SOCIAL COMMENTARY

johnwstiles.com

Where I've Been

I started this website in November 1999, about a year into what later became blogging. I've always despised the word, way too close to bog and nothing good ever came from a bog.

I reviewed a handful more than a thousand films (calling what I do a film review is a bit of a stretch - the film is usually a vehicle for writing about something entirely removed from the film); took a stab at fiction, told a ton of stories from my several jobs, got lost in the Bush years thinking what I had to say might actually matter, wrote about food, AIDS, WWI, and so on.

My best guess is close to half a million words, seven hundred American standard pages, between two and a half and three million characters (depending on whether you include spaces - my goodness the things MSWord can do!) and stopped dead in December 2009.

I have no idea why I stopped.

Or why I'm starting again.

But I think it may be worth knowing.

I entered therapy in the last few months, something I believed I would never do. Based on my experience with one couples therapist and one psychologist, I now think everyone should be in therapy. On the other hand, my dead brother Jerry was electro-shocked a few dozen times, drugged to catatonia and finally served as symbol of therapy's potential for total failure. Total.

I've learned more about myself in the past two months that I could discern in the fifty-nine years prior. Something about our inability to perceive our unconscious from within. Apparently a snap for someone on the outside but then either no one saw what this psychologist saw, or no one was willing to volunteer an opinion. Most anyone who knows me well thinks I'm terribly interesting, terribly smart and terribly unbalanced. Oh well.

Let's call this the Introduction.

Later chapters should cover my childhood, adolescence, young adulthood, three marriages, four suicide attempts, three or four radical career changes, countless horrible and some good decisions, siblings alive and dead, parents, grandparents, child, and most recently, therapy. The dream interpretation part is utterly amazing, can't wait to share.

I will allow several days to pass so family members and/or loved ones can plead for me to stop or remain silent.

In either event, I'll let you know.

Ghosts From Childhood Past

Growing up an only child of the local jurist in rural Oklahoma, my dad (Herman Ralph, really) survived The Great Depression to take a bullet on one of those God-forsaken Pacific islands, Okinawa, I believe, get promoted for getting shot and retired from the Army as a Captain. He married Lucille Evelyn, the child of hardscrabble Oklahoma dirt farmers in a quiet ceremony of which only two pictures remain. Mom looks handsome in her white gown and Dad stiff and spiffy in his Army Captain's uniform. He had seventeen years on her and used each one as a hammer to smash her into his vision of a dutiful wife. Mom had survived her own dark and malicious mother, embittered over the Lord's decision to take her only son in a B-25 crash in the Philippines and her self-defensive coping skills were well honed. She more than paid my dad back for each and every slight as he spent the last twenty four months of his life locked inside a useless body, ravaged by ALS. I eavesdropped on her once as she gave her contempt full reign over the weeping and pathetic shell of what had been a caricature of the strong silent type featured in Hollywood films of that era. I can only imagine what ghastly abuse must have stoked those grim, bitter fires.

Eldest brother James Raymond (after the dead B-25 pilot) left for California in 1964 and never returned. He would come home infrequently to cast a disapproving eye on all he left behind. He got away before the slow motion disintegration that enveloped mom, dad, little sister Janeesa (after a science fiction heroine my father read of once), middle brother Jerry and me. James Raymond and I are the only ones left now, Jerry hung himself in 1982 and Janeesa joined him the following year. Mom was a ghost after that and I will never understand what drove her to hang on so long after it all fell apart. Twenty five years later I prevailed on her to leave the farmhouse her parents had moved into the sad little town of Mangum, Oklahoma and join us in an apartment we built in the back yard . She fell less than a month after moving in, broke her hip and died within the month. I think those are her ashes above the sink but they're just as likely to be our Airedale, Nick.

Eldest brother Jim came for the deathwatch and made sure I knew all the safety violations that led to her fall and death before returning to suburbia on the West Coast.

Little sister's suicide was a shock but not so Jerry. Two years after leaving for Vanderbilt mom went to Nashville and brought Jerry home. Catatonically depressed I did not know this person. Many electro-shock treatments later a fully diluted Jerry appeared and went through the motions for the few years it took the depression to return and swallow him. The police in El Paso called me one day to tell me they had some very bad news. I recall being struck by the useless adverb _very_ used I later understood as a coded signal to help cushion the blow to come.

I no longer have any confidence that I recall my past accurately. Nonetheless, some events retain a crystalline clarity unaffected by the years. That call is one. Another is my dad asking me to disconnect his life support. Asking is not quite right, he was reduced to flailing gestures and pleading eyes to make his needs known. I told him I couldn't and mom made sure I never had to see him again. I only recently began to apprehend the colossal damage that desperate plea wreaked. I have ever since held two minds about it, the one appalled at the insensitivity of his demand on his young son and the other profoundly guilty one ashamed of my failure. The even more unfortunate truth that I was unaware of the failed son lurking in the unconscious and slashing away at any selfish happiness I might chance upon. Many years later that failed son became a failed brother to Jerry and Janeesa and a failed savior to my mom. Meanwhile, the lurking slasher was leaving drums of ammonium nitrate in my path in the form of a Seconal overdose, slashed wrists, carbon monoxide poisoning, a loaded .25 caliber handgun and an impenetrable wall between me and anyone else for whom I might take responsibility. I failed to kill my dad, killed my brother and sister and watched helplessly as my mom descended into her own personal Hell. When I finally rescued her I killed her.

The good news is the slasher is fading under the reflected light of a talented therapist. I may get to spend the balance of my years free of his havoc. I have not a clue what that will be like. Maybe I'll become a nice person.

We'll see.

Next installment will canvass a varied and interesting work history, cab driver to management consultant to Ombudsman.

Becoming A Geek

What curtain separates (or spares) us from early childhood memories. I don't recall anytime before the 2nd grade. That would have been 1959 and I have two memories from that time, a guy named Tony wetting his pants (and the floor) in front of my chair in Mrs. Montgomery's class, and Mrs. Montgomery demonstrating conductivity by having her class join hands and close the circle with a hand cranked generator.

The following year, 1960, saw the suicide of my best friends dad. He was 37, a physician and his death certificate lists barbiturate poisoning as the immediate cause of death. I thought it was a gunshot, but with every year now I lose more faith in my ability to accurately recall things great or small.

My dad came back from next door to announce Dr. Maginot was dead and that Marcus, my best friend, was _working himself into a fit in the front window._ I don't know if it was Marcus' emotional reaction or his placement in public view that irked my dad so. I don't recall ever talking with Marcus about it.

The next Christmas I got the hot Christmas gift for little boys, a Tiger Joe tank, and Marcus got a smaller knock-off. That was my first experience with injustice and it spelled the end of our friendship. His shame, I guess, or maybe my pity was too much for two little boys to get past.

Marcus had a big brother whom we both avoided, there was something deeply mean about Preston. I had two older brothers and a little sister. My little sister and I slept in the same room as children until I was ten. We each had a photo album, every page of first child Jim's album was filled, Jerry had a few empty pages in the back, I had a few more and Janeesa's about halfway. Mom went to work when I turned twelve. My album contains a picture of me standing on an end table wearing a t-shirt with Johnny Stiles across the front, arms outstretched, crying. Every girl I ever brought home was treated to that picture and mom's loving description of the scene. Odd in the extreme as I had been awakened and put on a small table for the photographer. Clearly I was in great pain and reaching out for mom. But the picture was more important. A picture of a child crying to be held by a mother who didn't want to spoil the shot by meeting my outstretched arms.

I know no more about my father's childhood than that he was an only child and his father was a judge. I know that because mom often referred to his only childness as if it explained - something.

I know a great deal more about my mom's childhood than I'd like to. Her older brother, Raymond, was the favored one. Mom related stories about grandmother that I never could reconcile with the tiny, frail, sweet woman I knew. Mom's dad was surely the product of farming the awful rust-colored dirt that didn't blow away in the Dust Bowl. My little sister and I spent several summers on the farm and I don't recall grandfather ever being off the tractor. I remember laying on a cot by the front door listening to some fifties doo-wop while a warm breeze blew through the screen door. I remember being content and knowing what that meant. I wasn't yet a teen-ager because with my teen years came long hair and banishment from the farm. Hair was a powerful totem back then.

I recall nothing about third, fourth or fifth grades. I do have strong feelings about being out of step with everyone else. When I finally got the gold colored zipper notebook I longed for, all the cool kids were carrying cloth-backed notebooks. I was stuck with an oversize shiny gold notebook. I hated that notebook and couldn't understand why my parents made me carry it to school every day. They must have been trying to impart some lesson but I haven't a clue what it was. I was always surprised when someone was friendly toward me, I must have had a terrible self-image.

Once in Middle School I met Jamie and Monica. They were virtually European in their coolness. Both were in the debate program (as my brothers had been) so I joined up.

Junior and High School

Jamie introduced me to David Bowie, intellectualism, a normal family, and a precious little sister. I still know Jamie, he lives in Bali and we talk from time to time. Monica introduced me to a different sort of girl, tough, smart, direct, and funny. Monica and I were an item for a short time in high school. My high school flame was a darling red-headed cheerleader named Pam. We _went steady_ for two years and I have no idea what she saw in me. It seemed to end as abruptly as it started. Pam's was the first tongue I ever felt and it was an electric experience. I recall clearly we were in the back seat of someone's car (probably Jamie) and when our tongues met I was transported. Two years later we broke up. Seeing other people or some such I don't recall. I was surprised when she called me a couple of weeks after we broke up to remind me I was her date to the Junior Girls Picnic. I must have said something like, huh, and was reminded by a stern Pam that since we had gone steady for two years there was no way she was going to be able to get a date on short notice. I learned later (thank you Jamie and Monica) she was already seeing someone when we broke up. I guess he had a date to the Picnic. So, there I was driving Pam and I to the picnic when we stopped off for some chocolate milk. Really, chocolate milk. Upon leaving the convenience store we were broadsided by a pickup truck and spun into the ditch. Nobody hurt but the car was totaled. Dad came out, took one look, and drove away. When I called Mom, she said that was probably for the best. Honestly, as an adult and parent I cannot imagine exhibiting such reprehensible behavior. It was a car for Heaven's sake. That was the last date for Pam and I. She's an attorney in Chicago, at least last time I looked back in the 80's she was. Hope she's happy, she made me deliriously so for two otherwise difficult years in High School.

I don't recall any other girlfriends in high school except Dotti. I met Dotti at the Dallas Jesuit debate tournament. Her coach had assigned her to follow around some respected team. We destroyed them in a preliminary round so Dottie started following us around. We made out in the parking lot (I had driven up from Houston in my 351 cubic inch Mach 1 Mustang - a story for another time). Three or four years later she crawled naked into my bed in Austin (I had transferred from the UH). I hadn't seen her in over a year but we had kept in touch. Another strong Texas woman undeterred and undeterrable from whatever objective she had in mind.

I skipped ahead. For a reason. Junior High was a nightmare, living in fear of held-back Mike Sicola, having nightmares about not finding my class (in elementary we had to master only one address, in Junior there were six, or six-hundred, I forget), and faking my way through band class for two years. The trumpet. I never could elicit anything from it other than a hoarse bleating. I can't remember any teachers from Junior High except maybe Coach Kalina, a nasty man who failed to teach me higher math. He sat at his desk, hands behind his head, arms akimbo and giant yellow stains under each armpit gagging us all. My God, were there no adults around to help him?

My last two (total three) years in Junior High were dominated by debate, extemporaneous, impromptu and oratory. Debate was my favorite and when I discovered cross-examination debate later in High School I found my calling. Every summer was spent writing everyone under the sun that might have some information on the topic of the year. The US Congress was a fountainhead of data. It had to all be catalogued and made available at a seconds notice when an opponent's argument could be shattered by this or that expert testimony. We lugged around files of index cards that were taller than we were. The art was to track the other person's argument and be sure to counter it when your turn came. When countering in the cross-examination portion your opponent might dissolve into tears if you weren't careful. Bad form, but such fun. To this day I cannot understand a sentient human being taking some nonsense position without the ability to explain it. Talking points, it's all talking points. I've learned not to counter the passionate idiot, it never works out well.

High school was a breeze as Jamie and Monica had preceded me into the big league and sucked me right up into their crowd. Debate continued, I met Pam, and then between my sophomore and junior year everything fell apart. Dad quit the Post Office, went to work at a Stop and Go, contracted ALS and was confined to the VA Hospital within a year or so. Mom became the primary breadwinner and I think she really hated it. Really smart and consigned to secretary until some executive figured she could keep books. They sold the house and we moved into an apartment just over the line dividing the have somethings from the have everythings. Debate continued for another year, my junior year, and then in some colossal mental collapse, I quit debate to focus full time on drinking and smoking pot. I spent a few weeks in the psych ward at Bellaire General following a failed suicide attempt but I can't place the year with any accuracy. Jamie came to my rescue one day when he suggested I should just walk out. I did but not before being nearly molested by some thirty-something patient on our wing.

Next: Veronica, CO poisoning, and a lost year.

An Aside For a Dream and What It Reveals

A recent dream featured a small feuding farming community and a band of druid type in long flowing robes declaring a miracle in the fields. They had taken stalks of wheat, tied ears of corn to one end, supported the contraption on a stick and danced about declaring corn had sprung from the wheat. They began to set the trees afire and, in a genuine miracle, fruit sprang spontaneously from the burned branches. Lemon fruit. The first thing my therapist did was look up lemons in the symbology of dreams and found it connoted grief. So, I'm dreaming of an underlying conflict resolved in or by grief.

Assuming the underlying conflict is my attempt to reconcile who I am with who I feel I am, the grief is for my parents and siblings. A grief I've never experienced.

I'm the "go to" guy in an emergency because I am imminently rational and controlled. Or better - disconnected. Disconnected from my feelings. I now see the disconnect as occurring much earlier than the tragedies of ALS and suicide. I have never thought much about the fact that I had virtually no relationship with my father. I was mom's favorite child, she would tell of carrying me on her hip far longer than any of the other children. The photo of me crying and reaching out for her is informative.

I earlier described my father as typical of his generation, the strong silent type. But that isn't true. He was animated with my eldest brother, the football player, and overtly affectionate toward my little sister. And me? Ignored. Resented perhaps for stealing away the attention of his young bride. It would explain the absence of any memories of interactions with dad other than those depicting contempt. "Useless" he called me when I brought the wrong cigarettes back from the market. I still feel the humiliation and pain of that rebuke. I couldn't have been more than six years old. I was, to him, a nuisance or worse, a rival. Shunned by my father, I steeled up to protect, disconnected, so I wouldn't feel the unimaginable pain of that rejection. And, like any self-centered child, assumed I was the cause. I must be useless, or worse. Not being able to apprehend the enormity of what was happening I simply disconnected. If I don't feel it, it can't hurt. If I don't feel my father's illness and death, my siblings suicide, my mother's destruction, I'll be safe. No grief allowed. No grieving for the lost relationship with my dad, his death, the deaths of Jerry and Janeesa. Internalizing responsibility for all these events while not experiencing the loss through grief, the scar tissue just deepened over the years.

And the dream is my subconscious finally fighting through the coping mechanism of the disconnect to invite a renewal, a spiritual Spring, born in finally grieving the loss of so much. But I still don't know how. I'm working on it.

Veronica and the car will have to wait a bit to reveal themselves.

Veronica and the Cars

I've started three times and this is the fourth attempt. It must be Veronica. I still don't know what to make of her. She was a devotee of all things spiritual from Bhuddism to horoscopes to meditation. She was supremely confident, whip smart and always in control. We were inseparable for a year and a half, I flew out to her dad's ranch to spend the weekend with her, we spent every free moment with each other. Until we didn't. I can't recall any specifics but I do recall feeling like I had disappointed her somehow. To this day it breaks my heart. I reached out to her many years later and made contact with her dad. When I asked after her he wanted to know who I was. Veronica died of leukemia a few years ago, he said. I wished I could have been with her, she was inspired by life and relished all its mysteries, she must have greeted her death with the same awe struck wonder. It was decades and many relationships later before I met someone else I didn't have to carry. Only two out of a dozen or so "serious" relationships where I thought we were on a level playing field. What if Veronica and I had remained together only to lose her to leukemia.

The car was a muscle car that reached 90 as if it were 50 and easily exceeded 100 mph. I drove with great abandon. Stopped once on a major Houston freeway at 9 pm doing 115, I was the madman I now rail against. I still drive fast but I haven't seen 90 in twenty years. The car was provided to "level the playing field" with all the rich kids at school. It didn't level anything, of course, my social status could not be overcome by a fast car. The car I totaled on the Junior Girls picnic was also a Mustang. It is almost impossible to not see my high school driving habits as suicidal in nature. Not overt, that would come soon enough, but I risked my life almost every time I took the wheel. What suppressed hurt or fear was I attempting to assuage by driving so recklessly? Is there a connection between my dad leaving me in the street with a totaled car and the out of control driver I became? I'll likely need some help making or breaking the connection. I nearly did myself in with a garden hose out of the exhaust into the passenger compartment in my senior year in high school. I found an isolated stretch of road and hooked up the chamber only to awaken hours later with a bad headache. Enough water had condensed inside the garden hose that the carbon monoxide couldn't pass. If there truly are no coincidences then what is the link between the wrecked car, the muscle car and my scary driving, and my formal attempt to end it all. Thinking...

Responsibility

Assuming responsibility, that's a good thing, right? Always thought so, it's what men do, or adults, or the one responsible. Therein is the rub, what if the assumption of responsibility bears no relationship to actual responsibility? Nice if it's a stray dog or a crying child, but if it's a terminally ill father and two suicidal siblings and a broken mom, well, assuming that responsibility is more weight than anyone can carry. It becomes a crushing weight, a reality so dense and painful a way must be found to bear it, or bury it.

Until this year I had no idea I was shouldering that weight. It isn't something I can shrug off, though, it has become part of me. Like Jeff Tweedy's marvelously powerful song that decries, "I fell in love with the burden holding me down." Now, though, I have a tool. A lever or block and tackle (whatever that is!) that I have to learn to wield in such a way that I can get out from under. The weight will always be there, but I think I can fashion a permanent relief if I hold fast to this new experience - therapy. So much makes so much more sense now and so much I've done wrong is clear to me. This can go nowhere but up. I hope you'll come with me.

Understanding Cluelessness

We've heard in many different ways that we use only a small percentage of our brain's capacity. Beyond the small portion dedicated to "consciousness" and the larger portion controlling the autonomic functions of our body, our brain is working in secret on at least two levels of which I am aware.

One was formed in youth and is a function of experience. In my case that may be the one that experienced rejection from my father, madness in my mother, self destruction in my best friends dad, the grocer at the end of our block, my brother and sister and her husband. Self-destruction was, for me, modeled well and often.

The second I have come to know only recently through my dreams. This John seems to be working furiously at understanding, healing, and the integration of the other Johns into something new and whole. If you read this as multiple personality or dissociative disorder I've missed the mark. We are all routinely integrating our experience with our worldview. Freud tagged the multiple selves as the Id, Ego, and Super-Ego. Jung takes a more nuanced view and talks of a shadow self, sometimes operating at cross-purposes with out better interests.

In my case, the experiential self, cast in the traditional formative years, seems to believe things will never turn out alright, that no matter how much I want to influence events for the better, I will fail. In full self-protection mode this John will not form close relationships (too risky) and effectively isolates, compartmentalizes and shuts down any real empathy for others, feelings are a road to misery for this John.

The second John, the one working hard to fix things, is the subconscious John. Working in images and symbols, he holds out hope and healing. Last night, for example, I dreamed of being with three other people and explaining to them that we do not have to be controlled by our experience but can transcend experience and operate from a position of light, healing and hope. Each of the other three people took a deep breath and as they exhaled, accepted this principle. I can too, but most of my time is spent in the struggle to overcome the experiences that have, in some significant ways, malformed my psyche. I earlier describe that John as a lurking slasher. I think less harshly of him now but he nonetheless controls huge swaths of my behavior. Fear and bitterness are his tools and he wields them effectively.

The John that is typing these words is working hard to defend himself and has discovered a powerful ally in the sub-conscious. I know we'll win over that hurt and frightened child. Not to banish him, just remove him from the decision making process.

To that end I have begun Jung's man and His Symbols after having finished James Hollis' "On This Journey We Call Our Life." I have a powerful guide and am surrounded by people who care deeply for me. I don't see how I can lose.

The Much Harder Work

What if the myth of the Garden is not about God at all? What if the separation/expulsion is about something both universal and personal? Leaving the womb is our first experience with separation and it occurs before consciousness has established a foothold. The next separation occurs when we begin to differentiate ourselves from parent, when the sense of _I_ is first introduced. So, like Man outside the Garden (only worse), we experience two shattering separations long before we have the mental or psychic tools to understand.

These wounds commence our search for wholeness, for the restoration of our oneness. If our parents have a less than healthy relationship and are themselves suffering, then modeled for us from the very beginning is yet more brokenness.

Little wonder then when our adult relationships are formed with the expectations that we have found the Other that can make us whole. We see in them the very things we most need but it is a false sight, a projection onto the Other. I see in you that which I seek. But what I see is an illusion, a projection from my unconscious need to heal the primal wounds suffered at birth and at consciousness.

The challenge then becomes to identify the particular adaptive mechanisms adopted by the unconscious, to bring them into consciousness. In so doing I can begin to withdraw the projections that have prevented me from knowing you. But first I must strip away the unconscious adaptations with which I have bridged the separation. They will be legion, some more significant than others; the withdrawal from intimacy, the blind dependence on the imagined Other, the shadow self that lives in fear and failure.

It will likely be the hardest thing I've ever done and is the work of a lifetime.

Service in a Service Economy 10.07.09

With the fourth carload of stuff delivered to Goodwill I declined a receipt. The fellow there was quite pleasant and must have seen me as singularly responsible for global warming and the glut of consumer waste foisted upon the rural Chinese so desperate for any form of income they will boil the lead from circuit board welds with the hot plate I donated two moves ago.

We're not really moving this time, only vacating temporarily while our miniscule kitchen is enlarged to accommodate the new range and dishwasher. To accomplish this the builders will tear our some walls and build some new ones. More waste. My carbon footprint is taking on the form of a crop circle.

They will turn off the electricity for a while and I too late connected that with the end of phone, internet, and cable service. I call AT&T in a panic Monday morning and eventually get through to a person. I must have been shouting at the cheery guy presenting options to me as I triggered the pre-recorded response, "I'm sorry you're having trouble, let me connect you with someone who may be able to help you." The young person with the embodied voice wanted to know if I would like someone to come this afternoon to transfer my land line and U-Verse service (AT&T's Internet, Cable TV and DVR) to the guest house. I was so impressed. The polite youth who transferred the U-Verse service to the back couldn't make the land line switch and promised to "put a ticket in" to accomplish that. When he picked up his orange cones and drove off without delay it did occur to me that he must have a really good memory since he clearly didn't pause long enough to put a ticket in anything.

I immediately dismissed the thought and drove a huge bag of garbage to the city's recycle yard two blocks from the storage facility where most of our stuff now lived. We used to bemoan the the need for so many storage facilities to store so much excess stuff but we really liked ours, it was so clean and new! The city's Solid Waste representative helped me pick through the garbage for what could be recycled and suggested I find a bin behind some local business to deposit the balance. Most Monday's when I get to the office some local has done just that to our bin. Once I even found some mail and called the Constable in to put the fear of the County into the culprit stupid enough to throw his mail away in our dumpster. I knew my garbage couldn't be traced back to me, it was mostly excess doggie toys and a handful of vests from suits long ago outgrown. With only a fleeting thought to my rank hypocrisy, I pulled up to a dumpster behind the bank and tossed it in. Damn banks, they deserve what they get.

Next day around four in the afternoon I called AT&T about the land line. They knew nothing. I explained what I needed and they sent a repairman out the next day. He arrived and at least didn't promise to put a ticket in after he announced he couldn't help us. Back on the phone (none of these calls took under an hour and the longest two and a quarter) the agent couldn't understand why these repairman couldn't do what we wanted. By this time I had noticed the DVR no longer functioned. I couldn't pause, couldn't rewind, and couldn't record. Without the record feature I was at the mercy of commercials and not even Mad Men is worth enduring commercials.

This was the two and a quarter hour call. I learned not all DVR boxes are equal. I packed and shipped into storage the magic DVR box. I kept the useless one. OK, I understand, but the magic DVR is in a box among hundreds of boxes in a storage locker. May I have another? No, she says sweetly, we can't do that. A few pleadings later I suggest I had actually run over the box in the driveway and squashed it flat. What now? Good question, she says, let me get my supervisor on the line. Several minutes go by and she comes back on with a plan. No supervisor, just the supervisor's plan. We'll cancel your existing U-Verse account and give you a new one, she gleefully reports. We'll order the new service for next Tuesday. All you have to do is call the sales office tomorrow and tell them you need a new DVR delivered. I don't ask her why I have to call anyone if I'm getting "new service," I'm sufficiently worn down by now to go along with anything.

About the land line, I remind her. Oh, that's simple, we'll put in an order for a disconnect and reconnect at your new address. She explains the problem with the land line transfer was because the guest house is actually a different address than the house. Oh, OK.

Next day around five I try the phone - no dial tone. I call. That ticket is complete, she says. And that means what, exactly, I ask. The ticket is complete, your service was disconnected and reconnected. But my phone is dead. I apologize for that, sir (like most powerless customer service technicians they do a lot of apologizing for things they had nothing to do with, I think management sees an apology as a disarming mechanism) but the ticket shows complete. Well, my phone doesn't work, what shall I do about that. Oh, I'll get repair on the line. Repair figures out the disconnect/reconnect ticket was a useless exercise without someone to physically rewire the guest house. We'll have someone out next Tuesday. Today is Tuesday. Last night, Monday, I took an automated call on my cell from AT&T letting me know my phone line was repaired and was now available for use. It's still dead. It's Tuesday morning here on Nantucket island and the sun is just coming up. I don't really care any more about the phone.

Storm 09.23.08

When Rita, the second Category 5 storm of the 2005 season, turned toward the Texas coast everyone packed up and hit the freeway. After all, we were only yesterday watching those poor souls begging for help from rooftops in Louisiana. That won't happen to us. (It almost happened to me during Allison, by the time you realize you are going under it is too late to do anything but climb on the roof.) But no city this size had ever taken flight before. Certainly not one where nearly everyone owned more than one car and wanted to save each of them. Our hundred mile traffic jams must have been terribly amusing to the young sophisticates sipping tea in their internet cafe in Ceylon. We eventually joined the terrified throngs and found our very own parking highway. After forty five minutes we turned around and "sheltered in place." Thankfully, Rita lost her bearings and headed into the forests east of the city. The first time I heard "shelter in place" it was being presented to the surrounds of the chemical refinery that let loose a cloud of benzene. Shelter in place also means stay off the roads, we need them for ambulances, you're dead anyway. But this time it is different. We're not running this time. I'm sitting in my living room watching Audrey Hepburn strum her way through Moon River as George Peppard, playing a manly Truman Capote, looks lovingly on. With a thousand mile diameter we are expecting ninety mile an hour winds from late tonight through late morning Saturday. Rita's compact Category 5 looked a lot scarier than Ike's sprawling Category 2. Even if the forecasters are working words like "unpredictable" and even "freak" into the discussion section of their National Hurricane Center website, we're sheltering in place.

Never again.

Our power went out before Audrey finished her wistful Moon River and I walked down the street to see what I could see. Overcast, the sky moved like one endless cloud. Sky sweeping fast from northeast to southwest, the incredible size of this storm became real. I was looking at clouds that were part of a single swirling system stretching a thousand miles to the east. I made everyone come look and we marveled. Then we went inside and didn't dare come out again for nearly twelve hours.

As the huge eye passed fifty miles east of our house, hundred mile an hour winds drove trees to the ground from thirty miles to our west to a hundred and fifty miles east. The sort of winds you don't risk going out in, even if you find it all thrilling beyond measure. And they lasted from just after dark to nine the next morning. This can only be experienced. Not YouTube, the Weather Channel, DeMille or local anchors blowing all over garage roofs can approach the reality of twelve hours of deadly wind. Until you spend a night listening to the roar and watching the trees try to endure, you can't even imagine.

We walk down to the bayou and marvel at the river flowing toward downtown. Until the storm surge settles back into the Gulf we could still go under. The next day I drive the neighborhood looking for open stores. A long line of people and shopping baskets has formed up outside the Kroger. The hand lettered poster boards taped to the windows say "no perishabales, no credit cards no debit cards." Seems in addition to no power they have no spellers. Two days later and I'm laying on a sweaty bed trying to sleep. Magically, the power comes back on. We were among the fortunate few.

FEMA is beginning to open Points of Distribution (PODS) around town for ice, water, and MRE distribution. Those lines are huge. We hear the Whole Foods near the house is open. They don't want us entering by the exits like we normally do (they put the exit doors closer to the parking than the entrances) but there isn't much of a line and no posters taped to the windows. It looks like it did before the storm hit. Fresh produce everywhere, frozen foods, fish, everything. Three miles away people are cued up for blocks to get a bag of ice and we're picking through the fresh arugula in air conditioned comfort.

The dogs took the whole thing in their little stride. Terrified of the mail person, jumpy over a stray grocery bag, furious whenever we leave them, they wanted to go out every chance they got to watch the back yard blow about like Dorothy's Kansas.

Now, it's ten days later and the news is all about what they're euphemistically calling the financial crisis. It looks and sounds like 1930. The vast bulk of the country's wealth is entirely disconnected from anything of actual material value. Instead it is all tied up in pieces of paper that once, long ago, represented a really bad loan. The paper has been sold and resold and borrowed against so many times that it looks like it's worth a whole dollar. The last time anyone sold one, though, (about two weeks ago) they got twenty two cents.

Meanwhile, here on the coast more than a million are still in their sweaty beds. Now they're the lucky ones because they don't know it is all falling apart.

Can't Talk About It 07.12.08

I knew a fellow once who came of age in a Germany led by Nazis. In the Hitler Youth and, when I knew him, a passionate liberal. He once suggested a walk after dinner and I asked walk to where? Just a walk John, he said, we will walk around for a while. Americans, he muttered as an aside. Very funny fellow. Introduced me to a ship-side guard so I could see Nazis were still alive and if not well, still breathing. He volunteered to me that no one alive in Germany during the war was unaware of what was happening to the Jews. Germany is not a big country like the United States, he said, everyone knew what was happening. We just didn't talk about it.

I was on a bus with the Schwetzingen choir returning from a picnic south of Stuttgart to Schwetzingen, a lovely town with its own castle just outside Mannheim. One of the choir members came up to me as we made our way through yet another small town in the south of Germany and asked if I noticed this town was different from the others we passed through. Yes, I said, it looks American, all glass and steel. It was completely destroyed during the war, he said. Oh no, like Dresden, I said. You know about Dresden? Yes, of course, what we did was horrible. He nodded once and before turning back to his seat said, we don't talk about it. We started the war. We lost the war. We don't talk about it.

We don't talk about the poverty and desperation that surrounds us. Driving to work I pass through one of the poorer neighborhoods in the city. Abandoned houses next to burglar barred groceries next to razor wired church buildings. People on foot making their way to the store or home or to a relatives that have no business walking anywhere. Aged women on walkers navigating a sidewalk too broken and overgrown for a young person to ride a bike on. People hawking their services or belongings off hand painted signs propped against torn fences. No beggars, though, they haunt the street corners where the rest of us live. We avoid eye contact and cast them into the file drawer with drunks and addicts. Or worse, grifters. We don't talk about it much. If we really care it just makes us sad. Maybe we hand them a dollar or two and accept their blessings before quickly rolling up the window lest they want to have a conversation. We don't want to talk and we don't talk about it.

Last Monday I drove by a big dog that didn't make it across the street. It was in the middle of two lane blacktop. Looked to be a pit bull or staffordshire sort, sixty pounds or more. Brindle coat, collar, and dead. It made me cry as I drove past. On the way back I wished someone would get it off the road. The next day I drove by it again. Day two. Now it had been run over a few times. Another hot summer day. I made it about a mile or so past before I turned around. Parking on the shoulder I wrapped a handkerchief around my face, grabbed an old towel from the trunk and drug it off the road and into the ditch, praying it wouldn't come apart as I drug it. The smell was overwhelming and didn't go away when I drove away. It stayed on me as I drove past the cemetery where the back hoe was digging a fresh grave. It was still on me when I got home. My two loved and protected little dogs didn't like it at all.

I changed clothes and gave them both a big treat. But we can't talk about it.

Signage 03.18.08

I pass a sign outside a dilapidated Dairy Queen on my way to work every day. The sign reads, "CHICKEN SALAD WAFFLE TREATS HERE NOW." Leaving aside the existence of a food as ghastly as chicken salad in the guise of a waffle, what intrigues me is the use of the adverb "now" at the end of the invite. As if we have been waiting, nay clamoring, for chicken salad waffle treats and they have finally arrived. I would love to know how these things are decided. Is there a meeting where verbiage is discussed?

About one hundred miles west of Houston on Interstate 10 a dim red glow appears on the horizon that grows in intensity as you approach it. Within a few miles the glow divides in two and straddles the interstate. Two off-brand truck stop/gas stations have erected two hundred and fifty foot towers on either side of the freeway. They both use blood red lighting and scroll and flash their respective fuel prices, car washes, candies, et cetera. How did this cross freeway feud develop? Did they erect signs simultaneously or was one first and the other aping? I would love to have been a fly on the wall when the dueling signs developed. Did these folks consider the blight factor? Did they think maybe motorists would want distraction? Interstate 10 can be relentlessly routine through much of Texas. Coming off the Edwards Plateau the scenery is spiced with giant wind turbines. After that it gets pretty dull. Not so dull that disembodied, blood-red, spinning "FREE" and "DISCOUNT" are more grand than ghastly.

Two restaurants along Richmond Avenue in Houston conduct their own version of dueling billboards. No giant red lights, just those little black plastic letters one applies with a twenty foot aluminum pole. The one eatery is a part of an upscale chain specializing in a variety of seafoods served with little wells of clarified butter for dipping. The other is an upscale Indian. The chain establishment posts straight lines about their delicious fried clams or fried oysters on their sign and the proprietor of the Indian establishment, a fellow with a wickedly sarcastic sense of humor plays off their sign. A couple of examples, seafood says "Interviewing Cooks 3-5", Indian says, "My You Start Them Young!" Or "Order Kalamari, Get a Free T-Shirt." Response - "Squid Pro Quo." The rare exception in an advertising saturated environment.

I quit Yahoo as a portal when their advertising began to swell and float across the page I was reading. You could click on it to close but you never know when that is just some clever way of getting your ID. Now I use Google. Less advertising but they no doubt have collected every search I ever made. If I should ever run for office I'll be torpedoed in the primary for searching Britney Spears one too many times.

Supercar 02.23.08

The Add Coolant light is coming on every few days. The manual warns you not to add coolant as the system contains the new "Lifetime" coolant (it's red) and most coolant is traditional (green). The cap has a little diagram of a guy screaming and holding a towel to his eyes (it's a Swedish car) so I'm more than a little reluctant to access the system. My manhood is, again, at stake so I find some red coolant (it costs a fortune), squint really hard and pour in the two tablespoons that take it up to the maximum fill line. The maximum fill line is about halfway up the translucent coolant holder. Unlike everything else in the known universe, coolant systems are full when they are half full. The light goes off and I can shed my whistle and strap my six-shooter back on.
Two weeks later the light comes back on. The person who drives the car insists I take it to a professional. I undo the holster, put my whistle and snoopy watch back on and call for an appointment.
Our first appointment is Thursday of next week...
The old Saab dealer closed because the owner was making money hand over fist selling repackaged predatory loans to rural communities trying to make enough money in the derivatives market to fix their bridges and buy a new fire truck. The new dealer added Saab to his old mix of Cadillac and Hummer. The service guy tells me to drive out the Gulf freeway until I smell salt water, exit and watch for the Hummer bolted to the roof of a building on the right. Hard to miss, he says.
Sure enough, they've craned a four ton Hummer to the roof and bolted it into place.
I pull into the service drive and start collecting coins, water bottles, maps, and CDs from the back when a smiling elderly gent with a clipboard walks up and introduces himself as the Service Department greeter. Now I know what I'll do when the money runs out and social security won't cover taxes.
He doesn't find my name on his print out. Later I learn the system printed Gh3!/hW as my name so it took a while to get started with the service advisor. An hour later the greeter finds me in the waiting room watching Diane Sawyer humiliate herself on the streets of New york for the fiftieth time this year. Her skirt is static electrically bound to her leggings and she tugs away to no avail. Her co-anchors tease and mock her while dozens of New Yorkers jump up and down in the background waving at the person who must be on the other end of the cell phone they press to their empty heads. What happened to Diane? Wasn't she a real journalist for a while?
I follow the greeter out to the service drive telling him what great service is provided by the dealer, hoping he won't think I'm being sarcastic, which I'm not. Really.
At first I think some giant bedsheet has come loose from the clothes line in the trailer park behind the dealer but then I make out a giant vehicle. It's a Hummer. And the guy getting out is looking at me. Now he's saying my name. I notice the block letters on the rear hatch of this land-locked aircraft carrier say LOANER CAR. Oh no.
Leaving the lot I resist the urge to drive over the cars standing between me and the freeway access ramp, a la Monster Truck Rally.
I'm in the southeast corner of the county and need to be in the northwest corner. Against Service Advisor advise I take the tollway north instead of west. The tollway is not fully constructed on the east side so I won't have to stop at the Change Given line of the toll booth quite so many times this way. Sure enough, when I drop down to the four lane blacktop the toll booths disappear. So do all the buildings. This is country. Nothing for miles and miles. Then a lean-to with a Hukabee for Prezident sign hanging akimbo appears dangerously close to the road. I look in the rear view mirror and see the direction in which I am traveling, the ambient outside temperature, wind speed, direction, and relative humidity, all vibrating in green LED above the OnStar button, the halogen spotlight button, a button with a tiny mushroom cloud, and the Medecins Sans Frontieres button. Looking to my left I see what appears to be a Drive-In movie screen attached to my door. I look to the right side view mirror and it's the size of the windshield of my normal car. Objects appear so small as to be microscopic. I think I make out insect antenna that turn out to be the waving arms of the guy behind me. I'm holding up traffic. A deep breath and I push past the lean-to. The toll road reappears in the distance and I look forward to fishing in the two foot deep well I dropped my coins in back at the dealer. The bag with the CDs and water bottles I put in the glove box. I let it go and heard it hit bottom a few seconds later. Wish I'd tied a string to it.
This thing won't fit in driveway so I'll have to park it in the street.
I expect I'll be drummed out of the neighborhood association.
Hope they fix the coolant leak soon.

Demonization

Teeth bared in an evil sneer, goggles down over narrowed eyes, oily sweat beading on the forehead, thumb again and again pressing the firing button, hurling bullets at the sweet faced teen age country boy as he helplessly parachutes to the ground. This was the enemy. Barely human. Merciless. Above all else, foreign. It was this characterization as inhuman, suicidal maniacs, willing to die for an emperor(!), that helped tip the scales in favor of dropping nuclear weapons on Japanese population centers. A mainland invasion would cost hundreds of thousands of American boy's lives. After all, this blood-lusting, crazed people would fight to the last man woman and child. And look what they did to our boys at Pearl Harbor, my God, look what they did at Bataan! Who did the earthmovers bury under the sand in Kuwait? Tens of thousands of young men? No, evil Iraqi pigs. The transformation from fellow human being to something else. Something foreign. Demonization. A key ingredient in genocide. An essential element of war. A all too often used tactic in any serious dispute. The use of characterizations crafted not to reveal truths but designed to deceive. Christians demonize Muslims. Workers demonize management. Wives demonize husbands. Reduced to base stereotypes and deprived of their essential humanity, "others" become easy to dismiss, disrespect, even destroy. The ability and proclivity to reduce people and peoples to stereotypes has plagued humankind from the beginning of recorded history. In order to strip another of their dignity or even their life, they must first be stripped of those things that make them like you and I, their humanity. The demonization of one dressed in the armor of a shared humanity is impossible. Remove that armor, reduce to stereotype, and the brakes on our potential for cruelty begin to fail. The willful blindness to our common humanity lies at the core of the greatest catastrophes in history. From the marauding Mongol hordes under Genghis Khan to the goose stepping storm troopers of Adolph Hitler, the perpetrators of horror had to first reduce to the enemy to sub-human status. The movement down this slope is not accomplished in a single headlong rush. It occurs in increments. A whispered rumor, a knowing look, an inflammatory pamphlet; they all serve the common goal. Occasionally, however, progress down this slope is swift and dramatic. The anti-Japanese propaganda films of Frank Capra are an example. Capra's films were made willingly at the request of a grateful government. He did his patriotic duty. Others seem to contribute to the dehumanization of a people for no apparent reason beyond their own fanaticism. Still others have a profit motive. William Friedkin spoke to his desire to appeal to the widest possible audience in an interview a few years ago. Perhaps it is this desire to pander to the widest possible audience that drives him to his reliance on stereotype in his latest effort, Rules of Engagement. The results he achieves in this well made drama certainly include a giant leap down the slope of dehumanization. He has ripped out the hand brake and thrown it from the car. To make a hit film? To make a buck? In a telling scene, Tommy Lee Jones attempts to engage a sad one-legged Yemeni child in conversation. Speak English, he asks. What's your name, he smiles. Murderer, she responds in her native tongue (we get the sub-title). Is that your name, he asks sweetly. The irony is as heavy and subtle as an anvil. She lost her leg as a result of Samuel L. Jackson's order to fire into a crowd of Yemeni protestors. We later see her, in a flashback, emptying her handgun at the Marines guarding the American embassy. Even the apparently innocent of this God-forsaken people are rabid killers. A Yemeni doctor appears on the scene and ushers Tommy Lee through the hospital filled with the injured and orphaned children. The good doctor later turns out to be a lying shill for the terrorist conspirators. The balance of the Arabs characters are represented as screaming, gun-toting fanatics. They even manage to shoot up the American flag. In one particularly offensive scene, a former North Vietnamese commanding officer, fresh from his admission that he too would have shot a POW in cold blood to convince his enemy to issue an order, salutes our hero. Our hero returns the salute, warrior to warrior, vindicated and validated. The messages of this film are both banal and horrific. Arabs are crazed savages (even the women and children). Murder to save Americans lives is not really murder. This is a slope bearing a remarkable resemblance to one traveled before. One we were pledged to never forget.

What About Puppies?

It is hopeless. The species is doomed. Watching the Science Channel the other day I learn that during the Test Ban Treaty days (the 60's for the YouTubers) we put a satellite in orbit to watch for Gamma radiation. Only produced, or so we thought, in our clever splitting of the atom, we watched the planet for the bad guys attempts to split their atoms. And we were picking up a handful of Gamma ray bursts every day. Interestingly, they were coming from behind the satellite. A few years later we isolate a couple and determine they are coming from outside our galaxy. Now the closest galaxy is something like sixty-five trillion miles away. For these gamma rays to reach our little satellite they represent an energy production equivalent to the energy produced by our sun during its entire lifetime. Only compressed into thirty seconds. The energy our Sun produces during its entire lifetime, compressed into thirty seconds. And we're seeing several per day. The cause is hotly debated but to my way of thinking if this is the nature of the universe, unimaginably violent incidents firing off like flashbulbs at a Britney Spears sighting, this isn't the sweet cradle of life I once thought. Between Gamma Ray Bursts (GRB), Jared Diamond positing the collapse of all civilizations at their own hands, a criminal government acting like God is whispering direction, the inevitable, regardless what Israel or Cheney say or do, proliferation of nuclear weaponry, the fouling of our environment and the utter disregard we demonstrate for the majority of our fellow humans, surely anyone can see it is hopeless.

Spend a few minutes looking through my eyes and see if you don't see what I see. Take a macro view of the political structure (and I don't mean the red state blue state nonsense), the economic reality, and the environment.

Since we mastered agriculture we have been organizing our social environment around surplus, scarcity, and time. As long as each of our, or our family, were busy staving off starvation every day there wasn't much time for other things. Even the birth rate was controlled because hunter-gatherers couldn't hunt and gather if they had to carry two or three babies at a time. Children were spaced such that only one had to be carried at a time. Once old enough to keep up with the group, a sibling could be considered. Until then extras were discarded. No sanctity of life discussions, just a simple reality. Once we could amass surplus food stock, though, we could settle in one place. Settling in one place meant multiple subsequent births were possible. Population zoomed. As did the organizational structure to protect the cultivated fields and surplus food stocks from the less industrious neighbors. Specialization began, artists, warriors, rulers were possible what with all the time freed from getting enough food today. A few thousand years later we get city states (Athens, Sparta, etc.) then empire (Ottoman, Muscovite, Portuguese) and finally nation-states. Each of these developments were made possible by the wholesale subjugation of a majority population by a minority one. The lovely images of the great Greek Democracy with thinkers thinking and philosophers philosophizing was made possible because thousands of slaves were busy supplying the labor to create this leisure class of Western icons. Ditto Egypt, Ming, etc. The later empires subjugation was more market driven and apparently less onerous creating the illusion of great social progress for humanity. The nation state development following the dissolution of empire gave rise to World Wars as one or the other country eyed the balance of the world with envy. Now that we are in the superpower age no more world wars. Now we contend with the non-nation state political group, Al Quaeda, PKK, what have you. These non-nation state players don't need the economic engine of a nation or empire to generate wealth and armies because they choose terror. Made possible by our best and brightest splitting atoms, designing chemical poisons, or bio-engineering Ebola (just wait). The long and bloody history of our people is no more or less than the manifestation of our humanity than is kissing or pheromones. But maybe you take the view that we are evolving politically to a more stable and peaceful world. Check the newspaper.

Economics tell a similar tale. An infinitesimally small number of people control the vast majority of the wealth while the rest of us/them struggle to feed starving children or save their hut from the latest monsoon. Dubai, New York, your town, the gulf between those with the money to afford a car, clothes, medicine and the rest is huge. The gulf between the "developed" world and the other four billion is monstrous. And we are doing what exactly to solve this? Nothing, of course. The World Bank loans countries money providing they sell off their infrastructure to Bechtel or Halliburton. The WTO invites them to the party so we can use their labor to make our shirts and pants. Their labor comprises less than three percent of the cost of the average jacket but, hey without this they'd be worse off so aren't we heroes? The economic structure, no matter which epoch you look at, depends on a large number of workers supplying a small number of consumers. We've perfected the machine in the US by awarding corporations the same guarantees as the rest of us individuals. Corporations are entitled to the same protection to due process as you and I but are not held responsible for their impact on the world around them. You can't incarcerate a corporation so all we can do is levy fines for bad behavior. Which they cover by building them into the economic model and away we go.

I heard the former CEO of a carpet company liken our use of the planet to the fellow who jumps off a cliff with wings strapped to his arms. Flapping away he thinks he's flying but, in fact, he is in free fall. When he notices the ground rushing up it may dawn on him that his plan isn't working but, well, you get it. We look around at our relative success on the planet and assume we're flying. Some of us see the ground rushing up. The perfect example is oil. The planet produces oil over millions of years. We find it around the same time the industrial revolution starts and arguably suck half of it out in one hundred years. One hundred years from now it will be gone. Sound sustainable? We're mowing down the rain forests as fast as we can. We've fished multiple species out of existence; most of the large land animals were killed off when we arrived on the scene in sufficient numbers to satiate our hunger at the expense of their survival. There used to be big slow moving birds on many south Pacific islands until we landed in our canoes. They lasted about fifty years. We have even encoded out utter disregard for our fellow planetary life forms into our story of creation. God gave us dominion so we can kill whatever we want. The air we breathe is fouled, the ice is melting, and we're building "clean" coal plants. So, please make me feel better. Cite the Sistine Chapel, puppies, something. Anything. Because I can't see it. Not now.

The Simple Life

I live in a big city. Always have. I know a handful of people who live in the country. Most of them used to live in the big city. One, in particular, has a hand lettered sign on their front porch that reads "I hate the city." They extol the virtues of the country life, simple folk, simple ways, clean air, etc. etc. I was in the country this weekend offering support to a small group of extreme athletes riding their bicycles 600 kilometers over two days. They must complete the ride within a specified time or they don't get credit. They need the credit to qualify for a 1,200 kilometer ride held every four years in France. There, a few thousand of these extreme cases begin in Paris and ride west to Brest, a lovely little hamlet on the west coast of France and then back to Paris. They must complete the circuit in under ninety hours. Some simple math reveals they must spend upwards of 80% of their time on the bike, pedaling, or they won't finish in the allotted time. But I digress.

Saturday I sat in a parking lot facing the Dairy Queen sign that advertised their new Chikn Sandwich for the low price of $2.69. It's new because it's deep fried, I suppose. Round back of the DQ I spotted a rat trap with the lid laying off to one side. Flies were buzzing about and most of the bait/poison had been consumed. With the lid off, of course, dogs, cats, birds, children could all have a nibble. I alerted the manager, Marge, there was an open poison station in their parking lot. Marge came over and sweetly drawled her intent to put that darn lid back on - again.
I think she takes the lid off to discourage dogs and cats from rummaging around her DQ refuse.

I order a chocolate dipped cone. "May I have a medium sized dipped cone, please?"
I put the change in a miniature bucket that read, "if every customer deposits twenty-five cents a family of five can be fed for weeks."
The lanky straw haired teen drew out about five inches of soft-serv ice cream on a cone and handed it to me.
"A chocolate dipped cone, please."
"That will be extra."
"Yes, I understand that, I'm prepared to pay, it is what I originally ordered."
"Twelve cents more, sir."
I give her a quarter and she give me back thirteen cents which I deposit in the miniature bucket wondering if the family will have to skip lunch or eat every other day or what.
She picks the cone up from its position on the counter, moves it forward about five incehs and sets it back down on the counter. It is unchanged other than it is now beginning to melt and drip down the sides of the cardboard wrapper glued to the base. "I wanted a chocolate dipped cone please."
She looks at me, the cone, me, turns her head over her should and hollers, "Marge, can you open my register." Marge looks at me with disgust, squints her eyes to better bring into focus my evil aura and keys in the secret code. I notice it is the same digit punched five times.
I eat the cone standing in the parking lot. No matter who you are or how skilled you may be, a sliver of solidified emulsified "chocolate" will fall onto your shirt. Standing, it falls harmlessly to the ground. Momentarily satiated I return to my foreign car.

Moments later I walk over to the JR Food Mart and buy a bag of ice. I try to break it up by slamming it into the parking lot. The parking lot is so filthy that the bag became so filthy that my hands became so filthy the ice became unusable New bag. New parking lot. The parking lot of the Cowboy Supply store. Back in the car I watch a succession of simple country folk stocking up on the goodies offered at the JR Food Mart. A huge pickup pulls to the curb on the street between the Cowboy Supply and the food mart. It's one of those pickups that looks like it's been soaking up the air around it and has become a bulbous caricature of a car. It has a black iron grate over the front to allow it to smash into cattle without damaging the filigree chrome of the grill. Out pops a slight fellow in what looks to be light gray pajamas. The bottoms are shorts and he has one white knee sock on one leg and one tan knee sock on the other. He's about 5' 2", weighs about one hundred twenty pounds and crosses the street into the JR Food Mart. Emerging a few minutes later with a twelve pack of Lite beer he climbs into the truck to return to the ranch I guess. It is eleven in the morning in the country. The simple life of simple folk.

Bad Dreams

I was giving my mom a lift to work. We stopped at an intersection near the city docks while I figured out which way to go. I was standing outside the car and reached down to a panel on the back door and it came off in my hands. I snapped it back on and it must have been then that I realized I was in a taxicab. I suppose driving the cab is the most recurrent feature of my dreams, followed by family now dead. Earlier in the night I dreamt of my dead brother. I canât remember it now but it wasnât good. In this dream it wasnât clear until the taxi appeared whether she was dropping me off or I her. She was as I remember her in the last few years of her life. Determined to make it one more day, not grimly, but it should have been. Advanced emphysema had inflated her rib cage while age had stooped and slowed her. Her love for me was evident, it nearly always was, as I suggested I drop her off and keep the car. I was doing this for purely selfish reasons, I knew that without knowing what they were. I went in with her to make sure she got to where she was going. It was a temp job, she was to clerk at one of the refineries. We found her supervisor and she told mom where to stash her lunch. I saw the cellophane wrapped coffee cup of candies and a half dozen crackers as she put them in a locker and closed the door. We walked to the break room. She crossed a basketball court where three guys were playing before work. As she walked under the basket the ball fell through and glanced off the back of her head. The guys were freaked and I told her to never walk on a court while people were playing. I demoâd a defensive move that could result in her being inadvertently flattened. They know whoâs on the court, mom, so they donât look for anyone else. She listened attentively and we went into the break room. I noticed the lens in her glasses was loose and reached out to straighten it and it fell out. A hand beat me to it and I looked up at an older guy in a suit as he turned the lens around in his hand. He pulled out a fork like tool and began measuring. I was going to scotch tape the lens in place and this guy was clearly going to fix it properly.
I woke with an almost overwhelming sense of sadness. Almost overwhelming means I was able to get out of bed and get into the shower but the day wasnât starting well.
I went to bed last night reading Cormac McCarthyâs new book, The Road, about a boy and his father in a post apocalyptic future. The computer email signal dinged and I read the ăbreaking newsä of North Koreaâs nuclear test. I shut off the computer and went to sleep. No wonder I dreamed what I did.

Crime In the County

The door looked darker than usual. When the headlights flashed across it I could see it was smashed. Walking through the aluminum frame into the lobby I recalled the last time. It was thirty years ago and the memory is as yesterday. The only way to lock the door was with a padlock. The padlock was still on the hasp but the door was ajar. The only thing I had of value was gone. A Sony Trinitron. It was how I spent my evenings, watching one of the five local channels. It wasn't that I couldn't afford cable, there wasn't any cable yet. I knew who pried my door open and stole my TV. It was the two guys that I was with the night before. We'd met at the pool hall. They seemed pretty cool until one of them asked what was in the bottle of nose spray on the end table. Nose spray, I answered. The little guy picked it up, tilted his head back and squeezed most of the contents up his nose. Uh-oh, I thought. Not quite as big an uh-oh as when Steve came back to tell me the guys he just bought some pot from were stoned out of their minds. There's cash and dope everywhere, Steve said. We can go over there, kill them and take it all. Ha-ha, I said. Seriously, Steve said.

Seriously, I needed some new friends. Maybe that's part of the reason I brought these two raggedy strangers into my qua-plex at Stanford and West Gray. It would seem I needed to start rethinking my relationships altogether. Same feeling three decades later. Not the friends thing, the violation thing. They'd made off with three of the office computers, including the server. The concrete block by the front door was what they must have used to break out the glass. I called the Sheriff. We're in one of the half dozen pockets in Houston that isn't part of the city. Unincorporated they call it. Similar to the difference between a state and a territory a hundred years ago. Once a state was formed things sort of settled down and government began to insinuate itself into everything. One of the side effects was a drop in lawlessness. In the territories, though, like Tombstone or Dodge City, the crooks ruled and the law hunkered down and tried to stay out of trouble. Much like the deputies parked in their cool souped-up pursuit vehicles parked in the shade of an underpass, ready to descend en masse on the guy caught speeding but not ready for much else. Maybe dinner. The folks across the parking lot were robbed same night. Along with a box supply company about a mile east. All unincorporated territories. When the deputy arrived (an hour after I called) he walked through what used to be the front door laughing, asking if maybe I made somebody mad. He took his report and was off.

When I pieced together the neighbors break-in with the box company and us I called the sheriff's department to make sure they were connecting the dots. You have to call Burglary and Theft with that information, I was told. Makes sense, thanks. Burglary and theft suggested I call the specialist group working such matters. They suggested I call the Deputy who made the original report so he could amend it. Uh-huh, thanks.

Three weeks later, all computers replaced, I get a call from the alarm company at a little before noon on a Saturday. Mr. Stiles, we have alarms in zones 1, 4, 8, and 9. Motion detectors 1 and 3 are tripped. Call the cops, call the cops, call the cops. The alarm dispatcher has a script though so I had to wade through it, another two minutes of question and answer and she finally rang off to ring up the cops. I finished my shower, got dressed and drove the 23 miles to my office. This time the door had been pried open. The multi layers of forged steel that comprise the door lock were bent sufficiently to allow the door to be yanked open. I was grateful the glass wasn't broken. Computers stolen again, wire clippers cut the cables, they were probably gone five minutes after they were in. The sheriff arrived fifteen minutes after me. He could have driven from Galveston and gotten there faster. At least he wasn't laughing when he walked in. My neighbor hadn't been robbed this time, they hadn't found anything worth stealing the first time so she was now immune. When I told her about it she told me she couldn't get anyone from the Sheriff's department to come look at the video she had of the robbers breaking in the first time. What!?

The following week was July Fourth and our parking lot was awash in fireworks debris the morning after. I was grateful the building hadn't been torched and picked up the dozens of spent fireworks cartridges. Burglar bars were installed a week later and we've been "safe" since then. My office looks like a jail now but I don't get any more calls from the alarm company.

I came to work Thursday to hear a body had been found in the field two blocks from the office. The truck drivers bloody but empty cab had been noticed Monday but no one found a body until Wednesday. About 75 yards from his truck. The truckers park along the street overnight to get a jump on an early delivery. This guy apparently forgot to lock his cab before he dozed off.

Maybe if I can get the TV stations to let me blast the Sheriff's department on camera they'll start patrolling the area so I call the three network affiliates. ABC, when I ask if they're planning to do a spot on the body found last yesterday says hold on. She comes back and says, yes, we're aware of it. Uh-huh, I say, are you planning to do a bit on it, I ask again. Hold on, she says. A voice comes on. News, it says. I ask again. Best way to handle that is send an email, OK? I then call the NBC affiliate. We covered it last night, he says. CBS says hey that sounds interesting, let me get your number and I'll have someone call you back. Call back is interested in the video my neighbor can't get the Sheriff to look at. Her boss says he doesn't want to call attention to their business and says he'll have his many contacts look into doing something about the crime.

And that's the end of it. I warn my employees to keep the door locked and suggest they vote out anyone currently in office at the County level.

Terrorism Update or You Can't Tell the Good Guys Without A Program Anymore

Flipping through the wasteland that is Warner Cable the other day I stopped on Denzel Washington telling Bruce Willis not to torture the terrorist because in doing so we would become them. Outside the movie channels and public television I hardly watch the thing anymore, but I do often flip through from 2 to 455 just watching images. I saw a cool clip of the world's tallest bridge last night, it goes through the clouds over a lake. I hardly recognize us anymore what with an unprovoked attack on a sovereign nation (I remember when that was once cause for UN intervention) and our government refusing to honor the Geneva Conventions, openly arguing for the right to torture people, and holding hundreds of people without charge and without representation, even refusing to allow the Red Cross to visit.
Last week we had to stop carrying bottled water on airplanes.
And today I read Secretary Chertoff announces the latest security measure. We can't fly until the airline has submitted the passenger list to the Feds for review. Remember the horror stories of little old ladies being denied their flight because their name matched up with the terrorist list?
I remember once comparing our country to others where you had to have permission to travel. Can you believe it, I would query classmates, get permission to see your uncle in another state? Wow! And now we are there. The Department of Homeland Security will have to clear your name before you can fly to the Grand Canyon. The same department, headed by the same guy, that didn't bother coming to work on the weekend Katrina hit New Orleans. The same department that did nothing to prepare for a Category 5 hurricane headed straight for a city beneath sea level. And they are going to protect us by checking for terrorist's names. Hmm, I wonder if the terrorist might use a different name now, one that isn't on the list? I guess I don't mind living in a police state as much as I thought I would but I really hate living in a police state when the police are the Keystone Cops. It's just so - embarrassing.

There but for...

"What were you doing at Wal-Mart?"
"Refreshing my application."
"For what, what would you do at Wal-Mart?"
"On property driver. Maybe security, on account of my military."
"Good luck. You're burger's ready."
The back of his neck was concave. It swelled as he lifted his head up to speak and subsided as he dropped it back down. His short red hair was plastered to his head in sweat dried ringlets. His t-shirt read something about Harley Davidson.

We were in a convenience store near Sealy. A half dozen formica booths were bolted to the floor along the front window. They alternated orange and yellow. While there I watched a guy pour some orange colored stuff from an oversize cup into the parking lot. By the time we left it dried and joined the myriad stains. A never ending stream of dirty pick-ups pulled up and left a twenty four pack of Light to the better. A woman and her son were waiting for their burgers. She was the one talking to the guy in the Harley t-shirt. She had a scar down the outside of her left leg and walked with a limp. Her son was a steady stream of "I wants" that she was negotiating down to "we'll sees."

He drove off in a beat up Buick filled with what looked like everything he owned.

We finally left.

Down the Hole

I'm collapsing in on myself. Not collapsing, that's too sudden. Folding. I'm folding in on myself, closing, shutting down, as if I were falling asleep but remaining alert to the process. Time has slowed and each day drags endlessly on. Each morning dreaded, each night stretched to endlessness. The occasional song or sight uplifts but most of what I hear sounds the same and most of what I see only stokes the sadness.

The Great Pink Scare

"Yeah, well, sure, bad stuff happens all the time. What happened to those guys was nearly fifty years ago, what could it possibly have to do with me? After all, things have changed big time, right? No way this could happen now."

"Right?"

The time was 1960. Joseph McCarthy had only recently stepped down from his podium of fear and hate mongering. The role of public sensor was being played by the United States Post Office and they were busy cracking down on what they considered "smut.". The Massachusetts State Police featured an anti-pornography squad run by a square jawed Sergeant who modeled himself after Highway Patrol's Capt. Dan ("10-4") Mathews. What would later be known as the Warren Court was only warming up to the task of putting teeth into the Bill of Rights. At the moment they were busy working out their judgment between Oliver Brown and the Topeka Kansas Board of Education. And, most critically for the three Smith professors whose lives were about to be wrecked, homosexuality was shameful, a sin and a crime.

Co-directors Dan Miller and Tug Yourgrau recreate the time through interviews with two of the Smith professors found guilty of obscenity, a fellow member of the faculty and a student of Smith College, class of 1960. With home movies from the time and generous splashes of the "evidence" of the crime, Miller and Yourgrau place us front and center of a scandal that made national headlines.

The scandal was ostensibly about the cracking of an interstate ring of pornographers. It was actually about finding some beefcake photos in the bedroom of a meek and guilt- ridden professor of literature at Smith College. Not just any professor, by the way, but the internationally recognized literary critic, Newton Arvin. Arvin, prone to depression and guilt immediately volunteered the names of two of his "friends" who had also seen the photos. One of those friends, Arvin's closest friend on campus Ned Spofford, innocently confessed to police that some of his friends had also seen the photos. Now guilty of possession and dispersing obscene literature, the trio was soon hauled before a court system blissfully unaware of the niceties of search and seizure laws and lacking any definition of obscenity. Photos of men in briefs considered sexy in the hands of a nubile student of the all girl Smith College became obscene when found in a trunk in the closet of one of their professors.

"The Great Pink Scare" tells the story of the betrayals, heroic defense, relentless persecution and shattered lives that result from being at the wrong place at the wrong time. The wrong place was a state with an aggressive police force pursuing an ill-defined enemy and the wrong time was when straying from the social mainstream could make you a threat to the very social fabric of the nation. Sound familiar? If it doesn't, and you think this has nothing to do with you, tune into any daytime AM talk radio station and give a listen.

The time is now and the place is here.

Goodbye Old Friend

An old friend died this weekend. Her funeral is in a couple of hours and I'm not attending. Nothing to do with her. I hadn't seen her in a few years but we were once close in a formal and forced way. I got the word from a woman I've never been close to. Effervescent and happy she is one of those well-intentioned souls who wear one out in minutes. They are well tuned to you in an entirely reciprocal way. My not attending has nothing to do with her either. In fact, if I'm asked again, and I may be, I'll probably go because the person doing the asking is someone I care about. If they want to go enough to ask me again after I said I didn't want to go then I'll go. But they probably won't. There's work to do.

That will be an end to it then. This woman, my internal model for Rosie the Riveter, will remain with me only in memory. That was the way we wanted it I guess, neither one of us sought the other out. We would occasionally have mutual friends tell us about each other but we never instigated a call or a visit on our own. We weren't that close really. She was a lovely woman, loving and kind in a seemingly selfless way and the world is the less for her loss. Goodbye C, maybe again some day.

Alone and Thinking

I was alone this weekend. Doesn't happen much and I like it less than I once did. Periodic isolation is, I think, a requirement for me as it allows me to re-center. The problem, of course, is as long as I'm strictly in my head without the balance of another soul, I could just as easily be off-center. Here are some of the things that occurred to me. I should do more because others ask me to. I should do less of what others ask that conflicts with what I believe. Church is the subject here. I get invited to church functions and tend to decline. I think the church is way too messed up to be of any real use to me. I once heard that the church is the only organization that exists for the sake of those who are not members. Pretty catchy and maybe it was once true but nowadays is seems to exist more for the members than the non. And as such, it finds much to attack in its own body, rendering it ugly and sputtering. Founded on such a beautiful message, love, and so hopelessly twisted as to make one believe the Old Testament prophets were onto something and Paul was the first televangelist, selling a message that perverted more than enlightened. "Just say you believe and leave the rest to Jesus," sure seems to open the door to a lot of bad behavior. Some of the Gospels that didn't make it into the canon seem to say more about our responsibility than God's infinite power, guess that's why they didn't make it in.

The Internet is doomed. I've been deleting several hundred emails a day that made it past the spam filter because they are legitimate responses from legitimate servers rejecting the spoofed messages from whoever@johnwstiles.com. This simple entry of the @sign and my domain name will cause me to be picked up yet again by the spy bots trolling for email addresses and domain names to use to broadcast spam to millions every hour.
No controls on this and little control on the criminals swamping servers in attacks by robot computers like yours and mine in order to sell their "protection" racket. Just like the old days of mafia protection sold to the corner store. Only these folks live and work in Belarus or Kryzikstahn or wherever the police are neophytes or otherwise engaged and rip off the rest of the world via the marvelous internet.
Big drop down advertisements obscure my home portal (yahoo) for the first fifteen seconds I visit.
There is no international body making the rules over the ultimate international tool. The result will be more and more abuse and spam and crime because that's who we are. (See what I mean about being up in your head too much. Does this sound centered or just angry?)

On the brighter side I discovered Hope Sandoval and Mazzy Star this weekend. I bought the Fade Into you video and have played it about twenty times. Last night I had a dream with Bob Hope in it. I complimented him on his talents. Maybe there is hope after all.

Rita, Fear and Me

I've always loved inclement weather. As Garbage would put it, "I'm only happy when it rains." The seven years I spent in sunny Southern California were nice all right, but it sure got boring after a while.

I recall being angry at my parents for not allowing me to play outside during Hurricane Carla. I did get to play outside when Alecia came through in 1983. I made it into the foyer of an old brick church in my neighborhood and watched tree limbs moving horizontally. It was awesome, in the original intent of the word. Stupid as well, but I digress.

It is 8 am Thursday morning and we are about to head west to San Antonio until this thing is over. I've been glued to the weather channel and checking the NOAA alerts on their site every six hours or so. The track has shifted from south of the city to just east and north, good for us, bad for Louisiana. The winds have pegged the meter at 175 mph.

This is the second Category 5 of the year. Whether you think it's global warming, or the 10,000 climactic cycle of calm ending, or God's will, things are different now than they were ten years ago. The weather is more threatening and we're not adapting. Rebuild that which is repeatedly flattened!? Isn't that one definition of insanity - repeating the same actions expecting different results?

I remember shots of Andrew and the total devastation and clearly anything in the way this time will also be flattened. The government authorities, especially the Galveston and Houston mayors, have done a better job this time. As usual it seems, it took a horde of deaths for the government to get its act together.

The list is endless, fire escapes mandated after the Triangle Waist Company fire in Manhattan that burned to death 146 young women, doors that open out after 300 die at the Coconut Grove, and now we get the infirm out after 35 die in Katrina. Otherwise intelligent people allowing others to die because... what... we didn't think of it? But I digress again.

Here's what I'm putting off I guess. I'm scared. Not for my safety as I'll be long gone. I'm scared for my city, scared for the people I know who are staying. They have nowhere to go. There's a good chance they really will have nowhere to go in about 48 hours. I'm scared of what I'll be coming back to, or never coming back to again, we'll see.

God bless and keep all of them, and me.

Update - 9:50 PM
Turned around. Sat in traffic for 45 minutes and moved 3 car lengths. At home, hoping the jog to the West is not a portent and that landfall is in the sparsely populated Beaumont area. If turning all the inbound lanes to outbound requires the posting of police at each inbound entrance ramp, did it not occur to the authorities that they would have to move on the same freeways that had become parking lots in order to position themselves at the entrance ramps? They told us about turning the inbound lanes to outbound at 7:30 this morning and the first freeway wasn't done until almost 3 PM. Countless people are stranded on the freeways out of gas from idling for ten hours. Countless others turned around and came back home. Will keep you posted until the grid goes down. Pray for us all.

Update - 2:30 AM
Traffic heading north now in a 90 mile jam, was 100 miles late this afternoon, progress I guess. Other freeways opening up but there's no gas to be found. Red Cross shelters full, parking lots along I-45, I-10, and 290 holding stranded evacuees. Waller County (next county NW from Harris) Sheriff complaining that he's getting hundred of calls from people out of gas and water, stuck in his county along the freeways. This is starting to look pretty bad.
45 MPH winds expected in under 12 hours, up to 100 in 24. Red Cross supposed to open more shelters in the morning. The Coast Guard is supposed to be airlifting gasoline into the city. I don't see that we have the time for this to work...
I'm in a bungalow built in the 20's about 2 miles north of Buffalo Bayou about 3 miles from downtown. When Tropical Storm Allison came through in 2001 we had 27 inches of rain in our neighborhood and water was up to the front and back porches. None is talking about that much rain yet but some of the models show Rita stalling and looping back over the city Sunday...

Update - Noon, Friday
We're all talking like it's missed us. This because the eye is projected to pass 60 miles to the east. Will we regret our arrogance?
The winds have started and it's clouding up. We drove downtown and out to Memorial Park. Dozens of joggers and bike riders in the park, downtown is boarded up, the police were loading bottled water into their new substation downtown. One gas station was open and there were three dozen cars lined up. One store was open on Westheimer, we didn't stop.
No mass rescues of the people stranded on freeways and gale force winds are less than 12 hours away. I hope Interstate 45 doesn't become our Convention Center. These people are in parking lots, why aren't they being bused out?

Update 4 PM -
The facts appear to be that buses have been cruising the freeways and people have declined a ride. The Chief of Metro says they asked 450 people and 11 accepted rides. They're going out again, for the last time. Wish I knew the truth of it. Reporters talk about hundreds of cars and people in parking lots and the local government rep says it ain't so. I know there is no gas. I saw people using Big Gulp cups to hold the few ounces of gas they could get and then watched them pour half on the ground trying to get it into their tanks.
I'm glad I'm home, hope I'm as glad tomorrow...

Update Final
It is the next morning. I've modified the Nano playlist for Hurricane aftermath music. For us it was another non-event. The fear of course, is when the next one comes we will all be inclined to downplay the danger. Maybe rereading this then will help. Had the winds here been 100 plus we would have been in real danger. A steady 30 mph wind does some scary things to trees, 100 would have surely launched missiles through the air. I've taken the tape off the windows, hoping some theaters open today or tomorrow, there are some movies I would like to see. Nothing scary though, not for a while.

America the Afraid

I'm so ethnocentric. I've been wishing I could get out. I'd love to live in another country, France, New Zealand, Canada even. I need a job though and I'm insufficiently marketable to transplant myself. It really hadn't occurred to me until today that although I know there are a lot of people like me that don't love this country the way they once did, there is an even larger number of people in other countries that might have once dreamed of living in America and now don't. We have always had our share of simple minded reactionary cowards afraid of change or anything they don't understand, from McCarthy to Haldeman to Rove. Try as I might to see these folks as sincere and good hearted but misguided, I've come more and more to see them as dangerous and threatening. It's simple really, they've never been in power and now they are. They've got their meaty fists wrapped around the steering wheel and they will not listen to the rest of us shouting about the cliff we're headed for. What started all this is a book a friend asked me to read, The Flight of the Creative Class.Author Richard Florida suggests that the measure of economic success now and in the future will no longer be based on natural resources or military might but instead in the creative power of its people. He talks about the creative flow into the United States that resulted from the rise of Fascism in Germany. Einstein and Oppenheimer came to the US because they were no longer welcome in their country. For many decades nations sent their best students to American Universities. For the first time in decades the percent of visa refusals is growing as more and more promising students are denied access to the US. The relegation of science to the status of interest group by the Bush administration is having a chilling effect on the interest of the world's best and brightest to make the US their home. The upshot of this most prescient book is this: US has begun an inexorable decline from its once preeminent position as the world's creative leader. By refusing access to ever larger numbers in a misguided effort to keep terrorists at bay and fostering a Fundamentalist society intolerant of any but those who read the Bible as the inerrant word of God, we are insuring the absence of the world's smartest and most creative people.

This atmosphere is fostered by "well-meaning" folk terrified of the future desperate to freeze a fast moving world in a frame familiar to them. The neo-cons talk openly of rolling the society back to a time before the Warren Court and the social upheaval of the sixties, as if that could be done. These are deeply disturbed and dangerous people and they are running our country. Heaven help us all.

Health Insurance Crimes

I really was proud of this country once. I spent my adolescence in the sixties and celebrated my sixteenth birthday in Los Angeles. Of course, I was proud of what we might become, not what we were. At the time we were maxing out our troop presence in Vietnam and the counter-culture movement looked to my na•ve eyes as if it might actually change the way things were. Huge numbers of people, led by students, were mobilizing against the war, FM radio was just being born, The Jefferson Airplane and Grateful Dead were the bands of the day and anything was possible. We were landing on the moon for heaven's sake! I imagined a future of peace and prosperity and equality. And then came Kent State, S.I. Hayakawa, Nixon, and Watergate. The realization that the power structure saw our dreams as nightmares and that they had the power to awaken us was one of the crushing blows of my young life. Since then I've pretty much sat on the sidelines and carped. All real hope for change is gone. I used to believe in some moral pendulum that would one day swing the other way. It hasn't yet and I've been watching for it for four decades now.

Today I read Malcolm Gladwell's piece in The New Yorker about the failure of our healthcare system. A sampling - we spend $5,267 per capita on health care every year, more than twice the industrialized world's average, and forty-five million people have no health insurance. The United States has fewer doctors, fewer immunized children, and a lower life expectancy than our fellow "developed" countries. How can this be? Largely because of what Gladwell describes as the Moral Hazard Myth. This is a belief that insurance changes the behavior of the insured. Insurance will cause people to go to the doctor unnecessarily. People will spend their money wisely if it's their money. If it's the taxpayers money, well, those fools will just waste it. The problem with this assumption is that it presupposes the uninsured have the money to spend in the first place. Any child could see the truth. The 2004 Economic Report of the President suggests that most people who don't have insurance have chosen not to have it. Incredible. The President's solution - have the people without insurance set aside tax free accounts to save for their medical needs. Have them buy catastrophic insurance plans for the really big stuff. Like the poor people in this country have the money! If it weren't so evil it would be insane.

But it's not, it's our country. And it sure hurts that it is.

Who Are You?

I don't possess the credentials that make for proper social interaction in my current milieu. I walked into the dining room to hear a man proclaim his degree from Williams College and postgrad from Harvard. At dinner we asked each other what we did for a living. Most everyone was careful to avoid any conversation that revealed thoughts and feeling about anything other than the food, the weather, the surroundings. We are at Cibolo Creek, a resort for the very wealthy located halfway between Marfa, a community of artists and locals mixing uneasily and Presidio, Texas' oldest town and a picture of destitution and ugliness. Here, like most places I suppose, we are defined by our occupations. A young couple in the construction business is here looking for investors we suspect, the rest look to be retired. We are a half-day drive out of Big Bend, a magnificent and overwhelming example of geological formations from multiple eons stretching back to the time all land was one congealed mass surrounded by ocean. Our colleges and occupations take on an entirely different hue from this perspective. The severe conditions, the radical rock formations, the endless vistas created a sense of selflessness and insignificance at the same time. I read somewhere that if you took the whole of the time it took to create this part of the planet as a calendar year, the Spanish settlers arrived sometime in the afternoon of the 31st of December. We must have shown up ten minutes later. How can we see ourselves as anything other than a wholly transient visitor of questionable significance in the light of the overwhelming scale of time and place one feels here? And how do we stack up against these settlers? Riding on horseback for endless days to fell trees with dull axes and patch together a structure with the few crooked nails they packed in with them. But we are the same people aren't we? The physical has certainly changed; our lives are incomparably easier. But what of the spiritual? Are we richer in our minds as well as our comforts?

These early settlers spent their waking hours making sure they would wake again tomorrow. What time could they have for expanding their cultural and spiritual lives? Discouraged by the local parson, for example, they weren't likely to transfer membership to the West Pecos Unitarian Universalists. But were they poorer for it? Are we poorer for our relative lack of struggle to survive? Where do the two of us meet?

They had theater, music, poetry, just as we do. No TV, no IPOD, though. They spent time in isolation, hacking at a dry ground or walking three miles to the general store for matches just as we spend time in isolation in our cars, under our headphones, in front of our televisions. Did they value their time together more? Was a social call a cause for rejoicing or an intrusion? Did they categorize and dismiss as we do? These too were people with occupations: blacksmith, farmer, rancher, teacher, doctor. Did my grandfather's great grandfather walk into the town hall to hear, "I own everything you can see to the north from Boot Hill?" Was he asked what he did for a living and relegated to his position on the ladder? Probably. Why?

The mullahs in Iran and other theocracies enforce a uniformity that strikes us as bizarre. Men's beards are measured, women are struck by roaming bands of religious police for allowing their hair to show from under their headscarfs. We scoff but are we so different in our desire to be surrounded by people who think, even dress similarly? Why else would we so doggedly pursue questions of employment, education, money when we first meet another? When we ask where someone lives do we ask because we intend to visit? We ask in order to categorize. Over and over again I categorize and dismiss far more quickly than I seek to know. Bush supporter? You must be ignorant of history? Foreigner - terrorist? Are we so frightened by newness or so reassured by similarity that we casually dismiss each other on the basis of utterly superficial criteria? Yes, of course we do.

Can we change? That, I suppose, depends on who you are.

But It's a Dry Heat

A friend sometimes jokes about Houston being a mistake. There shouldn't be a city here and wouldn't be if it weren't for air conditioning. Houston is sub-tropical, it rains an average of more than an inch a week, the temperature hasn't dropped below freezing in three years and right now it's 94 degrees and 95% humidity. It's so wet that in the afternoons when the ground heats up, giant storm clouds are formed from the rising sodden air.

I found a city that's worse. Much much worse. It's the fastest growing city in the country. Gambling and prostitution are legal and actively encouraged. Where the city ends, the desert begins. Real desert, the kind that kills you in a day. Dig under a sidewalk - no there are no sidewalks - dig under a parking lot and you'll strike sand. Construction crews knock off by 2 every day when the temperature is over 100, which is most days.

The mafia owned the city for a while, now Hollywood studios own it. These twin cultural imperatives of crime and make-believe have left their imprint on this place. Morality, at least the more staid morality of my father, the morality that speaks badly of sex for sale and marketing designed to get my grandparents to spend their last few dollars on the fervent hope of a triple pay slot machine jackpot, is missing. Entertainment is heavily weighted toward people who emulate other people. Elvis impersonators, Rat Pack impersonators, Celene Dion impersonators. This is where performers go to die. If watching someone pretend to be someone else isn't your cup of tea you can always find some half naked showgirls to marvel at.

Ironically, water is everywhere. Herbert Hoover dammed one of America's great rivers, the Colorado, so this desert could have water and electricity. Huge fountains shoot water a hundred feet into the air; giant blue pools dot the landscape. Waterfalls abound and bottled water awaits you in your hotel room.

I don't know this city yet, maybe I'll change my mind if I spend some time there. Right now it's just hot. Really, really hot. And it doesn't make any difference that it's a dry heat. So is brimstone.

Two Blondes

On the way out, my seatmate was on my wavelength. It's a quiet one. No chatter. She stuck in the ear buds as soon as she sat down. After an hour or so she pulled out her Mac Workbook and opened what looked like a dissertation on Detroit mosques. I tried reading over her shoulder but didn't get much. When all electronic devices were banned at final descent I leaned over and said, "I'm glad at least one person is trying to understand that faith instead of just hating it." "That's what I do," she said, "I'm an interfaith counselor. I'm coming back from a camp where we put Israeli and Palestinian girls together for two weeks and they just talked." Wow, I said, good work. Keep it up. She told me she was afraid to read the mosque study in public these days. And she was worried that young people didn't seem to be questioning much. They were way too herd-like for her liking, too ready to buy the conventional wisdom. She smiled little and furrowed a lot. She gave me hope.

On the way back my seatmate got worried when a huffing guy pulled her hanging bag out of the overhead and shoved his overstuffed in its place. She asked him if he would mind asking the attendant to hang the bag up instead of stuffing it back into the overhead. Well, I'll try, he says. His tone was incredulous, like she had asked him to put the bag inside his mouth. Or you could put her bag back where it was and find another place for your bag, I muttered just loud enough. The attendant hung up the bag and we all settled in, but not before he gave me a look I'm sure he reserved for street people asking for change.

I kept the headphones on until we were on the way down. She started up as soon as they came off. The bag had the dress she was wearing to her brother-in-laws funeral. Within a few minutes I learned her cop husband had been shot to death by a guy now on death row writing books and giving interviews. During the trial she met and struck up a friendship with the lady that co-founded Justice For All, a victims rights organization. Her friend died in the Pan Am crash a few years back. She told me a few horror stories about victims and their struggles. She was not a sad person despite having received more than her fair share of misery. She smiled and laughed a lot. But she was living her life from the past. Hard not to, I suppose, but it sure sounded like a choice she had no second thoughts about.

Two blondes, one looking forward, one looking back. One gave me hope, the other took it away.

Can We Not Talk

I sat in the airport today for two hours listening to music on the MP3 player I got for Christmas. I love watching people at the airport. Quite the cross section, from the freaked out mad dash runners to those poor souls who never can figure out how the row numbers work. Their boarding stub says ROW 27 and they check every row as if 27 might suddenly appear between 11 and 12.

I took the earphones out today while I was waiting on my plane and listened for a few minutes to the cacophony in terminal 6 at LAX. Besides the way too loud PA announcements about destroying my personal effects if I left them alone, the predominant sound was from a lady on her cell. Why do people on a cell phone talk so loud? There were several people talking with each other and I couldn't hear a word they were saying, but the lady on her cell was so loud I had to crank up the IPOD volume to drown her out.

If we ever do get visited by extra-terrestrials I hope they spend some time in the airport watching before deciding to establish contact. Chances are they'll slip quietly out baggage claim and grab the SuperShuttle back to Alpha Centauri. I'm thinking they might want to grab a cell phone, though, just to stay in touch. I wonder if other sentient species feel the need to remain in constant contact the way we do?

I went to a play last week and the guy five seats to my left kept checking his cell phone every few minutes. I could tell because that blue glow is hard to miss in a darkened theater. Some time back I was at the Walgreens listening to some woman hollering over her pink cell phone about how awful her boss was. I made a suggestion to her for a good comeback the next time her boss was mean to her. Instead of responding to me, though, she told her friend some man was trying to get into her business. Her business had up to that point been projected from Seasonal Specials to Analgesics, but apparently I crossed some sort of privacy barrier by engaging her. The reasoning escapes me, if it were a private conversation I would have assumed it would take place in private. But that's me.

Everyone I know has a cell phone or a pager or both. What are they talking about that can't wait till they get home or to work?
"What are you doing?"
"Nothing, what are you doing?"
"I'm in the bathroom, what's for dinner?"
"I don't know, what do you want."
"Are you there?"
"Hello?"
"Hello?"
"Oh, that's better, what were we saying?"
"I don't know, what are you doing?" Ad nauseum. In the last thirty years I have had maybe fifteen meaningful conversations. Not one over the phone.

And the technology, my God the technology. When "can you hear me now" becomes the basis for an advertising campaign in competition with an advertising campaign based on garbled cell phone transmissions, one would think the technology is in need of work. If real phones had worked so poorly we'd still be visiting and writing letters. If cars had failed as often we'd be invading India to make sure the price of oats wasn't controlled by a cartel of oat producing nations.

Last week I went with a couple of friends into the hill country. I warned them that their cell phones wouldn't work where we were going. They both had their phones out "checking for signal" all the way there. "Still got a signal," they would say and smile smugly as if they had defeated Nature herself. Eventually their phones went dead. I smiled smugly on Nature's behalf.

Cell phones have made constant contact possible. Caller ID allows us to hide from that contact. But it's the tool of the Devil. That's what I told the telemarketer that called to give me one.

"Free," she said, "completely free."
"Can't do it," I said. "Caller ID is evil. Any device that facilitates a decision to not engage in social intercourse through subterfuge is evil." She hung up without saying good bye. Have to be careful where you use intercourse.

There was once a time when people wrote each other letters. There was even a time when people called on each other in person. That's what calling cards were originally designed for. In fact, they served the same purpose as caller ID. Hand your card over to the doorman and wait to see if you will be received. Tremendous snob appeal. That's why caller ID is so popular. It allows you to snub people without actually engaging them. If your card was returned to you at the door you at least had the satisfaction of knowing you were being rejected and could act accordingly. With caller ID, though, you might as well pass your card through the slit in the door and wait to see if it opens. You can't tell if you are being snubbed or if the other person really isn't there.

Smart bomb, that's what caller ID is, a smart bomb. Push a button and pull away in a graceful arc slipping the surly bonds. Let someone (or something) else direct your missile into its target. If you want to kill someone it should be harder than pushing a button. If you want to reject another's attempt to communicate with you then reject it, don't pretend you never heard it. That's cowardly.

Remember how Jack Lemmon got away with killing Virna Lisi in How To Murder Your Wife? He drew a button on the jurors railing and convinced them that they could get rid of their wives by pushing that button. They all pushed it and he was acquitted.

Make it painless and all sorts of behaviors crop up. That is what is evil about caller ID, it makes otherwise unacceptable behavior possible.

Illusions

There must have been over a hundred cans in the shopping basket. Dad was worried. I'd never seen Dad worried before. Dad was a war hero. He knew everything. If he were worried...

It was 1961, back when the Civil Defense authority was active and alert. Radios were manufactured with little triangles pointing at the two Conalrad stations you were to tune in if the sirens went off. The sirens would sound every Friday at noon. We were hearing a lot of reminders about that on the radio so we wouldn't panic this Friday. The sirens sat atop the phone company switching station downtown. A twenty-story tan brick building with no windows, it contained all the electronic switches for the phone company's central routers. I was on the inside once. The sound of tens of thousands of tiny electronic switches clicking open and closed as conversations began and ended was deafening. On the roof were eight horns, each the size of a Ford Explorer. Sitting in a fifth grade classroom I would hear them every Friday as they were tested. Hear them at any other time and it meant catastrophe was minutes away. In October of 1961, catastrophe was imminent. We were eyeball to eyeball with the Russians over their missiles in Cuba and it looked like war. Nuclear war scenarios were being dusted off and new ones created. Survivability was discussed. The Cuban missile crisis ended on Sunday, October 28, when we secretly agreed to remove our own missiles from Russia's neighbor, Turkey. In spite of the agreement reached on Sunday, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs suggested a surprise military air strike on Monday.

We were at the local grocery stocking up. I don't know if Dad knew it then, but Houston would have been one of the first targets in a nuclear exchange. As the cornerstone of the largest petrochemical refinery complex in the world, stretching from Houston to Baton Rouge, more refineries, storage facilities and chemical processing plants are concentrated here than anywhere else on the planet. A 50 megaton nuclear weapon exploded over the Houston Ship Channel would have killed half a million people. Our family would have succumbed to radiation poisoning within a month. We had enough canned spinach to last for three. Unbeknownst to me, Dad, like most of the population, was clueless.

One of those refineries blew up recently. The disc jockey on the radio said details were sketchy but there had been an explosion in Deer Park. He hated to start his week off with this kind of news, he said. I logged on and checked my web portal for news. They rarely carry anything local. I went to the local TV stations' websites. The NBC affiliates "Big Story" was about a murder trial beginning this week. "Coming soon" is returned when you try to access the ABC affiliate as they don't yet have a website. The CBS affiliates site carried a banner "Live Coverage of Ship Channel Explosion." One click later I was looking at real time live video.

I went back to the NBC affiliate. A banner at the bottom of the page invited phone calls from citizens with hot news tips. I called.
Newsroom, he said.
There was an explosion in Deer Park.
We've been on the air with it for three hours.
I could almost see his eyes rolling up. Yet another yokel unaware and unappreciative of the crack local news team covering "The Big Story."
You guys have nothing on your website about it and your competition has a live video feed.
I'll get it updated, he said, thanks.
Sure thing, I said.
Within fifteen minutes, "The Big Story" was changed.

Over a hundred professionals work in that news division. No one remembered to update the web site. That night they interviewed the local citizenry for their reaction to the explosion. It was loud and scary, we learned. The population around the refineries has been told the best thing for them to do in case of an explosion or chemical leak is to "shelter in place." That means stay home and turn off the air conditioning. The reason they're told that, of course, is because it would be too late for those living close by to do anything but clog the roads, making life for the "first responders" more difficult. Shelter in place - like duck and cover.

As a child I waited on the sirens every Friday at noon. They were reassuring, comforting. People, knowledgeable people, were constantly on the lookout for missiles. We would be warned if something really terrible were about to happen. I know now that siren would have been a death knell.

The dad that knew everything, shelter in place, the sirens that warn us, our leaders making wise decisions for our welfare, illusions all.

Why Lawyers Proliferate

What follows is a letter I recently sent to the folks who "insured" the poor sap who rear-ended us a few months ago. A kid, he leapt from his barely dented pick-up to inspect the damage. Clearly shaken, he whipped out the cell phone without even asking if we were OK. He called his office. "Well sir, I've had a little accident in your truck."
"Yes. sir."
"Hello?"
"Hello?"

Months later and our car has been repaired, mostly. Yesterday, at the peak of my frustration with his bandit insurance company, I wrote the letter that follows. I copied everyone I could think of, including the Swiss holding company that owns them as well as the Texas Board of Insurance. Obviously, I should have hired a lawyer on day one. I didn't.

President
Notoriously Bad Insurance Company
Dallas, Texas

Dear Sir or Madam:

On November 8, 2002, my wife and I were struck from behind by a truck owned by Evco Industrial Hardware of Freeport, Texas. Our car was hit with sufficient force to throw our car into the car stopped in front of us which was, in turn, thrown into the car stopped in front of it. We were stopped at a train crossing for a locomotive. The driver of the truck owned by Evco, insured by Victory Insurance, and underwritten by Republic, a member of the Winterthur Swiss Insurance Group, saw the locomotive and the three parked cars in time to slow his speed in a failed panic stop but nonetheless struck the left rear of our VW Passat station wagon hard enough to bend the frame and require more than seven thousand dollars in repair, so far.
I was, at the time, scheduled for spinal surgery the following month. My wife and I were planning to spend the weekend at a beach house in anticipation of a long and painful recovery from that pending surgery. Although the pressure and pain in my back was significantly effected by the high speed crash by your insured, I chose to take the high road and not pursue damages through the courts for the additional pain inflicted by the negligence of your insured. It appears I am quite alone on that high road as I continue to struggle with your company to repair our car, pay for the rental car we obtained at your instruction, and put this painful incident finally behind us.
Today is May 15, 2003 and my car is once again in the Body Shop awaiting a call from Notoriously Bad to authorize repair of the window mechanisms broken in the crash. I left a voice mail for Ms. Responsible-Not yesterday, May 14 around ten in the morning pleading with her to contact the body shop to authorize repair. Our contact at the body shop has faxed his report to two different Notoriously Bad employees last week and has yet to hear from anyone at Notoriously Bad regarding the repair.
Last night I opened a letter from our credit card company, American Express, to learn that the rental car charges from November 11 through February 8 (it took nearly four months of wrangling between the body shop and Republic to repair what could be repaired on the car) were being charged to us. Rather the differential between $23.99 and $42.99 incurred when Ms. Responsible-Not authorized the larger car to replace the station wagon's carrying capacity. My wife rides a bicycle and we bought the station wagon in order to accommodate her bike. The larger vehicle was rented as a replacement with the full understanding and approval of Ms. Responsible-Not. In fact, when we received the initial bill from American Express two months ago I spoke with Responsible-Not and she assured me it would be taken care of. It hasn't.
During the nearly four months we were in a rental car, my wife was contacted on four separate occasions by Notoriously Bad, twice called from a meeting, to learn that Notoriously Bad was no longer authorizing a rental car. She would then call Ms. Responsible-Not to be told by Ms. Responsible-Not she had no idea why this was happening.
When we finally did pick the car up four months later, we had to remind Notoriously Bad that the front end of the car was damaged. It had not been repaired. Virtually nothing has happened in this process without either my wife or myself becoming repeatedly personally involved.
While in the process of composing this letter I spoke with Responsible-NotŐs manager, Eager But Feckless and he told me Notoriously Bad had trouble with Rental Company before and one of Notoriously Bad 's customers was unable to get a car rental deposit cleared from her account. Taking that as an indication that Notoriously Bad was assuming the role of victim in the Rental Agency/ Notoriously Bad relationship, I called Enterprise myself, conferenced the accounting and branch departments together and appear to have resolved the charges.
My car is still at the repair shop, my back continues to cause grievous pain, and Notoriously Bad Insurance Company says they've done everything they were supposed to do.
So, here's my question, what would you do?

Sincerely,

John W. Stiles

Do you think I'll hear anything?

bad news

When I opened the door I felt it. It was palpable, it hung in the air like smoke. He was dead. I saw it in my sisterâs face, in the way my motherâs body slumped. No one had to tell me the bad news, I knew it. The whole process had taken less than eighteen months. From the first pain in his leg to the look on my sisters face, eighteen months. He was behind the counter when things started to go south. He said it was a pain unlike any thing he had ever felt before. This from a guy shot in the stomach by a .50 caliber machine gun on Okinawa.

Within a month we knew. It was terminal. No cure, no treatment, no known cause. I havenât a clue how he handled that bad news. We never talked about it. If he told mom, she never shared it. I handled it well by not handling it. Like the disembodied spirit floating above the dying body watching, I disengaged. I was keenly aware of how I was reacting to the news, how I was or was not revealing my feelings. The bad news lifted me out of the event. I donât know that I ever genuinely reacted. Maybe thatâs the way it is. The first time you get life-altering bad news, if it's bad enough, and no one around knows what to do or how to help, it takes you away and you never quite make it back. Or maybe, if youâre busy helping others deal with it, you donât or canât deal with it yourself.

This bad news just kept getting worse. As the world I knew collapsed and successive waves of bad and worse news came pounding in, I stayed above it, watching. I don't imagine it looked that way from the outside. I imagine I looked fully engaged. I talked with my sister hour after hour. I held my mother's head in my lap as she cried herself out. I reassured my brothers everything was under control. And it was. Or I thought it was. Or it was supposed to be. I really donât know. Like the poison that goes to work on your insides, you know something is wrong, terribly wrong, but you canât see or touch it.

"I have some very bad news for you." This from the poor cop in El Paso who had the job of telling me my brother was dead. There must be some sort of training that goes along with it, right? The guys on NYPD Blue always say, ăI'm sorry for your loss.ä The El Paso guy didnât say that. I always wondered at the choice of the word - "very." Is that what they use when the news is death? Serious injury probably warrants an adjective - "bad" but no need for an adverb. I had the job of telling his wife, our mother, sister, and brother. His wife fell apart, never to be heard from again. Funny, I donât remember telling my brother or mother. My sister insisted on viewing the body. Bad idea. He was inside a hospital doorway on a gurney, covered in a sheet. Sister broke a finger on her hand slamming her fist into the wall. She took it worse than anyone. She would be dead from an Aspirin overdose within a few months. Big brother took her in and she died in his apartment within a few weeks. Carefully planned it was. The aspirin guaranteed uncontrollable internal bleeding, like a bullet in the liver, it's over. They say her heart stopped several times as they tried to save her. I wonder if they just got tired. I got the news over a pay phone in a grocery store parking lot.

Maybe itâs the speed. The radical turn. One minute youâre this person with this life and the next youâre not. And you have no control whatsoever over it. Bad news changes everything. That second you get it is the first second of your new life. And the new life is cast by bad news. Bad news you had to hear. Bad news someone had to tell you. Those first few seconds are etched forever. The chemicals that carve the pathways in the brain that are memory must be particularly caustic at these times. Deep, vivid trenches of memory.

I opened the door to my quarter of the qua-plex. Up the stairs and on the left. Opening the door was easy, the two dollar hasp I used to lock it was ripped out and hung by one remaining screw, the lock intact but rendered meaningless. As I walked into the room, I heard it. Like the pop of a paper bag under a blanket. Etched it is. And one more time, everything changed.

Car Repair

This is a miserable place. Hot and humid barely begins to describe. In the same way binge and purge is only truly meaningful if you've done it. The words approximate the experience but the real horror escapes all but the true initiates.

One summer in high school I took a job with a local delivery service. My delivery "truck" was a little Datsun pickup about half the size of an ordinary sedan. From the drivers seat, I could reach forward and loosen the radiator cap, reach back and close the tailgate. Ventilation was supplied by rolling down both windows and directing the "vent" window at your chest. Ventilation is too strong a word perhaps, as the back window of the cab was so close that the air rushing by the driver and passenger windows did just that, rushed by. Direct a swiveling vent window about the size of a postcard into the compartment and you get some breeze. But only if the speed of the vehicle was greater than 20 miles per hour. I was once so desperate for a breeze that I drove up and over the freeway embankment rather than wait in line on the access road. I swore that day, I would never operate a vehicle again in the city without air conditioning.

Last June, the air conditioner on my Jetta stopped blowing cold air. It went about it diabolically. It didn't just stop. The temperature gradually slipped up from fifty to sixty, "didn't this use to be colder?" Then up to seventy, "well, it's cooler than outside but this isn't right." Then, back to fifty, "must be the settings, something I did." This went on for a couple of weeks. Finally, nothing. I take it to a guy that races miniature cars. "Air conditioning, no way. That means taking off the dash and you only want the dealer messing around with your dash." Bummer.

I call the dealer.

Our first appointment is three weeks from today.
Have I called the doctor's office by mistake?
No, we're really busy. The flood, you know.
Ok, fine book me.
I buy a couple of nice hand towels to whisk away the sweat over the next three weeks. I drop it off. They call me that afternoon.
We can't find a thing wrong so we charged it up with freon. One hundred ninety-seven dollars, please.
Cool.
Two weeks later, it starts with the warmer, cooler, warmer stuff again. Back in, this time without an appointment.
You didn't fix it!
Allrighty then, lets shoot some green dye in there and we'll find that darned leak. Two hundred eighty-nine dollars, please.
Two weeks later...
Allrighty then Mr. Stiles, it appears you have a leak in the astral seal. We can fix that right up. Four hundred eighty-six dollars, please.
Two weeks later, I'm back again.
I was hoping it wasn't going to be the master aeon fluctuator but it looks like it may be after all. We'll shoot some more green dye in there and confirm it once and for all. Two hundred eighty-nine dollars, please.
Two weeks later...
Bad news, Mr. Stiles, it appears we didn't clean out the first batch of green dye so we can't tell where the leak is. Good news is we are not going to charge you a dime to do it right this time! Some more green dye and we oughta naill this one down.
Two weeks later and summers end is in sight. So is the cool air from the air conditioner. I'm wondering about this green dye as I've never seen it.
Hardey-har-har, did you hear that? Mr. Stiles wants to know where the green dye is? Hardey-har-har. You need a special light to see it, Mr. Stiles. We'll call you as soon as we know anything.
Two days later.
Bad news Mr. Stiles, you need a new aeon fluctuator. One thousand, three hundred and sixty dollars, please, sir.
Can I get some relief on the nine hundred dollars I paid you for the things that weren't broken?
Well, I spoke with the manager and he says the things we fixed were, in fact, broken so...
You gave it to the same mechanic every time, right?
Yes, sir, that's our policy.
So, the same guy that claimed he knew what was wrong the first time is the same guy that forgot to clean out the dye from the second time and the same guy that has now determined the problem is in the aeon fluctuator? Do you think he has any reason to maintain that all his previous diagnoses were correct and that this is just the latest in a series of sequential failures in the air-conditioning system of a three year old car?
Oh, no sir, we trust him entirely.
OK, FINE. FIX IT.
Two more days and I pick up my now cooling car. But the CD player doesn't work. And there is a scraping sound every time I turn the wheel.
Our earliest appointment is in three weeks...

The scraping sound in the steering column cost five hundred dollars to silence and had absolutely nothing to do they tell me, with taking the dash, and steering column, out. They fixed the CD player in the service drive while I stood there. It played fine until I tried to take out the changer. My new Luscious Jackson CD is stuck somewhere inside. It will cost seven hundred dollars to replace. And for that I don't even need an appointment.

The summers over now, my AC works great and radio isn't so bad, I guess.

I'm mad too, George

I've seen him mad before. When he was Governor and furious with people for driving around barriers erected over flooded streets. Staring into the camera and with all the passion he could muster, he dressed down "those people" too foolish to obey the Department of Public Safety sawhorses. It was startling. Language has always been a second language for George junior. He was on, syntax his friend, words his subjects. Mind and tongue worked in harmony and the result was several coherent sentences. No hungry people had food put on them, no malfeasers malfeased. But that was years ago. I have always suspected his difficulty with every other attempt at public communication was rooted in his utter lack of interest or understanding of the material. The recently convened four hour economic conference of business leaders, campaign contributors, economists, campaign contributors, workers, campaign contributors and campaign contributors must have been a real challenge. He rose to it, though and pronounced the economy would improve. Thank goodness, unchecked descent into the abyss will be avoided. Hip, hip, hoorah. So, imagine my surprise yesterday when I turned on the radio, and for only the second time, heard him both passionate and eloquent. He was furious once again, seems players and owners are again at an impasse and baseball is headed for another work stoppage.

I used to care. To this day, when I see the old Yankee logo with red white and blue top hat above two crossed bats, I smile. I think the first thing I noticed as a tyke were clouds, the second was that cool logo. I remember sitting on my great grandmother Tilford's bed as she, blind and nearly deaf, listened to the Jack Buck play by play. Her team was the Cardinals. My team never won the pennant. Came close a couple of times. Then, teams disintegrated and baseball became players as salaries and free agency rocketed once idyllic summers into oblivion. Players change teams like partners in a square dance. Rooting for a team now means rooting for a logo and the cool logos are all gone.

This strike, if it materializes, will be over the players reluctance to allow a "luxury tax" on high payroll teams. It might have a dampening effect on salaries, they argue. Salaries that average two million dollars a year.

The Little League World Series is coming up, the brackets have been doubled to sixteen teams and twenty odd games will make their way to ESPN and the ABC in the next few weeks. Protests over age and residency have been settled so the games may begin on time.

I coached Little League one year. One of the boys called me from the practice field three hours before practice was scheduled, his brother had dropped him off early. Another came in street clothes to the All Star game. He was an alternate and couldn't suit up unless he was needed. He was and it was the happiest day of his life. Another hit the ball into the high grass in right field. The right fielder was being assisted in his search for the ball by the first baseman and center fielder when, for no apparent reason, he slid into third. "Home," I shouted and pointed, "home!" He looked up and wheezed, "I'm too tired coach."

All gone now. What a shame.

I'm mad too, George.

Two Little Girls

It wasn't so hot today so I walked the three blocks to the restaurant for lunch. The Chicago Tribune dispenser in front of the restaurant was empty. A sign taped to the yellowed and broken plastic invited me to, "buy the Trib inside." Not knowing whether to ask for the Chicago Tribune or the Trib or the Tribune and ever ready to be made to feel stupid by insiders, I dropped three dimes and nickel into the Chicago Sun-Times dispenser. Laid out like a magazine it would make for easier handling at a small table. Sitting alone in a restaurant with nothing to read means either staring at people or pretending to be interested in whatever dreadful decor the restauranteers have plastered to the walls.

I turned through the headline pages and the latest redundancy from a government struggling for credibility in their twin wars on alien terror and corporate greed. The Metro pages went swiftly and as I turned the pages into the World section I was stopped by a four by six picture of a small child with a rope around her neck. She was naked and squatting in what looked like dirt and gravel. The caption explained. Her family hoped that the evil spirits occupying her malnourished frame would be dispelled by her enforced proximity to the Mosque. She was roped to a mosque in a rural Indian village. Her tether wouldn't allow her to get any more than her left arm and shoulder into the shade cast by the mosque's western wall. She died three days after the picture was taken, according to the aid worker who took the picture.

Earlier that morning I watched the Orange County sheriff tell the earnest interviewer from Fox that four hundred people were directly involved in the investigation into the abduction, rape and murder of the four year old girl from Stanton, California. Tonight an arrest was made.

Two four year old girls on opposite sides of the planet. One dead from exposure, the other strangled. One nameless, unrecognized, and uncounted. The other, Samantha, her face on ten thousand posters, her killer apprehended, justice served.

The Original Unnecessary War

Franco Prussian generals trained in the art of war by men who mastered it at the feet of men who answered to Napoleon and the Duke of Wellington. Waging war with 19th century tactics and 20th century weapons. Tactics that called for massed formations of men marching against each other in an orgy of shooting, stabbing, and clubbing met twentieth century weapons designed to prevent face to face battle. The evolution from saber to muzzle loading blunderbuss to machine gun took less than one hundred years. Military tactics were tragically slower to evolve. The result: millions marched and ran and dove into a hail of machine gun fire. Trenches were dug, the men climbed in and the slaughter was on. This was the Great War. Battle lines shifted a few hundred yards this way and that at a cost of millions of young lives. The magnitude of the carnage was beyond anything humanity had ever experienced. The simultaneous birth of mass communication and urbanization allowed the horror to be communicated contemporaneously and shared by significant portions of the population. This was no historical event communicated to the privileged few. This was a horror vicariously experienced on a massive scale. And it was a war no one wanted. Germinated in an arms race, nations bent on saving face built in Empires now fading moved armies to borders to show their strength and courage. Generals trained in military academies developed plans for war and defense. Triggered by the assassination of a low level member of a once royal family, the Generals threw their great plans into motion and swept across borders on foot and horseback before anyone could say "wait a minute." Year after year the armies slaughtered each other until they literally ran out of men. The American's arrival shifted the balance through sheer increase in numbers. When it was over millions were dead and no one knew why.

The impact was enormous. It is no coincidence that humanityŐs vehicles for expression - art, music, and literature - were torn loose from their underpinnings and charted bizarre new courses in the immediate aftermath of the Great War. Painting and sculpture was no longer bound by realism, jazz was born, and the existentialist school surfaced in the writings of Camus, Sartre and Soren Kierkegaard. Our culture began not to build on the past, as had been our experience, but to break with the past. Our traditional modes of expression, along with the social mores, underwent a wrenching change. Few contemporary commentators recognized and connected the realization of what we were capable of inflicting upon ourselves with the 90 degree turn in our cultural expressions.

The nightmare of the holocaust was a precursor to the realization that, with the dawn of the atomic age, we now had the capacity to end all life on the planet. The forty year cold war was a time when our stated policy of national defense went by the acronym of MAD (mutually assured destruction). The horrors of the mass destruction of WWI impacted on us in ways that we could not, and probably still cannot, fathom. Likewise, the specter of a burned out shell of a planet hurtling through the cosmos tore through the psychic scar tissue formed after WWI and created a new set of psychic wounds.

The current picture of a government at war with its leaders and people, an educational system strained and failing, religious zealotry and fundamentalism run amuck, and continued ethnic conflicts manifesting themselves in the basest and most brutal ways imaginable, is a picture none of us can truly grasp. We see parts of the picture just as we received reports from the front lines eighty years ago. We know itŐs bad but we are incapable of truly assessing the impact.

Look to our vehicles of expression. Look to television and film, professional sports, the internet. A television program featuring the tales of a sex crimes unit, films finding ever more visually stunning methods of depicting mayhem, the phenomenal popularity of faux-wrestling, our apparent helplessness to control the dissemination and proliferation of pornography on the internet. The most successful magazines celebrate fame, the most successful politicians behave like attack dogs.

Thirteen year olds convicted of murder. Public discussions of the appropriateness of incarcerating children with adult criminals. Decency, common sense, honesty, faith, all challenged and found lacking. The social mores traditionally inculcated in the young and carried forward in the culture are disintegrating. In the absence of any clear image of right, in the sense of hopelessness that grows daily, what should we expect?

When our children mature, they do so without any sense of the commonality of humanity. Belief systems formally based on providing for the common good or founded in an unchanging sense of right and wrong are weakened and collapsing. The cult of the individual and the failure of the collective institutions of the culture give rise to the new humanity - ungrounded, self seeking, without concern for future generations.

Sociopath used to be a term applicable to that rare individual whose sense of right and wrong were missing. This was in a world where social mores communicated an implicit if not explicit sense of right and wrong. These terms were fixed on a continuum and one could measure or be measured accordingly. That continuum has turned in on itself and absolute measurements fail. Behaviors begin to be measured against other behaviors and not against principle.

In a world where right and wrong become relative, if not meaningless, the sociopath becomes the norm.

Lawyers: A Higher Calling 04.12.02

Before Moses and the Tablets was Hammurbai and the Pillar. Hammurbai, absolute ruler of Babylon, ordered his law reduced to a series of hieroglyphics and carved into a pillar on the outskirts of town. Not everyone could read hieroglyphics, though, so some enterprising young scribe set up shop at the foot of the pillar of Hammurbai and offered his services explaining the Code to any interested passerby. History's first lawyer, and our first experience with the law as document. Back then, there were no checks and balances, no Hobbesian concept of "the consent of the governed." These would come four thousand years later. But Hammurbai's Code was the beginning of the law as something separate, an objective reality.

The fabric of society is held together by the threads of this objective reality. Those threads are the laws we live by. Laws represent the social mores and moral imperatives that allow us to live in relative harmony in society. Without law, and the will to abide by and enforce the law, we revert to something less than civilized. This preciously delicate construct between the members of a society, to abide by and be subject to rules of behavior, exists at the behest of each of us. Should any member or group decide to no longer recognize this construct, the social contract, or law, is broken. The creation of laws and their application in the system of justice is the province of lawyers. Lawyers write the law, lawyers defend and prosecute violations, and lawyers interpret and apply the law when they assume the role of judge. Like physicians, the functions performed are so critical as to require the state's participation in licensing this select group of women and men.

Following the nuclear bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, when the knowledge of nuclear power began to be turned to peacetime use, the US government determined that the public interest would best be served by creating a body to oversee and regulate the burgeoning nuclear industry. The men and women responsible for creating this regulatory body had little knowledge of the business (nuclear power) they were charged with regulating. Their solution was to conduct a series of hearings before Congress and invite representatives from the major power companies to testify as to the proper methods for regulating them. The underlying assumptions were, one, the men and women responsible for the profitability of their company will testify in the public interest before their corporate or personal interest and, two, they will know enough about the dangers of nuclear power to offer solid recommendations on how to best protect the public interest. Both assumptions were incorrect. The nation's power companies have repeatedly behaved in ways that give pause to ordinary citizens. Take the example of Pacific Gas & Electric as portrayed in the recent movie, Erin Brokavich. A true story of PG & E deliberate and long term discharge of deadly chemical waste into the ground water of the community unfortunate enough to be their neighbor. PG & E was one of the principal witnesses in the government's hearings in the 1950's as to the best method of insuring safe development of nuclear power. As to the assumption that these people would be best suited to understand the dangers of nuclear radiation, the US military was, at that time, still lining up troops in the desert to witness nuclear blasts. No one knew the dangers of nuclear radiation then, nor do we now. In short, even had the utility companies known the dangers of nuclear radiation, it is highly unlikely they would have shared that information with a government body in a position to regulate them.

The creation, maintenance, and protection of our legal system is no less important than the application of nuclear power. Our legal system, in fact, is the very foundation of what we think of as our civilized society. A nuclear accident might have disastrous results for hundreds of thousands of our citizenry, but the deterioration or abuse of our legal system effects every single member of our society. The creation, maintenance, and protection of our system of law and justice is vested with our society's lawyers. Like Bishops of the medieval church or the Senators of the Roman republic, lawyers are the keepers of the keys to our system of justice, and by extension, our very social order. They hold the secrets, possess the power, and wield the influence to protect or to do great harm. And to what standards are they held? What is the state of our legal system? Is the law used to protect the public good? Defend the lowly from the unjust attacks of the mighty? Or has the law become the bludgeon of the rich and powerful? And the tool of the greedy? To recant a list of abuses our system suffers at the hands of unscrupulous lawyers would serve no useful purpose. Consider, though, the following:

Cups of coffee now come with warning labels that coffee is hot. Warnings on mascara applicators advise against sticking the applicator in your eye. Fans carry labels about sticking your fingers in the turning blades. These warnings are not about the public safety. They are necessitated to help reduce liability when the inevitable lawsuit comes.

If, as a young attorney, you expect to have any real chance of moving up the ladder in your firm, you better be billing clients at least 2,000 hours per year. Whether you have the clients to bill or not. The pressure to bill in excess of eight hours a day creates an atmosphere where padding your clients bill becomes the norm.

Two currently successful television shows are The Practice and Ally McBeal. Both these programs portray lawyers as doing any and everything they can to win their clients cases. The object is to win at any cost. The Lawyers are trained to use all the tools at their disposal to win. Whether they are prosecuting or defending, the object is to win. The truth is secondary.

Companies routinely settle lawsuits because they are not worth the money to defend. Lawyers, aware of this practice, sue companies for ever more spurious reasons. Individuals without sufficient financial resources to pay attorneys fees often are unable to gain redress for wrongs through our justice system. Lawyers will employ a "deep pockets" strategy of forcing the other party to consume their resources in costly legal maneuvering. The party with the deepest pockets (most money) wins.

These are issues not of right and wrong or justice or even fairness, these are issues of greed. From the attorney able to convince a woman in California to sue McDonalds because she spilled hot coffee on herself while driving, to the recently graduated counselor adding hours to her billings just to "get ahead," to the shills for the rich and powerful, attorneys of today are in the business for the money and are willing to do whatever it takes to make it.

Lawyers are entrusted with the responsibility for making our system of justice viable and legitimate. They must be held to a higher standard. They must hold themselves to a higher standard. If they are unwilling or unable to do so, the society, for its own sake, must take the steps necessary to protect itself. We must develop the will and the means to do so. No less than our very survival depends on it.

Public Radio 07.27.01

Tuned into the local public radio station this morning, and heard National Public Radio's Bob Edwards do a piece on advertising overload. Advertising on ball park walls, blimps, taxicabs, even the darkened interior wall of the new Atlanta subway. The evening before, on All Things Considered, I listened to a story about advertising on horse racing jockeys. A ten square inch patch at the base of the spine was delineated in the matter before the Horse Racing Confederation of California (or whatever their union is called) as an appropriate place for an ad. The NPR interviewer asked the fellow she was interviewing if that meant the jockey's derriere. He was clearly embarrassed by the question. She asked if this would allow a Nike "Swoosh" to be shaved into the horse's backside. He sidestepped.

Both these stories were followed by the local station break. The local station break consists of telling us who makes all this possible, the traffic and weather, and local news.

Who makes this possible if, of course, "listeners like you," and "Sedco Thorax, the deep water drilling company that's never out of it's depth. Sedco Thorax recently acquired Natural Resource Gobbler dot com, and together are scouring the planet for natural resources and digging wells deeper than God..." etc. The other day, "public radio" was brought to me by Rich People's Bank, "dedicated to helping those blessed with wealth to stay that way." Are we supposed to be so stupid that we don't realize these are commercials? Just like "commercial" radio? The only difference is these are read by the local on-air personality (see below for how delightful I think that is).

The traffic and weather portion has always been a mystery to me. So the freeway I'm on is stop and go from here to there. What am I supposed to do with that information? Take surface streets? At 6 PM? Half the time they don't know about the twelve car fatal accident that occurred an hour ago and brought all traffic to a full stop. Or they tell you about a "lost load of carrots blocking the two right lanes." When you get there, of course, all that remains is some bunny rabbit roadkill. The "lost load" occurred six hours ago. Completely useless information and often completely wrong. And the weather. What do I do with a fifty-percent chance of rain? Cancel half my picnic? And where do they get these fifteen year old meteorologists?

Local news more often than not consists of the guy who outlasted everyone else at the radio station reading the PR Newswire. The PR Newswire, if you don't know, is what companies that can't afford a media department use to "get the word out" about their latest invention/acquisition/promotion. Or, PR Newsire is what well connected companies with no real news use to keep their name in front of us poor suckers listening to "public radio." "Compaq Computer announced today their new Placenta 3000 line of personal computers will process information faster than ever. Their spokesperson, Dan Quayle says, 'our Placenta 3000 line will process information faster than ever..' For more information call Dan Quayle at blah blah blah blah."

I might tolerate all this if it weren't for the announcers (disc jockey doesn't apply and "on-air personality" is too generous). The local announcers adopt a "radio voice" that consists of talking VERY softly while dropping the treble levels and boosting the bass. The result is, we get to hear the wet clucking sound of his tongue leaving the side of his mouth after every pause and the whoosh of his inhale before every sentence. Telling you about this, if you have never noticed it, is, I'm sorry, the height of cruelty. Once you notice these sounds it soon becomes all you can hear. Like when some guy told me Dan Rather never blinks when he's on camera. I haven't heard a word Dan's said since then. I'm too busy watching for the blink that never comes.

If you can't stand "commercial radio" and the local "public radio" station has become too commercial, the only alternative left to you is the local Pacifica station. Pacifica is, in fact, listener and not corporate supported. The only problem with Pacifica is you have to tolerate a political agenda somewhere left of Saturn.

I have an idea - silence...

AIDS at 20 06.03.01

In the June 5, 1981 edition of the Center for Disease Control's Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report, Dr. Michael Gottlieb, of the UCLA Medical Center, described the appearance of Pneumocystis carinii pneumonia (PCP) in five previously healthy young men. Caused by a parasite present in everyone, but normally held in check by our immune system, the manifestation of this disease in a cluster of Dr. Gottlieb's patients was reason for concern. The publication of his article in the CDC's weekly report was the first public announcement that some "new" disease had surfaced. Dubbed GRID (Gay-Related Immunnodeficiency Disease) by the American medical community, this new disease would soon undergo a name change to AIDS (Acquired Immunodeficiency Syndrome) as incidence of the disease was discovered outside the gay community. Next observed in hemophiliacs and then injecting drug-users, the medical community would soon learn the disease would not restrict itself to such narrow boundaries.

Today, out of 100 people infected with aids, 5 live in Western Europe or North America, 2 in Eastern Europe and Central Asia, 2 in East Asia, 1 in the Caribbean, 4 in Latin America, 16 in Southeast Asia, and 70 in sub-Saharan Africa. While some alarming signs of an increase in infection rates have surfaced in the US in the last two years, AIDS has become a disease of the third world.

Half the dead are women. More than half of those who will die in the next few years are women. Thirteen million children have been orphaned by AIDS.

One in every three fifteen-year-old boys living today in Cambodia will contract AIDS and die before they turn 50. Half the teen-age boys in Kenya will die from AIDS. In Botswana, the percentage of fifteen-year-old boys that will die from AIDS before they turn fifty is eighty five.

We are learning lessons about this disease and its effect on the general population from another millennium. Normal population groups, when sorted by age from young to old, take on the appearance of a triangle with the broad lower levels reserved for the young and the progressively narrowing top layers for the old. AIDS, by cutting a broad swath through the 15-50 year age group while holding births down (half the victims are women, most in prime child-bearing age), redraws the traditional pyramid into a shape more like a chimney. In twenty years, in those countries hardest hit by the AIDS epidemic, the number of men and women in the 35-55 year range will represent a smaller percentage than any time since the Dark Ages. This narrowed band of adults will, as they always have, bear the responsibility for caring for both the old and young of their societies. But, there will not be enough of them. The result will look something like what we see today, only much worse. This is today's situation -

Agricultural output in Zimbabwe has been halved;
Two-thirds of every health care dollar spent in Rwanda is spent on AIDS patients;
Half the hospital beds in a Thai province are filled with AIDS patients;
Health care workers are themselves dying faster than they can be replaced;
Nearly half the public schools in the Central African Republic have closed because more teachers are dying of AIDS than can be replaced.

This has all happened before. The Dark Ages were precipitated by a plague that killed more people than the already strained institutions of the post-Roman era could stand. The failing infrastructure caved in under the weight of the dead. The name of the continent has changed but the circumstances are the same. The failing infrastructure left in the wake of the end of colonialism will collapse. And Africa will once again become The Dark Continent.

Hardware Store

I hate going to the hardware store. It's filled with guys who know a ton more than I do about all sorts of guy things. I don't mind going if I don't have to ask anything. If I need a hose or some poison, no problem. But if I need the little black plastic ring thing that's attached to the chain in the back of the toilet, well, I've got a problem. I wouldn't if these guys would just tell me where stuff is.

Instead, they ask questions, "well, what are you trying to do?"

"The connection from the thing that comes off the wall thing to the back of the heater is too big, I need some sort of adapter."

"Are you trying to adapt it to the garden hose?"

"heh-heh, no, heh-heh."

He takes the garden hose attachment from my hand and tosses it back into the bin. Now he's standing five feet from the bin and he hits it, swish. If I tried that it would bounce off some lady's head first.

I follow like the misbehaving ten-year-old on his way to the principal's office.

"Here's what you need."

"Thanks, thanks a lot."

"Uh-huh." I know what he's thinking - "I could take you with one arm, hammered on Jim Beam, sittin' in my Lazy Boy, you pathetic weasel."

I can feel my ears heating up as I shuffle to the checkout counter. Even here they've devised further means to humiliate me. I pay with a credit card. I notice all the real men are paying with cash. I don't carry cash cause I might lose it fumbling in my pocket for my whistle. The whistle I carry in case some hardware goon follows me into the parking lot.

I went in last Saturday to pick up some stuff to stick on the stairs so I won't slip when it rains. I find some sandpaper looking stuff on a roll. It says "non-skid" or something and I'm thrilled that I've located what I need without having to ask anyone. I pull the end of the roll and the entire display crashes down to the floor. Rolls of sandpaper looking stuff are unfurling down the aisle. Buddy comes over and with a huge grin asks if he can help.

"Yeah, I need about seven feet of this stuff."

"Whaddya going to do with it?" This as he's gathering up rolls from the floor.

"Put it on the stairs so I don't slip."

"How you going to make it stay where you put it?"

This must be a trick question as I'm sure I've got the right stuff.

"It's got a self-adhesive back, doesn't it?"

"Yeah, if you're sticking it to a non-porous surface like porcelain or finished tile. What are you're stairs made of, porcelain?"

"Uh, wood."

"Well, here's what you need," and he grabs a roll of "stair stick for wooden stairs" off the shelf behind me.

God I hate this place.

Africa

Our great mid-twentieth century contest of good versus evil stands alone in Western culture as a defining moment in our history. In the five hundred years since the Dark Ages, no single event so captures our attention and interest as does the Second World War. Many see Hitler's attempt to exterminate the Jews as the single most horrific event in history. The Good War entered our lexicon as a result of the crystalline clarity that it and our victory over the powers of darkness gave to our time. The ultimate defining moment of our culture, as well as its darkest hour, may very well have occurred only five decades ago.

Only five years ago, eight hundred thousand people were hacked and beaten to death in Rwanda. The Hutu suddenly turned on their neighbors, the Tutsi, and with machetes, clubs and bare hands, murdered their neighbors without fear of reprisal. Thirty years ago, the Ibo tribe was similarly slaughtered by the Uraba in the Nigerian civil war that gave birth to the short-lived nation of Biafra. Recently, the US Assistant Secretary of State pledged US resources in an effort to stop Sudanese traffic in slavery. Some fifteen thousand women and children have been taken from their villages and homes in southern Sudan by Islamic militiamen and sold into slavery in the north. Several sub-Saharan nations will likely collapse into anarchy as their infrastructure fails under the mounting AIDS crisis. Nations are ruled and robbed by dictators. To the extent that civilization on the European and North American continents may be called a success, in Africa civilization is failing. Why? What forces are at work in Africa that spell such disaster for its people? Is the collapse inexorable? Can nothing be done?

Twenty percent of the world's land area, ten percent of the world's population, the planet's highest birth rate, and shortest life span, home to two of the world's great deserts and the densest tropical rain forest, the richest diversity of life forms, the birthplace of mankind, - Africa.

The American exposure to Africa may be best illustrated by two Hollywood films of recent years, Out of Africa and I Dreamed of Africa. Both are stories of white people living and thriving on the "Dark Continent." Neither are stories of Africa's peoples. In most recent history, Africa occupies our consciousness as a great wildlife preserve or the land of apartheid. Once white rule was broken and South Africa was returned to its native people, our focus waned. Who are the native people of Africa?

Two thousand millennia ago, humanity made its way out of the tropical rain forests and into the savannas and grasslands to the north and south. This movement was likely precipitated by homo erectus' mastery of fire and fashion. With fire and clothing, humanity could leave the climatically non-threatening confines of the tropical rain forest for the less temperate but bacteriologically safer (see Bugs) expanses of the grasslands and savannas of north, south and west Africa. One group moved north to the Mediterranean (eventually beyond to Europe), another to the west and south, while a third populated the eastern part of the continent. Over the course of the next million years or so, natural selection produced three fairly distinct human types in accordance with the climatic conditions of their particular locales. The homo-erectus (now homo-sapien) population that moved west, developed slightly lighter skin coloring than their predecessors and evolved into the Khoi (Bushmen), while those migrating to the Mediterranean developed still lighter skin coloring (Caucasoid). The original occupants of the central and eastern lands retained their dark pigmentation (Blacks).

The fossil record indicates all three types met, mingled, and "married" in the great water rich plains of north Africa.

With the last Ice Age, 70 000 to 10 000 BC, the hospitable north began to grow ever more arid. Although the glaciers never reached the continent, dramatic climatic shifts occurred eventually creating the great Saharan desert. The Caucasoid retreated to the Mediterranean coast, the Bushmen to the far southwest corner of Africa, while the Blacks retreated to the central forests. Over the next few thousand years, they gradually penetrate the central forests to the south and expanded into the southern and eastern quadrants of Africa. The people of Africa are more correctly the peoples of Africa. Far and away the largest population segment is comprised of the descendants of the Black Africans that originally populated the central rain forests and later migrated south and east. The north African peoples are today largely Islamic by faith and Caucasoid by racial type. The Bushmen of far southwest Africa are the smallest population segment. Another method of categorizing the peoples of Africa is by language groups. Linguists tell us there are four major categories of language native to Africa. They are Afro-Asiatic, Khosian, Nilo-Saharan, and Congo-Kordofanian.

The Afro-Asiatic trace its roots back to the Cushitic or Hamitic-Semetic language groups. The term Hamitic is in anthropological disfavor as it originated in the belief that the north African peoples were descendants of Noah's sons Ham (Hamitic) and Shem (Semetic). A century old and now discredited school of thought described north African peoples as European (or Hamitic - sons of Ham). Interestingly, Cushitic is still commonly used to describe the linguistic origin (Cush was, by Biblical account, one of Ham's offspring).

Khosian describes the language of the Khoi peoples. Distinguished by the clicking sounds made in speech, this is the language many of us first heard in the classic film, The Gods Must Be Crazy.

Nilo-Saharan is the language belonging to the peoples of the eastern part of Africa (spoken mainly in Chad, Sudan, northeastern Nigeria, and along the Niger river). The largest group belongs to the Congo-Kordofian comprising over a thousand discrete languages of the peoples of West Africa. The Niger-Congo group almost entirely dominates this family of languages but for the inclusion of the Kordofian based language spoken by a small number of people the Kurdufan provinces of the Sudan.

The Nilo-Saharan group is dominated by pastoralists while the Congo-Kordofian (Niger-Congo) group is primarily agriculturist. This may be attributable to their ancestral origins. The Nilo-Saharan group originally occupied portions of Africa more arid and less given to agricultural development while the Niger-Congo group, occupying the central and southeastern portions of the continent were blessed with greater rainfall allowing for agricultural development. The island of Madagascar may have played a pivotal role in this differentiation in the two groups. The language spoken in Madagascar (the huge island off the southeastern coast of Africa) is not a part of any of the aforementioned groups but is more closely linked to the Malagasy language and its Indonesian origins. Contact with the original settlers of this island may have provided the Niger-Congo group with such Asian-origin food crops as rice, bananas, sugar cane and yams. This "jump-start" to their agricultural development may be the largest contributing factor to their domination of the population of the continent.

This mega-classification by language groups was proposed in 1963 by Joseph Greenberg, an American anthropologist. By isolating key words from each language, Greenberg was able to associate apparently dissimilar languages. For example, almost all the inhabitants of central and southern Africa today speak some variety of a language derived from the Bantu group. Despite enormous geographical distances separating them, most any speaker of a language of the Bantu group can make themselves understood by a speaker of another Bantu class language. All four hundred Bantu-like languages share a common root word for human being - ntu. Other fundamental grammatical differences convinced Greenberg that the Bantu language class sprung from a single origin. This work was expanded by British linguist, Malcolm Guthrie. Originally one of Greenberg's harshest critics, Guthrie eventually developed the hypothesis that within the Bantu family there were an even more closely linked set of languages that Guthrie proposed sprung from a "proto-Bantu" language. The geographical location (southeastern Zaire and Zambia) of this particularly close-knit sub-set of the Bantu family convinced Guthrie that the larger Bantu family of languages, and hence the original speakers of these languages, could have only originated in the heart of the African continent. Not from a wandering Semitic people, not from Europeans sojourning to the South, not from Pacific islanders in canoes.

Civilization Along The Nile 12.11.00

Africa is a continent of three indigenous peoples, the Bushmen of the extreme Southwest, the Blacks of sub-Sahara, and the Caucasoid of the northern coast. Water, the lack of and the abundance of, conspired to carve and separate a small segment of the great African continent and one of the three indigenous peoples in such a way that they remain, to this day, less a part of Africa and more a part of the Near East and Europe. The lack of water in the great Saharan desert precludes easy access between the northern coast and the rest of Africa. The abundance of water in the form of the Mediterranean and Red Seas more firmly connect the north coast of Africa to Europe and the Near East than the south. An abundance of rainfall in the Ethiopian Highlands (the October issue of Nature magazine carries an interesting article suggesting that the entire African continent was created by a single magma plume centered under the Ethiopian Highlands) produces annual flooding along the banks of the Nile. This annualized flooding deposited mineral rich soil along the banks season after season, creating a super-fertile soil. It was in this soil (and the soil of three other ancient river systems) that mankind first began to produce more food than could be consumed. In addition to the Nile River system, the Yellow in China, the Indus in northern India, and the Tigris-Euphrates systems all witnessed the birth of civilization at about the same period in history.

Sparsely populated settlements became teeming communities. Teeming communities and abundant food supplies allowed task specialization. With more than enough food produced by the rich soils of the river basin, the human community could afford to dedicate individuals within it to specialized tasks. This task specialization allowed greater attention to tool and language development. As tools became more sophisticated, agricultural output rose. Population grew as food stocks multiplied. A positive feedback loop was created and sustained for centuries, interrupted only occasionally by disease or war.

Remains of settlements along the banks of the Nile indicate continual human habitation as long ago as 7,000 years. It would be another four thousand years before the first signs of communal-social organization would find its way into the archaeological evidence. The political structures that developed in response to this loop of abundant food and people was the beginning of civilization. The first hieroglyphs representing names of rulers date back to 3200 BC. With these hieroglyphs we can say, with no small degree of certainty, civilization had arrived.

The remains of massive earthen tombs date the beginning of Egyptian civilization to between 3100 and 2800 BC. Another five centuries would pass before the unified Egyptian world of Pharaohs and stone pyramids would arrive. Ancient Egypt's Golden Age began with the rule of Zoser in 2737 BC. More important than this great Pharaoh was his architect, Imhotep. It was Imhotep who introduced the use of great stone blocks in building. The construction of huge burial chambers using great blocks of stone transported miles across land required a complex and efficient bureaucracy. Civilization was now in full swing.

Originally in place to direct and control food surpluses generated by the rich Nile valley soil, the ancient Egyptian rulers evolved into royal kings reigning at the behest of the gods. Great ceremony and even greater bureaucratic veils insulated the Pharaohs from the people. It was during this age that the Great Pyramids were constructed. Grand construction projects, military campaigns, taxation, and foreign trade necessitated the development of a second ruling class. These military chiefs and administrators were vested with ever more power by the great Pharaohs of the third thorough the sixth dynasties (2700-2200 BC).

Eventually, the absolute rule of the Pharaoh gave way to the shared power arrangements and regionalism that characterized the Middle Kingdom (2200-1800 BC). The Pharaohs spent much of their time attempting to unify the regionalized Egypt and ward off aggression from without. Between 1800 and 1500 BC, Phoenicians invaded and installed their own rulers over Egypt. Amhose I threw off "foreign" rule and reunited the kingdom, ushering in the period called The New Kingdom (1500-1000 BC). A second Golden Age ensued. It was during the New Kingdom era that the more well known Pharaohs Ramses, Seti and Ramses II ruled (1293-1212 BC). Power again began to ebb and the New Kingdom ended with the death of Ramses III. A royal priesthood developed and began to hold sway at court. Military and religious leaders vied for supremacy without clear success.

The Late Period was marked by foreign rule. Libyans, Persians, and Assyrians all held power at different times until Alexander the Great conquered the occupying Persians in 332 BC. The Ptolemic period began when Alexander named his Macedonian (Greek) general Ptolemy as co-ruler of Egypt. Ptolemy soon consolidated power under him and extended Egyptian power and influence throughout the now Hellenistic world. Cleopatra was the last Ptolemic ruler. Egypt passed into Roman hands with her death and disappeared under seven hundred years of Roman rule.

The Egyptian civilization was the world's first major civilization, pre-dating the Sumerians, Greeks (Minoan) and Chinese. It was the longest lasting civilization, longer even than the Chinese. And it was African. It held more in common, though, with the Near East and Europe than its continental brothers to the south. What of the southern peoples? What were they doing when Ramses was laying waste to Judea, when Cheops was building the Great Pyramid at Giza?

The Early Kingdoms 01.08.01

Much of the history of the African interior will never be known. What can be learned from archeological excavation is limited. Relics of ancient civilizations do not well survive the African tropical climate. The Sahara desert now covers the northern one-third of the continent. Prior to 2000 BC the land consisted of temperate Savanna's and grasslands. These, and any evidence of development, have disappeared under sun bleached sands. Much of what we do know comes from external sources, particularly early Islamic explorers. Myths and legends of the people help to discern what came before but remain, in the final analysis, myths and legends.

Recent archeological evidence does reveal continuous human settlement at Daima, south of Lake Chad, from about the sixth century BC until 1200 AD. Raiding parties from the north may have contributed to, if not caused, the development of organized civil society in the African interior. As the Egyptian and later Roman civilizations disintegrated and remnants along the Mediterranean border sought out sources of food and income, raiding parties likely rode south through the developing Saharan desert (not nearly so foreboding a task then as now) to encounter agricultural communities in the Northern Sudan. These dispersed communities would be forced to aggregate in larger and soon, fortified cities. What had been loosely organized agricultural communities would become more tightly organized political settlements. On the other side of the continent, again at the southern border of the Sahara, north of the Niger River basin, excavations at the Tichit-Walata escarpment reveal an agricultural community dating back to 1000 BC. The community abandoned its flatland community for more secure cliff-side dwellings, ostensibly for defensive purposes. Defense against the raiding parties of the Egyptian-Phoenician-Roman civilizations of the Mediterranean coast. Another, less violent theory of the political development of the interior, purports that trade between northern and eastern peoples (Egyptian, Assyrian, and Babylonian) and the interior necessitated the development of civil government. The theory that civil organization was passed from the more developed cultures of the north (even Europe) to the less developed people of the south has been debunked. Civil organization and political structure appears to have arisen spontaneously in response to external necessities. In much the same way Egyptian civilization arose from the necessities presented by agricultural surplus, non-Egyptian African civilization likely arose from necessities presented by trade or defense from raiders, or both. The salient point is that evidence of interior African civilization exists from as early as 1000 BC. The image of tribal society predominating until the arrival of European imperialism must now be discarded.

The earliest African civilizations (Egypt excepted) developed in central and western Africa, south of the Sahara desert, and known as Ghana and Kanem. Ghana developed north of the great Niger bend and Kanem south of Lake Chad. They were monarchies ruling massive parcels of land encompassing many different tribes. The monarchy was, in all likelihood, an outgrowth of the even more ancient god-like status ascribed to the individual thought to possess power over natural agrarian cycles. Their retinue included Priests and servants that would later evolve into an imperial court.

The Islamic historian al-Fazari describes a Ghana king in the 800's as possessing an army of over 200,000 men, including a large contingent of cavalry. Estimates of the life of ancient Ghana suggest it existed continuously between 500 BC and 1200 AD. That would make it the fourth longest behind the Egyptian, Chinese and Mayan civilizations. As the kingdom of Ghana began to struggle with the increasing desertification of its northern provinces, southern vassal states began to exert more and more influence and control. Eventually, somewhere in the thirteenth century, the Keita people under the leadership of their king, Sundiata, overthrew the rulers of Ghana and lay the foundation for the great Mali empire to follow. Neither Ghana nor Mali, as ancient civilizations, should be confused with the current African states of the same names. Sundiata may actually have overthrown Ghanian usurpers from the Songhai people. The Songhai were originally a fisher people skilled in the art of navigation of the great Niger River. Legends tell of two royal Songhai brothers captured and held in ransom at the Ghana court. They escaped and carried Ghana military skills and knowledge back to their people who then threw off their oppressors from Ghana establishing their own rule over the kingdom.

All this, centuries before the Italian city-states of the sixteenth century would engage in their Machiavellian palace intrigues.

Africa - The Muslims Invade, The Portuguese Follow 02.06.01

In 639 AD, twelve thousand Arabs defeated the ruling Byzantine government of Egypt and Islam was introduced to Africa. Over the next four hundred years more than half the continent would become Muslim in appearance, if not reality. Islam is as much a vehicle for arranging the social order as it a spiritual code. As such, it served the purposes of both leaders and subjects in many African kingdoms. Africa north of the Sahara remains largely Muslim to this day. The Christian kingdom of Nubia served as a bulwark against Islamic expansion further south. The Islamic Egyptian government struck a non-interference treaty with Nubia that lasted for six hundred years. In the North, however, augmented by the established trade routes radiating west and southwest from Egypt, the faith of The Prophet Mohammed spread quickly and surely. Great cultural and educational centers were established along the north African coast. Much of the preserved knowledge and literature of ancient Greek and Roman civilizations is a direct result of these citadels of high Islamic culture. Egypt saw a rebirth of a share of its glory under Islamic rule.

All this began to change with the Arab Bedouin influx throughout the great desert and along the Mediterranean shore. Hundreds of thousand of Bedouin migrated westward collapsing the higher Islamic culture beneath their weight. Hordes of semi- or illiterate masses of Muslims replaced the small, educated upper-class of Muslim clerics and intellectuals. Simultaneously, the Ottoman Turks, Mongols and Tartars were pressing in on classic Islamic culture. What happened in north Africa was repeated throughout the Islamic world as the great light of Islamic intellectualism dimmed forever. In the late Middle Ages, the Christian world responded to the spread of Islam in a series of Crusades. Successful in driving the Moorish Muslim influence from the Iberian peninsula, the Portuguese, under the direction of the Aviz king John I, also called Prince Henry the Navigator, continued their crusade into Africa in search of the Muslim Infidel. Another, more compelling motive behind their crusade was to supply their resource poor country with gold and minerals from the newly discovered African "Gold Coast." For the next five decades, the Portuguese ventured ever further south along the west African coast establishing trade relations with multiple African kingdoms. When Vasco da Gama circumnavigated the African coast in 1500, the Portuguese presence in Africa was complete, albeit tenuous. One subsequent voyage ventured so far off course (the prevailing winds along the west African coast are northerly necessitating a southward path much further west into the Atlantic) Brazil was discovered. Portuguese is still the "native" language in that huge South American country. As the gold trade diminished (in part due to African reluctance to trade for European "goods" of little value to them), the Portuguese began to develop estates for the cultivation of African foodstuffs. These estates, massive in size, needed cheap labor to bring crops to harvest. The cheapest labor available was, of course, slave labor. In 1571, the Portuguese government, with the blessing of the Vatican, authorized a young Portuguese nobleman to colonize Angola. For the next century, a series of wars were waged with the west African peoples standing in the way of Portuguese "national interest." The result was the eventual decimation of the African political structures in west Africa. They were replaced by a colonial system. The initial Portuguese forays into Africa in pursuit of Muslims and gold had given rise to the beginning of the colonization of Africa.

Hiding 01.15.01

I live in a neighborhood of 1940's bungalow style homes. They are daily being replaced by "lot line to lot line" two and three story behemoths. The neighborhood association is powerless to stop what they describe as the destruction of the neighborhood by inconsiderate soulless builders. The other day on NPR I heard a story about the shift from large public buildings and small private dwellings to smaller public places and outsize individual homes. Libraries become utilitarian pillboxes instead of the soaring and spacious structures of yesteryear. Massive homes for the childless urban couple virtually defines inner city chic.

The size of these dwellings and the unused and useless rooms within them are not the real problem. The garage evidences the real problem. It is up front, featured the way gardens once were. It opens as the owner approaches and shuts before the owner exits the car. No porch, no balcony (unless you're in a twenty story high rise). I have neighbors I have literally never seen. The evenings around here are silent affairs save the coming and going of cars or the barking of dogs. Those of us still living in our bungalows and duplexes own the dogs. The hidden owners have no pets. The hidden owners are rarely seen. Their windows are covered in expensive blinds that stay closed. A couple recently moved in across the street from us. They are occasionally outside tending their miniature strip of grass and shrubbery. One of the first things they put up were "No Dogs" signs. They don't speak when spoken to. They raise their head (to detect danger I think) when spoken to and half-nod by way of terminating any further communication. Just before Christmas, a three by five foot projected image of a Christmas tree appeared on the exterior of their stucco three-story townhouse. "Merry Christmas" it said. It has since changed Happy New Year. Soon, I guess, it'll be Happy Valentine or Good President's Day. Very festive, very friendly. These projected images, notwithstanding their incredibly tacky nature, project a sense of warmth and friendliness that appears beyond the owner's capacity to demonstrate. "I will hide from you, but Have A Nice Day," they seem to say. Better than the others, I guess, who simply hide.

Twenty First Century Gladiators 12.25.00

Eight to ten men weighing in excess of three hundred pounds each crouch down facing each other less than a foot apart. They remain perfectly still for three seconds. Another man, with his hands resting on the upturned groin of another, speaks the magic words. A ton of human flesh, bone, muscle and fat crash together for the first of at least one hundred times over a three hour span. One or two will leave in ambulances. Half will take a five month break. Half will prepare to repeat the process a week from now. Most will have joints surgically replaced before they're fifty. Nearly all will wince as they rise in later years. Some will live in constant pain. The life span of those who do not die violently or from drug and alcohol abuse will be shortened by the use of drugs designed to make them unnaturally large. Many will develop testicular or liver cancer or kidney disease. Most will struggle to earn a living when their usefulness to their owners is spent. They won't really be selling anything, though, except their dignity. It's NFL Playoff time! The Roman emperors were more merciful to the gladiators.

Professional football is a shrill testament to our lack of concern for each other. We pay these men to abuse their bodies and each other for our entertainment. We watch endlessly repeating clips of bodies flying in the air and crashing to earth or each other in what should be sickening displays of cruelty. Instead we call them highlight tapes and sell them at a premium. Organize such activity with the lesser animals and you go to jail.

Instead we allow children barely able to hold their head upright under their helmets to learn this stupid and violent game. Violent - no argument, right? Stupid, well now, that's too much, you say. Try running a stopwatch from hike to tackle for one quarter. Fifteen minutes of "playing time" becomes less than five of "live" time. We already watch an hour (four quarters at fifteen minutes each, remember?) of activity take more than three hours. In reality the ball is in play for less than thirty minutes. More time is spent watching commercials than actual "sport" activity. Maybe you don't think of yourself as a football owner's lacky, but you should. An entire industry has grown up around your willingness to watch men, and now women, sacrifice their bodies for your amusement. The average value of an NFL franchise is just under four hundred million dollars. Television networks pay the NFL four and a half billion dollars a year to televise their games.

The leading cause of blindness in the world is a bacterial infection called trachoma. Contract the disease and your eyelashes turn in under your eyelid eventually causing so much scarring that you are permanently blinded. It can be prevented with a simple regimen of antibiotics. The six million people that become permanently blind every year from this disease can't afford the antibiotics. One and half percent of the NFL's annual TV revenue would keep six million people in the world from going blind.

How about those priorities sports fans?

 

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