MILLION DOLLAR BLOCKS

28 10 2012

One of the dirty open secrets about “the land of the free” is that, here in America, we have more people in our prison system than any other country in the world.  Here’s the numbers:  as of 2010, there were 2,267,000 people behind bars in America, with 4,934,000 additional Americans on probation and parole.  Fourteen million Americans are “former felons,” who will be handicapped for the rest of their lives with difficulties in being hired or receiving government assistance such as grants or loans for schooling, not to mention the shackles on their minds that all too often  from a stint in prison.

The good ol’ USA is way out in front of the number two imprisoner of human beings–Russia.  The US incarceration rate in 2009 was 743 per hundred thousand, fifty percent ahead of the Russians and Rwandans, both of which clock in at around 560 per hundred thou.  By contrast, only 71 out of every hundred thousand Norwegians is imprisoned.  In Holland, where legal marijuana sales should , according to the DEA, have precipitated a massive crime wave, the incarceration rate is 94 per thousand…hey, maybe they’re just too stoned to bother arresting people….or too high to go out and commit crimes?  And, when Republicans say they don’t want America to be like Europe, is this what they’re talking about?  Is this really a field in which we want America to be “number one”?

Ooh, but aren’t we keeping hordes of violent criminals off the streets?

No, not really.  About eight percent of the roughly two hundred thousand people in federal prison are there for violent crimes.  That’s about sixteen thousand people.  About half the roughly 1.3 million people in state prisons are in for violent crimes–that’s about 650,000 people.  And approximately a fifth of the three-quarter million individuals in local jails are there for violent crimes–that’s about a hundred and fifty thousand people.  When you add it all up, that’s slightly over a third of all prisoners locked up for violent crimes, about 816,000 out of roughly 2.25 million, with two-thirds of those in jail, about one and a half million people, locked up for non-violent, frequently “victimless,” crimes, at a cost to taxpayers–that’s you and  me–of around thirty-six billion dollars a year.

What’s a “victimless” crime?  About half of all federal prisoners are jailed for drug convictions of one kind or another–that’s a hundred thousand people.  A fifth of state prisoners have committed drug crimes–that’s about a quarter million people.  Statistics aren’t available for local jails, but that leaves us with a third of a million of the million and a half people in state and federal penitentiaries locked up for “drugs.” Read the rest of this entry »





THE WAR THAT WON’T DIE—AND WHY

11 03 2012

On the campaign trail, candidate Barack Obama impressed a lot of people with his honesty for saying things like, “of course I inhaled–that’s the point, isn’t it?” and for promising to leave medical marijuana production and distribution alone in states that had created a legal framework for it.  For a couple of years, he and his government kept their word, but just recently things have taken a turn for the repressive again.

The change started when Obama confirmed Michelle Leonhart as head of the DEA.  Ms. Leonhart became acting DEA director during the Cheney administration, but this isn’t just about her political heritage.  It’s not just that she has never had one good thing to say about medical marijuana.  It’s about the integrity of her conduct.

Ms. Leonhart spent many years as a field agent for the DEA, and for much of that time she worked with a professional informant who was paid four million dollars for his services, even though eventually the DEA quit using him because he had the unfortunate habits of demonstrably lying about the people he was snitching on and neglecting to pay taxes on the money the DEA paid him.  But Michelle Leonhart stood by her man, replying to the question of whether it might be time for the DEA to drop  the stoolie,

“That would be a sad day for DEA, And a sad day for anybody in the law enforcement world. . . . He’s one in a million. ….In my career, I’ll probably never come across another (like him).”

And then there was the time when, in order to do DEA business in Colombia, she chartered a private plane, at a cost of $123,000, instead of using one of the DEA’s fleet of airplanes or even just buying a first-class airline ticket, which surely would have cost only about one-thousandth of what the plane rental cost her….money the U.S. government paid to a company that also happened to own an airplane that had just been seized by the Mexican army  for attempting to fly 5.5 tons of cocaine into the U.S.  That sure puts us in Schrödinger’s cat territory, doesn’t it?  There is a vast amount of unknown and possibly unknowable landscape out there, full of tantalizing tidbits like that seized airplane, the cocaine-Contra connection in the 80’s, and Secretary of State Clinton’s remark last year that we can’t legalize drugs “because there’s too much money in it.”  It’s certainly easier for spy services to finance “black ops” if there are expensive illegal drugs that can be smuggled for big, under the table profits–but that’s not what I’m going to talk about tonight.  The point is that, after all the ringing campaign rhetoric about “change,”  the Obama administration once again, as in the financial, agricultural, pharmaceutical,and military realms, to name just a few, kept our government in the hands of someone who was part of the problem rather than part of the solution.

Since Obama reconfirmed Cheney’s appointee to the DEA, the federal government has undertaken a crackdown on the business aspects of large-scale medical marijuana, involving not just DEA busts of growers and dispensaries, but IRS rulings that make it virtually impossible for a medical marijuana business  to deal with a credit card company or bank, or pay taxes at a non-confiscatory level, to Department of Justice threats against state officials who help implement medical marijuana plans.

What’s going on here?  Why has the Obama administration made a U-turn on medical marijuana?

This is not something the Republicans are somehow making him do.  I find it hard to believe that Obama couldn’t stop this if he really wanted to.  The U.S. attorneys who are tearing up the medical marijuana business say it was their idea, but that they have “Obama’s blessing” to carry it out.   This is why I find the idea of voting for Barack Obama chillingly Orwellian. It’s one thing when a “tough on crime” Republican continues the “war on drugs” just like he said he would. It’s quite another when somebody who said “Of course I inhaled–that’s the point,isn’t it?” and campaigned on putting science ahead of politics in general–and not devoting a lot of federal resources to persecuting medical marijuana in places it was locally legal, in specific–turns his back on his campaign promises and destroys the lives of innocent people. It’s Orwellian to vote for somebody who is willing to do that to you, to “love Big Brother” so much that you vote for somebody who will bust you. Apparently, the Democrats have made a calculated decision that enough people love Big Brother, and find the Republican candidates sufficiently scary, that they will not care if the government is suppressing marijuana, as long as it’s allowing access to abortion and birth control, and not trying to turn the U.S. into a (fundamentalist) Christian nation with even less regulation of big business and environmental pollution than the Democrats’ feeble efforts.  I think it’s the birth control/abortion thing, mostly–get ’em by the short hairs, and their hearts and minds will follow.  From informal research I’ve done among Democrats, they are indeed all too willing to throw medical marijuana users under the bus to get their man re-elected.  “We’re all in this together, except that you potheads are disposable,” eh?

Once again, I digress….

Medical marijuana has a very high rate of public acceptance–it’s hardly a political red herring in most places, yet the  federal government continues to oppose it, continues to refuse to reschedule cannabis as a plant with medical uses, and continues to insist that it has no medical value, all the while awarding hundreds of patents for therapeutic components scientists have discovered in the plant. And maybe that’s a clue to why our corporate-friendly government is determined to keep this medicinal plant out of the hands of the people.

The approximately 200 patents that the government has granted are mostly for single ingredients of cannabis, which have been isolated, tested, and discovered to have analgesic, anti-inflammatory, neuroprotective, vasodilative,and various other beneficial effects.  Pretty disingenuous for the government to keep insisting the herb has “no therapeutic value,” when some of these patents date back to the late seventies.  The government’s been lying!  So, what else is new, eh?

There’s two things about this “single ingredient” approach to cannabis that I find of interest.  The first is that our pharmaceutical paradigm looks for single ingredients with demonstrable effects on certain symptoms, so that the single ingredient can be isolated or synthesized, patented, and sold for a good markup to pay for the research that went into developing it (which is, in a certain sense, reasonable), and also, of course, to inflate the exorbitant profits, salaries, bonuses, and dividends of the pharmaceutical companies.  When you look into it, you discover that that’s where most of the money actually goes–R&D accounts for only about one and a quarter percent of drug companies’ expenditures–while they reap twenty-five or even fifty percent profit from what they make and sell.  And you thought coke dealers were greedy?

The next thing about the “single ingredient” approach is that, once such a single ingredient has been patented, it is, under our current legal structure,  illegal to sell the substance either as a generic dietary supplement, or to sell a dietary supplement that contains the patented ingredient.   The first case is exemplified by pyradoxamine, a form of vitamin B6, which was taken off the market as a supplement because a pharmaceutical company patented it and is now selling it at a considerably higher price than the now-banned generic supplement, which can still be obtained, but only from outside the US.   In a similar vein, a nutritional supplement known as “red yeast rice” is the source for the discovery of statin drugs.  Since statins have now been patented, all “red yeast rice” supplements must have their statins chemically removed in order to be legally sold in the US.

The great irony here is that plenty of foods contain the now-patented form of vitamin B6, as well as “red yeast rice,” patented statins and all.  Another irony is that, even without its declared “active” ingredient, the other chemical components of Red Yeast Rice supplements do almost as good a job of reducing inflammation and cholesterol.  Something about the synergies of complex herbal substances–more on that in a little bit.

But…food cannot be advertised for its health benefits, saith the Food and Drug Administration, which has put cherry and walnut growers under court order so that they cannot promote the anti-inflammatory and other health effects of these natural foods, unless they are run through the FDA’s “new drug process,” which “takes an average of twelve years and 350 million dollars” before a drug is approved–and still manages to rubber stamp substances of dubious merit like Prozac as well as outright poison pills like Vioxx.  Oy, I’m digressing again.  Point being, nobody’s going to spend a third of a billion dollars to confirm the health benefits of unpatentable produce like cherries, or walnuts…or cannabis.  They’ll never make their money back.

And cannabis is even less worthwhile, from the financial standpoint, than cherries or walnuts, because it is so complex and has such a broad spectrum of positive effects.  The interaction of so many chemical constituents, in turn, produces, through synergies among these chemicals, an even broader spectrum of generally positive effects.  Thoroughly cataloging and quantifying every positive effect of ingesting cannabis would clearly cost a whole, whole lot more than a third of a billion dollars, and take much longer than twelve years–the research project has been going on, largely abroad, due to considerable government interference in the U.S., for about forty years now, and the end is nowhere in sight, it seems.  Marijuana is the gift that keeps on giving.  But it can’t be patented, any more than walnuts or tart cherries. The lack of research due to the lack of likely financial return means the government can, at least technically, continue to claim that marijuana has “no proven medical utility,” even though the reason that’s the case has more to do with the rules of the game of “proven medical utility” than with cannabis’ actual medical utility.

But, as I said, single elements of the plant can be teased out and patented.  Some fear that this will make growing one’s own marijuana even more illegal than it is already, because growing the plant might be declared a violation of somebody’s patent.  This has not happened, however, with foods containing vitamin B6 or red yeast rice–they are simply forbidden from making health claims about themselves, even though those claims would be valid.  And, with marijuana, the National Institute of Health has declared that THC is “toxic,” so they have a good reason to permit companies like Kannalife Science to market drugs derived from marijuana, and yet keep the plant illegal.  After all, the only “positive,” non-psychoactive effects of THC are antiproliferative–it keeps cancer cells from growing–and antispasmodic, both effects that also arise from the non-psychoactive CBD spectrum of cannabis chemistry.  While spokespeople associated with Kannalife insist they are supportive of full legalization of marijuana, the company is carving a market niche based on the government’s refusal to recognize medical use of the plant per se.

To summarize:  it looks to me like the government is suppressing the use of herbal marijuana as a medicine because it would be lower-cost competition for pharmaceutical drugs that could be patented and sold by pharmaceutical companies who have carefully removed the psychoactive, or, as the government prefers, “toxic” elements of the plant.  This is a real 1984-style bending of the word “toxic,” since there have been no reported  human deaths from “marijuana overdose,” ever.

Music break: Peter Tosh, “Legalize It”

That song from Peter Tosh reminds me of his tragic early death.  He was murdered because marijuana did not get legalized.  Reflecting on his death brings up another aspect of drug prohibition that I haven’t got time to do more than mention–how the high price of black-market drugs cuts through impoverished communities like a double-edged sword, offering the tantalizing possibility of escaping a life of grinding poverty on one hand, and snuffing out often innocent lives in bursts of greed-fueled violence on the other.  The deep challenge here is that our corporate capitalist system, with its twin drives to monetize everything and yet employ as few people as possible, creates increasing numbers of “disposable” people, who have no role to serve in our increasingly streamlined economy.   There’s a whole industry built around keeping them repressed, rather than empowering them. Never mind that it’s far more expensive to incarcerate people than it is to educate them! Theoretically, these millions of impoverished Americans–a group whose ranks now increasingly include the former middle class–could be set to taking care of themselves–growing their own food, providing themselves with clothing, education, medical care, tools, and shelter as humans have always done, mostly with only a minimal connection to “money.”  Such a simple, obvious solution, however, falls outside the bounds of the corporate capitalist paradigm, and would require a collapse–or a revolution–to be instituted.

This brings me around to another couple of aspects of the war on drugs, the political ones, and I’d like to thank my frenemies in the Democrat party for bringing them to my attention.  One was the charge that marijuana prohibition is somehow not “a real issue.”  The other is, as my correspondent put it, “those poor folks who choose to break laws and then whine about the consequences.”

I’m going to address the second objection first–that, since cannabis use is against the law, we have no right to complain about the consequences when we are caught breaking the law–or, as they say in jail, “if you can’t take the time, don’t do the crime.”

Humans have been using marijuana for about as far back in our history/prehistory as anthropologists can trace. Everywhere the plant will grow, which is just about everywhere, it has been appreciated for its nutritive, fiber, medicinal, and psychoactive/spiritual qualities.  It has not been problematic for any society that used it. It was not problematic in America in the 1930’s when it was first outlawed, in a campaign soaked in racial discrimination against Mexicans and African-Americans, fueled by frustrated alcohol prohibitionists who had just lost that battle and were looking for something else to campaign against.  So…marijuana prohibition comes from the same social conservatives who are against abortion, birth control, and social programs of about any kind that are not church-sponsored.  It is one of the foundation stones of the Evangelical, conservative Christian drive to turn their moral strictures into our country’s laws–a vital precedent that helps establish their right to tighten the screws. I have a very difficult time understanding how anyone who considers themselves “progressive” could support our country’s reactionary drug laws.

And let’s not forget that the main objection to the imposition of marijuana prohibition in the 30’s came from the AMA, who recommended “tincture of cannabis” for a wide variety of problems, a usefulness that has only been expanded by recent research.

And then there’s the reason cannabis affects us in the first place–our nervous system has receptors for cannabis’ chemical content because we make most of the same substances within our own bodies, and they are essential to normal functioning.  Our ingenious scientists tried making a drug that would block the effects of marijuana, and found that blocking the body’s ability to produce and assimilate cannabinoids had serious consequences, serious enough to prevent approval of the cannabinoid-blocking drug.  We are not happy campers without our cannabinoids, nossir.

So…marijuana use…thousands of years….marijuana prohibition–75 years, more or less, and totally ineffective at its stated goal.  Marijuana use is about as natural a human activity as sex, music, or dancing, all of which have been the subject of laws intended to stop or severely restrict them, none of which have been particularly effective. Except that….

Here in America, somebody is arrested for a marijuana-related “offense” every 19 seconds–on average, of course. In large part because of this,  “the land of the free” has the highest incarceration rate in the world. 1.6 million people were arrested for various drug offences last year, nearly half of them for simple marijuana possession, a “crime” that stays on their records and spoils the rest of their lives for doing something that is no more harmful, and probably less so, than drinking beer. More American males of color are in jail, mostly on drug-related charges, than were enslaved at the height of slavery in this country in 1850.

Marijuana is all very well, you might say, but what about cocaine, crack, meth, ice?  They’ve increasingly taken the place of marijuana, haven’t they?

It is my opinion that if marijuana were cheap and legal, nobody would be much interested in ingesting toxic substances for thrills–with all due respect to the traditional role of coca in South American culture.

The “War on (some) Drugs” preceded “terrorism” as an excuse for erosion of civil liberties and the expansion of the snooper state, and has continued and escalated in spite of the fact that every blue-ribbon panel and Presidential commission that has investigated the situation has recommended legalizing marijuana. It has cost us, the taxpayers, nearly a trillion dollars since the “War on Some Drugs” was declared  30 years ago, and, as I said, accomplished nothing for that trillion but given the US the dubious distinction of having the highest incarceration rate in the world. ( I know, next to 1.5 trillion for the bank bailout over four years  or 4.4 trillion for our wars in the Middle East in ten years, one lousy trillion over thirty years is small change!).

Does all that make it real enough for you? I could go on…..

What I have just said is largely a quote from the Democrat-dominated e-list where I had criticised the Obama administration for its drug policy reversal, and “I could go on”  got the following response, as referred to previously:

respondent: Yes, please go on about those poor folks who choose to break laws and then whine about the consequences. Let’s also hear about pay disparity, jobs, health care, child abuse, climate change, living wages, senior care, the economy, war…

And I replied:

Does the fact that our government chooses to spend a trillion on something as “trivial” as the War on Some Drugs while substantially ignoring all the issues you mention (and that are important to me, too) mean anything to you? Does the fact that people of color are far more likely to be arrested and incarcerated for drugs than white folks, even though use rates are about the same, mean anything to you? Does the fact that every rational scientific judicial, and economic inquiry into this situation has said there is no good reason for these laws, and yet they continue, mean anything to you?

Would you say, “please go on about those poor folks who choose to break laws and then whine about the consequences” about those who are arrested protesting other unjust laws, like the Jim Crow laws that used to prevail in this state? (later addition:  What about people who put their bodies on the line to stop mountaintop removal, coal-burning power plants, or predatory logging?  Or predatory lending?  Do you sneer at the Occupy movement when they are arrested and raise a fuss about it?)  Or the folks who chose to ignore the anti-undocumented immigrant laws that make it a crime to be a good Samaritan if you see another human being in distress? Or do you think that it’s your duty to obey the law, whether it’s just or unjust?

….Obama has had little to say, let alone do, about the assault on Planned Parenthood, etc. or the anti-union measures that caused the massive demonstrations in Wisconsin and elsewhere. His program for distressed bankers has been far more effective than his program for distressed mortgage holders, he hasn’t done anything serious about the financial pressure on our school system (although for me, the purpose and results of our school system are a subject in themselves). It looks to me like he’s declared war on the 1st amendment with all the prosecutions of whistle blowers and peace/anti-corporate activists his administration has pursued, not to mention his assault on the 4th Amendment and his continued countenancing of war crimes around the world, plus his refusal to prosecute anybody in the Cheney administration for initiating the war crime policies he has continued. What kind of “hope” do you have for “change” from this guy? Chump change?

The questioner exercised her option not to respond to those admittedly somewhat rhetorical questions.  Elsewhere in the discussion, I added…

If three women were denied access to health care services every minute of every day, or three people per minute were being arrested for admitting their sexual orientation, if three kids were being abused by an adult or seriously bullied by their peers every minute, if three people were being evicted from their homes every minute or violently assaulted on the street and kidnapped by thugs, it would be considered a big problem–so why isn’t three people a minute being assaulted and essentially kidnapped by the police for the crime-that-every-study-says-shouldn’t-be-a-crime, marijuana use, why isn’t that considered a serious social problem in this country?  And why should we give the Democrats a pass for making this situation worse instead of better, especially when they promised to make it better, thus garnering the vote of pretty nearly every marijuana user in the country who is not a confirmed Green or Libertarian?

So, to summarize…the question of why marijuana continues to be illegal boils down, it seems to me, to two things:

At a theoretical level, it boils down to a reductionist medical paradigm that values profits and the small picture, as in the suppression of  symptoms in a fee-for-service model,  much more than it values keeping people healthy so they don’t need to pay fees for services, and that is not cognitively equipped to appreciate broad-spectrum practices, such as a sane lifestyle and diet, which might include the use of marijuana, that provide a variety of benefits that are difficult to catalogue in a “this causes that” kind of way.

The second theoretical problem is that our societal paradigm is repressive.  The presumption is that if you don’t discipline people from without, they won’t discipline themselves from within, and all hell will break loose.   Since this is, in fact, likely to happen among people who have always been subject to external, repressive discipline, our repressors (or oppressors, if you will) interpret any wild behavior that occurs when discipline is relaxed as a reason to clamp back down, rather than a reason to teach people to take responsibility for themselves.  Besides, they like being the dominators in a dominator culture.  You don’t like that?  Too bad!  Go find your own planet!

The way these theoretical considerations play out in our culture is that our corporate-oriented government, obviously aware of the many beneficial effects of marijuana, prefers to see cannabis exploited by pharmaceutical companies rather than grown directly by those who need it, especially because of:

Reason two, the government feels it has a vested interest in making sure that people don’t get high.  It leads to creative, independent thinking and questioning of authority.  To quote that notoriously under-achieving marijuana user, Carl Sagan, marijuana can provide “…the serenity and insight, sensitivity and fellowship so desperately needed in this increasingly mad and dangerous world.”  Just for the record, Dr. Sagan, who began using marijuana in his mid-twenties and continued to find value in it for the rest of his life, said that in 1969, calling for the swift legalization of marijuana use.  Over forty years later, we’re still waiting to inhale legally.

“Serenity, insight, sensitivity and fellowship” are just the feelings and emotions our corporatocracy doesn’t want us to have. That’s why hippies are the most persecuted ethnic group in America.

Hippies are an ethnic group?  The Democrats had a hard time with that claim.  Hey, what part of “counterculture” don’t you understand?  A “culture” is an “ethnic group”!  But, since we are not formally recognized as an ethnic group, it’s OK to profile and arrest us, test our body chemistry to see if we’re members of this ethnic group, and then discriminate against us if we are.  It’s OK to encourage our children to report our ethnic behavior to the authorities so we can be arrested for it….the government is doing everything it can to marginalize us. We have our customs and traditions, although they have been severely disrupted by decades of persecution, but in a way the government is right to do what it does, because we are, in our own gentle way, a major threat to the dominator culture.

Disclaimer:  not all Green Party members are hippies, and not all hippies are involved with the Green Party!

And yes, my Democrat frenemies, you’re right– my fellow Greens, my fellow hippies, and I have picked a tough row to hoe. But we could no more be “good Americans” than we could have been “good Germans.”

The corporate, dominator culture wants us to be good sheep, who will go where they drive us and not complain if we are shorn or slaughtered for our corporate shepherds’ benefit.  That’s why the Democrats continually promise, and continually fail to deliver, more liberal drug laws. That’s why I’m a Green–to create a real choice in the country and a real choice on the ballot. Massive, sudden changes in the political landscape happen as the result of many individual decisions. The Republicans came out of nowhere in the summer of 1860 and left the Whig Party high, dry, and discarded in the dustbin of history.  Millions of Russians and Eastern Europeans individually quit believing in the apparently monolithic power of their governments, and the governments and the whole paradigm of their economic system crumbled. IT CAN HAPPEN HERE. In fact, it looks to me like we’re gonna be way up poop creek without a paddle if it doesn’t.

music:  Richard and Mimi Farina, “Age of Confusion





AN AMERICAN LIFE, AN AMERICAN DEATH

9 12 2011

My old  buddy Wally died a few days after Thanksgiving.  He had just passed his 56th birthday, but his body was worn out and his spirit was worn down.  “Wally” isn’t his real name, and I have altered some of the details of his life, just to preserve what dignity he had left.  As I reflect on how he came to such a sad, lonely, and early end, I see him both as a tragically flawed human being who made a lot of stupid choices, and as a victim of our culture’s skewed priorities.  You could say he’s the liberal-conservative debate embodied in the life of one human being.

I first met Wally about twenty-five years ago, when he was just past thirty and I was thirty-seven.  You know, they say in heaven everybody is thirty-seven forever. but my 37th year was not a good one.  I was farming at the time, growing apples, and a very late freeze that year had  turned what was going to be a bumper crop into soft, black marbles that fell to the ground and rotted.  While the orchard never provided much in the way of income, it was something, and I needed another way to earn money, pronto.  Enter Wally.

Wally was a native of a nearby town.  When he was 14, his two older brothers had given him a good stiff dose of LSD and taken him to a Pink Floyd concert.  Although he had always been kind of a weird kid–sensitive, with big thick glasses that made his eyes look huge (like me), that experience, like similar ones I had at a slightly older age, seriously altered his life course. He decided to shake himself free of the small town and small minds he had grown up with, and wandered off in search of adventure, which he found in the Rainbow Family.  His first gathering connected  him with a vegetarian restaurant collective in Boulder, Colorado, where he got to meet, feed, and hang out with such luminaries as Timothy Leary and Joe Bageant.  His next swing through the Rainbow roundabout hooked him up as keyboard player with a band called “The Tools,” and sent him to Tulsa Oklahoma, where the band financed their debut album by laying carpet and vinyl in the boom years of the Reagan administration.

But then…. the lead singer, the irreplaceable voice on which the whole project hung, left to join a well-known-at-the-time pop group,whose name escapes me–something like Journey or Foreigner, but it wasn’t either of those.  The record was never released.  That left Wally with newly acquired carpet-laying skills, a wife and a new baby, the intention of being a songwriter, and a pretty decent recording studio that he knew how to use.  Then his studio was burglarized and his marriage came unglued, and he returned to his hometown, moved back in with his mom, and found work laying floor coverings.  The situation was somewhat freelance–he worked when the carpet store owners had a job for him, and was expected to keep track of his own Social Security, insurance, and–the good part-hours.

Before his Tulsa studio was burglarized, he had written and recorded  a country song called “My Car’s a Gasoholic and It’s Drivin’ Me to Drink.”  Now that he was within striking distance of the country music capital of the world, he took it around to radio stations, who gave it some airplay.  That, however, had all happened in the early 80’s, and he hadn’t been able to get a nibble since.   The bad news was, his car was a gasoholic, and that was the least of the things that was driving him to drink.  More on that later.

Most of his Rainbow and rock’n’roll attributes had fallen away by the time I met him.   He rarely played music anymore.  (His son told me that he had only heard his dad play once, all the time he was growing up.  “He sat down at my grandma’s Wurlitzer organ and played Pink Floyd’s ‘Echoes‘–all twenty-two minutes of it–and he totally nailed it.  I was amazed.”) He had cut his hair and shaved.  He eschewed health food, saying, “Mrs. Winners is my breakfast cook,”

So, laying carpets and vinyl–that’s where I came in.  Wally needed an assistant to help him lift rolls of carpet (They’re heavy!), move furniture out of the way, and generally take care of the little things so he could do the main thing–get the floor covered.   Working one-on-one with him, sharing long rides to job sites, lunch and sometimes dinner pizzas, and the occasional joint, we got to know each other pretty well.  He derided my live Grateful Dead tapes, saying, “About half the time, they sound like a small-time country bar band on a bad night,”  but he still loved Pink Floyd–and Frank Zappa.  One conversation that came around from time to time involved him telling me, “I’d like to quit smoking cigarettes.  I’d like to quit drinking coffee.  They’re both addictive drugs that are doing me no good, especially cigarettes.  But you can’t get into a program that will help you quit cigarettes and coffee.  If I wanted to quit smoking pot, I could get into a program tomorrow–and they’d let me drink all the coffee and smoke all the cigarettes I wanted.”  He tried to quit several times in the year I knew him, but something always happened to stress him out–the toilet broke, or his wife (at the time, but not for long) went on a tear.  Hey, she smoked cigarettes, too, and had just borne him a son that she seemed ill-equipped to mother.  My wife and I both heard a lot about this, because when he married again, he moved out of his mother’s home and into our very hippie-friendly neighborhood.

Wally was very good  at laying carpets. He had high standards and a strong sense of integrity about the work he did.  He was also politically radical, passionate, articulate, and had a mordant, punny sense of humor, all of which made him a lot of fun to work with–when he was there. Frequently, we would arrive at a job, get it laid out, and Wally would announce that he needed to go get some materials that we didn’t have, and leave me to get things started.  It would take him hours to return.  Sometimes I would be able to mostly complete the job, sometimes I got to a point where I just had to sit and wait for him.  He never had a satisfactory explanation for these absences, which strung out our work days until late at night, so that the next day would be a late start, and so on.

After he died, a mutual friend told me something about Wally that I had never even suspected–he was bi. I recalled someone Wally had introduced me to, just once, a guy who ran a costume shop and limo service, two very odd businesses for such a small, mainstream, lower class, boring burg as the one where we worked.  The guy was, besides, Wally, just about the only interesting  person I ever met from that sleepy southern town.  Was he Wally’s lover?   Were trysts with this guy (now dead from AIDS, I’m told)  the reason Wally disappeared for hours during the work day?  Or was he just out getting drunk, as another mutual friend suspected?  He didn’t seem particularly drunk when he came back from his extended absences.  I guess you could say that my gaydar was poor enough, and his was good enough (sex with other guys has never appealed to me), that the subject just never, uh, came up between us.

After a year, I got tired of the long, erratic hours and low pay, and, besides, the orchard had a good crop again.  I quit working for Wally.  He found another helper, and I gave the orchard business what turned out to be one last season.  You could say I farmed ’till I ran out of money.

Around the end of our year together, I had begun to take a more active interest in following  a spiritually motivated path in life, a decision that eventually led me to Buddhism.    I brought Wally to the home of the friend who was helping me move in that direction, and we sat for an hour or two, partook of some herb, and talked about cultivating self-discipline and getting in better alignment with  our higher intentions.  Wally excused himself after a while, and left.  Next time I saw him, I asked how it had been for him   “I’ve been there and done that,” he said, “and it’s not something I need in my life anymore.”

In the words of The American Book of the Dead,

This (was) the point of no return, the macrodimensional crowbar which separates the sentient voyagers who are liberated and those who take lower rebirth.

In one single instant they are parted from one another; in that instant, infinite freedom or the wheel once again.

Disclaimer:  I am not necessarily, in fact not likely, “liberated,” that’s just my intention–but Wally opted out.  A long road down lay ahead of him, but there was no way he could know that.

He had already come a long way down, in some respects.  One day, on the way to a job, he had taken me to a hilltop mansion which bore the name of one of the founding fathers of our country.  This, Wally told me, was where he had lived as a small child, with his mother and grandparents, after his father had died.  Wally was a direct descendant of that founding father, and a scion of one of the wealthiest families in our part of the state.  That wealth, however, had not been passed on to his mother, or to him.  There had been some kind of machinations when his grandfather died, and other relatives ended up with the estate, which was prime development property.  His mother now  lived in a modest home in a modest neighborhood in a nearby town.

On another occasion, we were driving down a country road.  “There used to be a pre-Civil War house in that field,” Wally said, pointing off to our right.  “It was just used for storing hay when I was a teenager.  One time, me and my friends were hanging out there, and we accidentally set it on fire, and it burned to the ground.  We got the hell out of there, and the police never did figure out who started the fire.”  In retrospect, I have to wonder if that, along with other revelations I will disclose in due course, added to the urgency of his decision to travel and see the world.

Since one of my best friends had taken up the challenge of working as Wally’s assistant, and Wally continued to live in the neighborhood, I kept in touch with him for a while.  He took too much weight the wrong way moving a carpet, and did something serious to his back, but kept on working.  What choice did he have?  Then his year-old son died. It was labelled a crib death, but one-year-olds don’t die of crib death.  Adding to the pain of that loss, the ambulance taking them to the hospital was totaled when a driver in front of the emergency vehicle came to a full stop right in front of it, causing a collision. Wally began to suspect that his wife had smothered the child in a fit of rage over his crying, but there was no way to prove it.  They split up, and he moved back in with his mom.

About that time, my own life came apart, and I moved to another state for about five years.. When I returned in the late nineties, a mutual friend told me Wally was living outside Nashville, and put us in touch.  I called him.  He sounded upbeat, with a new wife, a house on a lake, and a sailboat.  He invited me to come out, visit, and maybe go sailing.    I took him up on it.

The house was beautiful.  The sailboat was beautiful.  The lake was beautiful.  His household, on the other hand, was a soap opera.  His wife, whom he had met on-line, had an adult child who was mentally and emotionally handicapped, in a way that took up a fair amount of psycho-emotional space.  Wally and his new wife were not getting along well–they divorced not long after my visit–and Wally was drinking heavily to deal with both the emotional pain of another failing marriage–his fourth–and the physical pain generated by continuing to lay carpet with a deteriorating back.  He had tried to get out by becoming a car salesman, but in spite of his best efforts, he washed out of that highly competitive job market.  He had tried to start a new career by encouraging his previous wife (not the one I had known) to become an exotic dancer, (and he her manager), but she had left him for the club’s bouncer, who was not, as Wally was, twice her age. Wally was hurt by this.   “I shaved her pussy for her,” he complained, “and she left me.”  His current wife was definitely not exotic dancer material, and he was realizing he had made a mistake with her, too.   “When I visited her  in Boston, I discovered that she just left all her mail, bills and everything, in a pile on the table and never opened or answered anything.  That should have been a warning to me.”  His life was a mess, but there was nothing I could do to help him, not that he was asking for help.  We didn’t go sailing.  I excused myself as quickly as I could.  There’s no point in reaching out to somebody who doesn’t want to admit that they need a hand.

music:  Drive-by Truckers, “Dead Drunk and Naked”  (first link is video of live performance, second is the lyrics, which are relevant but hard to understand on the video)

I didn’t think much about Wally for the next eight or nine years, except once when I saw his name connected with a John Kerry campaign event in that same sleepy southern town where we had worked together.   The former Vietnam war protester, wealthy east coast intellectual, and reputed closeted potsmoking Deadhead didn’t resonate well with the rednecks in  our  red neck of the woods, and, while Kerry may have been cheated out of a victory in Ohio and elsewhere, he lost it fair and square down here in the South.  (A mutual friend later told me that Wally had been asked to separate himself from the local Kerry campaign because of his excessive drinking.)

Then I found Wally again through the magic of email.  A mutual friend sent out a missive and cc’d all his addressees instead of bcc’ing them, which is kind of a no-no, as it invites spam, but, being nosy, I looked through the addresses, and there was a wallywilson@yahoo.net.  Out of curiosity, I dropped him a line, asking, “Are you the Wally Wilson who used to lay carpet?”  And he wrote back that yes, he was.  One thing led to another, and I went to visit him.   His life had changed a lot.  The music, the wife, the house, the job, for that matter the ability to work–all were gone.  His two brothers, the ones who set him on the path he took, had taken a sharp right turn, become evangelical Christians, and written Wally and his radical politics out of their lives; he said he didn’t even know how to get in touch with them any more.  The sailboat, on the other hand, had morphed and grown, from a little lake boat to a 27-foot, seagoing vessel, big enough for a single guy to live in, which is just what he was doing.  But the boat was not in the water.  The boat was on a trailer, sitting in the front yard of his last employer.  Wally’s back was totally shot.  It hadn’t been so shot when he first acquired the boat, and therein lies a tale.

Wally had started drinking heavily in an effort to cope with his chronic back pain, but it didn’t help much.  He then had back surgery, which, as so often happens, didn’t help much,either  The good news was, this enabled him to qualify for SSI disability–the munificent sum of $600 and some change every month.  The bad news was, he was now taking massive amounts of prescription morphine for the pain, as well as drinking plenty of beer to take the edge off.  But the good news was, he he’d gotten several years worth of SSI checks in a lump sum, added up from the date he had first applied to the day his request was granted.  He split the award with his lawyer, and spent most of the rest of it buying and outfitting a sailboat he found online, on Long Island.  His plan was to sail the boat to Belize, where he would not be hassled for living in it, where pain meds  and living expenses in general were much cheaper,where it never got cold, and where his old buddy Joe Bageant could show him the ropes.  He set off down the East Coast, but ran the boat aground and tore up its keel near the entrance to Chesapeake Bay.  He limped up to the Washington, D.C., area, hoping to find a shipyard where he could do the repairs and a pain doctor who would rewrite his morphine prescription–but the DEA had just busted the best-known chronic pain doctor in the area, and nobody wanted to risk writing narcotics prescriptions for strangers.  Corralled by his need for morphine, he spent just about the last of his nest egg putting his dream boat on a trailer and hauling it to Nashville, where he could see a doctor who knew him.  He was hoping he could get the boat repaired, into the Tenn-Tom waterway, and back en route to Belize.

It didn’t work out that way.  He tore up his back even further trying to help his host plant a garden, and, penniless and barely able to move, resigned himself to staying where he was.  There was, he often told me, still money in the family pipeline for him, and when that came through, he would get the boat back in the water and make his getaway. He was waiting for his old uncle to die so he would get the money, about fourteen grand.  When he told me all the things he planned to do with that relative pittance, it was difficult not to tell him how unrealistic his expectations were–and when I did try to tell him, he didn’t want to hear about it.

But I’m getting ahead of myself.    I visited him at the beached boat just a few weeks before I myself fell down the health care rabbit hole, hit with a stroke while in the hospital for atrial fibrillation.  Our meeting was a friendly reunion; we emailed back and forth from time to time through the first winter of my recovery.  He had not lost his interest in politics, his radical perspective, or his desire to make the world a better place, and that gave us a firm basis on which to renew our friendship.  .Then, in May, 2009. he called for help.  His former employer had told Wally that he was getting ready to sell the farm where Wally was staying, and so it was time for him to find another place to live.  I tried to find somebody else to take him, but after a while it sank in–either Wally was going to move his boat to our place, or he was going to be out on the street, not a good place for a crippled older guy with a heavy morphine habit.  It was just for nine months, he promised–then his son would come help him get the boat water-worthy again, and he would be on his way to the Gulf coast, or beyond.  I, recently laid low by my own health issues, was glad to be able to be of some help to another human being.  He promised he wouldn’t be any trouble.

And so we tucked his boat away behind our barn, where it was unlikely to be noticed, but on a gravel pad just to give a nod to codes.  His former landlord towed the boat over, and a neighbor with a backhoe gave the boat the final push in.  It must have been a rough job for him–he hasn’t returned our calls since.  But I digress.  We ran an extension cord and a hose from the barn to the boat, and Wally had a new home.

We immediately began to realize that we’d taken on more than we’d bargained for.  At his previous location, he was in the middle of a big, flat open area, but at our place, he was in a deep valley, and the rancid smell of his beer, cigarettes, and meds-tainted body odor and urine created a bubble of second-hand smoke and nastiness that extended for a hundred feet or so around the boat.  You could literally smell him before you could see him.  In addition to his back problems, he had been diagnosed with panic disorder, for which he took Valium, among other things of a similar nature; cardio-obstructive pulmonary disease, the predecessor to emphysema, from smoking cigarettes for 40 years (and probably from inhaling glue fumes regularly in the course of laying  carpets and vinyl) ; and hepatitis C, the kind you only get from somebody else’s blood, i.e., sharing dirty needles, but he swore he didn’t know how he got it.  After he died, his son told me that Wally had been a heroin addict as a teenager.  I don’t think Wally ever told me that.  Maybe he was lying about not knowing how he got hepatitis C, or maybe it had been nearly dormant in him since his teenage heroin addiction, growing worse as he stressed his liver with alcohol.  He had also lost most of his teeth, and what stubs were left in his mouth were pretty rotten.  We don’t have lepers in 21st century America, but Wally, stooped, dazed, smelly, and nearly toothless,was as close as we get.

Once a handsome young charmer, he now seemed to revel in his ability to disgust people.  Catheterized for a while with a urinary infection, he wore shorts in public, with the bag hanging out the bottom of his pants.  Since he drank so little liquid, his spittle was thick and ropy, and formed lip-to-lip pillars when he opened his mouth.  He was skinny enough that his pants frequently started falling off what little there was of his ass, and he would be slow to hoist them.  I guess, if you’re really hard up for attention, you quit caring if you’re getting approval or disapproval.

music:  Kate Wolf, “The Hobo

But Wally wasn’t completely beaten down.  His computer and internet connection gave him a doorway into the world.   He was especially active on Democratic Underground, where he was appreciated for his heartfelt, thoughtful contributions–but from which he was eventually banned because he kept using the site to ask people to send him money.

Money was a continuous struggle for him.  He was on a dozen prescription medications, but Tenncare would only pay for five, and most of the drugs he needed to purchase were not generics.  Hey, Mr. Legislator, try buying seven prescription medications, feeding yourself, and keeping the lights and heat on, on $600 and change a month.   There were sometimes more than twelve prescriptions–his rotting teeth, which Tenncare would not pay to take care of, kept getting infected, which required frequent courses of antibiotics.  Frequent courses of antibiotics meant that the bugs in his system evolved resistance to antibiotics, which in turn meant that he had to take newer, stronger, and more expensive antibiotics.  Tenncare was willing to pay $125,000 for open heart surgery, the need for which could result from chronic gum and tooth infections, but Tenncare would not pay the thousand or so dollars it would take to pull his teeth and make dentures for him, and the SSI people wouldn’t let anybody give him the money to pay for the dental work, either.  Desperate to get his teeth fixed before the repeated infections tore a hole in his heart, he tried to borrow against the  small inheritance due him, but got the impression SSI, or at least some of the people implementing its policies. wouldn’t allow that, either.  However, when his son made inquiries about this, it started to look like Wally’s perception of the difficulties of paying for getting his teeth pulled was actually a misperception, fed on his side by his narcoticized, oxygen deprived, panic-prone mind, and by who knows what on the SSI end of the equation. By the time he finally got it together to get his teeth pulled, it would prove to be too late.

While morphine and fentanyl dulled the pain in his back, they did not stop it, or give him back the muscular strength that had atrophied.  He was so unsteady on his feet that he would fall down regularly, even with the help of a walker, although he needed that less after he was cured of Hepatitis C.  The only position in which he was comfortable was sitting cross-legged with his elbows on his knees, and that was how he spent most of his days, hunched over his computer or his meals.  The narcotics he was taking would cause him to nod off unexpectedly, and he told me he would frequently wake up with his face in his unfinished dinner, and another burn cigarette burn mark notched in the quilt on his bed, or, sometimes, his fingers.

And then there was Hepatitis C.  He had tried interferon therapy twice, but found the side effects too overwhelming, and had bailed.  His doctor told him he was nearing his last chance before the disease resulted in cirrhosis of his liver, a condition in which his liver would quit functioning and he would die.  This time, to help him get through the interferon, he found someone who would provide him with marijuana, and got his doctor’s agreement for this, although Tennessee is not a medical marijuana state.  But oops, there was another twist in the story–he was too underweight and malnourished to meet the health guidelines for the interferon.  A few months of special attention to diet took care of that, just barely–he was unable to afford the “nutrition drinks” that were recommended to him.  He asked us for an extension of his original nine month agreement, and we gave it to him,  with the understanding that his son would come through for a working visit the next summer and help him get the boat in the water.

Just now, in doing research for this story, I found out something that  I have to wonder if  Wally or his doctors were aware of.  On a website called  “Addiction Medicine,” I found, at the bottom of the page, this caveat:

When treating patients with hepatitis, one must be aware of the possibility of altered hepatic function leading to an altered metabolism of medications, especially antidepressants. The changes in metabolism could lead to toxicity. In a patient with liver disease and compromised liver function, encephalopathy can develop due to an inability to handle dietary protein. The use of antidepressants of the tricyclic class can cause impairment in the thinking processes due to their anticholinergic effects, adding to the encephalopathic impairment. A clinical picture of delirium can ensue. The use of benzodiazepines can worsen the delirium.

Wally, diagnosed with “panic disorder,” had been taking Valium, a benzodiazepine, daily. Did he get switched to something that wouldn’t clash with the interferon?  He certainly seemed to go through a change, a deterioration, really, of personality while he was on the interferon.  He became more withdrawn, more paranoid or maybe delusional (in the sense that he made up stories about why certain things happened that were not particularly based in reality), and less present.  The wild and crazy guy I had known was dissolving in a vat of chemicals.  “Personality changes” are listed as a side effect of interferon treatment.  I’d say that’s an understatement.

He made a brief comeback once he got off the interferon, cured of Hepatitis C.  We shared a feeling of triumph.  But the recovery of his personality was short-lived, and I soon understood why.  I learned that it is a widely ignored and unpopular, not to mention unprofitable, fact that our society’s highly pharmaceutical mode of dealing with mental disorders is not only ineffective, but actually precipitates greater incidences of more acute forms of “mental illness.” The drugs he was taking to balance his brain were making it less balanced, even less balanceable.

Still, Wally did his best to keep up appearances.  While he complained about the fact that my wife would only allow him in the house when she was gone, limiting his ability to take showers, he would only come in and take a shower  (and shave) when he had a doctor’s appointment coming up.  He put all the effort he could into appearing as normal as he could on those occasions, for what he feared more than anything was being declared incompetent to live on his own, and then confined to a nursing home.  Because he was on SSI, the only way he could continue to own the boat was to keep living in it.  If he left the boat, he would lose it, as well as his dream of independence on the water.  He would also, if he entered a nursing home, lose his much-anticipated inheritance.

Wally wanted to be generous, bless his heart.  He gave my wife a pretty watering can that had been his mother’s, but which was useless to my wife because of its small size.  He also attempted to pass on to her his grandmother’s sewing scissors, which may have been a precious antique with more than sentimental value, but did not work as sewing scissors.  We eventually gave them back to him, since he kept complaining that “After all the nice stuff I gave her, your wife still doesn’t like me.” He offered to bake us one of his self-described “delicious peach cobblers,” which turned out to be a (to us) inedible, over-sweetened goo made from flour, condensed milk, and canned peaches, with strong overtones of tobacco smoke.  His general preference for prepared and canned food, and use of paper plates–he said, and it was probably true, that it was too painful for him to stand up long enough to cook or wash dishes–generated mountains of bagged trash that lured raiding possums and raccoons and added to the smell around his boat.  We live a very low-trash lifestyle, and don’t have garbage pickup service, so we (including my wife’s father, who started helping us with Wally) ended up making more frequent dump trips than we would have made on our own.

The second summer, we nearly lost him.  He was scheduled for a doctor’s appointment, but hadn’t showed up for his  ride  I went around back to look for him, and found him collapsed next to the boat, unconscious and unarouseable, lying in the  full glare of the July sun.  I called 911, and an ambulance soon arrived.  Dehydration, we suspected.  As part of his anti-health food kick, he refused to drink water, imbibing only HFC-laced fruit drinks, coffee, and “cheapo cola,” as we jokingly called it.  But no, it wasn’t dehydration–it was an inadvertent drug overdose.  One of his pain medications was fentanyl, which he took as a skin patch.  At high temperatures, however, the patch delivered the drug much faster, and that, apparently, was what knocked him out.   In a few days, he was home. That was July.  In August, his son came again, and did his best to get the boat back in the water, but there was much, too, much for him to accomplish in just a month, and Wally, who was going through the interferon therapy that summer, was no help at all.  He would be with us a second winter.

He had quit drinking beer because alcohol and Interferon don’t mix, and when he wasdone with chemotherapy, he didn’t start drinking again.  He said he’d lost interest; I suspect that the medical marijuana that he was obtaining was also a far better  consciousness modulator for him than beer’s combination of alcohol and hops.

That was also the summer of the BP oil spill in the Gulf, which soured Wally on the idea of living in the water on the south coast.  (I can’t say that I blame him.)  He started to envision using his inheritance to tow the boat to the west coast instead, to be near his ex-wife and kids.  This seemed pretty unrealistic to me.  I told him I thought he could find a better boat out west for less than it would cost to tow his current vessel that far, since sailboats, a toy for the upwardly mobile,  were being abandoned at record rates as the economy deflated.  Wally wouldn’t hear of that.  His mind was made up.  He was hanging on to the boat he had.  We started thinking of him as Gollum, a being totally deformed by attachment to “his precious.”  His son found trying to work with Wally incredibly frustrating for the same reason.  Then the relationship with his ex that he had been rebuilding (at least in his own mind) collapsed, and he lost interest in moving west, too.

My wife and I began to doubt his competence.  He seemed incapable of managing the electricity in the boat.  He would put all his heaters and his microwave on the same plug, and then wonder why he tripped a circuit breaker.  Or he would not realize that he had unplugged something, and think he had tripped a circuit breaker, frequently in the middle of the night.  Then he would call us, generally just as we were getting ready for bed.  This was especially troublesome in winter,when the bill for his electric heater cost him between a quarter and a third of his income.  If the power went out and his electric heaters went off, the uninsulated fiberglass boat would not hold heat, and he would have no alternative but to seek shelter in our house, with two people whose lungs could not handle even secondhand smoke.  We had a spare room that he could have used in an emergency, but fortunately the winter passed without that crisis occurring.

As it was, I was exposed to second-hand smoke at least once a month, when I took him grocery shopping, or to a nearby pharmacy to pick up his narcotics.  That was our time to hang out together.  He did most of the talking on those occasions, except when he nodded out from his pain medications.  He generally repeated his latest version of the same monologue.  It could be difficult to interrupt him.  I had to learn to be humorously rude with him if I wanted to get a word in edgewise.  I occasionally had to do my best to intervene or apologize when he treated store employees rudely for reasons that seemed to have more to do with his need for self-assertion than the quality of the service he received.  My own disreputable appearance occasionally sparked comments on the level of, “Who’s taking care of who?”  I would laugh; Wally would at least act like he didn’t notice the question.

On one occasion, Wally was waiting for me with his groceries outside the market, when a guy in a wheelchair asked him for a smoke.  Wally gave the guy a cigarette and paid him no further mind, until he realized that his month’s supply of beer had vanished from his shopping cart and the wheelchair guy was hightailing it across the parking lot with the 24-pack in his lap.  Wally was particularly weak at this time, and using a walker.  He tried to give chase, but the beer snatcher easily outdistanced him.  We thought it was sad, but also, in a dark kind of way, very funny.  But Wally couldn’t afford to replace the beer.  I fronted it to him.  I ended up fronting him quite a bit, as did my wife’s father, when he started helping me with Wally’s errands.  Wally made some effort to pay us back, but on his income and with his needs it was a losing struggle.  That’s OK with me.  Throughout my life, I have been the recipient of a great deal of kindness, financial and otherwise, that I was never able to repay to my benefactors.  Wally was my chance to pay it forward.

When we told him that we did not want him with us through a third winter, at first he squawked, repeating his assertion that he was no trouble at all, in spite of what we might think, but then he seemed to kind of get into it–he looked forward to cruising the Cumberland in his sailboat, mooring out in places where he wouldn’t have to pay a marina fee, fishing for his dinner, maybe finding an isolated island to plant a pot crop on.  Nevertheless,  he complained about us on Democratic Underground,  posting, at the end of a note letting his  friends know he was cured of Hepatitis C:

PS, anyone got a 1 ton dually with a big engine and a ball hitch that would pull my 28 ft sailboat from Nashville to the California Delta (back Bay between around August 1st or I will arrive there without my home. I’m being evicted because the people who own the land I’m on worry about me wintering in an uninsulated sailboat, when I’ve got snug electric heat with a gas back up. Oh Well, I have little contact with them anyway and my kids arere out there.

Notice, he didn’t mention his ex-wife or the fact that his gas heater hadn’t worked in quite some time, or that when it had worked, he needed to leave the hatch open and let the heat out or he’s asphyxiate.  Also, while he thanked me profusely to my face for helping him get through the interferon, he dismissed our connection with “I have little contact with them anyway.”   Wally was very good about appearances.  Here, he was seeking sympathy (and several thousand dollars worth of somebody’s time and money, though there were no takers), and cast us as cruel and distant, in a forum of which we were unaware and thus unable to respond.

It’s true, we weren’t able to give him everything he needed, and so his feeling of disappointment was, in a way, justified.  For me, the difficulties of our relationship were lessons on the limits of my compassion and the need to draw boundaries.  I aspired to love him unconditionally, to be there for him as much as possible, possibly even to lift his consciousness enough to give him some insight into himself.  I was not equal to the task.  Wally was a bottomless pit, a black hole of human need.  Between the psychiatric drugs and  his habit of blaming his troubles exclusively on outside circumstances, there was no way I could move him.  He may have hit bottom, but he still was too proud to ask for help–which, more than his smell and appearance, was what repulsed my wife.  As many times as I tried to explain that to him, he never got it.

I started to understand what “compassion fatigue” means.  I knew what the kind, compassionate thing to do was, but I still had to grit my teeth to do it. And I wasn’t dealing with tens of thousands of hungry, traumatized war refugees, just one chronically ill borderline homeless guy.  My hat is off and my heart is out to those who can take on so much more than I apparently can! I was grateful when my father-in-law, who shared Wally’s interest in sailing, stepped in and started taking Wally on his grocery and other shopping runs.

Wally’s son came that third summer, armed with several thousand dollars and his professional boat building skills, to get ‘er in the water.  He arrived in August, expecting a Labor Day launch, but that turned out to be wildly optimistic.  He discovered that the repairs  that Wally had made on the boat were  so poorly done that they needed redoing,   Wally argued frequently with his son, bouncing between being an obnoxious know-it-all (who actually knew very little) and a passive zombie who just sat in the boat and said, “whatever.”

I had one exchange with him, which he started by complaining to me about how bossy his son was being.  I responded by telling him that the young man, in my observation, knew what he was doing, that he was doing Wally a huge favor by spending so much time and money to help a father who had been largely absent when he was growing up, and that Wally ought to be grateful for his help.  Furthermore, I told him, he needed to recognize that his own abilities and judgment were clouded by not only the drugs he was taking but the fact that due to his COPD-on-the-way-to-emphysema, his brain was probably not getting enough oxygen to function at full capacity.  He pretty much quit talking to me after that.

It was the end of October before we got the boat in the water, miles downstream from the marina where Wally had a slip rented, but at the only place in Nashville with a boat launcher big enough to handle a 27-foot sailboat.   His son traveled with him to steer the boat upriver to Wally’s new home.   It was a good thing he did.  The river was low, and, in spite of having an up-to-date cyberchart of the passage, the boat still ran aground twice.  The younger Wilson–let’s call him Lawrence–had to climb in the rowboat and row for all he was worth to get the boat unstuck, something Wally, with his compromised body, could never have done, and Wally knew it.  Wally also realized that this meant that his dream of exploring the wilds of the Cumberland was unrealistic.  Then, just as they were about to reach their destination,  the sailboat’s keel hit something hard sticking out of the bottom of the lake, and rocked so violently that it knocked Wally over.  His son did a quick dive and discovered that whatever they had collided with had recreated the same hole in the keel that had caused Wally to pull the boat out of the water in Chesapeake Bay so many years ago–but now he was stuck in a marina where he couldn’t get the boat out of the water and fix it.

I intended to go visit Wally and see his new place, but put it off, thinking he would tell me when he needed to renew his medical stash. But no call came.

Then an email arrived, in response to a “how’s it goin?” query from me:

Actually Martin,,thijngs areb niot goinng well. I’m in Sumner hosptal and needining a bail out .I’m in critical carebwith an infection and too skaky to type.call me xxx-xxxx In hve my phone

That was followed just a few minutes later with

CALL ME  EMERGENCY MEASUES NEEDED  IN CRITICAL CARE AT GALLATIN CALL ME   xxx-xxxxTHEN I”LL NEED MINISTERIAL HELP YOURB KIND OF JOB

He had included his phone number, even though he must have known I still had it.  So I called him.   He sounded weaker and more confused than he had been.  He wanted me to give him a ride back to the boat, or maybe to St. Thomas Hospital in Nashville.  Thanksgiving was coming up; I had family to deal with, and wasn’t sure when I could make it out to see him. His son gave me the code that enabled me to talk to his nurses, and they did not sound too worried.   They said  that, while he needed open heart surgery–he had a damaged aortic valve, probably from some combination of 40 years of tobacco and all the tooth and  gum infections he had had,  they couldn’t do it there and at the moment he was too weak to risk it,  but they were going to send him to another hospital where he could regain some strength and have the surgery.  They didn’t seem to think he was in any immediate danger of dying.  I figured I’d go see him after the holiday.  I told him I was thankful he had access to good medical care that didn’t cost him anything.   My recent two-day hospital stay, with no surgery involved, had set me back eleven thousand dollars.

The Monday after Thanksgiving, I put off going to see him until Tuesday. I needed a day to decompress, I told myself.  Monday night, his son called me.  Wally’s heart rate was rising and his blood pressure was dropping.  He had lost consciousness.  A couple of hours later, Lawrence called again.  Wally’s heart had stopped–they had defibrillated him and gotten a pulse going, but he had no blood pressure.  When I called the hospital Tuesday morning, they told me he had died at 11PM.   I had put off going to see him just one day too long.   I had “left it for somebody other than me/To be the one to care.”  Let that be a lesson to me.

music:  Simon and Garfunkel:  The Boxer

So, what does it have to do with the Green Party?  Why has this loser written over eight thousand words about the life of that loser?

In my view,  the snowballing tragedy that was Wally’s life could have been prevented–and Wally was just one of millions, maybe tens of millions of people in similar circumstances.  Wally critically injured his back  in order to create stupid American suburbia, the construction of millions of homes and so-called “communities” that should never have been built in the first place.   Still,better working conditions and better health care could have prevented the kind of back injury that brought him –literally–to his knees, or at least treated it more rationally than knee-jerk back surgery.  A saner societal attitude about pain management would have been a big help, as would a less pharmaceutically oriented approach to his panic episodes.  After he died, I found out that he had been molested as a small child, which may well have been at the core of his panic. But our psychiatric system is set up to medicate patients, not to talk with them or coach them on changing their attitudes and behaviors. You don’t sell as many pills if you actually cure people.

The tobacco industry took about $50,000 of Wally’s money over the forty years he smoked–that’s figuring two packs a day for those forty years–and never paid a dime that actually helped him quit or covered his medical expenses.  Tobacco is sacred to the natives of this continent.  I have no problem with people who want to grow their own and use it in the traditional fashion.  But to have a multi-billion dollar business dedicated to addicting people to a substance that will make them sick unto death seems to me to be criminally insane. And then there’s alcohol…..

In the final years of his life, Wally was squeezed into penury and misery by the stinginess of our social welfare system.  Some of the stinginess manifested in the lack of care and oversight in Wally’s life.  Back in the nineties, I got paid to do the kinds of things I did for Wally on a volunteer basis.  In the aughts, in Tennessee, money was no longer available for that kind of thing, and without me and my father-in-law, he would have simply gone without. Nobody in the system seemed to be looking out for him.  He didn’t have a case manager, somebody who could hold a long-term overview of what was happening with him. Privacy rules kept me, his only friend, from connecting with the people who were taking care of bits and pieces of his life.

Trillions for banks and defense contractors,  six hundred a month and no personal care for somebody who’s too sick to work. No dental coverage, and  only 5 paid-for prescriptions–although, in my opinion, a saner health care system would do more to encourage people to cultivate healthy living habits so that they didn’t need pharmaceuticals, and emphasize the use of simple, inexpensive, natural substances over prescription medications. But gee, that would take money away from defense contractors or insurance, pharmaceutical and hospital CEOs who really need it.

I fault our medical model, as well as our health care  delivery system.   Our medical paradigm treats symptoms.  Others, such as Chinese, Tibetan, and Ayurvedic medicine, treat the system, not the symptom.   In Wally’s case, he could have had a much more generous SSI stipend and coaching on improving his diet, and survived much longer and more happily, for a fraction of what the government got billed for hospital care in his final weeks. When Jesus said, “Unto them that have, shall be given,” I don’t think that’s what he was talking about. What it all boils down to is that Wally, and us taxpayers who covered his bills, were taken for a ride by our profit-oriented medical-pharmaceutical “industry.” We need a better way.  Like, a not-for-profit health care system, y’know?

Goodbye, Wally.  You were kind of a jerk, but you  were a well-intentioned jerk, and you didn’t deserve the treatment you got from the culture you were born into.  Next time I have a chance to help somebody like you, I promise I’ll do a better job.

music:  Jackson Browne, “Rock Me on the Water





THIS IS YOUR GOVERNMENT ON DRUGS

13 08 2011

In addition to blowing off its entire ostensible base–the liberals, the middle class, labor unions and the underprivileged–the Obama administration also recently went out of its way to antagonize that eternal bete noir, America’s marijuana users.

And it all began so hopefully, so changefully.  Candidate Obama had spoken out in favor of loosening the country’s drug laws. calling marijuana prohibition “a failure.”  When asked if he had “inhaled,” he said, “of course I inhaled.  That’s the point, isn’t it?”  Entering the White House, he called for the government to make judgments “based on facts, not ideology,”  a statement that brought hope for change to stem-cell researchers, climate change activists, and marijuana users alike.

Well, at least the stem cell researchers got what they wanted–but hey, they’re part of big pharma, unlike the rest of us peons.  I’ve already talked about Obama’s extremely disappointing record on climate change.  Now, let’s turn to the bad news about marijuana.

Just as the importance of short-term profits (which is, after all, an ideological and not a scientific prioritization) has trumped taking steps to curb carbon emissions, so has the ideology of “just say no” remained firmly in place in Obama’s  Drug Enforcement Agency.  The first signal was his reappointment of Michelle Leonhart, a Bush administration leftover, as head of the DEA.  Ms. Leonhart has a long history of not only enforcing drug prohibition, but obstructing any attempt to end it, whether by allowing research into possible beneficial effects of the herb, allowing other research facilities besides the University of Mississippi to grow it for scientific investigation, or rescheduling marijuana out of “schedule 1,” the government classification for drugs with “no medical use and a high potential for abuse.”

this is your government on drugs!
This is your government on drugs!

Speaking of which, last month, the DEA finally ruled on a nine-year old petition to change that schedule one status.  I’ll let NORML tell the story:

The United States Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) on Friday formally denied a nine-year-old petition calling on the agency to initiate hearings to reassess the present classification of marijuana as a schedule I controlled substance without any ‘accepted medical use in treatment.’

A coalition of public interest organizations…, filed a comprehensive rescheduling petition with the DEA on October 9, 2002. This past May, the coalition filed suit in the US Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia to compel the Obama administration to respond to their petition to reclassify marijuana under federal law.

DEA administrator Michele Leonhart posted a letter denying the petition in the July 8, 2011 edition of the Federal Register. Leonhart stated that cannabis has “a high potential for abuse; … no currently accepted medical use in treatment in the United States; … [and] lacks accepted safety for use under medical supervision.”

She added: “[T]here are no adequate and well-controlled studies proving (marijuana’s) efficacy; the drug is not accepted by qualified experts. … At this time, the known risks of marijuana use have not been shown to be outweighed by specific benefits in well-controlled clinical trials that scientifically evaluate safety and efficacy.”

Responding to the DEA’s rejection, NORML Deputy Director Paul Armentano said: “The DEA is predictably maintaining its decades-old ‘flat Earth’ position in regards to the otherwise well-acknowledged therapeutic properties of cannabis. It is a shame to see an administration that pledged to be guided by ‘scientific integrity’ engage in such blatant politicization.”

Coalition advocates will be appealing the decision in federal court.

Since this announcement, the government has announced that it will step up prosecution of medical marijuana providers in states where medical marijuana is legal, a total reversal of the Obama administration’s initial position, and a return to the “just say no” ideology of the Cheney junta, Bill Clinton, and Ronald Reagan.  The DOJ is also sending letters to states that have or are contemplating medical marijuana programs, telling them that state officials who help implement medical marijuana programs may be prosecuted. So much for hope and change, eh?  Oh, and to ice the cake, they’re going to try to crack down (you should excuse the expression) on so-called “stoned driving,” in spite of repeated studies that show that marijuana use does not significantly impair driving ability, and the inability of urine testing for marijuana metabolites to determine when the marijuana was ingested.  So much for a scientific approach.

This is ideological nonsense of the worst sort.  Not only does marijuana have thousands of years of history demonstrating its safety, it also has a snowballing body of scientific evidence in its favor, not only as medicine for the sick, but as a tonic for the healthy, as well.   More and more countries, not just US states, are recognizing marijuana’s therapeutic value, and on the legal front, it’s the rare official study of current policy (the latest headed up by that notorious stoner, Kofi Annan) that doesn’t conclude that continued drug prohibition is unworkable and unwinnable, and that, ultimately, marijuana use is no more dangerous than the use of, say, coffee.  I mean, consider the percentage of crimes that are committed by people under the influence of coffee vs. the percentage committed by people under the influence of marijuana.  Of course, they don’t keep statistics on coffee, but if they did, you can bet that more criminals are jacked up on coffee than chilled out on herb–whether we’re talking simple traffic offenses, assaults, or white-collar crimes.   Think about it!

So, what’s going on with our government’s insane intransigence on marijuana?

I think there are two reasons why the U.S. government is so staunchly, and apparently illogically, opposed to legalizing marijuana–not to mention other drugs, but especially marijuana.  It has to do with two kinds of control issues.

At a pharmaceutical level, marijuana is a plant which contains a complex web of interacting chemicals.  As anyone who has tried marinol can tell you, it’s not all about THC.  There are many “non-stoning” compounds that, alone or synergistically with other compounds, have a wide range of positive effects on our bodies–anti-inflammatory, neuroprotective, antispasmodic, analgesic, and a whole lot more.

Here’s where it gets kinky.  It costs a lot of money to tease out all these relationships, and so the research is not worth doing in our current, for-profit paradigm unless there is the possibility of a patentable–i.e., highly profitable–drug coming out the other end of the research.  And, the way new drug and new supplement approval procedures work, not only is it much easier to approve a patented new drug made from a natural substance than it is to gain approval of the natural substance itself–once the patented drug is approved, it is illegal to market it as a supplement.  That’s why, for example, any “Red Yeast Rice” marketed in the US has to have the statin drugs removed from it, even though Chinese food products that contain Red Yeast Rice don’t have to have their statins removed.  And…the funny thing is, even with the ostensible “active ingredient” removed, Red Yeast Rice is still effective at lowering cholesterol and inflammation.  But, I digress…

It seems to me that what the government wants to do is allow big pharma to dissect marijuana  and concoct expensive, patentable pharmaceuticals from its constituents.  Patenting  chemicals derived from marijuana will open up a treasure trove for the pharmaceutical industry, at the same time as it reinforces marijuana prohibition–“you can’t grow that plant–it contains patented substances!”  Patented substances that won’t have the side effect of pleasantly altering your consciousness, you can bet–because that’s the other kind of “control issue” the government has with marijuana–not to mention mushrooms, peyote, ayahuasca, MDMA, DMT, and that ol’ bugaboo, LSD.

Marijuana, however, is the easiest of these to use, because its effects are, relative to the other substances I mentioned, fairly short-term and low-key.  But, like its higher-powered relatives, marijuana stimulates the mind.  It helps people overcome established patterns of thought and behavior–which can make the same task easier or more difficult, confusingly enough–but the government emphatically does not want people who think for themselves. Keeping marijuana illegal gives the government an easy way to suppress free thinkers. The government does not want you to be a citizen, it wants you to be a consumer–a passive sucker at the corporate bottle–yes, I know I used this image before–but that’s how it is.  Marijuana is just too good for you, and too easy for you to grow yourself, for the U.S. government to ever loosen up and let it be.  Legal marijuana would undermine corporate culture at every level, and they won’t allow it to happen, no matter how popular it is, no matter how impossible it is to enforce the law.     It’s gonna take a revolution in American politics to make that change.

Not everybody in the Green Party uses marijuana, and maybe not enough people in the Green Party use it, because some of us take ourselves way too seriously, but everybody in the Green Party is committed to ending cannabis prohibition. I have a hard time with folks I know who use marijuana but support the Democratic Party.  They are like abused spouses, pledging allegiance to a political party that treats them as if they are incompetent to raise children, hold jobs, drive, or run for public office simply because of their body chemistry, a party that will cheerfully confiscate these peoples’ land and other property  and even outright imprison them because of their marijuana use.   I guess the herb isn’t quite that good at breaking habitual thinking and reaction  patterns, or these folks would have come to their senses long ago!  Well, the first thing about breaking habits is, you have to want to do it.

music:  Richard and Linda Thompson, “Hokey Pokey (The Ice Cream Song)





THE MYTH–AND THE REALITY–OF “RECOVERY”

19 06 2011

Our government continues to cheerlead for “recovery.”  No, not twelve-step recovery, which would be wonderful, but the kind of recovery an alcoholic has when he is over his last binge and is cruising for the right  opportunity to start the next one.

The administration, and its “loyal opposition” agree that Americans need to start spending money on consumer goods again, need to start buying houses again.  Uh…what is wrong with this picture?

Well, to begin with, all the so-called “economic growth” of the last thirty years has been fueled by debt.  “I owe, I owe, so off to work I go,” runs the old joke, but now there’s a problem–there’s no work to go to, for an increasing number of people, and, with the housing market in the toilet, people can no longer borrow against their home equity for spending money.  Besides, more and more people are coming to the realization that they already have more useless junk than they know what to do with.  It’s not for nothing that the you-store-it biz has mushroomed right along with consumer debt, which peaked at about 2.5 trillion dollars as the economy maxed out in 2008, but is still well above the two trillion mark.  If you’ve got more stuff than you can fit in your home, what do you need more stuff for?

The other big hope for being able to renew our societal binge, er, “recovery,” is “increased housing starts.”   I have news for you.  “Increased housing starts” is the moral equivalent of “another line of cocaine” or “another fifth of whiskey” or “another pack of cigarettes.”  It may help our country feel better in the short-term, but in the long-term, it’s a renewed commitment to stumbling down the road to ruin.   Building more houses would likely mean urbanizing more rural land, which would require our financially shaky cities to somehow raise more money to build more infrastructure, and would definitely mean cutting down more trees to make more lumber, using more oil to make more asphalt shingles and more vinyl siding,  burning more oil to build more roads and more power lines and more fossil-fuel powered electric generating capacity–all the things we don’t need to be doing more of if we intend to reduce our species’ carbon footprint and keep the only life-supporting planet we know of habitable.

And, of course, there’s the little practical consideration that there are already  18.4 million houses sitting empty in America– three-quarters of them for rent, for sale, foreclosed, or simply abandoned.  The other quarter are “second homes” where the wealthy go for their vacations.   it’s still a lot of inventory–over five vacant dwellings for every homeless man, woman and child in the country–but, I digress..  The housing market is swamped,  credit is still tight, and home prices are still in free fall, so building subdivisions on spec like we did in the good ol’ days is a financially indefensible move.  Sometimes our state religion of radical fundamentalist materialist economics does make sense. Sometimes, but not often, and certainly not in a timely fashion.  We should have figured this out sixty or seventy years ago.  We wouldn’t be in nearly the mess we’re in now if we had…but, again, I digress.

Back to our topic–OK, next, let’s not talk about military spending—hey, neither the Democrats nor Republicans will, in any meaningful way–they know who’s got ’em by the short hairs.  Believe you me, our political duopoly will pull the plug on every social and environmental program they can  slash before they cut military spending, even though that’s what’s really driving this country into bankruptcy.

“Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain,” boys and girls!

So, as I said, when our government talks about “recovery,” what they really mean is “another binge.”  What would a genuine, 12-step style recovery be, on a national level?

Let’s look at the “twelve step program” and see what we can figure out.

  • Step 1We admitted we were powerless over our addiction – that our lives had become unmanageable
  • Step 2Came to believe that a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity
  • Step 3Made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood God
  • Step 4Made a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves

Hmm….don’t see much of this happening.  Most of the people who are even willing to talk about God or “a power greater than ourselves” seem to believe He (most emphatically He, in their cases) is somehow on our side and wants us to binge.

The “Transition” movement is the best place to find a collection of people who have at least begun to realize that “Western Civilization” as we have known it all our lives is an unsustainable 200-year fossil-fuel fueled binge that is about to be over, whether we like it or not, whether we are ready to quit or not, and that our future options range from gracefully continuing the best elements of human culture in much more materially sparse conditions, at best, to being grumpy, sociopathic, fascistic, impoverished “dry drunks” somewhere in the middle, to complete extinction of all higher life forms on the planet due to unbridled human hubris, at worst.

It is interesting to note that those champions of “God wants us to keep on binging,” the Tea Partiers, have lately turned their sights on the Transition movement.   It’s hard to predict what will come of that collision.  The Transition movement genuinely embodies the Tea Party’s ostensible ideals of local control, self-empowerment, neighborhood interdependence, and participatory democracy, while the corporate-controlled Tea Party uses these ideals as a cover for a movement that seeks to rationalize complete personal and corporate self-indulgence and a shocking neglect of the effect such behavior will have on future generations–these people talk about “right to life” and “protecting the unborn”?  They have some nerve!   Once again, I digress…

Meanwhile, it seems to me that a lot of people in the Transition movement–and “a lot” is a very relative term, since in my opinion there are far too few people in it overall–anyway, a lot of Transitioners haven’t grasped the importance of the spiritual dimension of Transition.  They see it as a technological, social, political problem, not as an addiction that we in the movement are, as individual egos, fairly powerless to combat in ourselves, let alone others, until we align with a deeper, more pervasive and universal energy and intelligence (which IS how I understand the word “God,”at least in this context), and create, in ourselves, a “turning about in the deepest seat of consciousness” that alters “who” we are, and how we express our identities, values, and goals.  Intellect alone simply cannot do this.

So, a lot less Bible-banging and a lot more internal inquiry are what is called for.  Next?

Step 4– A searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves”

Whew….I could write a book!

Let’s start with A fairly well-known statistic:  that the US, which is 5% of the world’s population, consumes 25% of its resources.  Now, follow me while I do a little math with you.   The richest 20% of Americans actually consume 85% of that 25%, meaning that 1% of the world’s population, the richest Americans, are consuming about 21% of the world’s resources, while those of us in the bottom 80% of the US wealth profile, who constitute 4% of the world’s population, are consuming…about 4% of the world’s resources.

In other words, those who are taking five times their fair share of the world’s resources are leading the charge to cut social services, environmental protections, and limits on the ability of the wealthy to unscrupulously become even wealthier, all the while chanting the mantra of “job creation”–I guess that means so they’ll hire more servants if we’re willing to work for a pittance?  In addition to opposing any kind of income redistribution, many wealthy, conservative Americans are also fighting tooth and nail to prevent action on climate change.  They are determined to hang on to their unfair share, and believe they have the resources to pull through whatever the future may bring, and to hell with the rest of us.  “Class warfare”?  You bet!

The pity of it is, that even though most of us are technically not consuming more than our fair share of the economic pie, there is more pie being served now than will be available in the future, as we run up against one resource depletion after another.  Peak oil is just the tip of the iceberg.   Think peak coal, peak uranium, peak phosphorus, peak water,  not to mention peak money, which means that all those cool high-tech solutions to the world’s environmental problems will be increasingly difficult to finance.  World wealth, at least in material terms, has nowhere to go but down.  Going with that flow would be much easier than fighting it, but American President after American President has proclaimed more or less what Barack Obama reiterated in his inaugural address:

“We will not apologize for our way of life nor will we waver in its defense.”

Sorry, folks, this is not “a change I can believe in.”  It’s not a change, and it’s certainly not “a searching and fearless moral inventory” of our American self.

And then there’s the way we have secured that unfair share for the American elite.  The US government maintains somewhere between 700 and a thousand military bases overseas, depending on how you count them.  The US accounts for over 40% of world military spending all by itself, and has intervened militarily in the affairs of other countries over a hundred and thirty times in the last century or so, to keep oil and other things flowing “our” way.

We recently had the bizarre spectacle of outgoing U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates calling for other countries to increase their military spending.  To continue with our 12-step analogy, this is like a mean drunk saying he’s being mean because nobody else has the nerve and somebody has to do it, and that everybody he knows would be better off if they were meaner and drank more, yadda yadda.  Military spending is the problem, not the solution.   If we weren’t so hellbent on military protection, we could fix the planet up nice enough so that nobody would have anything to fight over, and it would be cheaper than maintaining standing armies.

So much for “a fearless moral inventory.”

Wow, eight steps to go–let’s take a musical break.

Greg Brown:  “Poor Backslider

OK, next in the 12 steps:

  • Step 5Admitted to God, to ourselves and to another human being the exact nature of our wrongs
  • Step 6Were entirely ready to have God remove all these defects of character
  • Step 7Humbly asked God to remove our shortcomings

Gee….I’m not sure if the distance between this  and our country/most of its inhabitants is best measured in miles, astronomical units, or light years.  Still, it happened to Paul on the road to Damascus (although, from my point of view as an amateur Bible scholar, his was a less than complete transformation that has warped the Christian Church ever since–but again, I digress).

Now, once upon a time, one of America’s leading psychologists started doing research into how to produce “aha” moments in people–those critical junctures in our growth when we have the openness and insight to go through “admitting the exact nature of our wrongs,”  feel “ready to have those defects removed by a power greater than ourselves,” and “ask to have those defects removed.”  The researcher found a system that seemed to work pretty reliably, and one of his associates shared it with “Bill Wilson,” the founder of the 12-step program, who tried it out and emphatically agreed with him.

Our government’s response to this research was to demonize and jail the principal researchers and do everything it could to suppress the research and make sure it was never applied to large numbers of people, an effort that has been strongly resisted by those aware of the society-changing potential of this research, but that has, at least at this point in time, ended in a victory for the government and the unstable, unsustainable status quo.  Can you say “United States of Denial,” boys and girls?

The researcher, in case you’re unfamiliar with this bit of American history, was Timothy Leary, his associate was Aldous Huxley, and the technique, of course, was conscious reprogramming through the use of psychedelics, which the government has spared no effort to suppress.  It’s not for nothing that the DEA’s in-house publication is called “The Microgram.”  There’s plenty of coke, speed, and narcotics around, but good luck finding psychedelics–that’s been their only real victory in the “war on some drugs.”

So, somehow, without the kind of chemical assistance that was available from the 60’s through the 90’s, , a whole lot of Americans, enough to be an effective political force, are going to have to realize–as in, “have it become part of their reality”–that this country, its society  and its economy, are on the wrong track, and, as the next 4 steps declare,

  • Step 8Made a list of all persons we had harmed, and became willing to make amends to them all
  • Step 9Made direct amends to such people wherever possible, except when to do so would injure them or others
  • Step 10Continued to take personal inventory and when we were wrong promptly admitted it
  • Step 11Sought through prayer and meditation to improve our conscious contact with God as we understood God, praying only for knowledge of God’s will for us and the power to carry that out
  • Step 12Having had a spiritual awakening as the result of these steps, we tried to carry this message to other addicts, and to practice these principles in all our affairs

OK,”Made a list of all persons we had harmed, and became willing to make amends to them all

Wow, that’s quite a list–from the inhabitants of the Maldives, whose home is being overwhelmed by the ocean because of our carbon emissions, to the working people of Mexico and the U.S., whose livelihoods have been destroyed by so-called “Free Trade” treaties like NAFTA, to the people of China, who live in virtual slavery to produce cheap consumer goods for us, to the whole web of life in the Amazonian and African rain forests, which are being torn asunder to put beef on the fancy tropical wood  tables of white people, to our depopulated and acidified oceans–and on, and on, including ourselves, who have been spiritually impoverished by our predilection for short-term material wealth and comfort at the expense of the long-term health of the planet and all its inhabitants, from the simplest microbe to the wisest and most complex first people, who lived for eons in harmony with the planet we are now on the brink of destroying.

“Making amends”–just what would that entail?

Where to begin?  I’m going to have to free-associate, so what you are about to hear/read is in no particular order.

We need to stop mining and burning coal.  Tomorrow.  Yesterday, even, if that were possible.

We need to quit all the operations that turn tar into oil.  I love you, Hugo Chavez, but you are doing good things with bad money.  Stephen Harper, I think you’re a creep, you deserve a trial and a chance to prove you are not a corrupt, selfish sonovagun who should be stripped of your wealth, and whose supporters should be stripped of their wealth, and driven from the halls of power with bull whips.  Well, maybe cream pies.  Shaving cream pies.

We need to cut our oil production way back–say, assume that known reserves that can be accessed without undue ecological stress need to last about five hundred to a thousand years, cut production to that level, and prioritize oil use accordingly.

We need to quit “fracking” for natural gas.  If it escapes from the ground without much assistance, that’s wonderful, but, as with oil, we need to cut back on production to make sure it lasts.  Besides, clean water will get you through times of no natural gas much better than natural gas will get you through times of no clean water. Fracking is a way to create hell on earth–have fun drinking your flammable water!

This obviously means massive changes in the way we in the First World live our lives.  That’s OK, there’s nothing on TV anyway, it’s more fun to entertain yourself and your friends than it is to stand in awe of the latest pop star or unreality show., and doing the genuine physical labor involved in basic human activities is better for you than trying to make time to go to the gym or jog.

We need to do a combination of disbanding and redirecting our military personnel and expenditures so that the troops are doing positive things, like assisting in environmental remediation efforts around the world.  Such money as we can genuinely afford to spend without borrowing from the Saudis and Chinese should likewise be invested in environmental remediation.  Believe me, the investment will pay off like no other.

We need to plant a lot of trees, and otherwise reorient ourselves towards basic, local agriculture and commerce.  I’m going to talk about this a more in the next segment of the show, a review of Albert Bates’ new book, “The Biochar Solution,”  so I will skip over it lightly for now.  Let’s get back to the attitude stuff.  It’s more basic than the technique, because without a change in attitude, the technique is useless.

We need to “Continue… to take personal inventory and when we (are) wrong promptly admit.. it”  because old habits die hard…they like to find new ways to express themselves.  As His Holiness the Dalai Lama has observed, change is rarely a sudden, sharp turn–it’s more like a curve on a railroad track, where you barely seem to be changing direction at any given time, but after a while you realize you are going North instead of South.  That is a good thing.  We don’t need to “go South” any further than we have already gone.

That’s not an excuse for foot-dragging, though.  It’s vitally important that we start walking the walk and talking the talk as soon as we possibly can, never mind if OUR mind is thinking the thought.  The mind is a drunken monkey–you just have to not believe everything you think.

“What’s with all this woo-woo about prayer and meditation and conscious contact with ‘God’ and “praying to know God’s will” and ‘spiritual awakening’?  I thought this show was about politics, and here you are getting all New-Agey on me.  Whassup?”

The Green Party is, at its very best, a party of those who have had a “spiritual awakening” and felt called to translate it into politics. We went up on the mountain and experienced something almost unspeakably profound, and part of that exsperience was a directive to come down off the mountain and into the world, without forgetting what we had seen, and live our vision in the world.

As I have detailed before, our party’s lineage springs from environmental and social movements, such as bioregionalism, the anti-nuclear movement, and the movement for participatory democracy, all of which, ultimately, had their genesis in the spiritual awakening that Messrs. Huxley and Leary attempted to bring about, and that has been so thoroughly distorted and stifled by our government and its supportive corporatocracy ever since  They need ants, not self-realized, autonomous individuals who look within for direction rather than submit unquestioningly to authority.  We are not talking about going to the mega-church and having a wealthy, oily voiced pastor tell us what the Koch brothers want us to think and live and how they want us to vote.  We are more along Quaker lines in this movement, calling for everyone to contact the highest wisdom they can find in their own hearts, and then join with others who do the same, and conduct a truly free, unprejudiced inquiry into what the highest truth and wisest course of action might be  There is no workable solution that can be imposed on the unwilling by a slim majority.  Daunting as this challenge may seem, I believe it’s possible.  The alternatives are unthinkable.

music:  Roseanne Cash, “I Want a Cure





THE NEW BARBARIANS

16 04 2011

We passed the equinox on the last full moon, replete with a once-every-twenty-years “super moon.” and my wife and I observed the occasion with our neighbor Ed Haggard and his posse of drummers, singers, and dancers, who are known around Nashville as “The Love Drums.”

The gathering was very sweet, if a little bizarre–it was held at a private hunting reserve about an hour and a half west of Nashville, in a well-appointed lodge decorated with stuffed animals, isolated in the middle of 2,000 hilly, wooded acres, very private and quite lovely.  I suspected, and our hostess confirmed, that this was unlike any other gathering the lodge had  ever  witnessed.  It felt like a tribe of barbarians partying in a Roman villa.

But there was nothing debauchy, raunchy, or even uncouth going on, just several dozen people celebrating life, the end of a long, cold winter, and the beginning of a wide-open spring, as we enter a time when it is increasingly obvious that unintended environmental effects are snowballing and there is no telling what once-in-a-thousand-years catastrophe will surprise us next.  In that situation, the best way to be prepared is to stay loose, and dancing and other forms of celebration are an important part of staying loose.

A huge, sturdy coffee table  the size of a small stage dominated the “dance floor,” and the first dancers on it were perhaps a half-dozen 7-8 year old children, gradually joined by adults.  This all-ages, inclusive vibe (there was plenty of silver hair present, too, and all ages in between) is one of the things I enjoy most about Ed’s “Whizbangs,” as he calls them, and one of the reasons I feel much happier dancing at a “Whizbang” than at a bar–and, believe me, I’ve done my share of dancing in establishments that sell alcohol.  (One of my favorite singer-songwriters, James McMurtry, says of himself, “I’m not a musician, I’m a beer salesman.”)

Ed and the central core of the Love Drummers were at one end of the room, but many “audience” members also drummed, adding their own flourishes to the music.  That’s one of the things I appreciate most about the Love Drums–the all-too-common separation into “audience” and “musicians” is blurred, if not erased.  This is not “entertainment,” in which a passive audience hopes to be impressed by the performers’ charisma.  This is a participatory  event, a–dare I say it?–communion.   Of course, rock n’ roll has long delighted in the energy that cuts loose when an audience gets up and dances.  That’s some of the magic of the Grateful Dead, just to name one band strongly affected by their audience.  In the Dead’s case, the scene outside the venue frequently turned into a heavily countercultural “temporary autonomous zone,”  and was as much a part of the show as the music.  At the Love Drums’ equinox gathering, I felt that same sense of community.

Here’s a story for you.  In the late summer of 1970, I went to a Grateful Dead show in San Francisco, and was dismayed to find most of the audience sitting on their asses, expecting to watch the Dead play.  I got yelled at by people behind me when I stood up to dance.  They were mad because they couldn’t see the band.  (There’s a word for people who like to look but not participate.  Not my kink, thanks.)

The Dead settled into “Lovelight,” and who popped out on stage to duet with Pigpen, but–Janis Joplin.  And what did she and Mr. McKernan do?  They chewed the audience up and down for not dancing, but to no avail.  I finally migrated to the back of the room where a few people were moving to the music and enjoyed the last half of the show, anyway.  Just a couple of weeks later, Janis was dead from a heroin overdose, a broken heart, and too much, too soon.

That was forty-one years ago.  Janis, Pigpen, and Jerry are all gone, but the Love Drums remain, and ya gotta work with whatcha got.  So there we were, one big happy family, dancing the night away.

Next day, when I opened myself up to news from the big bad world outside, I found out that Aashid Himons, best known as the focus of a band called “Afrikan Dreamland” here in Nashville back in the eighties, had died on that full moon day.  He had been ill for years and hadn’t played in public in a very long time, but in many ways he was the spiritual father of Ed and the Love Drums, and a great practitioner of informal, participatory music.

“African Dreamland” consisted of Aashid playing guitar or keyboard and singing, backed up only by a couple of drummers, for most of the history of the band.  This made for very simple but deeply moving music, music that benefited from, but did not depend on, the modern miracle of amplification.  Another dimension of their music was its subject matter. Aashid liked to say that he played “message music” rather than “mating and dating” music–not that a fair amount of mating and dating didn’t go on to the infectious grooves he laid down, but his music helped propagate his vision of a just and peaceful future, not just the continuation of the species.

Music: Afrikan Dreamland, “Apartheid”  (excerpt)

And that’s where we get to yet another core difference between music like The Love Drums, Aashid, and the Grateful Dead, and the music you are likely to hear in a bar on a Saturday night.  Most popular music is unreflectively about “mating and dating,” but some musicians are aware of the close link between music and magic, that songs are not just poems set to music, they are also incantations, spells that help create a certain state of mind, for better or for worse.  To me, it was not coincidental that Janis Joplin, for example, who sang so many songs about heartbreak, died young, or why somebody was killed at Altamont while Mick Jagger sang “Sympathy for the Devil.”  What you pay attention to, you get more of, as a teacher of mine used to like to say.

These qualities, conscious intention in  the music and conscious fusion between the musicians and the crowd, are, to me, defining qualities of the music of “the new paradigm.”  And, as I said, those of us who play and appreciate this new paradigm music are, in a sense, barbarians to America’s Roman Empire.

The Empire depends on people who are willing to be cogs in a vast machine.  We are not.

The Empire depends on people who will not challenge its authority and priorities.  We do.

The Empire depends on people being good consumers.  We realize that “consumption” is a fatal disease, and do not look for happiness through the accumulation of material goods.  Whoever dies with the most toys is not the winner.

The Empire depends on people accepting shallow, dysfunctional relationships and mediating their emotional pain with pharmaceuticals.  We insist on listening, expressing, and feeling deeply, and on giving people the room they need to go through their changes, even if it means they get a little weird for a while.

Differences such as these are very threatening to an empire whose established religion is, as I have said many times before, radical fundamentalist materialism.  The Empire fights back  by finding material ways to push  against the influx of barbarian sensibilities.  One way they do this is through building codes, such as the complaints that have just trashed Sizwe Herring’s Earth Matters community garden.  (More on that next month!) Another way the Empire fights back is through the war on some drugs.

Let’s face it.  The real reason our government is so unswervingly, unscientifically opposed to the legalization of marijuana, mushrooms, mescaline, ecstasy,and LSD is because these are the portals through which barbarians enter and undermine the Empire.  These substances unleash the unfettered inner barbarian in those who take them, and that is more terrifying  to the empire than bomb-toting Middle Easterners..

For instance, in the 80’s and 90’s, our government spent 10 years infiltrating a circle of chemists who were making LSD and ultimately sent them all to jail.  The government has not exhibited this kind of diligence against the alleged threat from Al-Qaeda.  If that had been the case, those airplanes would never have hit the twin towers. Similarly, the DEA massively infiltrated those “temporary autonomous  zones” at Grateful Dead concerts, sold people blotter paper with no LSD on it, and then arrested them for intending to buy an illegal substance.

The DEA’s entrapment of young, open-minded, overly trusting American youth sent tens of thousands to jail, where some of them remain to this day.  Even the ones who are no longer incarcerated remain scarred and scared, “rendered infamous,” often unable to vote or find employment because of their “criminal record,” their life paths thrown into disarray by the time and money sucked from them by the legal system.

Since “the war on some drugs” was declared, America’s prison population has quintupled, with nearly half a million prisoners incarcerated for drug related “crimes.”  We’re talking about 2.3 million people behind bars, with an additional five million on probation.  The US now has a higher percentage of its  population jailed than any other country in the world, although I suppose you could argue that some highly repressive societies, like China, North Korea, Burma, and Singapore have effectively incarcerated their entire populations.

I would like to submit that the many voices who urge an end to America’s Inquisition against the inquisitive because it has ruined so many people’s lives don’t understand the Empire’s logic.  The Empire wants to ruin the lives of the inquisitive, because it’s easier and cheaper to simply exclude people than it is to actively imprison them.  Just as China periodically “lets a thousand flowers bloom” in order to identify and silence dissident voices, so the Empire has a vested interest in using the “war on drugs” to identify and neutralize those who oppose its policies.  Even if someone who appreciates the virtues of marijuana manages to avoid legal strictures, he or she is effectively barred from running for public office because of the danger should an opponent uncover the candidate’s “dirty little secret.”

The Empire’s offensive against our barbarian invasion will, I believe, ultimately be in vain.  As radical fundamentalist materialists, the Empire’s minions don’t understand that the material substances they have outlawed are, in a way, merely catalysts, catalysts that have set a process in motion that cannot be stopped by even the most draconian enforcement of the drug laws.  (By the way, I have never seen or smelled any marijuana at a Love Drums Whizbang.)  Once it has been opened, a human mind is almost impossible to close, because the memory, the feeling, of openness persists, and never stops protesting any attempt to shut it down or close it off.  The “barbarian” mindset, I believe, is of a higher order of being than the anthill, cog-in-a-machine state of mind demanded by the Empire, whether in English or Chinese.  “Barbarianism”will out.

Now, many people will say, “This all sounds very noble, but you doped-out hippiedippies aren’t the real barbarians, you’re just play-acting, spoiled, naive, children of the Empire.  The real barbarians are in the slums of Mexico City, Rio, Lagos, Cairo, Kolkata, Beijing, and Capetown, and if they have half a chance they will eat your vegetarian lunch and then barbecue you for the meat course.  Face it, without that ‘Empire’ you love to hate, you’d be toast.”

I think that’s off-base in several directions.  The first thing we have to understand is the interplay and differences between “third world” and “fourth world.”  Fourth world people are tribal, and live in balance with nature.  There aren’t a lot of them left, but, in the best-case scenario, that’s what we barbarians will recreate here in the heart of the Empire.

Most traditional fourth-world people have been sucked out of the fourth world into the third world, which is the vast belt of urban and rural poverty that characterizes human life on those parts of Earth’s landmass that lie, roughly, between the Tropic of Cancer and the Tropic of Capricorn—that part of the world where you don’t need a well-insulated house to survive the winter, and are thus free to live in greater poverty than you can get away with in colder climates.

But, as so often happens, I am digressing.  Fourth world people don’t have much money, but don’t feel poor.  Third world people don’t have much money and do feel poor.  Many of these third-world people retain the social and survival skills of their fourth-world heritage.  Give them half a chance and they’ll go back to fourth-world life.  They all know they were happier that way. It’s just that the Empire, the first world, pushed them out of their sustainable lives by expropriating their tribal lands and forcing them into a money economy.  I believe that, if they were ever given the choice, the people of the third world would rather grow, hunt, or herd their own lunch than eat yours or mine.

What the Empire fears when it looks at the third world is not the people, but its own greed and suppressed guilty conscience.  When we who are undermining the Empire complete our mission, the Empire will release its hoarded and ill-gotten wealth and the people of the third world will be able to transition, in place, not backwards but forwards into a new, even more fully conscious, fourth world.

I wish I could say I think the process will be all rosy and peaceful, but there are so many people, and so many resources that have become so depleted, that I think widespread strife and loss of life will be part of the great readjustment.  I’m not happy about that.  Every human being is precious, unique, and capable of deep insight, and it is a tragedy when a life is extinguished, with or without those amazing capabilities being realized.

Does it seem as if we have wandered a long way from The Love Drums and the equinox, from Aashid and Earth Matters?  From a “Deep Green Perspective,” we haven’t moved an inch.  We’re just gazing in (hopefully!) wonder at the macrocosm that contains those microcosms.  You can’t look at it this way all the time, but it’s important to see it this way some of the time.

music:  Ed Haggard and the Love Drums–“Haitian Bolero”








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