Monthly Archives: October 2013

Sometimes People Do Deserve to Die Like That


One of my favorite television shows is “The First 48” on the A&E Network.  Camera crews follow homicide detectives around major metropolitan areas as they try to solve murders.  The show’s title is based on the concept that police must try to solve a killing within 48 hours of its occurrence, or the chances of finding the culprits decreases exponentially.  People who know me may find it’s a strange choice, considering I’m suspicious of law enforcement.  The few times I’ve needed the help of a police officer none are around.  But, if I should exceed the speed limit by 5 miles, or have an expired inspection sticker, suddenly they’re on the scene.  Still, I admire the tenacity of the homicide detectives I’ve seen on “The First 48.”  I also admire their tendency to remain neutral in the face of such tragedies; the worst that humanity has to offer.

While consoling the victim’s relatives, the detectives almost always declare that the person “didn’t deserve to die like that.”  True, no one really deserves to be murdered.  The adage about playing with fire and getting burned applies just as well to criminal activity.

In one of the “The First 48” episodes, a Miami homicide detective stood in the middle of a street in a particularly crime-riddled neighborhood and announced that it was “haunted by the ghosts of young Black men.”  Indeed, it seems so many of the crime victims and perpetrators are either Black or Hispanic.  I’m honestly surprised when a White person shows up as either a victim or a suspect.  That feeds into the mythology, though, that Blacks and Hispanics are more crime-prone than their White and Asian counterparts.

But, I’ve also noticed many of the homicide detectives – at least half – are either Black or Hispanic also.  So are many of the regular police officers.  They somehow go unnoticed in discussions of race and crime.

It’s not so much, however, that non-Whites are more likely to commit crimes.  Civil rights activists have long accused the criminal justice system in the U.S. as being skewered against non-Whites, especially non-White men.  The U.S. also maintains the highest number of incarcerated individuals in the world: roughly 2.3 million people, or 25% of the global prison population.  When one realizes that the U.S.’s 300 million residents comprise only 5% of the people on planet Earth, it should make folks stop and think.  While Blacks and Hispanics each represent less than a quarter of the U.S. population, together they make up 58% of the U.S. prison population.

People may scoff at these statistics and proclaim the U.S. just has a better legal system.  If that’s the case, then why do we boast the highest violent crime rate in the world?  As of 2011, the U.S. experienced 1.2 million violent criminal acts.  One would think we’re akin to Somalia: a completely lawless state with no functioning government.

I’m neither a criminologist nor a psychologist, so I have to rely on whatever statistics I can find and verify, instead of on personal or professional knowledge.  But, in viewing “The First 48,” I’ve noticed something critical: whenever police enter a crime-ridden neighborhood and seek help, they’re often met with a wall of silence.  No one saw anything; no one heard anything; no one knows anything.  It’s as if the victim abruptly turned up with a bullet in their brain, while nearby residents were sleeping, watching TV, or talking on the phone and ‘didn’t hear anything,’ or ‘don’t know nothing.’  At times, it seems such neighborhoods are group homes for the mentally retarded.

In one of the show’s episodes here in Dallas, officials arrived to investigate a shooting death in an apartment complex.  When one of the detectives approached a group of young men sitting on the hood of a car, the latter jumped off the vehicle and walked away.  They didn’t say anything, but their actions spoke for them: ‘we don’t want to talk to you.’  But, if you’re upset about crime in your neighborhood, then why don’t you talk to the police and tell them what you know?  Of course, that’s always easier said than done.  The police don’t have to live there.  People are often mired in poverty and can’t afford just to get up and move to a safer place.

In one episode of “The First 48,” a resident of a Miami housing complex complained to a detective that police only come around to issue tickets for cars parked in front of the trash dumpsters.  I can understand her point.  Police get frustrated when people won’t communicate with them.  But, why should they, if all police officers are going to do is write up parking tickets?  I can see both sides of this issue.  Criminals don’t just hurt one person; they terrorize the entire community.  People become scared and lose hope that law enforcement will help them.

There are no easy answers to these complex social issues where race, gender and socio-economic circumstances often factor into the discomforting mix.  People have noted that, when a White female goes missing or turns up dead, police not only move Heaven and Earth to find out what happened, the story goes national.  Think Jon Benet Ramsey; think Natalee Holloway.

Still, things really are different when you compare a child who is kidnapped from their own home in the middle of the night to a 20-something in an impoverished neighborhood who’s trying to get into the drug trade because of the easy money.

Consider the case of Gary Leon Ridgeway, known colloquially as the “Green River Killer.”  From 1982 to 1998, Ridgeway murdered as many as 66 women and teenage girls in the state of Washington.  He dumped the bodies in wooded areas near the Green River.  Most, if not all, of his known victims were prostitutes.  The teenaged ones were most likely runaways.  Ridgeway had become a suspect in 1983, a year after he’d been arrested in Seattle for patronizing a prostitute.  He took and passed a polygraph in 1984, when police again questioned him about the string of murders.  Thus, he remained on police radar for nearly two decades, before being arrested in 2001.  In 2003, a judge sentenced him to life in prison; a shocking outcome to one of this nation’s worst serial murderers.  But, prosecutors took the death penalty off the legal bargaining table to coax Ridgeway into confessing to other slayings; including some in the state of Oregon.  How he managed to escape a massive police dragnet for so long confounds even the most seasoned homicide detectives.

But, the families of many of the victims say they know why: Ridgeway murdered prostitutes, not choir girls.  That many of his victims were Black or Native American added the ubiquitous and disturbing racial component.  Except for Ridgeway’s teenaged victims – naïve girls who may have fled broken homes – I think it’s fair to say the adult women knew what they were doing.  Yes, prostitution is illegal.  But, don’t expect police to stand by and ignore the interactions between hooker and client, unless the latter turns violent.  Police can only do so much to protect average citizens.

It’s tough for me to have empathy for someone who consumes alcohol for half a century and then complains when they develop cirrhosis.  As a former alcoholic, I can see where my life was headed and got hold of the problem years ago.  And, it’s equally tough for me to have sympathy for a drug dealer who ends up in a dark alley with scores of bullet holes in his or her body.  I’m not being judgmental.  I’m just pointing out the obvious.

In yet another episode of “The First 48,” homicide detectives in Memphis looked strangely at a suspect when he told them that murder is just how some people die.

“Do you realize how serious this is?” responded one of the detectives.

Obviously he didn’t, as he sat in the interrogation room with a sour expression.  He was young, but already emotionally hardened by a community that seemingly had accepted its dire fate as a crime pit.

Most people don’t deserve to be murdered.  But, when individuals deliberately engage in criminal activity and end up on a mortician’s table, what did you expect?

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Sandy in One Year

This NOAA satellite image, taken October 30, 2012, at 10:45 A.M. EDT, shows Sandy moving westward while weakening across southern Pennsylvania.  Roughly 1,000 miles, Sandy was the largest Atlantic system on record.  Photo courtesy National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).

This NOAA satellite image, taken October 30, 2012, at 10:45 A.M. EDT, shows Sandy moving westward while weakening across southern Pennsylvania. Roughly 1,000 miles, Sandy was the largest Atlantic system on record. Photo courtesy National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).

Today marks the first anniversary of Hurricane Sandy’s arrival on the New England coastline.  After forming as a tropical wave in the Caribbean on October 19, 2012, Sandy quickly grew to hurricane strength and wreaked terror across 7 countries, from Jamaica to the U.S., ultimately killing 286 people.

Variously called “Superstorm” and a “Frankenstorm,” Sandy truly was a freak of nature.  As it began its march up the east coast, it sucked in other weather systems to create a hybrid of sorts; thus, its official meteorological moniker of “Post Tropical Cyclone Sandy.”  Physically, it was an immense storm: roughly 900 to 1,000 miles wide.  Although its maximum sustained winds (those winds around the eye) were about 115 miles per hour, Sandy generated snow storms along the Great Lakes region and tidal surges up to 32 feet on Lower Manhattan.  It also produced the lowest air pressure of any hurricane north of Cape Hatteras, North Carolina: 940 millibars (27.76 inches).  The previous record was 946 millibars from the infamous “Long Island Express” hurricane, a category 4 behemoth that tore up New England in September 1938.  Sandy is also only the second “S” named storm to be retired.  The first was Hurricane Stan, which struck México in October 2005.

With a $65 billion price tag and thousands of structures still sitting wrecked on various New England coastlines, Sandy reiterated what we already understood with Hurricane Katrina: the U.S. government is almost completely inept when responding to these calamities.  As politics and red-tape bureaucracy remain entrenched, the American political machine often seems more reactive than proactive.

Sadly, most major disasters will take human lives; a cost that simply can’t be measured financially.

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Hearts Aloft


This has to be one of the most intriguing and unique works of medieval art I’ve ever encountered.  Entitled “Two women attempting to catch flying hearts,” it’s by Pierre Sala, a French Renaissance artist who also composed poetry.  This particular piece is part of his “Emblèmes et Devises d’Amour” (“Emblems and Currency of Love”) collection and dates to around 1500.  Historians believe Sala was making a dedication to his mistress Marguerite.

Sala is perhaps best known for his work “Tristan,” but I can’t find much information about him.  Still, I think this would make a great Valentine’s Day card.  The entire collection is currently housed at the British Library in London.


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And Me?


In September of 2012, I was at my parents’ house when my father was getting ready to go have his car inspected, and my mother decided she needed to take out the trash.  I had come in following an earlier and somewhat stressful job interview.  I had brought my dog with me to the house – not the interview.  I suddenly thought that I needed to check on my mother.  I don’t know why; it just suddenly occurred to me.  Good thing, though.  As I entered the garage, my mother was returning from the recycle bin, when one of her slippers got caught on the cracked driveway.  She slammed hard onto the concrete and immediately started screaming.  I rushed to pick her up; her left arm looked broken.  With my help, she hobbled back into the house.

My father came down the hallway, horrified.  “What the hell happened?” he bellowed.  He already has a loud voice, so with any extra effort, he could wake the dead.

I quickly explained the situation, which only made him mad.

It wasn’t the first time my mother had tripped while wearing those slippers.  They were cheap, rubber footwear with a two-inch heel; what I called high-heeled slippers.  A few months earlier I was again at their house with my dog, when he indicated he needed to visit the back yard.  My father decided to take him out; my mother decided to join them.  She leapt up from the couch and tripped on those same slippers; slamming hard onto the tile floor.  In fact, she came out of them.  They literally seemed to get stuck to the floor.  She ended up with a severe bruise up the right side of her leg.  A visit to their orthopedic doctor the following week confirmed nothing was broken, or even fractured.

When she fell in the driveway, my father hurriedly called that same orthopedic doctor.  He told them to come in immediately.  I drove them to his office; the receptionist could sense my frustration, as I signed them into the log book.

“Be patient, hon,” she drawled.

My mother’s arm wasn’t broken, but her shoulder was dislocated.  The doctor and two of his assistants tried to pop it back into place, as she lay on the X-ray table, but the muscles and ligaments around it had swollen too much.  They had to admit her to the neighboring hospital and put her to sleep.  It turned out to be an all-day affair.  We left the hospital around 7 P.M.

My father tossed that pair of slippers – and another similar pair my mother had in their closet – into the trash.  Since they were made of rubber, I switched them over to the recycle bin.  I hoped they could be reincarnated as the wheels of a “Hoveround” and therefore, serve a greater purpose.

She’s not the only one who’s tripped in and around the house.  My father, an avid gardener, has fallen several times outside with no one but himself to get back up.  One afternoon he fell in the master bathroom and couldn’t get back up.  He started hollering for help.  My mother had fallen asleep on the couch and couldn’t hear him.  I had lain down in my old bedroom and – with the door closed – couldn’t hear him either.  My dog’s whining woke me up.

It’s a good thing I was there to help my parents in both those predicaments.  Many senior citizens live alone and often find themselves in compromising situations.  Several years ago I had a friend who volunteered for “Meals on Wheels.”  One afternoon he arrived at the home of a client, an elderly woman who lived alone.  Two of her neighbors were at the front door; frantic because she wasn’t responding to their knocks.  My friend wandered towards the back where he climbed the tall wooden fence – and saw the woman lying on the ground, just outside the back door.  She had stepped out the previous evening and tripped.  Unable to get up by herself, she simply remained on the ground; knowing her “Meals on Wheels” visitor would be there the next day.

As I rapidly approach 50, I’m now seeing all these incidents in a new light.  Who’s going to take care of me when I get old – if I should be that lucky?  I’m an only child.  I’ve never been married and don’t have any kids.  I’m close with a couple of cousins on my father’s side, but they have their own lives.  I don’t know if I’ll end up in this house where I grew up, or if I’ll have a home of my own.  But, if I should have the good grace of living to an old age, who could I depend on for support?  I can see dogs in my future though.  They make great companions, yet unless they can be trained to dial 911, or administer first aid, that’s about the extent of their practicality.  Still, I’d almost rather have a dog than a spouse or a partner.  I’ve never been good at romantic relationships.

It’s a serious issue facing us, as life expectancy in the U.S. and other developed nations reaches ever-increasing highs.  The current (and relentless) American obesity epidemic may put a dent in the welfare of my fellow citizens.  However, medical and scientific advances have allowed the populations of developed nations to experience greater rates of longevity, which is a good thing, of course.  People should be able to live as long as they possibly can.  But, those longer life expectancies also present some unique challenges; a fair trade-off, I presume.  It goes beyond just tolerating old folks’ stories of ‘way back when.’  Older people generally require specialized medications and treatments.  Arthritis, hearing and vision loss and immobility are among many such concerns for senior citizens.  There’s a growing industry within the medical community that targets elder care.  It’s virtually uncharted territory.

My paternal grandmother lived to age 97.  But, in the years between the death of my grandfather in 1969 and one traumatic night in the spring of 1992, she’d spent mostly alone.  She got up in the pre-dawn hours, needing to go to the bathroom, when her foot became entangled in the bedding.  She stumbled forward into the baseboard of her antique bed and fell to the floor – her right elbow cut and broken.  Despite the pain and bleeding in the pitch-black darkness, she managed to pull herself back around to the nightstand where she found the telephone cord; she yanked the phone down and called one of my aunts.  My aunt called one of her sisters, before rushing to my grandmother’s house with her husband.  Someone called the paramedics.  As my aunts and uncles stood outside, they simultaneously realized one terrifying fact: none of them had a key to the house.  One of the paramedics announced he was going to break a window, when one of my uncles remembered he had a glass-cutter in his car.  They used that to gain access to the house.  At the hospital, everyone was startled to learn something more critical than not having a key: my grandmother’s body was riddled with bumps, bruises and cuts.  She conceded that she’d fallen several times in the house and had always managed to get back up.  This time was worst, though, because of the elbow break.  The emergency room doctor looked askew at my relatives.  Elder abuse had become a hot topic in the medical community by the early 1990s, and our family became concerned that someone would look at those bumps and bruises on my grandmother and think the worst.  But, no one did.

Ultimately, my father and his six siblings decided that someone needed to be with her at all times.  My grandmother wasn’t too keen on the idea, though.  She relished her independence and privacy and didn’t want someone monitoring her every move.  But, her children ruled against her.  She was fortunate – and blessed.

A close friend of mine is caring for his elderly mother and an elderly aunt.  His aunt is in her early 90s, and his mother is fast approaching that milestone.  He works full-time, so it’s a challenge to tend to the needs of both women.  On a few occasions, he once confided to me, he literally wanted to pack up and leave Dallas for somewhere else; anywhere!  Just as long as he had no one to worry about except himself.  Alas, he couldn’t bring himself to do it.  He’s not so cold-hearted.  His older brother died a few years ago, and his younger sister has a daughter who just turned one.  His sister also has a 20-something son from a long-ago relationship who lives in the same house as his uncle, grandmother and grand-aunt.  He’s a very responsible young man who finished a hitch in the U.S. Marines three years ago and just earned an associate’s degree from a community college.  But, he also works and, at his age, I don’t think he envisions a lifetime of caring for old folks.  One day, however, he and his half-sister may face the concerns of elder care with their mother.

It’s difficult to watch my parents age.  “It’s hell getting old,” they inform me periodically.  Not until a few years ago, about the time I turned 45, did I really sit down with nothing but my most honest thoughts and contemplate life as a senior citizen.  Aside from previous bouts with alcohol addiction, I’ve tried to take care of myself both physically and mentally.  I’ve suffered from severe depression and anxiety in the past; adverse effects, I now realize, of not being able to kill people who pissed me off and get away with it.  Otherwise, I’m pretty healthy.  People who don’t know me occasionally tell me I look 30-something.  That’s a good thing.  But, surficial appearances can’t make up for a strong inner core.

In 2043, for example, I’ll be 80 – the same age as my parents are now.  Will I still have relatively good vision and the mental acuity needed to drive a vehicle?  More and more older Americans are still driving, even as their reflexes slow.  Some states are approaching the delicate issue of how to deal with the growing number of senior citizen drivers; another effect of longer life expectancies.  Will I learn from my parents’ mistakes and watch where I’m walking?  Falls are the leading cause of injury to the elderly.  It was bad enough that my mother would wear those damn rubber slippers with a two-inch base, but she also had the habit of dragging her feet.  I can understand why.  Joints become stiff with age, as cartilage behind the knees wears thin.

It would be nice for me, at age 70 or 80, to sit around the house and relish the fruits of a successful writing career.  But, at some point, I’d have to do laundry, or go to the grocery store.  If I have dogs – which I honestly intend to have – I must take them to the vet periodically.  It is possible that, in 30 years, grocery shopping will be done strictly online with customers sitting at their computers using web cameras to analyze fruits, meats and vegetables.  I wouldn’t be surprised if the U.S. Postal Service – now fighting valiantly to stay alive and relevant – will be a memory in 30 years; akin to my paternal grandfather’s early 20th century carpenter tools.  But, could there also be a vet who makes house calls?

Twenty years ago, when a good friend of mine died of AIDS, I felt lucky to reach my 30th birthday less than two months later.  Before I knew it, though, the turn of the century came – and went – a rare milestone for most humans now.  I turned 40 just weeks before I marked my first anniversary with an engineering firm – and then came down with the flu for the first time in my entire life.  Now, the first decade of the 21st century is old news.  Yes, technology changes, but so do people.

I’m not a braggart.  I don’t live for the moment, or for mounds of attention.  I’m an introvert who prefers quiet spaces most of the time; a hermit, perhaps, but one who cherishes books more than booze and dogs more than people.  If we’re fortunate, we get to live to see 70, 80, 90 and so on.  But, for me personally, what does that type of future hold?

I don’t cry out, ‘What about me?’  I’ve moved beyond wishing for the adulation of others.  But, seriously contemplating my later years, I really do have to ask, ‘What’s going to happen to me when I get old?’


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As of 12:00 A.M. today, October 1, the United States government – for all intents and purposes – has stopped functioning.  I know it seems nothing has changed.  I mean, seriously – is there any difference?  But, the painful reality is that some 2 million government employees will not get paid and national parks have closed.  That’s the immediate effect.  It gets worse if the shutdown continues: military veterans won’t receive their benefits; the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDCP) will have to halt its flu vaccination program – just as flu season approaches; some food safety operations will stop (and in a nation where behemoth butts have become the norm, that spells catastrophe); small business financing will stop; Head Start programs will start closing; disability benefits could be interrupted; funding for disease treatment through the National Institutes of Health could cease.

In the meantime, every member of both houses of Congress will receive their paychecks; their own health care won’t be adversely impacted.  Ironic, though, considering that the Affordable Care Act is the genesis of the squabble between the 2 principal political parties.  Most Republicans – especially the “Tea Party” clowns – despise the ACA, which they’ve derisively called “Obamacare.”  And, in an attempt to stop funding for the President’s signature law, the GOP is willing to risk what little integrity they have in their xenophobic bones and shut down the government.

Over the weekend, one particular “Tea Party” darling, Senator Ted Cruz, launched into a staunch tirade against the ACA.  Hoping to make a name for himself, the Canadian-born, Cuban-Italian Cruz has been campaigning for president since he took office back in January.  Representing my beloved home state of Texas, Cruz has done little else with his time and energy except commandeer the Republican Party’s vitriolic bandwagon and try to obstruct President Obama in any way possible.

Altogether congress has about a 10% approval rating.  I think ptomaine poisoning and getting stranded in the desert without water or cell phone service rank just above them.  Last year I wrote about the ongoing lack of progress from the Senate and the House of Representatives.  My wishful demand was for every elected official in Washington to get impeached, so we – the average, hard-working Americans – can elect more level-headed people to fill the apathetic void.  A million dollars in gold bullion has a greater chance of landing on my doorstep tomorrow morning.

I clearly remember the 1995 – 96 government shutdown in which a beleaguered President Bill Clinton ran head first into a recalcitrant Republican Party (led by the self-righteous Newt Gingrich) – and won.  It was a different time though.  The GOP held strong majorities in both houses of Congress; we weren’t at war; and the economy exploded into profitability for everyone shortly thereafter.  Clinton didn’t back down, thus forcing the GOP into embarrassingly humble defeat.

Today, the U.S. economy is still reeling from the worst downturn in 80 years; we have troops in Afghanistan and Iraq; and Republicans control only the House of Representatives.  Regardless, I’ve lost all respect for our elected officials.  Obama still hasn’t found any steel bars to inject into his spine, and the GOP has let itself be dominated by right-wing extremists.  I’m trying to imagine how things could get any worse.  If they do, colonizing Mars looks better all the time.


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