for money and company perception by customers, showed similar drops. One has to ask oneself if it’s really worth it."

Further, says ComputerWorld UK, "[C]ompanies expressed frustration with the quality of work being provided, according to a survey, but most businesses still said they chose the cheapest outsourcing option instead of the best quality. Nearly all businesses—94 percent—admitted that the focus on cost was increasing the likelihood of their projects failing."

This ain’t good, folks. Think about it: you’re buying products to enrich the companies that do everything in their powers to raise unemployment here. Then, if you want service on these products, you call someone in Jakarta or Mumbai. The likelihood is that you’ll be dissatisfied with the encounter, but the mother companies don’t seem to care that much about your level of satisfaction.  Do you really want that?

Sunday, August 21, 2011

Lost Arts

When I was a kid my mother made toast by placing slices of bread on an asbestos-lined griller created for that purpose. The thing was held directly on the kitchen stove’s gas flame. Left too long, the bread would blacken; not long enough and it would merely turn dry and inedible. I was never particularly fond of my mother’s pain grillé but it was a part of life, companion to the café au lait and brown sugar with which I started my day from earliest childhood. It was an art of sorts, a lost art of little value in modern times, but it got me to wondering how many such household skills have vanished.

Do people still darn socks? I learned how with a wooden egg placed in the sock’s toe to stretch the fabric and make it easier to stitch and close a hole. I know how to sew buttons, pushing a thin needle through fabric and wearing a thimble to protect my index finger if the fabric is too thick or resistant. One of my chores as a kid was to weigh meat, fish and cheese on the kitchen scale, with a collection of brass counterweights that ranged from one to 500 grams, and to check eggs against a light to find the ones with double yolks. I know how to make caramel from burned sugar, and use a pressure cooker, though the hissing and whistling still scare me. I can make humus from scratch, starting with dry chick peas, and crepes, too, though my crepe pan has vanished. I can roll cigarettes. Not joints, cigarettes… A different skill altogether.

I know how to make a vinaigrette and mayonnaise, though the latter is shrouded in mystery. My mother swore that a menstruating woman could not make a decent mayonnaise, that the egg yolks and olive oil would not blend properly and instead curdle into an inedible mess. Strangely, I have heard this tale again and again, including from my ex-wife, who is Vietnamese.  Perhaps the French brought this belief into Vietnam when it was a French colony; now it appears to be an urban legend.

I’m pretty good with tools and have built most bookshelves in my house, and I still have the clamps and brad-hammer my father used to frame my mother’s paintings for a show. My father told me how to use Coca Cola to clean tools and greasy nuts and bolts, and when firing up the chimney the first time in a season, he would dump a handful of used coffee grounds to sweeten the air.

I know how to iron, though I am slow and not particularly good at it. I am lax at doing the wash. I mix colors and fabrics and for awhile everything I owned had a grayish cast. But I’m getting better.  I can clean shoes with saddle soap and shine them, any color as long as it isn’t white.

Does anyone do any of this stuff anymore? Are these arts truly lost?   

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

All I Have To Do is...

So I have diabetes, type 2, meaning that I am not insulin dependent, nor will I have to stick myself in the arm two or three times a day to gauge my sugar level. It’s a common enough disease; some 24 million people in America have it, or roughly eight percent of the population. Another 57 million are pre-diabetic, which means it’s a pretty safe bet they will get it as well, unless they are willing to make some pretty drastic changes in their diet, exercise and leisure.

Basically, it’s a lifestyle disease, a chronic condition in the way I (and all the other millions) metabolize sugar.  If not diagnosed and treated, type 2 diabetes can lead to other nasty things such as cardiovascular issues, nerve damage, eye problems and kidney evils. Blurred vision, fatigue, cuts that don’t heal quickly and frequent infections are also typical symptoms.

This being said, all the people I have dealt with in the medical field—and sometimes not—are in agreement. This is something that can be dealt with. All I have to do is lose weight.

All I have to do is lose weight…. To me, this is the equivalent of “all I have to do is sprout wings on my butt so I can fly to France.” I have weighed the same for the past decade and have tried dozens of times to lose weight. I exercise more and eat less, to no avail. I switch diet and forego carbohydrates. I give up sugar. I only drink diet whatever. I stop drinking diet whatever because I am told the artificial sweetener in such drinks impedes fat loss. I eat several small meals. I eat one large meal. I get completely divergent advice from different sources. Someone tells me eating cabbage will do it. I eat enough cabbage to feel like a Russian peasant. Someone else suggests hard-boiled eggs. I don’t do that one because I remember my beloved late sister Florence trying it in Paris and cursing all things chicken-related.

What it comes down to is that I really can hold a resentment against people who say all I have to do is lose weight. It’s silly, foolish, useless. It reminds me of Nancy Reagan’s “Just Say No” campaign to curb drug addiction, which at the time—and to this day—has about as much chance to succeed as telling a manic depressive to have a nice day.

This being said, I know people who have dropped more than 100 pounds. One of my favorite persons in the world dropped eighty. It’s doable.

And just for the record, that’s not me in the picture….

Friday, August 12, 2011

Pall Malls

For most of her adult life my mother was a smoker of Pall Malls, long, thin, unfiltered American cigarette in a blood-red pack with elegant white lettering. She picked up the habit when she was a Free French soldier in Algeria during World War II and the Allied GIs stationed there handed them out to pretty French girls. To the best of my knowledge she never inhaled, but the blonde Virginia tobacco still stained her teeth and her fingers. Pall Malls were among her more expensive comforts, $2.25 for a carton of ten packs from the local liquor store, with five free matchbooks advertising the stores inventory of American beers and Canadian whiskey.

There were Pall Malls all over our house. My mother put them in lacquered boxes, silver goblets, slim cigarette cases and small fabric bags with clasps designed to hold a pack.  There were ornate silver table lighters with wicks and cotton fillings, it was my job to fill them with Ronson lighter fluid, and a large collection of heavy glass ashtrays that as a child I would empty and rinse out after a party. The ashes and butts smelled strangely metallic, and I remember for the first time a seeing Kent filter among the dead mégots. There was a circle of crimson lipstick around it, and I tried to figure out who, among the women who’d come for dinner the night before, had smoked Kents, overly mild and ineffective cigarettes not worth paying good money for. I still have some of my mother’s ashtrays, and they are odd and useless appurtenances nowadays since no one smokes in my house.

There was always a pack or two of Pall Malls at the bottom of my mother’s purse. These were crushed by the keys, address book, make-up case, three tubes of lipstick, lighter (at first a Zippo, then as my mother’s elegance and rank rose among her peers, a silver, then a gold Dupont that I still have), seven or eight prescription bottles of anti-depressants, uppers, downers and specially concocted vitamin pills, a small ringed notebook for to-do lists, a pen from the local bank, a balled handkerchief, and a copy of the latest Screen Gem magazine.

My father never smoked. His pearly whites were exactly that and he once told me he made a dentist cry. He tolerated the acrid smell that pervaded the air and infused every seat and sofa cushion. He did not complain, and though a gentleman through and through, never lit my mother’s cigarettes. It was an unspoken agreement that she would not smoke either in the car if he was driving, or in bed. She cheated on the latter after he fell asleep, heedless of the fact that one of their best friends had incinerated herself and her family of four after too many cognacs and one Lucky Strike that ignited the sheets she and her husband were sleeping upon.

I started smoking stolen Pall Malls when I was 12, and to this day I remember the visceral thrill of peeling the thin cellophane line that sealed a pack, tearing the silver-foiled paper, and tapping a first cigarette out. Many years later, I switched to a pipe because it made me look worldlier, and many years after that, I went for filterless Kools because that was what the savvy people of my neighborhood smoked. Kools packed a true kick; the first one after a long night, before coffee or toast or a full breath of morning air made my head spin in a not unpleasant manner.  At the end of the day, with a joint and a tumbler of Jack Daniels Black, Kools effortlessly cast off life’s frustrations and failures.

I quit smoking 13 years ago. By then, I was back to pipes to fulfill the writer’s image of himself. I smoked a mélange of black Turkish and fine cut French Gauloise tobaccos in a collection of briars from Ireland. As I struggle to stop I came to believe that nicotine is indeed one of the harshest of habits to give up, harder than heroine or crack, some would tell you. But I was coughing incessantly and waking in the middle of the night needing a smoke; I could no longer run or exercise, and I felt as if my skin was turning jaundiced. I later learned that nicotine is indeed a strange drug whose half-life lasts only minutes. The reason people become chain smokers is that they are constantly detoxing from the last smoke, and nicotine being both a stimulant and a depressant, is truly an addict’s dream.

A few days ago I saw a flattened pack of Pall Malls on the sidewalk near where I lived. I stared at it. I wasn’t ever sure Pall Malls were made anymore, but there was the proof, and I wondered about the pack’s owner. Smoking is politically incorrect now, and those who still partake huddle like sparrows in the rain, banned from offices, restaurants, homes.

When my mother, near the end of her life, was told she must give up her beloved Pall Malls, she started smoking Indian bidis which smell like marijuana. We were once asked to leave a restaurant after my mother lit up, and within a week, fearing familial ridicule, she switched to repulsively flavored clove cigarettes. Just before she died, she found her Pall Malls again. Some habits die hard.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011


A long time ago, a man who was my sponsor told me I should never lend money to friends, that if I really wanted to help, then I should simply give them the funds and be done with it…  His reasoning was sound; loans imply resentments, gifts do not.

I was thinking of this because I recently reviewed my will. I do this every few years; as I get older, I want to make sure all the i’s are doted and the t’s crossed. I have known too many people who died intestate; the financial messes they left behind were really unforgivable and the cause of untold misery to their inheritors.

One section found in most wills is the declaration of debts forgiven. In my case, I am letting several people off the hook to the tune of some $54,000.


That’s a used Aston Martin in really good condition. A vintage 1956 Fender Stratocaster Guitar with a twill hard case. A 3-months-long trip to Europe (staying with friends, of course). I could have a swimming pool put in my backyard, or fix all my cars so they would look brand new, or sign myself into a fat farm for a few weeks.

Basically, it’s a whole lot of money.

The loans—no, the gifts—were all made when I had more funds available than I do now, when I was a bit more profligate, perhaps even cavalier, about the concept of future costs and potential market meltdowns.  At the time it seemed like the right thing to, and to tell the truth, it still seems like the right thing to do. I am amazed that I can look fairly deeply inside myself and feel no regrets or resentment, no bitterness whatever about the transactions.  I am pleased with the fact that somewhere and somehow I have managed to keep a modicum of restraint when it comes to spending. I have no credit card debt; I owe nothing save my mortgage and the monthly payments I make to own some lovely undeveloped acreage in Southern Virginia. I try to keep my ledger as clean as possible and, when I can,  Ipay some costs ahead of time.

This being said, yes, of course I could use the money. Geez, $54K, who wouldn’t find some way to spend that?

So all you folks to whom I lent, no gave, money, well, you know who you are. And if any of you hit the lottery or inherited more than you can deal with, I’m still here.


Saturday, August 6, 2011


Downgraded. Can anything be more embarrassing for the superpower we once were?  And the Standard & Poor people saying maybe the rating will come back, but not for awhile? Does this sound like childhood, like the junior high report card that got you “No television for you until your grades get better…”  Oh, the shame, the ignominy, the sheer awkwardness of it all.  And dangerous, too, as the world hangs on the value of the dollar. Usurpers—the Pound, the Euro, the Yen, the Mark—have done their best to don the financial mantle, but it is only very recently that the dollar has been in mortal danger.

Flash back 50 years…. Are you old enough to do that?  Those were scary times too. Sponsored by the US government, 1,200 Cuban exiles invade Cuba. The Bay of Pigs landing is a fiasco, and all of the would-be liberators are either killed or captured. A few months later, the USSR erects the Berlin Wall, dividing Germany into East and West countries. Two months later, the USSR detonates a 50-megaton hydrogen bomb, the largest man-made explosion in history. There are 2,000 American ‘advisers’ in Vietnam.

The statistics are frightening as well. With a population nearing 184 million, the US is beginning to be concerned with over-population and the immigrant issue. Crime is at an all time high with 19.1 violent crimes per thousand. Homicides are up as well to 4.7 per thousand.

The GDP is $554.8 billion and the federal debt is a bit more than half that figure at $292.6 billion. Unemployment hovers at five-and-a-half percent and a first class stamp is four cents.

By 1981, violent crimes are up to 58.6 per thousand and the population has grown to 229 million. Ronald Reagan is elected and two months after his inauguration is wounded in an assassination attempt. The Federal debt is $995 billion and unemployment is at 7.6 percent. A first-class stamp costs 15 cents.

In 2001, 281.4 million live in the US. The Federal debt is at $5,807 billion—more than six times what it was two decades earlier—but unemployment is now 4.8 percent. The Twin Towers fall to terrorists; an anthrax scare rivets the nation; the US refuses to be involved in the climate accord signed by 178 nations.

Last year the US population reached 310 million. The debt has almost tripled in a decade to $13,050 billion and unemployment has doubled to 9 percent of the working population. A first class stamp is 44 cents.

August, 2011. After days of disagreeing, Congress makes an 11th-hour deal to prevent a national default. Neither side, Democrats or Republicans, emerge as a clear winner in the agreement. The deal raises the debt ceiling in two steps by a total of $2.1 trillion to $2.4 trillion and cuts an initial $1 trillion in spending over ten years. Also, a bipartisan committee will be formed to recommend $1.5 trillion in additional budget cuts. If Congress fails to act on this new committee's recommendations, then automatic spending cuts will be forced. The committees recommended cuts are expected by November.

In the words of Standard & Poor which has just downgraded the country from AAA to AA+, “The downgrade reflects our opinion that the fiscal consolidation plan that Congress and the Administration recently agreed to falls short of what, in our view, would be necessary to stabilize the government's medium-term debt dynamics.

“More broadly, the downgrade reflects our view that the effectiveness, stability, and predictability of American policymaking and political institutions have weakened at a time of ongoing fiscal and economic challenges to a degree more than we envisioned when we assigned a negative outlook to the rating on April 18, 2011.

“Since then, we have changed our view of the difficulties in bridging the gulf between the political parties over fiscal policy, which makes us pessimistic about the capacity of Congress and the Administration to be able to leverage their agreement this week into a broader fiscal consolidation plan that stabilizes the government's debt dynamics any
time soon.

“The outlook on the long-term rating is negative. We could lower the long-term rating to 'AA' within the next two years if we see that less reduction in spending than agreed to, higher interest rates, or new fiscal pressures during the period result in a higher general government debt trajectory than we currently assume in our base case.”

Folks, we’re in trouble. See last week’s “It’s Broke, Fix it” blog for some suggestions….

Monday, August 1, 2011

It's Broke. Fix it!

I’M NOT REALLY FAMILIAR WITH all the details of the national debt imbroglio. I am pretty certain, however, that a kid with a corner lemonade stand would be in big trouble if he ran his business the same way the politicos have been running the finances of the nation. I can’t think of a family that would dare operate with the same laissez faire attitude that has led us to the brink on a very serious and deep crisis. And I believe an individual espousing a similar spendthrift philosophy would soon be penniless, homeless, and credit-less.

What I wonder is, where do these people come from? How did they get elected and re-elected to national office? How and why have they allowed this truly great country to be piloted so far astray from its original intent—to be a nation for all, with opportunities for all and fairness for all? What has happened here?  How did we get from being a society for the people and led by the people, to a plutocracy run by the mega rich and their corporations. And what do we do now?

It’s tempting to call for a revolution, an American Spring, but this won’t happen here. We’re just comfortable enough with what we have. We’re on the brink, many of us, of bankruptcy and default, but not quite enough of us yet have lost jobs, homes and comforts. We can just about handle four-dollar-a-gallon gas, and the latest refinance has given us a bit of breathing room. Still, we’re not happy. Food prices have gone up as our investments have tanked. Our homes—for many the single most important investment—have lost value,  and we are lured into purchasing the things we need—cars,  groceries, clothes and school supplies—with credit cards that charge 15% interest or more on an unpaid balance. In 2010, the census bureau reported that the average credit card debt was $5,100 and this is expected to top $6,500 by the end of 2011. Forty-six percent of credit card holders have an outstanding owed balance of $10,000 or more. We seek what is often called the easier, softer way, with the belief that someone, somehow, will bail us out.

This is a strange notion, this belief in a quasi-divine intervention. For the majority, it’s not going to happen.

There are steps we could take, some small, other large, that would go a long way towards restoring to the republic the ideals of a better time.

  • Stop buying on credit, except in emergencies, and a new flat screen TV is not an emergency.
  • Car-pool, use public transport, bike, walk, run, do anything to reduce our reliance on gasoline. A serious reduction in consumer consumption would force Big Oil to lower its prices at the pump. Did you really want Exxon to post its biggest quarter ever last month?
  • Vote. This is simple. Create laws that stipulate that you do not have to vote, but you must make your presence known at the poll on Election Day. If people have to  show up, they’ll get involved.
  • Work towards ousting the elected officials who essentially represent major financial interests—banks, insurance companies, the medical and pharmaceutical establishments, oil, auto manufacturers, construction and development, etc.
  •  Eventually, call for a constitutional amendment to limit elected representatives to a single eight-year term for the Congress and a single seven year term for the presidency. Such a measure would rid us of the need, once in office, to almost immediately begin campaigning for re-election. Elected officials could then spend their time in office as they should—serving the needs of the people they represent.
  • Rewrite and simplify the tax laws and codes. Create a three tier system with a limited set of available deductions.
  • Establish independent committees to look at each and every government subsidy and decide whether these are valid uses of funds.
  • Work towards ameliorating the American diet. Diabetes and obesity are on the rise, and cost billions of dollars annually. Simple changes in what Americans eat will save money and lengthen life.
  • Legalize and tax the use of drugs by adults. This will free up billions currently spent on fruitless interdiction programs. It will also reduce gun-related violence.

Easy? No, of course not. But it’s a start.

As of now, it is beginning to look as if the great American experiment with democracy is on the verge of failure, mostly because the majority of us is not active in the business of our country. That has to change. America is a young nation acting like a bored and tired state. We’re being led down a very dangerous path, and while we have only ourselves to blame for our current predicament, we, the citizens, are the only ones capable of instituting change.