Monday, January 28, 2013

Regrets (I've Had a Few)

But on the other hand, there are some things I don't regret at all. To wit: In 1981, an acquaintance whom I'll call Binky had recently inherited a sailboat and proposed that I and my girlfriend at the time help him smuggle 800 pounds of top-notch marijuana into Miami. He had it all figured out. There was a seller in the Bahamas offering an excellent price. He had the sailboat and knew how to handle it. My girlfriend was also an experienced boater. He had even secured a cache of guns in case we were attacked by pirates or intercepted by the Coast Guard. The payoff would be $25,000 apiece—not a bad sum in the early 80s—which could, if we were interested, secure future, larger purchases. The likelihood of success, according to Binky, was 99.9 percent.

My gf and I talked it over. I was recently divorced, flat broke, unemployed. She thought it was a worthwhile idea. I did not. In the end, after much argument during which I was called all sorts of inelegant names, I persuaded her that we should pass on this golden opportunity.

Within a month Binky found two other partners and I drove to Annapolis to see him off. On the dock where his boat was moored, he hugged me and, grinning, called me a pussy. Three weeks later, the stripped and bullet-ridden hull of his boat was found off the coast of Ft. Lauderdale. Neither Binky nor his partners in crime were seen or heard from again.

Now it's possible that this was all staged and that today Binky is drinking pina coladas on a beach somewhere, surrounded by half-naked women, but I don't think so. I'd have heard from him, if only so he could gloat and propose another project. No. I'm pretty sure Binky bought it. So this is an adventure I do not regret not having participated in.

I do regret having to sell stuff prematurely because the economy blows and I need money. I've sold cars, guitars, amps, real estate, a lot of stuff I thought I really needed but didn't. And this brings up an interesting conundrum.

A regret encompasses a feeling sadness about something, a sense of loss and longing for what is not—or soon will no longer be—there. Right now, I am balancing regret against peace of mind. I will miss the use of what I've had to sell, but the money gained will allow me to sleep at night without a panicked awakening in the wee hours. I remain angry at the situation, still feel that the people I trusted with my savings were not worthy of that trust, but I have to accept that by and large, the fault was mine. Had I paid more attention to economic trends, had I questioned the monthly financial statements rather than accept them blindly, I would not be in this situation. I was lazy, like millions of people who have suffered economically a lot more than I have. In a way, I opted to have others lead my financial life for me, and that was a mistake not to be repeated.

My mother, when she was alive, wrote every expense in a large brown ledger. Rent, mortgages, the price of a dozen egg, a sheet of stamps, getting her shoes resoled, a dinner at the local restaurant, all were entered in her high cursive hand. To the best of my knowledge, she never actually did anything with these figures—they were just there, reassuring her that money was available to do the basic things.

I tried the modern version—Quickbook—and was a dismal failure. But maybe I'll try again. My mother was right about a few things in life, and perhaps this was one of them.

Friday, January 25, 2013

Ten Measures to Deal with the Gun Madness

I know people who own guns. They’re OK, I suppose; some hunt, others target-shoot, others still are persuaded they need firearms to protect their property and family though none, to the best of my knowledge, have ever been threatened in places other than their minds. I don’t have a lot to do with gun owners because our politics vary widely, and I think having firearms in the home is asking for problems.

Me, I don’t like killing things. In my home, I pick up moth, spiders, stinkbugs, daddy-long legs, centipedes and grasshoppers and put them outside. I’ve been known to chase deer out of my back yard with a straw broom and free raccoons trapped in my trash cans. And yes, I am a hypocrite of sorts since I eat meat, chicken and fish and have a predilection for pork products, even though I do not personally slaughter and butcher the animals I eat, or tan their hides

There is not a doubt in my mind that what Teddy Roosevelt called “the lunatic fringe” is alive and well and promoting the sale of assault rifles and other weapons designed solely to kill others. I do not believe that a good guy with a gun is a match for a bad guy with a gun, and research appears to back me.

So here are 10 suggestions to perhaps start getting a handle on the gun madness.

  1. Treat guns like automobiles. That is to say register and license them, and make sure gun owners know how to handle their toys.
  2. License gun buyers. Create a system similar to that used to license drivers, truck drivers over a certain tonnage, and other operators of rolling machinery.
  3. Tax guns, just like the state taxes cars—at point of sale, then every year on a diminishing value basis. The more cars you have, the more taxes you pay, and if you choose to have an expensive weapon, say an AR-15 assault rifle—a Rolls Royce of killing, so to speak—you will be taxed accordingly.
  4. Insure guns, again, just as cars are insured. This will make funds available to help cover damages—notably physical and emotional—caused by guns. Offer a break on premiums if the owner keeps his weapons in a secure gun locker.
  5. Tax ammo, like gasoline is taxed, varying tariffs for ‘low octane’ and ‘high octane’ ammunition.
  6. Triple or quadruple the sentences for crimes committed with fire-arms. Five years if you hold-up the local gas station; 20 years if you do it with a gun.
  7. Make owners responsible for their weapons. If a gun is stolen from a home, and the weapon was not secured, the owner should be held accountable for any damages incurred by the illegal use of the weapon.
  8. Impose heavy import duties on weapons manufactured cheaply overseas and exported to the US.
  9. Destroy all weapons held in police custody as evidence once the crime involving said weapon has been tried.
  10. Maintain a permanent national and local weapon buy-back system and immediately destroy all weapons turned in.


These measures won’t solve everything, but they’ll provide a start to dealing with the country’s obsessive and addictive ownership of gun.


Got ideas of your own? Send them in.


Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Many Causes, No Cures

“Do you smoke,” asked The New Doctor (TND).  I said no, I quit some 15 years ago when I gave up my beloved pipes, tampers, tobacco pouches, reamer, two kinds of tobaccos mixed just so, and the little fuzzy wire and fabric cleaners you can wrap around a finger and make into springs, to the delight of all children. So no, I don’t smoke. Good, he said, because we both knew that a prime cause of bladder cancer is either tar or nicotine, or both. (This being said, like with people who get lung cancer 20 years after quitting, the damage may already have been done.)

He guided the scope gently and said, “Ah,” which is never good. “There are recurrences. Do you want to see them?” Not really, but I looked at the overhead monitor anyway. Yes, here and there, several small areas that were no longer a healthy pink but instead seemed to have mold on them. So that’s what cancer looks like? Bathroom mold? How mundane, how quotidian and not good. Not good at all. “And there seems to be an area over here that looks abnormal as well. Well, we’ll have to do a biopsy again. At the hospital, I suppose.” He stripped off his sky blue latex gloves. “I’m glad you don’t smoke.”

It takes me a few days to wonder why he doesn’t ask about other agents either known or believed to cause the disease.  Cell phones, second-hand smoke, smog, sugar substitutes like Equal and Certa and whatever the stuff in pink packages is called. What about caffeine and red meat and irradiated vegetables? Tomatoes sprayed to look redder and bananas large enough to colonize small nations? Stress-causing bureaucrats and gridlock? Well, perhaps not the last two…

I drink several cups of very strong decaf coffee a day, and sweeten them with the artificial yellow stuff. I cook simple foods—stews, rice dishes, omelets, whole wheat pasta. Could any of these have caused my cancer’s resurgence? And what of the hours I spend each day before a computer screen that, I suppose, may emit death rays I am not even aware of. What of the 35-inch flat screen television set? The Boze radio, the iPad and Kindle and Sony laptop? The airport scanners and magnetic anti-theft gizmos in the entrances of stores? Those new light-bulbs that look like coiled snakes and the traffic cameras and radar guns? And of course all the plastic and Styrofoam containers that keep our food safe from microbes and other pollutants.

I have mentioned all of these items—and there are a lot more of their ilk—because at one point it was widely held they might be cancer-causing. In some cases, the jury is still out. Cell phones have not been around long enough to make definitive studies, but even meat grilled over charcoal on an outdoor barbecue is thought to have potentially nasty side-effects and we really have no clear idea, cancer-wise, of what a long-term fast-food diet might imply.

Me, (a little humor here, be warned) I’d be tempted to say the list should include people who say “You know” a lot, Asian ladies who turn left in front of me without signaling, men shod in sandals in winter, and any woman wearing a full burka while shopping at Victoria’s Secret.

I suppose my point is that really, we have no idea what causes what. It would be easy to blame any appurtenance of modern-day life but probably foolish to do so. We do know that, according to Third World Network (TWN), an independent non-profit international organization, “During the past 20 years, at least 30 new diseases have emerged, for many of which there is no treatment, cure or vaccine, or the possibility of effective prevention or control.” Additionally, the inappropriate use of antibiotics “has resulted in increased antimicrobial resistance and is seriously threatening drug control strategies against such common diseases as tuberculosis, malaria, cholera, dysentery and pneumonia.”

And while there has been a slight decrease in cancer-related deaths between 2004 and 2008, other forms of the disease are on the upswing: there are been a marked increase in oropharyngeal, esophageal and HPV-linked cancers; liver, thyroid, pancreatic and kidney cancers, melanoma and head and neck cancers, particularly among the poor. According to the American Cancer Society’s Cancer Facts and Figures, in 2012 an estimated 1,640,000 cancer cases were reported, with an estimated 577,000 deaths. Damn. That’s a lot of cancer, and in a very weird way, it makes me feel better to know I’m just a statistic and not the object of vengeful karma. But only the tiniest bit better.

Monday, January 21, 2013

Assessing the Vehicle

A long time ago, someone told me my body is just a vehicle that gets me from point A to point B—or maybe I read that in some New Age book. Nevertheless, it’s an image I can live with, and, pushing the analogy a bit, I can recognize that the minute I drove my vehicle off the new car lot, it begins to depreciate. We basically start aging from the moment we’re born, and a goodly part of our existence as functioning humans is spent keeping decay at bay. I fact, it strikes me that it’s a wonder most of us survive to any age. If look back over the past few years without major illnesses—Bell’s  palsy (WTF?), shingles, allergies and infections; a few weeks of flu and a back that once every three years goes out of whack. There’s been stupid stuff like a Weed-Whacker incident leading to a scratched retina, and another gardening event involving a dozen-or-so mud dauber stings. I had a motorcycle accident many years ago when I hit an eight-point stag, and when I was still drinking, I fell off a roof while playing Frisbee.  Surgeries prior to the cancer included a hernia, a deviated septum and a shoulder fixed with arthroscopic procedures.

Talking with friends over the weekend, I began exploring seriously what may happen in a near future I had not given much thought to. Yikes. This cancer thing may take me out…

Now that’s an eye-opener. It requires the sort of serious, objective contemplation I’m not at all sure I’m equipped to do. What I have found out is that I am now on the cusp of the 50 percent survival rate. Could be better, could be worse, and I can still get hit by a bus tomorrow.

I'm a big believer in the right to die. In fact, I plan to have "Do Not Resuscitate" tattooed on my chest before too long and my will has a clause forbidding caretakers from taking extraordinary steps to lengthen my life. This is not meant to be morbid. I'm simply a proponent of dignified exits with no interest in spending on hospital and medical care whatever I may have accumulated during a lifetime.

To me, insisting on life while striding through the gates of death is the ultimate selfishness. We don't like to talk about death and dying and we don't want to face the fact that our health care system is a money-syphoning sham. As one physician put it, "No one wants to talk about what we really need: a good kick in the ass and rationing care for our terminal patients."

S.K. Jindal, a physician and author for the Indian Journal Of Medical Ethics, writes, "Technological advances in the last few decades have made us believe that death is an unnatural event and that life can be prolonged at will. This has resulted in the adoption of life-supporting measures, which are sometimes antagonistic to the very dignity of life. Death is an inevitable conclusion of life. The dignity of death therefore is as important as that of life. The fortunate few die without much suffering, but most people face either the debility of old age or an incurable and progressive illness." He goes on to examine the 'right to refuse' issue. "A most contentious subject relates to the decision of patients to refuse life-prolonging treatment. The law generally gives adults the right to refuse treatment; however, [a medical practitioner] must often decide whether a dying adult is competent to decide or even communicate his or her decision.

"Legally speaking, adults are presumed to be competent to make decisions unless there are reasons to suppose otherwise. The right to refuse treatment is firmly established in British medical practice standards--it was upheld even in a patient diagnosed as psychotic who refused amputation of his gangrenous foot. In the United States, the Supreme Court in the Cruzan case is one of many which asserted the principle that individuals have the constitutional right to refuse treatment even if this may result in the person's death. This right has been reiterated in several other judgments even where patients did not have life-threatening illnesses."

Me, I simply refuse to have an everyday life that involves tubes draining liquids or solids from my body. My oldest sister, who six years ago died from bladder cancer and preferred life at all costs, was in constant pain and a shell of her former beautiful self by the time she passed away. I really don’t want that.

This, hopefully, is mindless conjecture. The surgeries and chemotherapies may indeed make everything all right again, but bladder cancer, as it turns out, has a nasty habit of commng back time after time, and each recurrence lowers the survival rate.  

I am reminded of the of the passing of Sir Edward Downs, the former conductor of Britain's Royal Opera, and his wife, Joan, who at 74 had been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. The couple, married 54 years, decided they wanted to end it together and secured the services of Dignitas, a Swiss concern that orchestrated their deaths. It was a painless and inexpensive affair when compared to the end-of-life care Joan would have had to go through and the suffering Sir Edward did not want to bear living without his mate. That Sir Edward was not terminally ill became a serious issue, debated endlessly in the British media. In the end, it became a question of accepting or rejecting Sir Edward's "typically brave and courageous" choice, according to his manager. Personally, I think the conductor--and anyone else of sane mind--has every right to choose the moment of one's demise. After all, if we are not given a choice of when to be born, shouldn't we be given the choice of when to leave? And when is the right time to retire the vehicle?


Thursday, January 17, 2013

Well Crap

Well crap. The cancer is back. Again. A test done this morning shows several small recurrences, and another surgery—or two—are imminent. What bothers me more, I think, is the fact that the nasty cells seem to have spread.  I was too taken aback to ask the doctor sensible questions and I suppose I should not interpret his worried look as anything more than decent bedside manners. Still, I feel as if I’ve been punched in the gut.

What this implies, regardless of the surgical outcome, is several more months of BCG treatment. Bacillus Calmette-Guerin is the action of choice for post-operative bladder cancer care. As chemotherapies go, it is one of the more benign. There’s no hair loss, though in me the process has led to nausea, vomiting, loss of appetite and fatigue. It is unpleasant, embarrassing and demeaning. Having a catheter used to shoot my bladder full of a bacterial compound, the workings of which is not understood, is unsettling. I’ve read that the process is believed to work by stimulating an immune response, or causing an irritation of the bladder wall that fights cancer cells, but the truth is, no one really knows. The success rate of the treatment is relatively high at 63 percent after 15 years, though some studies indicate the survival rate of only 50 percent after five years.

I am a prime candidate, a white male over 65 with a history of smoking, even though I quit more than 15 years ago.

I’m trying hard to go with the notion that stuff simply happens, rather than be vexed and say stuff happens to me. I am not being entirely successful. Crap.


Sunday, January 13, 2013

The Comics

Ever since I was a little kid, I've found refuge in the comics. As an adult, particularly when I'm down (I've decided to stop whining, effective now), I can still get a little suspension of belief by turning to what has become a new literary genre, the graphic novel.
In France, Tintin reigned. He was a young reporter who, with his dog Milou, his friend Captain Haddock and a list of colorful and not altogether healthy characters, traveled to all parts of the world and expounded what were then European colonial aspirations. He went to the moon, stopped slavers, found sunken treasures, hunted in the Congo, foiled opium traders in the Orient. He was completely sexless--no romantic interest ever entered life and the sole woman portrayed was an overweight opera singer whose stolen jewels he recovered.
In the States, the greatest and most original work was A Contract with God, by Will Eisner. Seeking a more mature expression of the comics' form, Eisner, a cartoonist whose works include The Spirit, Blackhawk, Sheena, and many others, spent two years creating four short stories of "sequential art" that became A Contract with God, first published by Baronet Books in 1978. In this book, with its 1930’s Bronx tenements and slice-of-life moral tales, Eisner returned to his roots and discovered new potential for the comics form — the graphic novel.
More recently, artist Neil Gaiman wrote and published The Sandman, the tale of Dream of the Endless, an amorphous creature who rules over the kingdom of dreams. There were 75 issues in all from 1989 t0 1996, and Norman Mailer described Gaiman's creations as "a comic book for the intellectual." The Sandman is one of a handful of graphic novels to ever make theNew York Times bestseller list. And of course there is also the Watchmen series, recently made into an unfortunate and incomprehensible movie.
Graphic novels are not for lazy readers. The images are far more complex than the text, which is often secondary, and the plots would daunt Dante. These books are put together by a team of artists--writer, drawer, inker, letterer, editor and each participant will probably have a impact on the book's lot and resolution. In some editions--notably Sandman--the writer invites several teams of artists to put together a given issue, so that by the time these are put into a printed collection, each issue has its particular look, style and voice. Imagine, if you will, Mick Jagger putting a different band together for each cut of the Stones' new CD and you'll get an idea of what publishers of graphic novels are offering today.
Interested? Here are some worth considering according to Time magazine:
Berlin: City of Stones by Jason Lutes (Drawn & Quarterly; 2000)
Part of an incredibly ambitious, years-in-the-making project, this is just the first volume of a series of novels that will all take place during the combustible Weimar era of the titular city. Drawn with clean lines and an attention to architectural detail that pays homage to such European comics as Hergé's "Tintin," City of Stones follows a young woman art student who starts an affair with a weary leftist journalist against a background of boiling politics and decadence. Filled with rich characters and period detail, even if the follow-up books never come, it will still be one of the premier works of historical fiction in the medium.
Blankets by Craig Thompson (Top Shelf; 2003)
This semi-autobiographical novel set in the snowy hinterlands of Wisconsin tells the story of a lonely, artistic young man who struggles with his fundamentalist Christian upbringing when he falls in love. Fluidly told over 582 pages, Blankets magically recreates the high emotional stakes of adolescence. Thompson has set new bars for the medium not just in length, but breadth.
The Dark Knight Returns by Frank Miller (DC Comics; 1986)
One of the best-selling graphic novels of all time, this black comedy version of Batman's latter days masterfully combines satire with superhero antics without betraying it's central character's core of danger. Along with Alan Moore & Dave Gibbon's Watchmen, it redefined the concept of "superhero," and helped spark the first wave of "serious" interest in comics. And, of course, it was made into a not-so-bad film.
David Boring by Daniel Clowes (Pantheon; 2000)
Although best known for his book Ghost World, thanks to the movie version, Dan Clowes' David Boring, about a guy in search of a woman while the world may be ending, marked his first truly novelistic approach to graphical storytelling. Peerless in his ability to create offbeat characters and write sardonic humor, Clowes has lately gotten more experimental in his form, but David Boring remains his most readable and unified book.
Jimmy Corrigan: The Smartest Kid on Earth by Chris Ware (Pantheon; 2000)
The most perfect novel yet seen in this format, Ware innovates in form and in content to create a uniquely American story, both tragic and gut-splittingly funny. Neither smart nor a kid, Jimmy reunites with his long-lost dad, finds him a great disappointment, and discovers an African-American sister he never knew about. Confronting race, history, and family this book proved incontrovertibly that the form could be as deep and complex as any prose novel.
Palomar: The Heartbreak Soup Stories by Gilbert Hernandez (Fantagraphics Books; 2003)
A kind of über graphic novel that collects a series of smaller graphic novels all situated in a small town "somewhere south of the U.S. border," this giant tome by a seminal comic artist will likely be the author's magnum opus. Part of the creative team behind the deeply influential "Love and Rockets" comic book series (along with his equally talented brother Jaime) Gilbert has created a Pan-American epic that spans multiple generations of a family run almost exclusively by women. Hernandez' Palomar combines the look of Archie comics with Faulkner's richness of character and place into the melodramatic sweep of a sexy soap opera to create one of the most remarkable works of any narrative art.

Sunday, January 6, 2013

Friends in Medium Places

I don’t have friends in high places anymore. I did, many years ago, when for a brief period I found myself hobnobbing with the high-and-mighty. In time, I discovered these relationships were at best transient and, honestly, brought little to the table. Now I know and rely on less stellar beings, the average-but-resourceful on whose help I can count on when the going gets choppy. I suppose you could call them friends in medium places.

Take, for instance, the mechanic at a local garage who for years has been putting my cars through the Virginia State inspection. It is cars, plural; I have three, none newer than 1989, and they’re well-loved but cantankerous. Mike the Mechanic—an alias—whips them through his service station, tells me what may need to be done, quotes a friendly price and advises me to shop eBay for replacement parts. I’ve followed his advice and saved hundreds. We talk about the weather, his wife and her latest weight-loss program, and his 16-year-old daughter whom he worries about. He knows I used to work in a drug rehab and a while back he asked me about the warning signs of marijuana use. We spoke and days later I gave him some literature as well as the name of a doctor I know who willingly talks to concerned parents.

Mr. T (really, it says that on his nametag) is a physically impressive clerk who works in a nearby post office. He has helped me figure out the sometimes Byzantine postal rates charged for shipping goods overseas, as well as the US Customs forms that need to be filled. Sending stuff has gotten more complex since the Homeland Security people have taken an interest in outgoing mail (it seems to me they should focus on the incoming stuff, but what do I know) and Mr. T has suggested ways to ship more cheaply and faster. I’ve seen him deal with the rush of Christmas package senders with the aplomb of Eliot Ness facing the mob. He has never once lost his cool; he shakes my hand, smiles and asks how I am every time we meet. Now that’s a friend…

At my food store, I ran into a young check-out employee whom I used to see when he worked at Borders, before that bookselling chain went out of business.  Charles is thin, intense, and even looks like a writer, and when he manned the store’s espresso machine, I could always count on a couple of free shots, as well as good conversation on the latest literary gossip. The economy has treated Charles harshly; newly married and living in his in-laws’ basement with his wife, he now handles carrots instead of Camus and Pepsi rather than Pepys, but he’s still full of good advice. Where he once he pointed me to the hidden Borders shelf where a couple of difficult-to-find hardback masterpieces were for sale, Charles now sends me to the grocery store’s olive counter. The big green ones stuffed with red peppers are on sale, he says, though not marked as such, and the gherkins are out of this world.

I know a lot people like Charles, Mr. T and Mike throughout the area. They’ve had—and continue to have—more impact on my daily life than the US Senators I used to play music with, or the Presidential candidate who wanted me to ghost-write a novel for him—free of charge, I might add.

I’m not sure what to make of this, and probably there’s nothing to be made of it at all. In the Washington area, there’s not seven degrees of separation, there’s one or two, three at most, and everyone knows someone who is intimately acquainted with the movers and shakers, or has a child that attends the same school as the President’s daughter. We like to be associated with the richer and more famous, without realizing that more often than not, these people are takers, not givers.

My playwright friend Paul this morning reminded me of what used to be called ‘the King’s touch,’ the belief  held in the Middle Ages that a touch from royalty could heal many diseases.  A few hundred years later, those with faith thought that a coin that had been touched by the monarch held much the same powers—cure by osmosis. I think the belief still holds true; we think knowing the highly placed will somehow better our lives.

Me, I believe in Mr. T the Mailman and Mike the Mechanic.