Purdue Pharma and Xalisco Tag Team America

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Title: Dreamland

Rating: 4 Stars

Two forces collide at a vulnerable time in America.

After a couple of decades of globalization, there are broad swaths of the country economically depressed. Trapped in small towns where all manufacturing has left and main street businesses have been destroyed by Wal-Mart, all that’s left is low wage jobs at places such as Wal-Mart. People want to work but can’t get work and ultimately give up wanting to work.

At the same time, in slightly more successful towns, there are middle to upper middle class kids that are bored with pot and want to experiment more dangerously.

Into the void steps the small Mexican city of Xalisco in the small state of Nayarit. The people there are mostly poor, doing back breaking work growing sugar cane. The farmers in the hills have a long history of growing poppy and there is a local tradition of cultivating it to grow black tar heroin.

Starting small, a few of the local townspeople cross into the US and start a modest drug operation. Unlike the more famous Mexican drug cartels, they eschew violence. In fact, they intentionally stay away from those cities where gangs are already established. They set up bases in modest places like Columbus, Ohio, or Santa Fe, New Mexico.

They bring up young Xalisco men to serve as their delivery drivers. These young men are paid a straight salary and must not use drugs themselves. They haunt methadone clinics and give out free samples. They hand out business cards. If an addict calls, the drivers will deliver to the addict’s home. If an addict complains of bad service, he/she will be given free drugs. Since heroin addicts are used to having to go to the rough part of town and try to negotiate with street dealers, this is obviously a huge step up in customer service. They’re basically the Domino’s of heroin.

And like Domino’s, they quickly franchise. They seek out any mid-size city that does not already have a gang presence and that has a methadone clinic. That’s the signal to them that there are heroin addicts there and that they are not being well served. They quickly fan out to many cities spanning many states.

In the one instance where racism actually helps out the black community, the men from Xalisco are unsophisticated country boys from Mexico and believe that black men are violent, so they have another rule of never selling to a black person. All of the addicts that they serve are white.

Since they’re dealing almost directly with the farmers that grow the poppies, the heroin is essentially uncut, so it’s significantly more powerful. Just that fact alone makes the heroin more dangerous and causes more overdoses.

Along with what the author calls the ‘Xalisco Boys’, there’s another development. In 1979, a Dr Jick, who kept a database of medical records, noticed that very few patients that were prescribed opiates became addicted. He thought that was interesting, so he and a graduate student named Jane Porter submitted a letter (one paragraph) to the New England Journal of Medicine stating that fact. Dr Jick forgot about the letter and went about his business.

Later, a scientist at Purdue Pharma figures out a way to create a pill comprised of oxycodone that coats the pill in such a way that the drug is released over time. Hence OxyContin was created.

Along with this was a revolution in pain management. People began to study pain and wanted pain to be listed as the fifth vital sign (along with the normal body temperature, pulse, respiration rate, and blood pressure).

Purdue Pharma then sent an army of sales people out to doctors. Doctors, who previously were very reluctant to prescribe opiates, were now effectively being told that not treating pain could be considered malpractice (since pain was so vital to a patient’s health). Also, that one paragraph letter by Porter and Jick was now being called a ‘landmark study’ proving that, for people in pain, that opiates are not addictive. Since this was in the 90’s, the letter wasn’t online, so no one apparently decided to check up on the details of this ‘landmark study’. There was some pseudo-mystical explanation that somehow pain prevents the euphoria of addiction (and no, I’m not making that up).

So, there was an explosion of opiate prescriptions. But that was OK because opiates are not addictive and because of the time release nature of OxyContin, right?

So…it took addicts about 5 minutes to realize that if you crush the pill, that destroys the time release shell of the pill and then you’re left with pure oxycodone. Even worse, the makers of OxyContin actually placed a warning on the box that crushing the pill would increase the dose.

From that knowledge, an entire underground drug industry was built. Pill mills quickly cropped up. Doctors that could get no other jobs (convicted of crimes, lost their licenses in other states, themselves addicted) set up clinics where they did nothing but prescribed pills and only accepted cash. Some of the clinics served as pharmacies as well. Entrepreneurs would round up a car full of addicts and drive them from doctor to doctor to get prescriptions, would give the addicts half of their prescription and then sell the rest. Senior citizens sold their prescribed pills to supplement their retirement income. At one point, the town of Portsmouth, Ohio had an underground economy based upon pills, where addicts shoplifted or sold their possessions in exchange for a fixed amount of pills.

However, over time, even the OxyContin pills would not be enough to feed a person’s addiction. At that point the Xalisco Boys would step up and start selling the addict heroin.

Young white men and women, high school age, looking for a little danger, found themselves addicted, and often dead. The children of policemen, the children of bankers, football players, cheerleaders, they all found themselves addicted. Children would die of an overdose and the parent, ashamed, thinking they were the only ones, said that it was a heart attack. This secret shame let the epidemic continue on unabated.

There were more deaths in Ohio due to this epidemic than Americans killed in Iraq. More people died than in the crack cocaine epidemic. More died during this time than died of HIV.

If there is anything approaching a silver lining to this is that, at least in the Southern and Appalachian states, there is a growing awareness that drug addiction is not just a black problem. After a couple of decades of draconian drug sentences, there is now an understanding that drugs are a problem for all of us, and perhaps addicts should be treated instead of imprisoned.

This was a sobering work, obviously. It was well researched and well written.

The only glitch that kept it from being a pure five star review is the afterword. After all of the talk about the forces (economic, social, global) that led us to this point, Quinones makes the odd point that maybe the root cause is that kids don’t play in public parks anymore. I guess that you can make an argument that social isolation is not great, but to close with that statement, after laying out all of the other forces at work, seemed, well, I’m sorry to say, kind of asinine. The afterword, at least in my edition, is written in a slightly different font than the rest of the book, which almost led me to the paranoid suspicion that this was somehow covertly inserted into my copy. Such was the difference in tone and style between it and the rest of the book.

The Red Death Held Illimitable Dominion Over All

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Title: It Comes At Night

Rating: 4 Stars

I’ve noticed something interesting about this film. According to rotten tomatoes, the critics are highly favorable. Top critics give it an 88 rating. However, the audience score is exactly half of that (44).

I think I understand why (or at least a working hypothesis). It’s marketed as a post apocalyptic horror movie. It’s never explained, but apparently some kind of contagion has pretty much wiped out, at least the local population, if not global.

This puts you immediately in mind of The Walking Dead. You think of a plucky group of survivors desperately trying to fight off zombies as they try to find a place to survive. This is nothing like that, so if the audience is expecting something along those lines, they will be disappointed.

However, critics see a shitload of films every year. After a while, I’d think that you’d get sick of the same formulas. This is not a typical horror film, so I’d imagine that the critics would breathe a sigh of relief at the attempt of trying to bring something new to the genre.

Be that as it may, I enjoyed it. I’m not a huge fan of horror, so the fact that it was way more psychological than horrifying made the film more satisfying to myself.

The basic plot (discovered via very little disposition) is that some kind of highly contagious infection is raging through the area. As I’ve mentioned above, it’s not known if it’s local, national, or global. It’s clear that not even the characters themselves know how widespread it is.

Regardless, a husband, wife, and teenage son (Paul, Sarah, and Travis, respectively) are now holed up in a highly secure house in the wilderness. They’ve just buried Sarah’s father, who has died of the plague. Shortly thereafter, a man (Will) tries to break into their house. The family captures him and ties him to a tree to see if he’s contagious.

After determining that he’s clean, Will explains that he has a wife and young child (Kim and Andrew) that are at a house some distance away. They have food but are desperately short of water.

Paul’s family has water but do not have any fresh food. After discussing it, Paul and Sarah decide to let Will and his family to live with them.

They do so, and for a short while, all is happy. Clearly, Paul, Sarah, and Travis were unhappy and going a little stir crazy. Having three new people in the house allows them to share chores, relax, and even have a little bit of fun.

Ultimately, the two families end in conflict. Will’s story does not completely make sense. Travis hears strange sounds outside. Andrew might be infected. All of this ends up with conflict between the two families. Suffice it to say that there is not a happy ending.

This was produced by A24, which also made The Witch. This has a similar feel to that film. You have a family, independent and isolated, trying to make do in a harsh wilderness. You have an outside otherworldly kind of force that may or may not exist, trying to destroy them.

Horror movies are pretty much always dark places. With this film, it’s even darker. Most of the action takes place inside. The house is completely boarded up, so there is no natural light. The film ends up feeling claustrophobic. Since the film gives no indication of the circumstances that brought the world to this end, you find yourself getting caught up into the claustrophobia yourself.

This is very much a minimalist kind of film. There’s only a couple of settings. There are very few wide shots. There are really only five characters who have any lines at all. This minimalism is used to nice effect. It does feel like the world is winding down or dying off.

You sense the paranoia that must build up between families awkwardly trying to coexist. They hide guns from one another. They try to catch each other up in lies. On the one hand, they are codependent. On the other, you get the sense that one false move will destroy the equilibrium of the relationship and it will quickly devolve to violent death.

So, despite the fact that this is a dystopian world in which the dystopia is never defined, that this is a tense psychological battle in which the truth is never truly discovered, and it appears by the end that the world will end grimly and quietly, I still found the movie enjoyable.

It stayed true to its nature and followed its course come what may. With no compromise in vision and no tacked on happy ending, I found it to be a rewarding experience.

In case you’re wondering about the title of the post, it’s the last line from Poe’s The Masque of the Red Death. In the short story, there is a plague rampaging. With little regard to those suffering, Prince Prospero walls off an abbey so that and his noble friends can be safe. It does not work. Death cannot be held back using locks and walls.

Paul here shares the same conceit as the Prince. If only he can make his house secure enough and if he can make the brutal, hard choices that he knows that he must, then he can protect his family. By the end of the film, as with the Prince, he understands the futility of his actions.

A Quiet Life Meticulously Told

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Title: Stoner

Rating: 5 Stars

First things first, this has nothing to do with drugs. ūüôā

This is the story of William Stoner. He’s a farm boy who is sent off to college so that he can study agriculture and apply the knowledge that he’s learned there back on the small family farm. Once there, he takes a mandatory introduction to English literature. He falls under the thrall of language and decides (with the help of a mentor) that he wants to become a teacher. He does so, falls in love, has a child, lives in an unhappy marriage, has a short but passionate love affair, gets caught up in a faculty politics, gets cancer, retires, and dies.

That’s pretty much it. Stoner does not live a big life. He does not live a heroic life. He doesn’t even live a particularly happy life.

And I think that’s kind of the point.

John Williams takes a inconsequential life, and in simple prose, gives it a much richer meaning.

One of the themes of Stoner is duty. In the year 2017, that probably sounds quaint. However, William understands the duties that are expected of him and he quietly, without complaint, shoulders them. He goes off to the university so that he can better help his farmer parents. He has a moment of crisis when he confesses to them that he wishes to stay at the college, studying for his masters, and then to teach. His father, himself a disciple to duty, understands his duty as a father to his son, and grants his permission for Stoner to continue.

William’s marriage to Edith is dreadful. She, mentally unstable and treats him with hate. At no point does William even contemplate leaving her. He understands his duty to her and faithfully fulfills it. Edith, at most times, wants nothing to do with their daughter, Gloria. In addition to his work at the university, William is the parent that feeds and clothes his daughter. In the current time, that is not particularly shocking. In 1965, I’d imagine that this would be treated as some sort of heroic devotion to duty.

Another theme is adherence to some kind of other world idealism. When WWI breaks out, William’s two best friends, Finch and Masters, sign up immediately. However, after careful consideration and with no trace of cowardice, William decides that staying at the university is more important to fighting. He risks his friendship with Finch and Masters, not to mention possible future career impact, in making his decision.

In a similar manner, years later as a professor conducting a review of a student, he feels duty bound to fail the student even though the student is a protege of his department head, Professor Lomax. Lomax takes his revenge out on William in the ensuing decades, refusing to talk to him and denying him a promotion to full professor until William is dying of cancer. In William’s world, accepting a known poor candidate into the ranks of teaching would be a complete abandonment of duty and a betrayal to the higher call of teaching, so even though he knows that he will pay a steep price, he cannot allow the student to pass.

In lock step with his obligations to duty, his life is filled with sadness. He has an unhappy marriage. His child, Grace, growing up in an unhappy house with an unstable mother, lets herself get pregnant just so that she can escape. Her reluctant husband almost immediately goes off and dies in WWII. Grace in turn abandons her child to her in-laws and starts to lose herself to alcohol. Even William’s affair with Katherine, for all of the joy that it gives him, is ultimately forced to come to a premature end due to Lomax, and he then must return back to the duties of his unhappy marriage and middling career.

In this dreariness, there are moments of what can be described as awestruck passion. The first time that William reads a Shakespearean sonnet. When his mentor offers him the career opportunity of teaching. The first time that he sees Grace. The first time that he actually gets his teaching groove on and realizes that he can teach and inspire. His first moment of passion with Katherine. In a dull, dreary life, these moments shoot off like fireworks.

Williams is saying that even in the most dull, monotonous, and nondescript lives there are these moments of passion, joy, or spirit. Lying on a deathbed, looking back on one’s life, ¬†a person can remember and re-live these moments. It is these moments that make life worth living.

The Sociopath With A Conscience

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Title: The Talented Mr Ripley

Rating: 5 Stars

I think that I saw this when it first came out in the theaters, way back in the previous century. I don’t remember being all that impressed by it, but it seems to have aged really well for me. Sometime in that same time frame, I also read Highsmith’s book. Although her most famous work, I don’t remember blown away by it either. Perhaps I should give that another shot as well.

The movie opens at a wedding reception where Tom Ripley (Matt Damon) is playing the piano. He is wearing a borrowed Princeton jacket. Dickie Greenleaf’s father, a wealthy shipbuilder, sidles up to him and asks if he knew his son, Dickie (Jude Law), who also went to Princeton. Ripley bluffs enough to impress the father. The father later offers Ripley a substantial amount of money to go to Italy to try to convince Dickie to come home. Ripley, actually quite poor, agrees to try.

Ripley heads off to Italy and ingratiates himself in with Dickie and his fiance, Marge (Gwyneth Paltrow). He is dazzled by their lifestyle and completely won over by Dickie’s charms. He immediately confesses his true mission to Dickie and by doing so, cements their friendship.

Dickie is a shallow, spoiled man, so ultimately the charm of his friendship with Ripley fades. Ripley, seduced by the lifestyle and in love with Dickie, cannot give it up. Ultimately, they have a confrontation, and Ripley murders Dickie.

Ripley is a gifted mimic and finds himself easily able to take on Dickie’s life. He convinces Marge that Dickie has abandoned her and he then flees to Rome.

As Marge’s suspicions are heightened, as Dickie’s father comes out to investigate, and as the Italian police are investigating, it becomes a tense cat and mouse game for Ripley to stay a step ahead of everyone.

A couple of themes stood out to me while watching.

One is that the rich are truly different than the rest of us. They all look haughtily down upon Ripley. He is treated almost as a pet by Dickie. Dickie’s true best friend, Freddie (Philip Seymour Hoffman), maliciously ridicules Ripley, just because he can. Even Marge, who is one of the more sympathetic characters, treats him with casual contempt. He is a toy for them to play with, and then to be set aside when bored. They seem to barely recognize the possibility of his humanity.

The overt gay theme is interesting. The novel was written in the 1950’s. Highsmith, who was herself gay, had to be careful with how to work this theme into the novel. The film is also set in the 1950’s, but even in the year that it was filmed (1999), although much better, was still during the time of don’t ask / don’t tell. The film was pretty overt in its expression. Ripley talks regularly about the dark basement where he keeps all of his deepest, most disturbing secrets, and wishes that there was someone in his life that he could share this with. Since his metaphorical basement includes several murders and probably a lifetime of other acts of evil, he undoubtedly never will be able to share. Although his secrets are much darker than his sexuality, it speaks to the secret life that gays had to live during those times.

Ripley tries so hard to fit in. He is a natural mimic and is a very quick study. He just has so much ground to make up. He knows it and takes every opportunity to suck up new knowledge and to ingratiate himself with everyone he meets. ¬†It’s a desperate life that he lives. He realizes that every moment he is on a knife’s edge and one wrong move could result in Dickie, Marge, or Freddie thoughtlessly casting him out of the paradise that he’s managed to weasel into and into the inferno that he probably thinks that he deserves.

The acting is superb. Jude Law lights up the screen with his charm, and then, when displeased, darkens it immediately. He is truly the feckless spoiled man-child who just takes it for granted that everything will turn out well for him. Philip Seymour Hoffman is wonderful as the hedonist Freddie, not even trying to disguise the fact that he treats his lessers as a lower form of humanity, and pretty much everyone is his lesser.

At the center of all of this is Ripley himself, Matt Damon. Ripley is truly a sociopath. He will say or do anything to get what he wants. He will smile and endure all kinds of both subtle and overt abuse if at the end he is still ahead. He will murder. He will lie. He will steal. He will flee.

Despite that, and here’s the contradiction, you sense his vulnerability. He knows what he is doing is wrong and he knows that it will haunt him. He might achieve his goals but he will always be haunted by what it took to achieve them. Damon does an outstanding job embodying this contradiction. He is the desperate poor boy, nose pressed against the window, desperately trying to get inside. He does so, at the price of his soul, and he knowingly pays it, knowing that he’ll always hate himself.

 

Contrarian Historian Hatorade

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Title: The Politicians & The Egalitarians

Rating: 2 Stars

I picked this book up pretty much on a whim. I was just wandering through a book store and, as per usual, I checked out the staff selections. I mean, who would have a deeper passion for books than people working at a bookstore? So, I saw it there on the rack, read the back of the book blurb, and took a dive.

On the surface, it showed a lot of promise. Especially recently, in our hyper polarized political world in which we live, the idea of compromising politicians and the dirty wheeling-dealing of the legislative process has given politics a bad name. Reading a book that grants the possibility that sometimes social progress lurches forward via the half a loaf of compromise approach might not be such a bad message now. Also, given the ever increasing economic divide that our country has experienced over the last several decades, some few kind words about the radicals that rise up in history and tilt at windmills in the name of our country’s ideals of equality of opportunity to pursue life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness might be a soothing balm. Understanding the ying and the yang of the compromising politician and the rigorous absolutism of the egalitarian might have made an entertaining read.

Alas, this book was not that. It was a series of essays of various political figures. There were essays on Thomas Paine, Thomas Jefferson, John Brown, W.E.B. DuBois, and others. I was expecting that each one would be placed somewhere in the category of politicians or egalitarians or maybe how the pull of one or the other somehow moved the subject to a certain position.

But no, it was not that. Instead, a lot of it seemed to be throwing mud at previous historians. Apparently, over the last several decades, Thomas Jefferson has had some fair amount of shade thrown at him. You have to admit, it doesn’t look good for one of America’s philosophes, espousing equality for everyone and traumatized by the institution of slavery, to have had several children with a slave and upon his death, break up his slaves’ families¬†in an auction to pay off his bills. However, here, Wilentz goes to some lengths to try to reclaim Jefferson’s reputation. Fair enough, but what does that have to do with the theme of politicians and egalitarians?

Even more oddly, some of his essays don’t really even have anything to do with politicians or egalitarians. He wrote an essay on the Homestead strike. He wrote another essay on the difference between liberals and leftists. He even wrote one about junk history, specifically focusing on Oliver Stone’s The Untold History of the United States.

What is the tie that binds all of these together?

To top it all off, he closes (without not even so much as an afterword to try to tie these essays together) with an essay on Lyndon Baines Johnson. Robert Caro has spent much of the last 30 years writing a mammoth biography of LBJ. He’s finished the fourth volume and is trying to finish the fifth before he dies (he’s in his 80’s). These works have won national book awards and Pulitzers. Wilentz spends a significant chunk of this essay trying to take Caro down, basically claiming that Caro made a fundamental mistake in an assessment of LBJ’s character in the early stages of his work. He is now trapped by¬†that mistake and as the decades unfold, is being forced to write within this trap of his own making.

OK, maybe that’s kind of interesting…if you’re a contrarian historian looking to take the piss out of someone, but again, remember your title and theme…you know…politicians and egalitarians?

He does try to tie this essay back to the theme by contrasting LBJ as the consummate politician who got shit done with Barack Obama, who theoretically wanted to be post partisan but was unable / unwilling to get down into the muck to actually get it done. Ultimately he even concedes that minor point by admitting that LBJ had huge majorities in both the Senate and the House, while Obama did not for most of his term.

Probably the only reason why this didn’t fall down to 1 star is because some of the essays were interesting (ie I didn’t know all that much about W.E.B. DuBois, so I found that essay enlightening).

I’ve Lived In Interesting Presidential Times

When you look back over all of the United States presidents, you see a lot of boring looking white dudes.

However, I posit that, during my lifetime, we’ve had a selection of presidents that defy that normalcy (as one of the more extreme nonentity presidents, Warren Harding, might say).

Let me go through the list:

John Kennedy: Sure, I was only five months old when he died (I was nowhere near Dallas, I swear). He was the last president to be assassinated. That’s pretty big. And oh yeah, he hid the fact that he had a very serious disease, was regularly getting amphetamine injections by a physician that literally went by the name Dr Feelgood, among many other drugs, and for decades took¬†corticosteroids, which among other side effects, leaves you randy as a goat (which of course, he apparently did nothing to fight).

Lyndon Johnson: He almost certainly won his first senatorial bid through overt fraud. He was so proud of his, um…johnson… that he’d regularly whip it out for effect. As president, he once personally called his suit maker (don’t presidents have handlers for that?) to make sure that the next suit would have adequate space for his ‘bung hole’.

Richard Nixon: Where to begin? Well, first of all he’s a conservative Republican that actually created the EPA and for a time was thinking of supporting a basic income plan (where all citizens are guaranteed an income). He was a lifelong red-baiter that went to China and negotiated arms deals with the Soviets. Apparently when he was drunk, he’d order nuclear strikes that were somewhat conveniently ignored. And, oh yeah, he would have been impeached and probably convicted but instead chose to be the first president to resign the office.

Gerald Ford: He was the first president to assume the office without ever actually receiving an electoral college vote (vice presidents are also elected via electoral college; since he followed the resigned vice president Spiro Agnew, and then the resigned president Richard Nixon, he never actually was voted on in any way by the people). Also, Gerald Ford was not his birth name.  His name was Leslie King, but almost immediately his mom separated from his father because he was abusive. A couple of years later, she met and married Gerald Ford, who gave the young boy his name.

Jimmy Carter: First of all, Jimmy? Seriously? Not a presidential name. A United States President that is attacked by a killer rabbit? What is this, Monty Python? Or a born again Christian thinking that it’s a good idea to give an interview to Playboy magazine, admitting that he has many times lusted in his heart for other women? More seriously, he has been awarded the Nobel Peace Prize and is generally considered something approaching a secular saint, but he authored the Carter Doctrine, which basically said that the Middle East is a vital US interest, thus involving us in forty years of war, thousands of US soldiers dead, hundreds of thousands of civilians dead, and trillions of dollars of military spending gone to waste.

Ronald Reagan: An actor? I mean seriously, at least vote for a movie star, not a second class mediocrity (Bedtime for Bonzo, anyone?). We have the arch social conservative who was the first president to be divorced and only went to church when there was a good photo op to be had. He was the first president since Woodrow Wilson who was obviously incapacitated by the time he left office. He was the only president in my life time that actually probably did deserve to be impeached (Iran Contra, read about it here).

George H.W. Bush: This is the first of two parts. He is the¬†father part of the second father/son combination of presidents that have been elected. Considering the fact that the first father/son were the Adams’, it can be safely said¬†that American leadership has not been evolving in a positive direction (although fair to say, despite their gifts, the two Adams’ actually weren’t stellar presidents either).

Bill Clinton: The second president ever to be impeached. Like the first, Andrew Johnson, he was acquitted by the Senate (although Clinton’s outcome, unlike Johnson’s, was never in doubt). He was another one that just couldn’t keep it in his pants. Unlike JFK, Clinton lived in a time of media ubiquity. Therefore, although reporters during JFK’s time hushed up his indiscretions, with Clinton we all got to enjoy tales of oral sex, semen on dresses, and improper use of cigars.

George W. Bush: This is the second of two parts. He is the son part of the above mentioned father/son combination. Isn’t it great that we live in a country where anyone can be elected president? That we live in a meritocracy? Oh yeah, he’s also the fourth person (first one in over 100 years) that lost the popular vote but won the electoral college. And the first one since Rutherford (aka Rutherfraud) Hayes to probably have won through¬†electoral chicanery (Florida is one fucked up state if you’re black and you want to vote).

Barack Obama: Oh yeah, we elected a black guy. How weird is it that when I first wrote this list, I almost forgot him? Just in case anyone thought that the United States is some kind of post-racial nirvana, we got to enjoy eight years of people calling him a Kenyan Muslim socialist atheist. Oh yeah, he was also the third¬†sitting US president to win the Nobel Peace Prize (before people get angry at me, I know that four presidents have actually won it, but Jimmy Carter won it in 2002, way after his presidency). Teddy Roosevelt was the first, which is kind of hilarious considering his basic bellicosity and Woodrow Wilson won for his work setting up the League of Nations, which is further proof that history has a sense of humor when considering that the US never joined it and the League was singularly ineffectual in stopping fascism and the second world war. It’s not clear exactly why the Nobel prize committee gave Obama¬†the prize in the first year of his term unless it quite literally was a thumb in the eye of George W. Bush. ¬†Regardless, considering that by the end of his second term, he was regularly raining hellfire down upon citizens in neutral countries from unmanned drones, the peacemakers in Stockholm might be wishing for a do-over.

And of course, this bring us to Donald Trump. Fuck, why not give the narcissistic reality television star a shot at it? He wants to run it like his businesses, which I’m really hoping is a campaign promise that he has no intention of holding to since he regularly runs his companies into bankruptcy. Oh yeah, he’s now the fifth person that has lost the popular vote but won the electoral college (at least this time, it wasn’t done fraudulently). For those keeping score at home, the Democrats have won the popular vote in six¬†of the last seven elections but have only served four terms and are now currently going through some existential identity crisis. ¬†Isn’t American style presidential elections fair and fun?

So, there you go…the rogues’ gallery of presidents that have served in my lifetime. You can say a lot of things, but it certainly hasn’t been boring.

First Days of R-Ball

My brother and I had visions of becoming tennis players.¬† However, living in Rat City, unlike someplace like Orange County, there was not a lot of opportunities for coaching or even playing.¬† We’d walk down to the local high school, which had two courts in somewhat primitive condition.

One year, for some reason, we decided to join a club.¬† It was called Tennis World, located in basically a converted warehouse in the middle of industrial Duwamish. ¬†It was, I don’t know, maybe 5 miles away from our house (maybe more, but not 10, I don’t think).

When we start going there, I’m probably somewhere around 15 and my brother Brian is¬†20.¬† We’re a couple of scruffy Rat City punks with $10 rackets playing on open courts side-by-side with people who are taking this sport way more seriously than we are.¬† We are continually hitting the tennis balls into other people courts, probably unknowingly committing a host of unwritten tennis etiquette violations, and generally making a nuisance of ourselves.

Eventually, we got sick of hitting the ball 2 or 3 times and then having to trudge off to God knows where to retrieve it, all the while apologizing to increasingly miffed-looking elderly couples in their sparkling clean white attire.  We investigate the club further, and we discover the racquetball courts.  These are enclosed.

Hey!¬† We can hit the ball anywhere we want and no matter how poorly we hit it, you never really have to walk more than 5 ft or so to pick it up.¬† We have just lean’ed out our process!

We buy $10 racquetball rackets and start to play.¬† Eye protection is mandatory.¬† I’m wearing prescription glasses at this phase of my life, so I just wear those glasses on the court.¬† Of course, these are not safety glasses of any kind, so if I ever actually got hit in the glasses, not only would the lens probably shatter into my eye, but the frame itself would probably disintegrate into projectiles that would end up lodged deeply in my cerebellum.¬† I have¬†a pair of old beat up glasses that have an obsolete prescription.¬† Brian pokes out the lenses from them and uses them as his ‘safety’ glasses.¬† We’re set.

We’re pretty clueless regarding such things as strategy or technique, so it was pretty pathetic in there.¬† On top of that, occasionally we’d get mad at each other (or to be honest, maybe just bored with the game), at which point the goal of the match migrated from scoring a point to inflicting maximum pain upon the other. ¬†In that situation, serving became a decided disadvantage, as you became a moving target that the service returner could line up in his sights with minimal ease and with maximum velocity.

Being brothers, we had a code (and this applied to all of our sporting endeavors, not just racquetball).¬† Never show pain.¬† Even if you just got absolutely nailed by a rubber ball moving at 100 miles an hour and all you wanted to do was to curl up in the corner and whimper for your mommy, the only acceptable response was to look down at where you were hit, and calmly say…”That’ll leave a mark”.

If anything positive came from this, it’s that I now have zero fear of the ball.¬† I’ve been hit so many times that I know that really nothing bad is going to happen to me (especially now that I wear¬†real safety goggles).

Interestingly enough, I still abide by that rule.¬† Now that I’m proficient (and slightly more mature), I actually very rarely hit my partner (95% of the time, I play a guy named Russ).¬† However, when I do accidentally hit him, I’m serious, he is such a fucking baby about it.¬† He’ll walk around grimacing in apparent agony, bending over, taking deep breaths, acting as if I just shot him with a bazooka.¬† I have to feign concern, but seriously, my only thought is a slightly smug…yeah…that’ll leave a mark.

Of course, when he hits me, he is profusely sorry and is genuinely concerned about my well being.¬† I’m like, dude, I’ve been hit worse in Nerf¬†gun fights.

Another interesting thing between my brother and me is that we were both intensely competitive with each other.¬† Of course, being 5 years younger, and let’s face it, my brother was a husky guy while I was more likely to be blown around in the wind like a kite. ¬†Therefore, even though I was very competitive and I hated to lose, the fact is that my brother could kick my ass my entire childhood in pretty much all sports (not so much now…revenge is mine!!!).

Brian knew that if we actually played real games, he’d kill me and I’d end up storming off vowing to never play again.¬† So…we never kept score.¬† We basically played one very long game (for the entire hour), just like it was a game, except we didn’t keep score…ever.¬† We probably played for close to, I don’t know, maybe 5 years together, and we never played a real game once.

After I started at Boeing, I played occasionally but I didn’t play much with my brother anymore.¬† I’d just started working with this new manager, and during some conversation or other, it turned out that he used to play racquetball.¬† We decided, hey, let’s give it a shot, and now here are, nearly 30¬†years later, and I’m still playing Russ, once a week or so.

And yes, I keep score with Russ.¬† Real games.¬† And yes, I care deeply whether I win or lose.¬† Over the years, I’ve probably won about 60% of the games that we’ve played. As I’ve aged, especially over the last year or two, some of my competitive instinct has died down. Maybe it’s not life or death that I win every racquetball match. ¬†Maybe I’m actually growing as a person (it could happen!). Perhaps there will come a time when he’ll start dominating me.

However, I have not let that happen yet.¬† ūüôā

An interesting thing about Russ is that he’s -very- religious.¬† When I get tired / excited, I have a tendency to revert back to my Rat City days, so when I miss a shot, all I want to do is to scream an obscenity.

However, Russ really does not tolerate poor language.¬† Therefore, the most that I allow myself to say is something along the lines of ‘shoot’, ‘gosh darn it’, or ‘doofus’, when really all I want to do is to scream Motherfucker!¬† It gets very challenging to contain myself.¬† At one time, we played cut-throat with a guy who was ex-military, and one time, he got really frustrated and screamed in anger “Fucking Jesus Christ!”, which broke I’m not sure how many commandments in Russ’ little book.¬† Shortly thereafter, we quit playing with him.

Now, over the last several months, I’ve started playing with another partner, a woman. It’s fair to say that she has a significantly more salty vocabulary than¬†Russ. I’m now¬†free to scream, yell, and curse to my heart’s content.

However, after all of these years of controlling it, I find that I can’t. I still find myself saying ‘shoot’, ‘gosh darn it’, or ‘doofus’.

God damn you to hell, Russ.

The Madness of Machines

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Title: Alien: Covenant

Rating: 4 Stars

I think it’s fair to say that Ridley Scott has seen the future and is not amused.

Covenant takes place 10 years after Prometheus.  A spaceship is on its way to a supposedly habitable planet. On that spaceship is a crew and a couple of thousand colonists, all in hibernation. The ship is run by Walter, a synthetic.

Some kind of random burst damages the ship, causing the crew to be awoken. While awake, they notice a signal arriving from what appears to be an even more potentially habitable planet. They go off to investigate.

After they land, they realize that the planet has been infected with spores that when ingested, cause xenomorphs to hatch. They also discover David, the synthetic from the Prometheus mission (who looks identical to Walter). He rescues them and explains that while trying to land on the planet, that the spores were accidentally released, thus destroying all life on the planet.

As more crew members continue to die by the xenomorphs, Walter discovers the truth. David has somehow advanced to the point where he thinks that he is above humans and that humans are a dying breed. He intentionally unleashed the contagion to destroy the planet and has established a rapport with the xenomorphs.

It then becomes a race for the few remaining crew to get off the planet before the xenomorphs kill them all. Walter, feeling his duty to crew, must fight David, who wants to destroy them, to the death.

A couple of thoughts here…

The atmosphere, even though on a different planet, is consistent with the other alien¬†movies. Everything is dark. There is no evidence of a sun. Hard rain and storms obscure the planet and make landing and taking off from it difficult. Several times during this movie, my thoughts went back to Blade Runner, which is another dark and rainy setting. Scott’s future seems to be a dark, uncomfortable, miserable place.

Also, as in Blade Runner, you have an artificially created being that ultimately surpasses his human creator. David looks towards humans as his creators but finds them lacking. He too wishes to be a creator and maybe in a nod to Freud, wants to kill his creator. Scott is apparently watching the approaching singularity, when machine intelligence exceeds human intelligence, with growing dread.

In David’s drawings, you can see his inspiration coming from the paintings of William Blake. In some of Blake’s later philosophy, you see him struggling against the dogmatic religion imposed upon him by convention. In his¬†view, the devil is nearly a sympathetic figure in wanting to overthrow the false, authoritarian religion. Could David be sympathizing with this interpretation? Did he see himself as a true rebel forced to overthrow his false creator gods, the humans? And in so doing, bring about a higher level of being?

In all of this, has David gone mad? Is he consumed by megalomania? Is he a narcissistic sociopath? Can an artificially created being become insane? Is it his fault? Or bad programming?

All interesting questions. There are plans to create additional films to chronologically link this narrative¬†with the original Alien franchise. I’m looking forward to seeing if this can be completed (after all, Ridley Scott is 80 years old).

1, 2, 3, 4…Words!

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Title: Chelsea Horror Hotel

Rating: 3 Stars

First of all, ignore the rating. I had no idea what rating to give it. I’m still not sure how I feel about it. It’s not a well written book but I was pretty entertained by it. It’s probably one of those books that people will give either 1 star or 5 stars to it.

I was just wandering around the University Book Store, really not intending to buy any books at all, when this book all but leaped out of the shelves at me. Dee Dee Ramone wrote a book? And it’s a horror story set at the infamous Chelsea Hotel? And it seems to have been inspired by the writings of William S. Burroughs? And it was published about a year before he died of a heroin overdose?

I’ve just been re-reading Please Kill Me, the brilliant, horrifying, hilarious oral history of punk rock, so of course, I had to buy it.

The work is made up of 31 vignettes, all taking place at or near the Chelsea Hotel. Most of the stories appear to be taking place on the same day, ostensibly the last day of Dee Dee’s life. ¬†The setting is somewhere the late 1990’s. It’s basically told in the form of Dee Dee’s diary.

Dee Dee is living with his wife, Barbara, at the Chelsea. He’s living there not because he wants to but because he has nowhere else to go. With his reputation and with his dwindling funds, he is, much to his regret, living in the same place that he started at over twenty years ago.

Real characters, dead or alive, appear in it. There is Stanley Bard, the true life manager of the hotel. Dee Dee’s¬†wife, Barbara has a prominent role. There are various denizens of the hotel with names like Leonardo, Loretta, Fernando, and Bambie, that may or may not be real. Dead punk rock friends, like Sid Vicious, Stiv Bators, Jerry Nolan, and Johnny Thunders, all make appearances.

Most stories start off comparatively normal. In several of them, Dee Dee is taking his dog, Banfield (who, by the way, talks to Dee Dee), for a walk. Although Dee Dee¬†repeatedly claims that he’s a nice guy that just wants to live his life, in fairly short order his errands turn into misadventures.

He sees his paranoid, hated, next door neighbor, Joe, on the street and pushes him in front of a bus and kills him. Bambie, who’s actually a male cross dresser, comes on to Dee Dee. Barbara catches him, and together Dee Dee and Barbara¬†murder Bambie and throw him out the window. In the basement of the Chelsea is a satanic cult that throws their victims into a bathtub full of piranhas.

Things continue to devolve. By the end, the hotel has nearly collapsed, a chasm to hell has opened up underneath it, and Dee Dee, Sid, Stiv, Jerry, and Johnny are playing one last song before, one by one, they slip and fall into the abyss of hell.

So, what to make of all of this? First of all, by no means is it technically well written in any way. Dee Dee was diagnosed as bipolar. He was on and off heroin for decades, but considering the fact that this was written pretty close to when he overdosed, it’s not a bad assumption that he was under its influence while writing. This is reflected in the writing.

This is pretty classic outsider art. If the author was not Dee Dee, this book would have never seen the light of day. However, since it is Dee Dee, and his back story is known, it can be interpreted within the context of his life.

I did find the first chapters to be pretty amusing. It was fun to think of Dee Dee, just trying to get through a day, trying to be an average Joe, and weird things just keep inevitably happening to him, much to his dismay and disgust. I found his repeated cries of what a nice guy he is and why does this keep happening to him to be pretty hilarious.

The chapters themselves were very short. In most cases, they were only a couple of pages. He’d jump right in, set the theme, shit would go down, and then close the chapter. In that way, the stories reminded me of Ramones songs.

By the end though, as events were approaching the climax, chapters were getting progressively longer. By the last chapter or two, the novel had pretty much spun completely out of control.

So, bottom line, if you are a Ramones fan, you could very easily find this work to be interesting and/or amusing. If you don’t get the Ramones, have no idea of who Dee Dee was, then you’re going to read it, probably hate it, and wonder how such a piece of trash got published in the first place.

A Cry For Empathy

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Title: Evicted

Rating: 4 Stars

A sociologist specializing in poverty embeds himself into the lives of the deeply poor in Milwaukee, one of our poorest large cities. He spends time in a nearly condemned trailer park in the poor white part of Milwaukee and shares an apartment in the poor black part.

The first thing you notice is how close the desperately poor are to homelessness. They seem to always be on the verge of eviction, on the verge of getting kicked out by a roommate, on the verge of a serious health issue. A roof over your head is something that most people take for granted, but at a certain level of poverty it really seems to be a nearly month to month kind of struggle.

The people that Desmond profiles do make what seem to be pretty overtly bad decisions. There are women who have children by several different fathers. There are people who buy a lobster dinner and then spend the rest of the month going to a food bank. There are people fighting addiction and yet still hanging out with addicts.

There are a couple of things of note here. One is that the environment that they live in does not encourage good decisions. If you’re going to be poor at the end of every month anyway, why not very occasionally make yourself a fancy dinner? If the state has defined guidelines that reduces your benefits if you save money, then why should you save it? If you know that the landlord isn’t going to fix it and you don’t have money for a plumber, why not just live in a house with a clogged toilet and sink?

Decision fatigue crops up everywhere here. This is the idea that you can only make so many decisions before the quality of your decisions begin to degrade. For instance, if you have five days to vacate the premises, you have previous evictions in your history, and you have looked at over fifty rental properties and no landlord is willing to rent to you, how important is it to you that your children attend school?

Tragedies occur while Desmond is embedded with the families. A house burns down and a child dies. A woman, in desperation, turns to prostitution. Another woman, a mother, again in an act of desperation, tries to rob someone, is caught, and is sent to jail.

The relationship between landlord and tenant is interesting. On the one hand, clearly there is a predatory element here. The landlord studied in the black neighborhood makes $10,000 a month, collecting up to 80% of the paycheck of her poor black tenants. The landlord of the trailer park is worth something like $2,000,000.

However, in both cases, you see the humanity in¬†the two landlords. They do occasionally try to work with their tenants (at least the ones they like; the ones they don’t they evict with barely a thought) and the tenants appreciate those efforts.

Since so many of the poor have been close to the edge themselves, you see a sense of sharing and community. One woman, evicted from her trailer home, with nowhere else to turn, knocks on the door of a nearby neighbor, a woman that she barely knows. She explains her situation, and her neighbor immediately lets her stay for a while.

In the black neighborhood, a woman (and her children) are days away from being evicted. The landlord shows the home to a new tenant. The new tenant and the evicted tenant start talking, and by the end, with tears and hugs, agree to live together in the house.

Overall, it’s a grim narrative. For the very large majority of people in this situation, there is no path out. Their existence is a month to month struggle to determine which bills to pay and which to let slide. They figure which are the best months that they can live without electricity. They figure which months landlords are most likely to let them slide. Their day-to-day life is a simply a struggle to endure.

Desmond does have some recommendations at the end, which have been implemented elsewhere (as in other countries) but just seems like so much pie in the sky nonsense in twenty-first century America.

How well will the idea of defining housing as a universal right go down? How many people are going to rise up and shout about how that’s going to coddle those lazy millions sucking at the teat of our country?

How well will the idea of a needs based universal housing voucher go down? Who’s going to support such an obvious socialist take over of the picket fenced American dream?

For those that do the shouting, I’d dare any of them to move out of their house, give up their cars, don’t touch their savings / checking, put away their credit cards, and actually try to live the life of the desperately poor. How long would they last? A week? A month?

This book is a cry for empathy and it’s a wonderful cry. It’s just so sad that the very people that need to hear this cry are precisely the people that won’t read it.