Saturday, October 31, 2009

Book Review: POISONED PROFITS

Poisoned Profits is Philip and Alice Shabecoff's in-depth study at the nationwide effects of a century of "Better Living Through Chemistry." The first half of the book is devoted to detailing the extensive links between various products of corporate America's chemical laboratories and all sorts of conditions, especially in children. Not only the usual birth defects, but also a host of other problems, such as autism, ADHD, impaired intelligence, and other banes of modern America have strong links to chemical exposure. The second half of the book is devoted to the chronicling of how those with the power, in theory, to stop the chemical corporates instead have been bought and emasculated by them, especially during the National Nightmare of 2001-9.
When I first sat down to write this, I thought about a long rant about how horrible corporate America is. But I don't have it in me tonight. What I do have is a simmering disgust at the horrid, utter hypocrisy that pervades Joe Q. Public's value system. Americans are supposed to be the most religious people on earth--yet this nation is the most corrupt, the most devoted to the pursuit of money, the most materialistic and selfish nation in the history of man. The history of the United States of America is, with very rare exceptions, a testimony to baseness, a temple to Mammon that a hundred Samsons could not budge the pillars of a single micron. I can only hope that these religious people who claim to beleive in a Judgement Day and that God will take His own to heaven and purge the world of the rest of us are wrong--because if they are right, then America is first in line to be fried. There is a not a vice or false value that Jesus declaimed against during his time here that this country does not fervently espouse--in their actions and values, despite what comes out of their lips.
And it disgusts me. To no end. I work with teens for a living, and I see all sorts of damage that has been done to them, most of it irrepairable, and thus I am no longer surprised by the information contained in this book. But if there is one thing I have become less tolerant of as I get older, it's hearing pompous greedy assholes pontificate about how our children are our future--and then basically do grevious harm to them in a thousand different ways in their pursuit of money, status, and material goods. I almost wish Dante's version of hell did exist; I would love to see most of the people now alive in this country in eternal torment for the way they've lived their lives.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Book Review: IT WAS NEVER ABOUT THE BABE

Although I am not as passionate as I once was, I have been a Red Sox fan my entire life. It Was Never About the Babe is another Red Sox book, this one by first-time book author Jerry Gutlon. There were a few inaccuracies in the book (that kind of stuff drives me crazy; don't they employ fact-checkers in the industry? I mean, I know Boo Ferris' big years were 1945 and 1946; why wouldn't someone who does this for a living be able to make sure the information in the book is accurate), but for the most part, the book focuses on an area that has received (yes, Sox haters, it is possible) scant media attention--the racism that pervaded the organization for much of his history, and details surrounding same. I was also genuinely surprised by Gutlon's persuasive argument that, unlike the benevolent almost-buffoon he is commonly portrayed to be, long-time owner Tom Yawkey was a drunk, a racist, and the primary reason the team didn't win a World Series for 60 years. There is also a by-now de rigeur debunking of the Curse of the Bambino, and an absolute roasting of some members of the Boston press, most notably Dan Shaunghessy but others as well. For a Red Sox fan, the book is a mixed blessing; it is informative, but the actual accounts of players and seasons is both a bit lacking in detail (or at least detail that is interesting) and curiously detached, almost clinical, like the author's heart really wasn't into baseball but rather the politics surrounding it. I wouldn't presume to say how it would read for a casual fan or a non-Red Sox fan; I am neither.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

11 Years Clean

Today is my clean date. It is amazing to me 1) how long it has been, 2) how well I still remember that last few days out there, and 3) how calmly I now take the anniversary. The last few days have not been particularly good days; there has been a lot going on, compounded today by a bank person going out of her way to be difficult that resulted in my paycheck's deposit being delayed for at least one day. But all the other annoyances of the day are so minor compared to the very serious problems I had on 10/28/98 that I really shouldn't complain. Of course, I still do; that's human nature. But I have never acted like I have lost my gratitude, because I haven't.
I have described active addiction to non-addicts before as the ultimate OCD, and that is fairly accurate as far as the relationship between addict and drug is concerned. But the most debilitating aspect of active drug addiction is not the dependence upon the drug or the high; it is the pervasive hopelessness. The total, all-encompassing despair of September and October 1998 is so seared into my mind that I really believe I will never forget it. I really, really thought that I was never going to get out, never going to escape, the streets of Binghamton. I just kind of floated around--getting money by whatever means, getting high, getting more money, getting high, crashing for a couple of hours every fifth or sixth day, doing it over again. It was getting worse; I was starting to commit crimes, my relationship with Sabrina's mother was getting more and more antagonistic and eventually was to become violent, and I was ripping off more and more dangerous people every day and I knew the odds were going to run out soon. I had not seen my kids in months, I didn't work, I didn't even eat or do laundry anymore, I wasn't welcome around anyone who had known me longer than two years. And yet I didn't--really didn't think I could--stop; I really thought it was too deep of a hole to get out of, that forgiveness or atonement was not possible, and that the few seconds of pleasure I still got from crack was the only respite from an existence too desperate to face up to.
And after the inevitable crash, I remember feeling a sort--sort--of relief; I thought I might be able to stop using after getting arrested, but I sure didn't think incarceration was what I needed (but that's what I got). But even more so, I remember what happened ten minutes beforehand. Shannon and I had gotten into a dispute that still remained verbal at that time, and I ended up going to her car in the hotel lot and driving it (it didn't need a key to turn the ignition) to the gas station next door, and putting the last $1.56 in my pocket into the gas tank (in 1998, it was well over a gallon's worth). When I got back in the car, my intention was to go just about anywhere. I knew the hotel manager had called the cops, I knew the drug dealer I was into for about $2K was on his way, and I didn't particularly want to deal with either situation. But I got back in the car, turned on the radio-- and "That Smell" was playing. "oooh--oooh, that smell/Can't you smell that smell/oooh-oooh that smell/The smell of death surrounds you." As the song played out, I just stared out the window, listening, and saw the flashing lights coming down Front Street, still way off but no doubt headed our way, and I had the first moment of clarity of recovery (the drugs were gone by that point in the evening; that was why we were fighting, over the ways and means to get more): "You have nowhere to go! You know if the cops get there and arrest her, she's going to tell them you stole the car, and you'll pick up a grand theft auto charge, too. Get your ass back there!" And for some illogical, unexplainable reason, I listened to that voice--as much as I had ignored it countless times in the previous two years--and I did. I wish I could tell you the moment lasted, but it didn't; it was chaos once back at the hotel and then the cops arrived, and my scheming, conniving, self-centered ways came back to the fore for a long time to come. But without that moment then, this life of mostly good moments on a day to day basis would not have happened. I sometimes don't remember that as well as I should, but I have never completely forgotten that moment, or what preceded it.
And I get reminders all the time. As I was taking Sabrina to school today, "Rockabye" was on the radio. "Rockabye" was released right around that time, and I heard it dozens of times during that first year clean--and needed to, because I sure as hell did not feel, most of the time, that "everything is going to be all right." I am sure hearing it this morning, of all mornings, was not a coincidence. It was also not a coincidence that "Run," by Collective Soul, was on the radio tonight. I do have a long way to run--in a good sense. It's only slightly ironic that addicts often refer to using episodes as "being on a run"--but if it actually is a run, it's almost always a sprint. The run I am embarked since getting clean is a marathon, one that I am not in sight of the end of (at least I think). And a couple of lines in that --"I'm going to buy back memories/to waken some old qualities."
Except I've moved past every "old quality" I ever had. I am a much better--and much healthier--person than I ever have been. I am useful to others, I am guided by principles, I am much more tolerant and patient than I ever was, and most of all, I feel that there is a purpose and meaning beyond naked self-interest to my life. I have become capable of love and of being loved. I have become capable of accepting life as it is instead of struggling to make it what I feel it should be, and complementing those in my life rather than trying to change or reshape them. I at least have a nodding acquaintance with a life lived by the Golden Rule, and much to my surprise, Jesus was right--it does make you happier and much less susceptible to the blandishments of the earthly values.
That is why I stay clean. I like my life today, and I like myself. There is no need for me to use drugs or get drunk anymore. There are no voids to fill, no pain to salve--or at least I realize that drugs will not salve any pain, that sometimes pain just has to be experienced. But I have also found that living right, I don't get hurt like I once did. Those sort of things just don't have the power over me that they used to. And that has been the benefit of being clean for eleven years. I am responsible for my life, and I have grown to like the freedom that responsibility brings. Simple, but powerful. I suppose drugs are always an option--but they have no appeal to me anymore.
And that, my friends, is the miracle, that someone who could not abstain from getting high for many years and who could not go five minutes without thinking about getting high for an even longer period no longer even feels the appeal. I know that miracles happen. Because I am one.

Monday, October 26, 2009

Book Review: THE GREAT GAMBLE

The Great Gamble is Gregory Feifer's in-depth treatment of a war that most Americans, especially those of my age group, know of but know next to nothing about-- the Soviet Union's decade long adventure in Afghanistan. Americans reading this book in 2009 cannot help but draw parallels between both the USA's own experiences in Afghanistan--which seem to be heating up again--and the conflict in Iraq. More than a simple chronicle of the men who fought in it and the campaigns that defined it, what was the most interesting part of the book was the portrait of Afghanistan itself, and what we ought to be know (as opposed to what we do know) about not only the country, but who our alleged enemies are in the "War on Terrorism."
What emerges is a country--region, actually; there are several "countries" within Afghanistan's borders-- that is as alien to Americans and American values as dwellers on the moon would be. Afghanistan is some of the most difficult terrain on earth to live in, and the culture there has evolved into one where inconstancy and expedience are virtues. Actually, I am trying to be as non-judgemental as possible; many would use the terms "treachery" and "faithlessness." The natives of the country, although Moslem, do not follow the tenets of the religion anymore than most Christians do--which makes them an odd fit for the zealots that are the frontline warriors in the ranks of Islamic terror. One thing that is abundantly clear is that, left to their own devices, the groups within Afghanistan are fraticidally antagonistic; they were millennia ago, they were five hundred years ago, they were during the Soviet invasion--and they are now. If the Soviets had never invaded, the country would still semi-nomadic and semi-modern. If the USA left the country tomorrow, the divisions among the groups would soon render any thoughts of global jihad irrelevant. There is no reason for anyone in the United States military to be there right now. If we got out, we would save ourselves a bunch of money, increase our security, and get the satisfaction of watching a whole lot of people we have little in common with blow themselves to bits over territory we have no abiding interest in.
But we are not, and politicians held hostage to knee jerk patriots who evacuate their bowels at any straw men set up as "threats" by those wishing to manipulate "patriotism" for the ends of "money" will not abandon the venture in our lifetimes. It is to avoid gigantic messes like this that history and political science majors in college exist--but then the ignorant and the fearful end up driving policymakers, anyway, because the nitwit vote outnumbers the intelligent vote. It's depressing as hell, and short of hoping that swine flu or 2012 kills off a lot of the ignorant, we are stuck in this tar pit for the rest of our lives.
There are times when the smartest moves in foreign policy, cynical as it sounds, is "arm everyone and seal the borders." Afghanistan is one of those places where that would be a wise move.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

The First Loss of the Year

The Vikings lost to the Steelers today, and many of the things I have been worried about for weeks came to pass. The offense gave the Steelers 14 points, and as Favre has become more comfortable and entrenched, the Vikings are seemingly forgetting that they have the best running back in the league on their team. But of all the nonsense that led to the loss today, two things stuck out that remind me that this team is, in fact, different than those of the past:
1) Percy Harvin is nowhere near 100%, but in seven games, he has brought back two kickoffs for touchdowns. The Vikings haven't had a guy like that since arguably David Palmer, and maybe never. The one today was absolutely crucial; it came directly after the first turnover touchdown, and at least brought the situation back to something near antebellum status.
2) They still almost won this game, because after the Harvin touchdown with 5 minutes left, the defense got them the ball back. This is unheard of in Viking land, and was especially surprising in light of last week's meltdown against Baltimore. That Favre threw a TAINT (admittedly not entirely his fault) that made the final margin ten still doesn't alter the fact that for two decades, the game would have been gone after the first defensive touchdown against.
This is a quality team, and after the wins against San Francisco and Baltimore, I really can't be too upset about this loss, especially when they didn't quit when they had every chance to. This team should--should--get a bye this year, and maybe even home-field advantage throughout.

Friday, October 23, 2009

Book Review: BONES OF BETRAYAL

Bones of Betrayal is the latest Body Farm mystery from the writing team of Jefferson Bass. With the CSI craze haven taken over network television and showing no signs of abating, books like these have a ready market--murder mysteries revolving heavily around forensic science. The setting and murder weapon here are unique--Oak Ridge and radioactivity--and although the characters are somewhat unrealisitic and the interplay between characters wooden, the story itself is very interesting and well put together. There are much worse ways to spend a rainy fall day than by reading this book.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

The Most Devastating Disease

I was in Cordisco's today with Sabrina because she had a Gatorade coming to her for a reward. I walked up to the corner to pay for it, and taped to the cash register was one of those "benefit" notices, the kind you always see for some poor unlucky bastard that has something horribly wrong with them and who can't pay their medical bills. I always look, and I always silently say, "well, I can't help everyone, and I don't know them anyway" and leave the store and get on with my life.
Except, today, the note was for Mike Meade. I've known Mike for years. His daughter Jazmine and Sabrina were good friends in early grade school; Jaz slept over our house several times. Mike and his wife Angela got clean after years of heroin use about six years ago, and stayed around for a few years. It become clear Mike had relapsed, and there were serious strains in the marriage, especially after Tristan, the fourth child, was born in 2006. I haven't seen either one of them at a meeting for a couple of years, although I don't go to many. The last time I saw Mike was at a wake some time ago; he looked and sounded normal, like himself.
He isn't now. He has Lou Gehrig's Disease, ALS, and that is the absolute worst thing I can think of to have happen to you. Something like cancer is terrible, but there is always some hope that you can beat it. AIDS can be lived with for decades. But ALS--you always die, and you always waste away within a couple of years. I don't have Mike and Angela's number anymore, so I called John, his ex-sponsor. John said he had just seen him yesterday, and that Mike has one useless leg and can hardly get around anymore; he said he and Mike and Angela just bawled. And I think I would, too.
Mike is 36 years old. That's ten years younger than me. He has four kids; I think Harley is 19 or even 20 now, there's a boy a few years older than Jaz, and Tristan is still a preschooler, for God's sake. It's just too depressing to contemplate for long. My biggest nightmare is that something happens to me before Sabrina is an adult, and this just reinforces it.
Shee-ittt.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Book Review: BOTTOM OF THE NINTH

Bottom of the Ninth is Michael Shapiro's study of the failed Continental baseball League in the early 1960's, Branch Rickey's last foray into the game he served for 60 years. It is a tale of shortsighted, obstructionist baseball owners--nothing new there--and also a plea for what have been. The secondary thesis of the book is that if baseball owners had acted differently in 1959 about the Continental League, and acted then to pool their TV income, then perhaps baseball's slide in popularity would not have happened and today's gross disparities between teams that lead to competitive imbalances on a historic scale would not exist. The second point is plausible; today the Royals and Pirates and Nationals are as stuck at the bottom of the league as the Browns and Senators ever were. But the first is highly suspect. Shapiro seems to beleive that if the major leagues had welcomed or at least not blocked the Continentals, then the majors would have had three leagues in a decade and all sorts of healthy money flows and competition, using football and the AFL as an example. But the crucial difference is that the AFL made the decision to go independent and proceed on that basis; in other words, the blame lies not so much in the majors' owners as in the Continentals' owners, who allowed themselves to be fobbed off with promises and expansion franchises.
The book moves right along, even if the subject matter isn't the most vibrant material. If one likes baseball, the chronicle of the three seasons of the end of the Casey Stengel era are interesting; one of the few years the Yankees did not win, 1959, is one of the years followed.

Monday, October 19, 2009

The Ride Continues

Yesterday, the Vikings were the early national CBS game, and the way circumstances worked out, I was able to watch the last twenty minutes of the game (in game time, not real time). And after watching them blow a 17-point lead in about the time it takes me to blow my nose, I was despondent and, yes, a little pissed, that I had been taken in yet again by the one team that always disappoints me.
Except they came back to take the lead, even after Adrian Peterson and Percy Harvin went out, and wonder of wonders, Baltimore missed the last second field goal try. Now, I am as realistic a sports fan as it gets. I have devoted countless hours to statistical research to separate pretenders from contenders come playoff time, and when the time comes, I will tell you what matters when the Super Bowl rolls around. I can tell you that there has never been a Super Bowl champion that did not meet certain criteria, and I can also tell you that with the exception of 1987 (excluding the strike games), 1988, and 1998, the Vikings have had no shot at winning it since I was in middle school. And right now, I have to say that blowing a 17-point lead to fall behind in the fourth quarter is not characteristic of championship quality teams, nor is the failure to put the Packers away a few weeks ago, or trailing two god-awful teams at halftime. The defense is suspect without Winfield (a more important possible injury than Peterson, who has been ordinary much of the season), and Harvin at least gives them a chance to take back some of the special team yardage they give up when he returns the ball.
But I have to tell you, this year feels different. For thirty years, I have watched some of these same things in Viking games, and they led to losses. This year's team, through six weeks, has overcome those gaffes and still won. Any other year, the Raven kicker makes that kick. Any other year, the Packers come all the back against them. Any other year, the Rams don't give away 21 points inside the Viking 10.
I don't know how it's going to play out. But I will say this team is starting--starting--to remind me of one other team in recent memory, one that banished the ghosts of 40 years of ineptitude for that franchise and ushered in a golden age: the 2001 Patriots. Granted, I have a tough time seeing Brad Childress coaching a Super Bowl winner. But in October 2001, Bill Belichek was a retread coach with a very suspect body of work as a head coach after a good career as an assistant. Stranger things have happened. We'll get a better idea next week when they play Pittsburgh there; they have always had trouble with the Steelers when the Steelers have been good. But 6-0 is a lot better than 4-2, and it's very good that they are 2 1/2 games ahead of their closest pursuers already.
It's still OK to dream.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Book Review: SELLING THE GREAT WAR

Selling the Great War is scholar Alan Axelrod's look at how the United States manipulated the media and by extension the country itself after it entered World War I in order to not only create a pro-war atmosphere, but to extinguish any contrary views. The mechanism used was the Committee on Public Information, an Orwellian title before Orwell, and it focuses a great deal on the writer who headed it and essentially gave the country its information, George Creel. Although we in the modern world have seen elements of this sort of effort, especially in the second Iraq conflict, it is sobering to realize that it could be worse, and another confirmation that the Bill of Rights should not be taken lightly, that those in power will always dispense with those rights if given half an excuse.
There were two related topics to the book that came to mind. One is that we, the American society, should be extremely grateful for the proliferation of the Internet and other digital techonology, because it has made censorship and information control by authority much harder to acheive than it ordinarily would be. Traditional media outlets--print, radio, and now television-- can be and more or less have been brought to heel by the forces of authority. It is rare that a newspaper is informative anymore, and radio and television are much more utilized as avenues for the powers that be's propaganda than as any source of independent information. The Net is the last open forum, where opinion and uncontrolled sources of information are still freely available, and that serves as a brake on the ambitions and, yes, power of elites all over the world, not just here. One need only to look at the difference in the health care debates between 1993 and 2009; the only substantial difference is that in 1993, the Net was in its infancy--and the insurance industry was able to control the terms of debate much more easily. They are trying the same tactics now, but the effort is not as successful, because there are too many sources of information that they cannot control, and the same bullshit/buying/intimidation tactics it is employing are not as effective simply because a counter-message is relatively easily available. While Iraq has been a national disaster, it has not occured in the dark; after about 2005, everyone in the country has been more or less aware of the real situation. The problem is that the intrinsic fear that much of the country has about the "other" and the pull of "patriotism" still have not allowed an overwhelming majority to be in favor of withdrawal. But it's amazing that 2/3 of the country is aware of what a failed measure it is, considering the great lengths the Bush administration went to to make sure information about the venture was sketchy and access to it was limited.
The second is more personal. For a long time, Woodrow Wilson was, in my own mind, one of our greatest Presidents. In his first term, especially, his Progressive agenda, and what he was able to enact, was the seed of much that is regarded as permanent and indispensable for life as we know it today--direct election of Senators, income tax, and the Federal Reserve system being the three biggest, but also a host of others. He is also generally regarded kindly by most historians for his Fourteen Points and his idealism in comparison to the European leaders of the time, and even for taking his crusade so much to heart that he had a stroke while President. But in the last decade or so, I have come across, in various places, the dark side of Wilson, one that has caused my high view of him and his presidency to evaporate:
  1. One was finding out that he was without a doubt the most racist President ever. While his personal views, repugnant as they are to those of us living a century later, can be understood as not overly unusual for his time and place, the fact that he used the power of the federal government to enact and codify extreme racist policies--and he certainly did so-- is not excusable; presumably he was as aware of the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments to the Constitution as anyone, and chose to disregard them.
  2. Wilson was the first President to make extensive use, other than Lincoln (who at least was trying to put down a massive rebellion), of executive orders as a way to not only implement policy, but as a way around the pesky and sometimes impossible-to-obtain constitutional mandate of gaining Congressional approval to enact legislative goals. The subject of the book, the CPI, was created by an executive order, and even before war was actually declared, after Congress balked at doing so, Wilson ordered American merchant ships to be armed, to take two examples I can easily recall. The damage done to this country by Presidents who now routinely use this means as a means to essentially rule by fiat is extensive and growing, and may well end up being the end of the American democratic experiment.
  3. The atmosphere in this country during the Great War was more fascist and repressive than at any other time in history. Even Lincoln during the Civil War, even though he suspended habeas corpus and insituted other harsh wartime measures, never resorted to the degree of coercion that Wilson and his administration did. Eugene Debs, the Socialist Party leader at the time, was arrested, tried, and sent to jail for ten years for saying aloud that the United States had no direct interest in fighting the war; hundreds of others lost their freedom for even lesser offenses; and even such matters as not buying Liberty Bonds became imprisonable offenses. At no time before or since was the American population encouraged to inform upon their neighbors like we were during Wilson's second term; we were pretty close to being a police state in a frighteningly short time and efficient manner (it should be remembered that the USA was a belligerent in World War I for merely 19 months).
  4. The end of the war did not bring about any lessening of the "emergency" measures--far from it. The "Red Scare" immediately following the war was even more repressive and hysterical than the wartime atmosphere, and showed no signs of abating when Wilson got his stroke. It is entirely probable that Wilson, had he been physically able, would have sought a third term, and if the voters had repudiated him, it is not certain that he would have meekly stepped down.
  5. Wilson's successor, Warren Harding, is universally regarded as one of the worst Presidents in history. He never gets credit for his one hugely positive achievement--ending the repressive measures that Wilson had enacted.

Wilson was, in short, effective but on balance a very dangerous President, with a substantial record to judge. The scales of judgement are notable not only for their balance between good and bad, but the sheer amount of material on both sides.

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Ten RandomThoughts About College Football

1) If college football is your sport, then you are the sports fans with the greatest ability to watch your favorite. There are a minimum of four games on at one time from about 3 until 8 PM-- on cable. I am sure that on premium programming, there are even more, but for your $55 a month, you can watch pretty much all day Saturday--not to mention two or three other nights during the week.
2) I find watching it somewhat enjoyable. I'd find it more enjoyable if Syracuse ever would field a good team again...
3) But the national whine and cry season is about to start in earnest, with the introduction of the weekly BCS rankings this weekend. Every year, you hear that so and so is getting screwed, another team shouldn't be ranked so high, why does a one or a two loss team rank higher than We Don't Play No One State... sickening. And you can be sure some Mormon politician will be complaining and proposing legislation to "fix" the BCS because some Mountain West or WAC team finished 12-0 and didn't get a chance to play for the national championship. Please--Brigham Young got one gift in the 1980's. Take it, shut up, and GO HOME!
4) Boise State's blue field has lost its novelty and cuteness factor.
5) What's with all the cupcake games? Why was Michigan playing Delaware State today? With all due respect, these are the kind of games that make it impossible to me to take college football overly seriously. Granted, the Vikings have played the Lions and the Rams this year, who are pretty bad NFL teams. But there is no real equivalent in any professional sport for the bullfights that both college football and college basketball teams schedule regularly.
6) That being said, some games hook you in because of the sheer drama. There is one going on right now--Arkansas against Florida. Arkansas just missed a FG to go ahead with 3 minutes left--but they have hung with and played the best team in the land to a draw, and they may just win this game. There are other examples almost every week--who did not feel all warm and fuzzy inside a month ago when Washington beat USC, and who did not feel crushed when the Huskies lost to Notre Dame in overtime a couple of weeks later?
7) Speaking of which, what kind of despicable human being roots for teams like USC or Florida (excluding those who live in southern California or central Florida, or alumni)? Are you that psychologically needy, are you that insecure, that you have to "root" for a team that you know is going to win?
8) By the way, in a former life, I did a study for a football publication that revealed that USC was far and away the best college program, by every conceivable measuring stick. The study was done in 1995. I think it's safe to say that they have widened their lead since then.
9) I can actually remember watching a bowl game, in my youth, when Bobby Bowden was the coach of West Virginia.
10) One of the games today on TV is TCU against someone; TCU is one of those already preparing to holler the loudest about the injustice of the BCS rankings. Excuse me, but I think there are laws against a team nicknamed "the Horned Frogs" being national champions. For God's sake, even Brigham Young is the Cougars. Be an animal larger than someone's hand. And Oregon--I would ordinarily say that Ducks wouldn't do it, either, but if Anaheim won the Stanley Cup with the name, then I guess the world won't end if Oregon should ever win the title. And Oregon State--Beavers? Come on. How can you be taken seriously? At least be carnivores, for God's sake.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Book Review: THE FORECLOSURE OF AMERICA

The Foreclosure of America is a memoir-cum-warning by former Countrywide Home Loans senior executive Adam Michaelson. Much of the book details his rise through Countrywide, and Countrywide's rise as the industry leader in the housing/mortgage boom of the Bush years--and their catastrophic demise when the bottom fell out. While this is interesting, it is not the most interesting part of the book.
No, the more interesting part of it is seeing how the basic unadorned greed and tunnel vision of both "financial service professionals" and the people buying those services are responsible for much of the implosion of the American economy--at least the part that Bush's foreign adventures aren't responsible for. In a couple of sentences, people gladly lived beyond their means, and lived in the moment without a thought for the future, and now the piper is starting to come calling. The most sobering realization is that the worst is far from over. Most of the Adjustable Rate Mortgages sold during the period have yet to reset at the (higher) rates, and the foreclosure statistics are going to become even worse. And local and state governments, which survive on property taxes, are going to be gutted even worse than they are now, and with the federal government almost unimaginably in debt---it isn't going to be pretty.
I was already very pessimistic about the future, and now I am even more so. The only silver lining, personally, is that my own financial problems in the early years of the century taught to live within my means; even though I owe about forty thousand in back child support, that is pretty much the only debt I have, and I do not have loads of stuff that I can't afford. I already know how to live austerely, and actually my income seems assured for another 3 years or so, or at least as long as the federal government is solvent, so I am not personally worried.
But I sure am for our society. I think people's naturally greedy and short-sighted wont has been made infinitely worse by the electronic revolution of the past sixty years. The televsion generation has little patience or foresight, and the microwave generation that grew up after them has even less, and the Internet generation now in adolescence or young adulthood doesn't have any, either. The newest wrinkle is that violence and selfishness has been enshrined as morally acceptable, and I am mostly afraid not of hard times per se, but that the majority of the population now will have no qualms at all about resorting to violence to meet their perceived needs. The Depression in this country was noteworthy not least because the populace, although unhappy and at times restive, never crossed the line into sustained belligerance and revolt--everyone still played by the rules, even the poorest.
Ain't going to happen this time around.

Monday, October 12, 2009

Some Context on Columbus Day

A few months ago, one of those Facebook questionnaires that I am addicted to came around and one of the questions was "What was my favorite holiday?" I answered Columbus Day--and promptly got a raft of shit from some of my more "enlightened" friends, about how he was a murderer and a creep and he didn't discover America and blah blah blah. I answered, truthfully, that it was more that this was my favorite time of year than anything else, but also it serves as sort of the St. Patrick's Day for Italians, and in any event, if not for Columbus, none of us Caucasian types would be arguing about Columbus Day in Binghamton, New York.
I had reason to revisit this conversation last week, when Sabrina told me she had learned all about Columbus in social studies that day, and that he was indeed a murderer and enslaver of some indigenous peoples. I sat her down and had a conversation about context, one that most people would do well to have with not only their children, but each other. Highlights:
1) Columbus did not set out to be a mass murderer and enslaver. His voyages were not made with the express aim of finding new lands; they were economic propositions, He was trying, indeed commanded, to make money on his voyages. He was looking for gold and didn't find much, and spent most of the four trips to the New World vainly looking for Orientals and trying to find anything that his sponsors in Europe would pay for. That was the background of the harsh treatment of the locals, not any inherent evil or bloodthirstiness. I am not justifying it, but I am saying it happened within the context of the time and place. Desperate men resort to desperate measures--especially when they are absolutely bewildered because they are sure their belief is right and reality is not agreeing with them.
2) A lot of the cruelty attributed to Columbus was in fact the responsibility of the other Spaniards along with him, and Columbus barely had any control over them, especially on the later voyages and during his tenure as governor in the New World. He was, as every schoolchild seems to know, an Italian hired by the Spanish monarchy--and as such, not dealing with Spanish crews from a position of strength. Adding in the fact that everyone was in a completely unfamiliar situation (and men are almost uniformly fearful of the unknown, and more prone to act and react violently), and that the Spaniards brought with him were largely convicts and other undesirables (as was the case with the British with Australia and Georgia, the Spanish colonies were settled by some of the same type; people doing well at home had little desire to go to an unknown world, and the authorities in the home countries were eager to be rid of those who did not fit in without the costs of incarcerating them or killing them) who were already demonstrably unable to submit to authority, and Columbus was hardly the catalyst for the abuses that took place when the Spanish came to America.
3) Spanish politics played a large part in Columbus' treatment of the natives. Columbus was undermined constantly by rivals who aspired to his position, and the natives were pawns, unfortunately, in the struggles among the Spaniards about who would run the new territories.
4) Columbus was a product of Genoa. Italy of the time was a violent, dangerous, factional place that can hardly be imagined by 21st-century Americans.. Political rivalries were not marked by conventions and elections; changes of power were marked by coups, foreign interventions, and bloodbaths. Columbus, even if he had been a gentle soul by nature, could hardly have escaped having psychological baggage having grown up in such an environment. And Spain at the time was not much different. The Muslims were finally expelled in the year Columbus set sail, after being in Iberia for 750 years. To put that in perspective, that is 235 years more than Europeans have been in the Western Hemisphere. Spain itself was a new political entity, a merger between Castille and Aragon (hence the joint rule of Ferdinand and Isabella; they were true partners, not just a married couple). The world of the time was even more violent and unstable than that of today, and of course those that came to the New World brought that with them. Leading to
5) it is always dangerous to view the actions of those that lived centuries ago through the lenses of our culture. The world was a very different place in the late fifteenth century. The world viewed human life much more casually than we do, and the dominant moral philosophies were much more Old Testament than New, in that the preferred way to deal with others was not the way of Jesus, but of Yahweh--smite your enemies until none were left standing. We are who we are today because a tipping point was reached, because the slaughters of centuries finally effected a sea change in the basic mindset of a majority of human beings in the dominant culture of the world--after World War II. It is hardly fair to judge Columbus by standards even our grandparents did not hold themselves to. Columbus can hardly be expected to have known better.
So cut Columbus some slack. Was he a hero? No, not really. Was he a monster? No, he wasn't. Did he accomplish something noteworthy, even if he didn't "discover" America? Yes, he did. Although one can quibble over details and such, the fact is that the road to permanent European settlement of this hemisphere started with his voyages. And as such, it is a milestone deserving of note and, yes, of a holiday.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Dreams Hatching

I have been very busy today with my daughters and Sabrina having Hailey over, but I have managed to keep abreast of sporting events today. Very briefly, the Red Sox died a deserved death today; the two biggest characteristics of the two championship teams were that they had no real weaknesses, and this team had a few of them. I wasn't even terribly upset when they got flogged by the Yankees in the last six weeks. 2004 and 2007 kind of cured that forever.
I am paying attention to the Vikings. I am not sold yet, not by a long shot; Monday night, they could not put the Packers away when they had the knives to their throat while the coaching staff made a number of less-than-intelligent decisions, and today the Rams turned the ball over four times, three inside the Viking 20. Still, there have been many years when these are the kind of events that led to Viking losses, instead of being cautionary notes about wins. They are 5-0, which is good as they can be right now, and they haven't even played as well as they are capable of. So while I am not sold, I am intrigued.
The Rangers are only five games into the season, but they are, at least until injuries hit, a real good team. I wrote about them a week ago in detail, but the Red Sox argument from two paragraphs prior is relevant here; they don't have a real weakness in their top 20 players, which has not been the case since Messier and Gretzky were on the team, and two players (Gaborik and Lundquist) are top-five in the league at their positions. I would feel better if they were top-two at their positions, but you can win championships if Gaborik and Lundquist are your best players--if there are not people like Blair Betts and Marcel Hossa getting regular shifts. Everybody on their team is a legitimate NHL player, and that has not been true for over a decade. They are going to make the playoffs easily; they may win the division (haven't seen the Flyers play yet, and Pittsburgh isn't so much better that it isn't possible). It's only October 11, but I already like this season better than any other in this century.
Settling in for a long winter; it is supposed to freeze tonight. Everything is harvested that I am going to get; none of the peppers is anywhere near big enough to save, and everything else has been eaten or used up. Got to get pumpkins in the next week.

Saturday, October 10, 2009

Buzzing Around the Pile

1) I attended the superindendent's day conference yesterday. As is normal for this sort of event, there was a presentation by some police detective about drugs--what they are, what effects are like, dangers, blah blah blah. Every year, we get some police jarhead invited by the biddies at some of our less enlightened school districts to set up strawman targets about either drugs or gangs. I find it difficult to keep my gorge down. For starters, while the local high schools are not completely void of drugs other than alcohol or pot, there is nowhere near anything like widespread use of "harder" drugs--certainly not enough to justify draconian crackdown measures, and not enough to justify paying a guy like yesterday's presenter thousands of dollars to cause the guidance staff at Chenango Forks Middle School to wet their pants in horror. For second, they don't even play it straight--I did not see a single video example in an hour's presentation of an undisputably high school kid in a school setting that was under the influence. There were a number of shots of kids messed up--at Woodstock in 1999. While I wouldn't say it is a good idea to just blow it off, I do think that some perspective is necessary, and what kids might do or not do in a festival setting with hundreds of thousands of other youth around is not interchangable with what they are going to be doing in a school setting. The ones who ought to be watching this sort of stuff are parent groups, not educators, because substance abuse always starts out as recreational use, and school time by definition is not recreation time.
But that is my main beef with just about all of "prevention" and "education" measures. We do this sort of stuff at hideous cost in time and money and aim it everywhere but where it needs to go--at the parents of youth. Why do we not aim it where it is supposed to go? Because parents would rather exhaust every possible avenue other than examine their own beliefs and values and the need to possibly alter their own behavior. Unfortunately, those are the very things that need to be done in order to alleviate the problems. As a society, we are inordinately fond of, and find almost infinite willingness to, chasing our tails. I earn a living because of this tendency, so I guess I shouldn't complain too much. But we're kidding ourselves if we think we are doing anything constructive.
And one last thought before we leave the subject: I saw a few Hispanic individuals, and a few black individuals--at a conference where there had to be 200 people attending. About half of the kids on screen during the presentation were youth of color. Nothing like reinforcing the basic racism that permeates a good deal of law enforcement strategy, and the preferred world view of the Caucasian education establishment. I can tell you that although the percentage of non-whites using illegal drugs in this area is higher than the percentage in the population as a whole, the majority of people who smoke crack and shoot heroin and do meth are white. The overwhleming majority of people who abuse prescription meds are white. It's not a problem caused by or a result of interactions with "those people," however comforting it may be for white suburban residents to beleive so. If you really want to make a difference regarding teen drug use, stop drinking yourself. Stop smoking cigarettes. Shut off the freaking television once in a while. Show an interest in thier lives. Stop ordering them to do things, and start leading by example. A kid that feels secure, that does not feel alienated from those who are supposed to be caring for them and love them, will not find it imperative to "escape," and is much better equiped to resist "peer pressure."
2) President Obama won the Nobel Peace Prize. God help me, but my first thought was, "For what?" He has done little, if anything, to make the world more peaceful. We are still fighting a useless, pointless, barbaric war in Iraq, with no real end in sight. He has increased fighting operations in Afghanistan. We are still fighting the bogus "war on terror" at home; last I looked, terror alerts and passport controls and all the nonsense associated with Fatherland Security are still in place. He managed to weasel out of a total renunciation of torture and other less savory aspects of the Bush administration. Halliburton and Blackwater and the rest of the quasi-governmental "private" war/security machine is still omnipresent here and abroad, with nary a peep about what an abomination it is to American ideals from the White House. The only visible sign that we are embarked on a different course than we were when the Deciderer was in the White House is that Guantanamo Bay is closing. Not even closed, mind you, but will be in the near future. If that's enough to win arguably the world's most prestigous prize---well, I just hope that I have to answer to people with expectations that low, that are that easily satisfied, for the rest of my working career.
At the risk of agreeing with the Hannitys and Limbaughs of the world, this is a crock of poo. It is a sop, a recognition not of any concrete actions, but that America's image has a little darker skin tone than previously. It has nothing to do with anything of substance. It is another indication that what one appears to be is more important to many of us than what one does, that it is enough to merely talk a good game without actually doing anything to match the rhetoric. What a sad commentary on the modern world.
3) My friend Howard died after a long battle with cancer a couple of days ago. Howard got clean in late 1998, a few months ahead of me, and was a huge part of my life during the first couple of years in recovery, for many reasons. He was an older black guy from Philadelphia that went through the Salvation Army program here; I remember the first couple of times listening and then talking with him, and thinking how remarkable it was that a guy 56 years old was still bothering with the effort to try to change his life, that he hadn't just thrown in the towel. He and I were two of several members of the 1998-99 gang that got involved in the NA service structure early in recovery; he served as Area secretary and Regional representative for a number of years. And he was infuriating in those positions--he was possibly the most stubborn, hard-headed, intrasingent man I have ever met. He would argue for hours on the most irrelevant points of minutiae, and very rarely changed his or anyone else's mind, but nontheless stuck to his guns if he felt he was correct. But his very stubborness was, on balance, an asset; you may not have agreed with his interpretation of the principles involved in a matter, but you could be sure there was one.
He also became a pretty close friend in those years. I was with Shannon much of the first two years I was clean, and he was a good sounding board when tensions were high. He got himself hooked up with someone even more mentally unstable than Shannon and Stephanee (Drew was often the third member of our little cigarette-smoking group at meetings in this period), Judy, who turned out to be the gadfly that drove him to distraction for the rest of his life. I will never forget the day he came up to me at the old Monday night meeting on Susquehanna Street, absolutely raving about her burning all his clothes after an argument, and him asking plaintatively, "You deal with madness all the time. How do you DO it without killing her?"
But Howard was an inspiration in many ways to not only me, but all of us. His house eventually burned completely a year or so after that (I always suspected Judy did it, but no one ever confirmed that)--and he didn't get high. He got picked up on a warrant ten years old from Philly and had to spend 60 days in jail--and didn't get high over it. He got cancer relatively early in recovery--and didn't get high over it, at least for a long time. And he lived with that absolute lunatic for years--and managed to stay clean. He finally relapsed about three years ago, after it become clear that his cancer was not going into remission, and the last 18 months or so, he continued to use more or less regularly--his drug of choice was crack, another bond we had--even though he still came to meetings regularly. No one really seemed to begrudge him that; it was clear he was nearing the end, and that his use was making his life, as it was, more manageable, not less.
The last time I saw him was about six months ago; he was outside Price Chopper waiting for Judy to come back from the bank, he said. He always was quick with a hug, with "love and respect, brother" and the thing was, you knew he meant it. He was amazed by how grown Sabrina was getting; he was at the first meeting I took her to, when she was 3 months old, and never failed to say, as so many do, how fortunate she was to have me (he never liked Shannon, not from day one, and actually, now that I think about it, had her pegged about right from summer 1999--"she doesn't have it in her to do the steps." I had forgotten about that conversation, outside the old YMCA Saturday meeting, until just now), and he often shared that his only real remorse about the way he lived his life for 56 years was not being there for his kids (many of us regret the pain we caused others, but if not for what we ourselves went through, we wouldn't be who we are today).
Well, Willie (Howard was his last name, but he invariably referred to himself as Howard; his first name was Willie, but it was about 2001 before I found that out), you made a difference. A positive one. I know that ate at you, thinking that you had not done enough during your time here. You always did have high expectations on yourself that you had a tough time meeting. As far as the rest of us were concerned, you were doing the best you could, and we are all better off than we would have been if you had never been here. And I am sure that, if your views on the afterlife are correct, that you are busy now telling the saints and the angels what they ought to be doing differently :)
Or maybe not. If anyone deserves to feel a little peace and hear a "job well done," it's you. I want to say I am going to miss you, but honestly, there's been a bit of a hole for the last few years because I haven't seen you much. I've already been missing you. I just hope there is some way I can tell you that in person, someday.

Friday, October 9, 2009

Book Review: PYGMY

Pygmy is the latest novel from Chuck Palahniuk, of "Fight Club" fame. It is a not-entirely-serious tale of a terrorist operative sent to the United States to initiate an attack. American society is mercilessly skewered, but so is the home society of Pygmy, who is very clearly supposed to be Chinese. The plot gets progressively more surreal as Pygmy becomes a hero of the society he has sworn to destroy and, even as he brings the project to fruition, is turned on by his fellow conspirators.
The book suffers from two main flaws. One is that the book is told from Pygmy's point of view, and while the broken-English is humerous for the first few pages, it is an extreme annoyance to deal with for 240 pages. The second is that the ending is unsatisfying; Pygmy ends up being neutralized by America and does not kill millions after all, preferring to be an American teen. I am not sure if the author is trying to make the point that everyone is seduced by sex and drugs if exposed to it, or if American society for all its faults is as good as it gets in this world. Either way, the book was not an easy read, and I was disappointed on some level more or less for its entire length.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Swine Flu

There was a notice that came home from school with Sabrina yesterday that the swine flu vaccine would shortly be available, followed today by the HHS secretary telling the country that we all "must" get this shot. Well, I'm not convinced, and neither I nor Sabrina are going to be getting it. After watching and experiencing the medical industry sticking it into our collective anuses as far as it will go over and over again for the last 40 years... after listening to the absolute hysteria and naked hypocrisy permeate the national health plan debate over this past year (and in 1993, too)... after reading about instance after instance of faked and altered testing and test results for new drugs, about industry-funded "research" that always seems to find that a dangerous drug isn't... after watching the industry create a demand for a product (Viagra and its imitators) that has done as much to destroy the social fabric of American society as any single other cause since the turn of the century and contribute to the culture of perpetual adolescence that will someday bring about, I am convinced, the apocalypse... and watching my father get sick every single year he got a flu shot, I am NOT CONVINCED that this is either necessary or risk-free.
Not by a long shot. It was just six years ago that the media and the pharmaceutical industry combined to scare the shit out of everyone about SARS, which turned out to be essentially Legionnaire's Disease (another instance of mass medical hysteria that only us old-timers really recall in any detail)--something worthy of attention, certainly, but nothing to lock the doors and stay inside about. I have seen scares over killer bees, over AIDS, over Ebola, over hantavirus, and (most ridiculously) over West Nile-- and I am not sold on the idea that we need to drop everything to get this shot. And the fact that Obama's designated hack, whose main qualification to be Health and Human Services Secretary was her background as a Midwestern woman politician that was heavily promoted by the insurance industry every step of the way, is pushing so boldly for mass innoculation tells me not that it's safe, but that there is oodles and scads of money to be made on it by the medical and insurance establishments--a sop to try to sell them on the idea that Obama's health care reform isn't going to dry up the spigot of obscene profits in those industries, that in fact they can be taken to new levels.
It's sickening. Much more sickening, in fact, than if I got swine flu. And Sabrina isn't going to be getting any damn shot, either. If she gets it, it's far more likely that she would get it from some snot-spewing kid who got the vaccine and also hasn't covered his mouth when he sneezes in his life and who washes his hand only when he gets poo on them when he wipes his butt than not. It ain't happening, not now, not ever. And it isn't like it's Ebola--if either of us gets it, we will get better. It's the flu--nasty, debiliating, but not fatal, media hysteria notwithstanding.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Starting to Wonder

Hope springs eternal for all sports fans. Even those of us who are most jaded, who have disappointed the most over the years, who have said over and over again "never again," can start to feel the stirrings of the heart when it starts to appear that the impossible is possible, that the dream has stirred once more. I had that feeling twice last night. As I have mentioned more than once, I really do not like Brett Favre, and I resolutely ignored, as much as possible, the hype surrounding the game last night until it was actually underway. One way I did so was to focus on one of my other sporting obsessions, the Rangers, who, despite middling success the last four years, have not looked like true Stanley Cup contenders for over a decade. This year is not supposed to be any different, but they threw some more money around in the last off-season, and the box scores of the first two games (a close loss to the Penguins in Pittsburgh; a convincing win over a bad Ottawa team in the Garden, where Ottawa has owned them for a long time) showed me that unlike the bad-beyond-description signings of Drury, Gomez, and Redden the last two years, that this year's alleged superstar addition, Marion Gaborik, actually is what he is advertised to be. So I watched the Rangers play the Devils in Jersey last night, and saw enough to convince me that I need watch closely this year. Why?
1) Gaborik and Vinny Prospal are the two best Ranger offensive players since Jaromir Jagr had his last great year four years ago. They aren't great defensively, but at least when they bring the puck across the blue line, you can be sure that a chance will be coming. And they shoot, which is welcome news to any Ranger fan who has watched Jagr, Michael Nylander, Martin Straka, Scott Gomez, Petr Prucha, and any of a dozen other Ranger "scorers" weave and pass and pretty much avoid shooting at the net until five other players were in front of it. And they make Brandon Dubinsky look like an NHL player again, too.
2) Their second line of Drury, Ryan Callahan, and Chris Higgins is a good second line. Drury is a much better number 2 center than front-liner. Higgins came from Montreal for Gomez, and he is just a good player--not a real big star, but the kind you find on winning teams. In the 90's, he would have been a Steve Larmer type.
3) Their third line of Anisimov, Lisin, and Kotalik actually have offensive skills! For those of us who have watched the likes of Jed Ortmayer, Blair Betts, Freddie Sjostrom, and others who couldn't put a beach ball in the ocean for years, this is breathtaking news.
4) Their fourth line, while not overly skilled, at least is not overmatched. Donald Brashear, even at 38, is a better designated goon than Colton Orr; Brashear actually can play a little. A little, mind you, but a little is much, much better than not at all.
5) The defense got better by subtraction simply by removing Paul Mara and Derek Morris from the team. Redden and Rozcival remain, but Staal and Girardi are getting better and the two rookies, Gilroy and Del Zotto, actually have scored goals! Indeed, five of the six yesterday (Staal excepted) actually got involved offensively yesterday.
6) Lundquist remains one of the best in the league. You don't have to play a suffocating defensive style with him in the net; he's good enough that 19 out of 20 games, three goals gives you a chance to win the game.

I am excited for the season. At least until Gaborik gets hurt.

Oh, yeah. The football team won, too. There was a lot to like, but some bonehead plays and decisions, too, which make me wonder whether it is all a mirage. Still, it does mean something when you overcome stupid and unusual plays to win the game, even if the score doesn't reflect your domination of most of it. It beats losing those kind of games. We will have a better idea after this week. There is no reason that on paper, they do not beat St. Louis by 30 points. But this has "The Vikings lose these sort of games" written all over it even more than the Detroit game in Week 2. I will withold comment on the Vikings until after this week's game.

Monday, October 5, 2009

Book Review: DEFIANT DADS

Defiant Dads sounds like a bad porn movie title, but is actually Jocelyn Elise Crowley's rather obtuse and frankly boring academic study of the burgeoning fathers rights movement in the U.S.A. I have rarely been this disappointed in a book, given that the subject matter is one of dominating themes of my own life. The two main issues for most fathers are support and visitation/custody. Not for the first time, I realize that I am fairly lucky to live in New York State; I can honestly say that I have never been treated unfairly in my access to Sabrina, and by and large I cannot complain, given the circumstances of the end of my marriage, about my access to my older daughters, a circumstance that time has largely molded in any event. I read many of the horror stories in this book regarding access to children, and I am of two minds. One is that other states are probably somewhat less enlightened than New York, and some of the difficulties enumerated here no doubt are grave injustices. The other is that they sound like dozens of men I know right here in New York, and the version we hear is self-serving, inaccurate, and an extension and continuation of the conflict that was the relationship with the mother after it has ended. I'm sorry, but my first thought when I hear one of these guys is "What aren't you telling me?" and the second is "Is your concern about your children, or are you playing to a jury? Is your major beef that you're not getting your own way here?" And the vast majority, I am sorry to say, fail on both these points: they are leaving out their part in the mess, and they are less concerned for their children then they are to finally claim victory over the mother.
Tied in with this, of course, is the financial aspect of it, one I have more sympathy with. Since I feel I was treated somewhat unfairly in this area regarding my ex-wife and my older children, I am going to be very circumspect in commenting--other than to say that if I had followed my lawyer's advice at the time of my divorce, I wouldn't have found myself in the predicament I was in three years afterwards. In other words, I wasn't a total, innocent victim. But the support aspect is much more prone to abuse of fathers than visitation--but honesty compels me to admit that more men shirk responsibility than is commonly supposed, even if not techinically "deadbeats," because, bottom line, their money means more to them than their children do.
The one part I have little sympathy with is those that complain that their exes clean them out financially and deny them access to their children. On the little boxes in the petition room on the first floor of family court, there is one that is for violations of visitation. Many men claim that judges "don't do anything about it"--but of the dozens of men quoted in this book that claim that this has happened with them, not one said they had a lawyer arguing their case. Not one.
And that is the biggest lesson of all, and the one that I invariably impart to many men that I know, who have come to me for advice because I have been, in Sabrina's case, treated much better than most men by the Family Court system. It's a legal proceeding, and it might end in a trial. You need a goddamn lawyer. Period. To those that claim they can't afford one, I say "Balls!" If it matters as much as you say it does to you, then if you have to, pawn the widescreen or park the truck or get a second job or borrow the money from someone. But the process is designed to favor those with lawyers--because, dummies, it is staffed by and run for the financial benefit of lawyers! Imagine that. Would you play football without equipment? Would you play hockey without a stick? Would you get in the boxing ring without gloves on? Then why would you go to court without a lawyer?
Anyhow, the book was tedious and boring, and didn't impart a whole lot of information that seemed relevant to people in this state. And that's another important lesson to be learned: it is tough to make a national agenda on these issues because it is a matter of state regulations and state laws and state systems. In a state like New York, an honest, conscientitous father will still have enormous difficulty in gaining sole custody, but one can be sure that access will be granted and kept, and that child support will not be crippling. I'm not sure about a place like Oklahoma or Wyoming.
But I live in New York, and one reason I do stay here, despite many economic reasons not to, is that quality of life, and one of those aspects is a generally fair and enlightened legal system. A good rule of thumb is that states with capital punishment are not a good place to be a non-custodial parent.

Sunday, October 4, 2009

Book Review: DINING WITH DEVILS

Dining With Devils is Gordon Aalborg's sequel to his first murder mystery, "The Specialist." To someone who has read the first book, as I have, this is an entertaining and suspenseful yarn, set in Tasmania. Most of the characters are the same, and it is mildly pleasant to see them jump from the page again, almost alive, and the parts that dragged in the first book--the descriptions of caving, of exploring underground caves, which is the hobby of the main character--are thankfully lessened here. But if one has not read the first book, then this probably will not be terribly entertaining, merely seeming to be derivative of "Silence of the Lambs." Although it was a decent read, it was strangely satisfying to know that there will not be a third installment, at least with the same villian, who is unmistakably killed at the end of this book.

Saturday, October 3, 2009

In Praise of Guinea Pigs

For her tenth birthday this past January, Sabrina wanted a dog. Between the landlord not being cool with it, with Sabrina being only ten, and with Sabrina being at the other house part of the week, I decided that starting smaller would be a better idea, so we agreed on a guinea pig. They are small, but not so small that they can get into places you can't get them out, like under the stove. They are active, but not hyper like a gerbil and up all night like a hamster. They don't live forever, but they live longer than a year or two. They are kind of quick, but not a blur, so you can catch them if they get away from you outside. They are reasonably affectionate--they are actually pretty cat-like, or at least this one is, in that if you put it on the couch with you, it will curl up next to your leg or your chest.
There is one small to middling problem with them; they have absolutely no compunction about crapping whenever the need strikes--whether it be in your hand, on the couch, on the floor, in its own food dish if its ass happens to be near it. This particular one is a hairball, so it takes a bit of grooming and care to keep from getting itself hopelessly fouled on its underside. But all in all, as it approaches what passes as adulthood for a cavy--its real official name-- it's been a pleasure to have around, even if Dad has ended up doing the changing of the cage most weeks.
And most intriguing of all: it eats, loves, grass. Yes, the same stuff that grows on your lawn. I go outside five or six times a day and either grab with my hands or cut with scissors (which I can tell freaks out the retired guy next door, so I try to do it whenever he's washing his car for the 14th time this week or grilling in his garage at 3 PM. By the way,  there are other spices and condiments than barbecue sauce--stroll down the aisle at Wegman's once in a while and get adventerous!) a pile of grass and dump it in the cage, which she (her name is Princess Rose; Sabrina likes Sleeping Beauty) greedily sucks down within minutes. It also has a rather appealing squeak when it is excited--appealing because she does it about four times a day for about fifteen seconds. It would be seriously annoying if it were constant, like, for instance, a dog that barks all the time--but it isn't. And she has a little wooden house that she sits in and sleeps in, and runs around her cage like she doesn't mind being in it. When I take her out and leave her on the floor, she invariably runs behind one chair and stays there--such is the habit of a prey species. Outside, she normally heads, in the front, for the lilies/lavender/sage patch, and nibbles all the stray shoots of grass (we have learned, after near misses with her almost getting under the fence and a crow divebombing her, not to take her in the back yard); she can easily spend 45 minutes there.
She also chews on wood. This seems wrong on many levels, but I have been assured that this is normal behavior for the species, and that after the treat stick has all the seeds off it, that it should left in the cage for a few days. So far, no mishaps.
Anyhow, I knew none of this at the start of the year. It costs about $40/month for bedding, hay, food, and treats, and it doesn't require shots or spaying or any of that stuff. It's really been a good thing, in a lot of ways. We are thinking of getting her a bigger cage for Christmas; she seems to be healthy and should last until Sabrina is in high school.

Thursday, October 1, 2009

Book Review: GUARDIANS OF THE UNIVERSE?

Guardians of the Universe? is not a comic book, but it is another volume in Ronald Story's life quest to debunk Erich von Daniken's books. Story exposes shoddy scholarship and lies, as he did in his earlier volume reviewed here. The most interesting part of this book was a comparison, undertaken in the pre-DNA era, between primates that is pretty convincing evidence that man and the rest of the apes are very closely related; it is amazing to me that anyone in this day and age, between studies like these and DNA evidence, can still cling to the idea that man was either created differently or is descended differently than the rest of the primates. From the perspective of the recovering addict, it is self-centeredness writ extremely large; it is simply psychologically inconceivable for many people to not believe that they are somehow different than others, that they find it threatening and discomforting to think that we are part of the long history and panorama of life on this planet.
In any event, as Story acknowledges, there are many legitimate questions that can be asked about various paranormal phenomena. But von Daniken's theory of "ancient astronauts" is not the answer to any of them.