Saturday, August 1, 2015

Book Review: A PERFECT CRIME

Since I've read most of the output of Peter Abrahams, I've decided I'm going to finish the job and read everything the library has that he's written. A Perfect Crime is one of his earliest efforts, from the late 1990's, and the plot is relatively simple: a cuckolded husband decides to kill his adulterous wife and his lover, using a recently-released ex-con that murdered someone in the area many years before. The plot takes some time to start moving, but once the plan is put into place, the speed at which it unravels, and the twists that take place, make for a gripping and thrilling last third of a book, and the a sort of rough, rudimentary justice is done at the climax. This is not the absolute best book Abrahams wrote, but it was an early indicator of what he is capable of.

Friday, July 31, 2015

Running On Fumes

I feel like I am just sputtering toward the finish line of some too-long race, only to find that the race has another fifty miles to go. My finances never seem to improve; there is always some other bill that needs to be paid, and when the usual suspects don't suffice, my two older kids seem to have gone to the doctor yet again and left another payment that I am half-responsible for. I love living in this house, and it's certainly a bargain for what I pay--but there are things that I am responsible for, like half the water bill, that come due, it seems, at the most inopportune times. Every time I think I get ahead on credit card payments, I find out differently. And this past month, I've taken the easy way out as far as meals far too often because of the softball commitments. I have a house full of meal food that I barely touched in July.
There are other expenses that are significant, but that I'm not going to either list or give up--money and cash flow are not the only thing that make a life whole, not even close, and I am not giving up a relationship with someone that is emotionally and spiritually compatible with me because it's not totally cost-free when it comes to financial matters. There are other expenses coming up, too, that I know that I am going to have find money for--Sabrina getting a license and insurance rising accordingly, for example. I feel like I am floundering some days, as my rainy-day fund shrinks and shrinks, and I can't seem to get back on top of it. It's depressing some days, to think that I am at this point in my life and I literally cannot contemplate anything other than working, somehow, until I die. This is what the American dream has come to for me.
Yes, I screwed up twenty years ago with substance abuse, and left myself in a gigantic financial hole. But I have been doing the right thing for a long time now, and it just seems like the consequences never end, that no matter how hard I work and no matter how much I've done the right thing, it doesn't get better--that the one period of fucking up was a fatal wound. And it doesn't exactly foster a burning desire to keep going, to push forward, to keep looking and trying and finding that elusive magic ticket to financial security and well-being.
It fosters depression, and fatalism, and a sense of, more than anything else, weariness. I'm tired of doing this. I don't have the energy to do much more than I do; I spend anywhere from thirty minutes to two hours a day on couches napping as it is during non-sleeping hours. My health has held up for the most part over the years, all things considered, but I'm definitely in middle age and feeling it every day now. I'm not a quitter, far from it; in fact, I am quite determined, or at least have been throughout my life, and driven to accomplish goals. But I am really starting to question all this, to wonder if the effort is worth it. No, I don't want to throw everything up in the air, live on the streets, go back to what I used to do, or abandon everyone that matters to me in a monumental fit of self-pity. And no, I am not looking to exit this existence anytime soon--for one, I don't know what's on the other side, and that would be a hell of a chance to take, and two, I love too many people, and they me, to intentionally cause that kind of pain to them.
But I have to tell you that plugging on through this endless sea of thigh-deep mud doesn't hold a lot of attraction anymore. I need to find something more than the grind of daily existence to fill my days. Yes, the end of softball will help (isn't it telling that something that is supposed to be a game ends up being some sort of succubus that has drained the vitality and spirit of both my daughter and I for months on end, to the point where the primary emotion we both felt last night upon the conclusion of the last obligation was straight-up, unapologetic relief?). But it's temporary, and I am going to need something more in the future to fill the tank. I have ideas, but there is nothing concrete, nothing that is really firing my imagination. At least at present.
But the hardest step on a long journey is the first one. And sometimes pushing through this sort of malaise is victory enough. I have a to-do list today that is substantial, and I am going to go see the lady friend tomorrow. That situation is something that has its own burdens at present, but a commitment to a worthy person is worth keeping; one of my issues over the years in personal relationships has been the opposite of other areas of my life. I tend to walk or run away when expedience beckons or difficulties crop up. I'm not doing that this time; if you do the same thing, you get the same results, and whatever else happens, I am not doing the same thing this time that I have done in the past--which is bail out when sticking around becomes a bit inconvenient or difficult. Is it contributing to financial pressures now? Yes, but it's not the cause of all the problems. And someday, hopefully sooner rather than later, she will be more able to lessen the burdens around here. Two weeks from now, that part of the future, at least, will become somewhat clearer.
So, as it usually is, the answer to the dilemma is to plug onward. I can feel whatever I need to feel at a given time, and that's fine--you not only can't help what you feel, but identifying them and experiencing them is, on the whole, a lot better than stuffing them and not acknowledging their power. But my feelings are not my Higher Power; I've come too far from where I was to give in to those thoughts that would drag me back under the surface. Faith in doing the right thing, that somehow I will get what I need in all areas of my life if I live a principled, spiritually fit life, has carried me through nearly seventeen years, and it will carry me further if I stay the course. It's hard, it's not rewarding much of the time, and it gets and has gotten old at times. But the "easy" button is something that exists only in Staples commercials.

Thursday, July 30, 2015

After All This, A Chance For a Trophy

I was certain, before our season started, that our team would be in this game, possibly undefeated going in. And then I was equally certain, from about the fifth game of the season onward, that our team would not be in this game, that we were too erratic, that not enough players were playing up to their abilities, for us to get here. As recently as two days ago, after an absolutely abysmal attempt at a practice which left me muttering expletives to myself as we left the field, I was sure that we would be not be playing in this game today.
But one of the reasons I thought in the beginning of the year that we would be here is that every player on this team can do something well. And yesterday, that was apparent. We played nearly flawlessly in the field--one popup dropped among three players in the infield, but other than that, we played very well, remarkably well considering that one player was out of position and another had never played second base before. We remembered that the purpose of being patient at the plate is not necessarily trying to draw a walk, but to wait for a pitch that we can hit hard. And their coach pulled an old hustler's move--I have become known among the team for being somewhat anal about not losing outs on the bases, something we are prone to do, but yesterday, every player that isn't slow was stealing and taking extra bases on balls in play, and the idea worked to perfection, as the team we were playing threw the ball around and gave us a few runs early in the game, runs that we eventually needed to have a more comfortable margin of victory. We won 7-5 in a game that wasn't that close, and we are playing for the championship tonight.
We caught a break--of sorts. The fourth seed beat the top seed yesterday, and so we are considered the favorite, I guess. We split with this team (and scrimmaged them in the preseason, too) during the year; we lost the first game to them 10-8 after falling behind 9-0 in a game when, for four innings, we did nothing right, in the field and at the plate, physically and mentally, and then beat them 9-3 in a game when they only had eight players. It's a dangerous team; they have a bunch of good players that can hit the cover off the ball. They're more shaky in the field than we are, and the pitching they get isn't quite on the level we get (but that's true for every other team; we have the league's best pitcher), but they are still dangerous; we found out in the first game that we can get behind by four runs in a big hurry if we don't play at our best. It should be a good game.
And the best part about playing these guys is that this is the only other team in the league whose coach and players and parents I like,, without reservation (I like the top seed's coaches as guys, and they were and are very good to my daughter on all-star squads, but they are manipulative of rules and the process and try to get away with stuff that turns me off) Their coach is the father of a kid that Sabrina has been playing with on all-star teams for six years; the reason we are coaching in this league is that we spent two or three years in the stands at those tournaments decrying how badly our kids' City League teams were being coached and telling ourselves, "We can do a better job." And so we have.
And this guy, like me, plays by the rules, which is more than can be said for some of the other teams and coaches in the league. The best part about winning yesterday's game was beating the team that we beat. Every league has a coach or coaches that are, not to beat around the bush, assholes. You know the types--they bitch about strike zones, challenge every close play, try to disrupt opposing pitchers with spurious challenges. In this team's particular case, they have been notorious for years for adding players to the roster in contravention of established league rules regarding adding players during the season--I noticed yesterday that two players that were on the team in the last game we played against them, players that play on Seton's varsity, were not there--because they weren't on the official team roster at the beginning of the season and shouldn't have been there at all at any point. And sure enough, they pulled some bullshit yesterday. Sabrina had to work yesterday, and was going to be late getting to the game--and at the time the game began, we only had nine players. You can play ten, or you can play nine; it's coaches' choice. I chose to play nine because I didn't know when she was going to get there, and I didn't want to take an automatic out should her spot in the lineup come before she got there; I was just going to substitute in with her when she arrived. I told the umpire this before the game started; I told the league commissioner, who was in attendance; and I told the other coaches. No one had a problem. When Sabrina arrived, and the other coaches saw that it wasn't some scrub but a varsity Binghamton catcher, all of a sudden it was a problem; two innings after she entered the game, they officially "protested" the game because of supposed illegal substitution. Protest denied; result stands, change your diapers and start figuring how you're going to try to get over on everyone next year, because your season is over. My only regret is that the head coach from last year wasn't there this year; he was a bigger asshole than the two coaching the team this year. But it still felt unnaturally, perversely good to end their season; it was all I could do not to grab onto the guy's hand in the handshake line and gloat for ten or fifteen seconds.
And like I said, the coach of the team we play tonight plays by the rules; they played two or three games, including one against us, with eight players. I cut them a break in our game; I didn't take the automatic out when the ninth spot in the lineup came up, because I respect him and his players that much (and I wanted our team to earn the win, not get outside help). And this is the other West Side team, which, petty as it sounds, means something to both of us. It's been a long time since the West Side teams were both good at 17-under level--at least five years, and probably longer. I look back at times at what I wrote when Sabrina was on the 12-under all-star teams, and how good those West Side teams were at the time, and sometimes wonder what happened--some of those kids have gone on to major success, some don't even play anymore, and some are just plugging along. But both teams are filled with former and current teammates of Sabrina's from varsity, JV, Modified, and 12-under City League and all-star teams. All that talent years ago was not an illusion. On a level playing field, without chicanery and manipulating the rules, these kids can play ball with anyone, and this year they have proved it. Both teams don't even have their full rosters, and yet here we are.
Of course, I hope we win. But I'm not going to have a bitter taste in my mouth if we don't. For as much as this season has dragggggggggggged on, as much of an ordeal it has been at times, the good guys ended up in the championship game--both teams. You can't reasonably ask for more.

Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Book Review: CLASH OF EAGLES

I love historical novels, and a subgenre of historical novels that I love even more, if done right, is the alternative history novel, when something is imagined and explored that didn't actually happen but might have. Alan Smale's Clash of Eagles takes the idea that the Roman Empire survived, intact, down into the Middle Ages and sent an expeditionary force to North America in the late thirteenth century.
The protagonist of the book is the Roman commander, who survives when his legion is annihilated by the Cahokia people (after fending off Iroquois attacks from Chesapeake Bay inland). He is kept by his conquerors and teaches them how to work iron and other technological advances, and is eventually adopted by a clan and goes native. However, his technological prowess spreads to other tribes, and the climax of this volume--there will be more--is a huge, pitched battle between Iroquois and Cahokians more like a European conflict than an Indian one. North America is changing into a mini-Europe as the book ends, and the main character's fate is uncertain.
There are several fascinating parts of the book, mostly the idea that the Indians had the ability to construct gliders that held warriors and enabled long distance travel for individuals. And there are also some glaring historical inaccuracies that annoyed the crap out of me. One is that the Roman hero's name is completely wrong; he has two first names instead of a family name. This is such a basic error, in fact, that it seriously dampened my enthusiasm for reading; if an author can't get something so basic as names right, what else did he do shoddy research on? And the main enemies of the book, the Iroquois, certainly were not the Five Nations in 1278 AD; as a matter of fact, most of the North American tribal layout is from centuries later. And there is no indication that the disease epidemics that swept through North America in the wake of European contact--and the main premise of the book is that the Romans gained access to North America through conquering and assimilating the Vikings--was given any thought, when in fact it was the single biggest reason that the Indians were unable to resist European invasion.
I finished the book, and will probably read succeeding installments. But there is nothing I find more frustrating than a great idea executed in less-than-great fashion. This could have been so much more and better than it is.

Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Licenses To Steal

Several years ago, in the first year or two of the Obama Administration, a law was passed that is often overlooked in these lists of accomplishments in office. That was the law that eliminated some common practices banks were then practicing that cost customers money on a regular basis, and vastly curtailed their ability to charge some other kinds of fees. It has been so effective, in fact, that most people don't have any resentments toward their banking institutions anymore; the rapacious appetite of banks to rip off their own customers has abated somewhat.
But it has not gone into remission. I have had a couple of instances recently where my financial institution, M&T (fondly known among the learned as M&Fee) Bank, has quite openly and brazenly played games with both mine and my daughter's money, all legally and all for absolutely no good reason at all. The first is a severe annoyance to Sabrina, who got her first job this summer and, as is more or less standard practice now, opened a bank account so that her employer could direct-deposit her check as soon as possible. However, the direct deposit takes some time to set up (they usually tell you six weeks, but my own employer took less than two weeks, and I hear from people that work for other outfits say that two weeks is the norm), and as a result, Sabrina has had to deposit paper paychecks the last two pay periods. The check goes in--and then the money is not available to her for five days. Why? There is no freaking reason why, other than the bank has the money for a week, to do with what they will (and maybe they can catch her overdrafting, and charge her $38.50 for doing so). Her employer is not some mom-and-pop small business; it is one of the biggest restaurant chains in America, with revenues in the hundreds of millions annually. I am as sure as sure can be that her ninety-dollar paycheck will not bounce, and I am sure that M&Fee is positive of it, too. Yet they make her wait five days before she has access to her own money. Absolutely indefensible and unnecessary, and a true indication of the contempt that banks have for their own customers.
The second is a major issue, if I let them get away with it, to me. My paycheck gets direct-deposited on a certain day of the week. Pretty much every week, I live in the margin between the time I mail checks out and the time the next paycheck goes in, and as a result, some weeks I am at the bank for the two-three days before the next check goes in anxiously checking my balance to see if I need to dip into the emergency fund to stay in positive territory. A couple of weeks ago, I knew I had enough out in checks to potentially cause a problem, but I checked the bank balances at ATMs three times on the day before payday, the last time at 9:30 PM, just 2 1/2 hours before midnight and long after any "business" relating to the financial institutions involved was open. I was fine, a couple of hundred dollars to the good. So I went to the bank the next morning--and discovered that my balance was about ten dollars less than my paycheck. M&Fee had decided to post not one, not two, but three checks, including one mailed only three days before, that totaled $210, a few minutes, I eventually found out, before midnight, when my paycheck went in the bank. And yes, they tried to charge me the $38.50 overdraft fee--a day after the direct deposit. I went right to the bank at 9 AM, when it was crowded, and raised hell, not obstreperously but loudly enough so that the nine people in line certainly could hear what was going on. The overdraft fee was reversed.
And that's what's galling. They know exactly what they are doing. It is gotcha! capitalism at its most blatant, an example of the greed that has absolutely gutted the middle class of this country in the last thirty-five years. And none of the other banks, at least around here, are any better. I know; I've looked. Most of them have minimum balance requirements, and formulas for computing "average daily balance" that are more rigged than the odds in the house's favor in a casino. Some of the others don't even pretend to be particularly customer-friendly; they're right up front about things like your money not being available to you for days at a time--even cash deposits, which I have never ever heard of before. And while opening an account is still relatively easy, closing one is an ordeal--I remember going with Lauren last year to close an account of hers, and being there over two hours before they finally released the twenty-six dollars or whatever it was to her (because it had once been fifty-something, and they were grabbing four dollars out of it because it was below minimum balance).
The fundamental difference between the American economy of forty years ago and the American economy of today is that forty years ago, we were largely focused on creating wealth--our economy was based on manufacturing and commerce. Today, we are largely focused on extracting wealth--we spent a lot of time and effort finding new and novel ways to take the money that most of us already have and putting it in the pockets of our financial institutions. And if we are ever going to turn it around in this country, we need to reverse that trend completely. I am willing to bet that the amount that M&Fee extracts from its own customers every year would be enough to fix every bridge that needs repair in New York State, and M&Fee is not the worst offender out there in this state, much less nationwide. Shakespeare famously said in one of his plays, "Let's kill all the lawyers." George Carlin, when he was alive, suggested that the way to improving the economy was to randomly execute one bank executive per week until practices changed. I suspect Carlin was a lot closer to the truth than Shakespeare was.

Monday, July 27, 2015

Book Review: WHITE PLAGUE

White Plague is a decent little thriller by James Abel that has a plausible plot that touches upon several contemporary concerns (the opening of the Arctic, the lack of attention the United States is paying to it, possible health concerns relating to it, Chinese-American rivalry, cyber-spying). The problem is that it could have been done so much better. The characters are caricatures of flesh-and-blood human beings; the villains are painfully obvious for the reader to discern two hundred pages before they are unmasked; the actual "plague" of the title is something that is both a cliche and tests the limits of plausibility; and the central premise (that the plague was a century-old bioweapon that was in the Arctic because the United States was trying to introduce it into post-Revolution Russia) breaks those limits. There was also a flashback scene that seems to imply that there actually were labs where bioweapons were being manufactured in Saddam's Iraq, something that actually offends me, even in fiction. This may or may not be the author's first novel; the jacket says Abel is a pseudonym for a well-known journalist that has written extensively about the Arctic. If it is a first effort, there's some promise here, but he shouldn't give up the day job just yet.

Sunday, July 26, 2015

Leaving Sodom

Yes, I know that I post almost every morning, and today I am posting in the evening. I elected for the extra half-hour of sleep this morning, waking up at 3:45 instead of 3:15, so that I could eat, drink some coffee, shower, and still achieve my goal of being on the road at 5 AM, to get where I was going by 8 AM. I'm back from where I was, a little tired but also rejuvenated by seeing my lady friend for six hours-plus. I hate having to drive to see her, but I love that I am actually able to spend days with her now more or less weekly, and we are keeping our fingers crossed that she will be able to come back home--and we have agreed, and she has informed all interested parties that this is her intention, that "home" is going to be this home--in the fall.
She was ecstatic, as always, to see me today. But a few things were weighing on her as well. Both her family--everyone but her sister--and most of the friends that she has had over the past few years simply cannot put together any clean time, much less make a commitment to recovery. One reason I have made the commitment I have is that, while there are no guarantees that anyone will stay clean for the duration, there are certain signs, mindsets, decisions, what have you, that everyone that does stay clean for a long period of time exhibits, acts upon, and verbalizes in early recovery--and she crossed that threshold back in the fall. She has spent most of that time in various places full of other women that are in similar straits, and virtually all of them paid lip service to the idea that this time was going to be different, that they were not going to get high when they had the chance, and that they were going to move forward together in the recovery community.
And every goddamn one of them is using again. In some cases it took a few days, in some cases it took less than six hours, but every single of them is right back in the using cesspool.
It wasn't unexpected to her, and she's frankly both less sad than I thought she would be and has cut her emotional ties with them quickly and decisively--which is something very much of a change for her. And it's more confirmation that at this time, my judgement was spot on. And my commitment to her has been one of the reasons that she continues to make her own commitment to changing her people, places, and things stronger by the day--she knows that she has my support and my affection (and she also knows, by my own example, that staying clean for a long time can be done). But most of this is internal for her. She has said, as she has been all over the various "rehab" and "correctional" networks in this state in the last year or so, repeatedly "I don't belong here, and I will not be here again." And I can tell that she believes it. When I first met her, two years ago, there was a certain defeatism about the way she carried herself. The woman I found attractive was present then, or I never would have gave her a second look--but at that time, there was a sense of hopelessness and despair about her situation that is something that is a hallmark of the active addict. It isn't there anymore. I've seen this before in people, maybe one in a hundred that actually come into recovery at some point--and these are the people that do whatever they need to do to change and put the past behind.
And it holds no appeal for her, just as my memories of active addiction held no appeal for me from the day I was arrested back in 1998. Most people are familiar with the biblical tale of Lot and his family being given a chance to flee the destruction of Sodom (and Gomorrah, but Lot lived in Sodom) and save their lives--with the proviso that they not look back while fleeing. Lot's wife was unable to resist the temptation, and was turned into a pillar of salt, according to Genesis 19. Whether this is an echo of something that actually happened has occupied the minds of scholars for centuries, but the allegorical meaning is crystal clear to recovering people.
There is nothing to see when you look back at your own addiction but misery, destruction, and death. If you've been granted the chance to escape--take it and don't look back, at least until you are a very safe distance away. My lady friend is not interested in looking back, and has made it quite clear that she doesn't want anything to do with those that are. She told me today of the letter that she wrote to one she was really close to recently that used the day she was released from jail--telling her how disappointed she was, how dishonest she feels the woman was by claiming she wanted to change, and that she really doesn't want to see or hear from her again until the woman makes an actual commitment to changing. I doubt it's going to happen; she doubts it's going to happen. But she also said that if it doesn't happen, their friendship is over, and she's not going to lose a minute's sleep over it.
She's done. 
And in the thirty minutes it took me after I got home to make something to eat and check out Facebook, I saw a number of items featuring a bunch of people that are currently at liberty--but using drugs and basically waiting for the next arrest, the next crash-and-burn. I know the parents of some of them; some of them are parents that are in their sixth decade of life and still keep thinking that this time is going to be different. I felt a momentary twinge that these people are running around without obligations while my lady sits where she is. But only momentary. Because those people are going to get where she is now, eventually. The difference is that my lady is not going to be going back there, and those that are currently running around today will end up there in the future.
I'm not clairvoyant. But I've seen two things over and over again. One is that the end result of drug use for addicts is jails, institutions, and death. The other is that while not everyone that says and does that things my lady friend is saying and doing stays clean for the duration--those that stay clean for the duration said and did the things she is saying and doing now. The commitment is there, the desire to find a new way to live, the message of hope and the promise of freedom--they've taken root.
And nothing takes root in the blackened ruins of Sodom.