Monday, March 31, 2008

Two days in the Highlands

Busy weekend.

After a pretty grueling week in training downtown, I was looking to unwind and chillax a bit this weekend. Unfortunately, the weekend was stacked pretty high with scheduled chores, mostly, shopping for some boring, mundane necessary household items (like a pair of new shoes for me) that we'd been putting off and letting amass into a sizeable list for months.

Pleasantly, a couple of friends from out of town, the Colletts, rolled in for a few hours on Saturday, giving us all a much needed break from the usual day to day living stress. We played some Wii Bowling (where we all discovered that Tony has a wild and wicked right hook, and I somehow managed to hold on to my always tentative Pro status despite bowling two spectacularly mediocre games) and some Apples to Apples on either side of a wonderful dinner created by SuperWife (her own uniquely delicious Salisbury steaks, mashed potatoes, and peas), before Tony and his charming wife Kathy were off again to meet yet another group of their friends elsewhere in River City.

Prior to that, I'd been able to help my oldest stepdaughter resolve a banking snafu she'd gotten pulled into, which felt good.

Sunday, we did pretty much all the shopping we'd been putting off for some time, which was grueling but satisfying to get done. I'm sporting new shoes which nearly fit, and look much better than my previous pair. Alas and alack, the DVD player in the living room has given up the ghost exactly the same way as its predecessor did almost a year ago, making me think that the manufacturers deliberately build these cheap little machines with a self destruct timer inside them. So we'll be back out getting a new DVD player soon, which makes me sad.

Sorry for the boring blog entry, but, well, that's life in the big city sometimes.

Saturday, March 29, 2008

The word for world is 'thief'

I was always pretty much a hard science fiction fan -- I liked Laumer, I liked Heinlein, I liked Niven, I liked Morrissey, I liked Gunn. I had the occasional childhood excursion into the fluffy bunny rabbit land of sword and sorcery fantasy stuff -- LOTR, of course, and a Conan story or two (I had read probably forty separate issues of Marvel's CONAN THE BARBARIAN comic book by that time, but other than the John Buscema artwork, I never saw much to like in that particular series) and some of Andre Norton's Witch World stuff (especially YEAR OF THE UNICORN, a book I read and reread almost literally to tatters in my teens) but even there, it's probably worth pointing out that what led me to Norton's more swordy/spelly stuff was her classic post-Apocalypse teen soaper STAR MAN'S SON (known as DAYBREAK 2024 in the edition I first read), which is very nearly as hard as hard science fiction gets. Yeah, I liked the space ships, the ray guns, the suspended animation tanks, the faster than light drives, the bug eyed aliens, the Earth-born drifter named Dumarest, wandering deeper and deeper into the furthest reaches of the galaxy on a perpetual quest for the rundown, all but forgotten planet of his birth, which every other human dwelling within the Far Stars believed was merely a myth.

Fantasy... feh. Fantasy was soft stuff; fantasy was for babies. I may well have felt that way, despite enjoying the Tolkien I'd read and being a big fan of Gillan & Co, because sometime in my senior year of high school Heather Dougan recommended THE SWORD OF SHANNARA by Terry Brooks to me, and I tried it, and it was to fantasy novels as SUPERMAN IV: THE QUEST FOR PEACE is to film, which is to say, I am still amazed I managed to read as much of it as I did without clawing my own eyes out with a hay rake. So perhaps that experience put me off sword and sorcery, I don't know.(It should certainly have put me off Heather Dougan had I had a functional cerebrum, but, well, when you're 17 years old and terminally besotted, there isn't much that 3 pounds of pulsating gray protein pudding can do about it, no matter how crappy the object of your unrequited passion's taste in literature may be.)

So fantasy was a big 'nuh uh' for me when I headed off to college. However, somewhere in the mid 80s everyone in my college clique had graduated and I had no one to talk about superhero comics with any more, or play superhero RPGs with, either, and one of the guys I was sharing a house with played in about four separate fantasy roleplaying campaigns, you know, with the elves and the orcs and the swords and the sorcery and the clerics and the hobbits and the whatever the hell all else they all had back then, and he invited me along to a session, and I was bored, so off I went. A couple of the campaigns he played in were mediocre at best, but one was tremendous and excellent and awesome, so I started playing in that one. And, for really the first time, I started hanging around with a subset of geeks who were more into fantasy than hard SF (and who mostly didn't read comic books at all, which was a very new experience for me, as prior to that everybody I'd interacted with had been a pretty hardcore comics fan).

Many of my new acquaintances were bibliophiles like I, except they were older and had much, much larger personal libraries than I did. Within that group books tended to get loaned out and traded around a lot. As I wasn't particularly experienced with the sword and sorcery subgenre of fantasy fiction, I got hit with a lot of "Oh, you HAVE to read this book" recommendations, and ended up listening to more than a few of them. So it was that I began to make my way through the 'Must Have' list for young fantasy fan/book collectors circa 1984 or so... the books that you HAD to own, or, at least, had to have read, in order to have any kind of meaningful conversation with anyone else you might be gaming with at that time and in that place.

Stuff on this list would include Barbara Hambly's TIME OF THE DARK trilogy, Saberhagen's seemingly endless BOOK(s) OF SWORDS series, Steve Brust's first Taltos book JHEREG, Zelazney's first AMBER sequence along with LORD OF LIGHT, S.M. Stirling's SNOWBROTHER, L. Sprague deCamp's Krishna stuff, and nearly anything by Piers Anthony. I can't honestly say this period was anything like a heyday for sword and sorcery, since much of what was out back then was crap of the purest ray serene (this would include nearly all the Piers Anthony rubbish, and, of course, Terry Brooks was excreting another five pound volume of human waste product every year or so back then) and some of the best high fantasy had yet to be written in the mid 80s (most of Barbara Hambly's output, all of Lois McMaster Bujold's, and George R.R. Martin's fabulous SONG OF ICE AND FIRE was none of them even a twinkle in a fanboy's eye back then).

And you could add one more title to that theoretical Fantasy Geek of the mid 80s Must Read list -- the first THIEVES' WORLD anthology by Robert Asprin.

THIEVES' WORLD may mean nothing to you, or, if you've heard of it at all, it may make you roll your eyes wearily as you remember the endless sequels, offshoots, and merchandise with a THIEVES WORLD logo that rolled out in geek shops across America from the late 80s through the early 90s. And it can't be denied; once it became obvious that there was some serious interest in the franchise, Robert Asprin and all his various hangers on rode that horse right into the ground. Collections, comic books, roleplaying games, official THIEVES' WORLD gaming dice, and I don't know what the hell all else hit geek stores like some kind of relentless and unending plague over about a five year period, and it all very quickly became a monotonous, nearly nauseating blur to me.

However, the first THIEVES' WORLD volume came out in 1979, and up through the mid 1980s you could not be a fantasy gaming geek if you did not own a copy... or, at the very least, if you could not converse meaningfully as regards the evil of One Thumb, the heroism of Jamie the Red, the innate rogueish charm of Shadowspawn, well, you were a mere hanger on, a trifler and a dabbler, and no one that anyone of consequence could possibly take seriously.

I never owned a copy of THIEVES' WORLD but I shared a house with a guy named Mike Schechter for several years and he had one and I read his several times during that period. I enjoyed most of the stories, although I should probably note at least in passing that I apparently didn't dig them so much that I ever bothered to read any of the sequels or spin offs. The first book did it for me just fine.

A few months ago, SuperWife and I were in a secondhand bookstore looking for Christmas presents, and I found a rather beat up copy of THIEVES' WORLD. I remembered enjoying it twenty years ago, and it was priced to move well south of a buck, so I added it to the stack I was amassing in the crook of my left arm (which, with that addition, at that point came up just about to my nose). I was half afraid that like many of my childhood or early adulthood favorites, this one wasn't going to hold up well to a sudden reappraisal twenty years later (yeah, I'm talking to you, Sondra Marshak and Myrna Culbreath -- there is no hell deep, dark, or hot enough for you and those crappy crappy STAR TREK "Phoenix" Black Omni 'novels')... but, as it turns out, I was wrong. THIEVES' WORLD still, for the most part at least, reads just fine... which wouldn't have surprised me at all, if I'd been able to remember the actual authors I'd find within (or troubled to look at the TOC, as far as that goes).

The book opens with a few introductory pages which I presume are by editor and contributor Asprin, outlining the history of the anthology's setting city, Sanctuary, as well as recapping the current political situation there. Then we move right into John Brunner's "Sentences of Death", a nifty little tale that introduces us to several of Sanctuary's most colorful citizenry, especially that inadvertent shapeshifter and oft accursed wizard Enas Yorl.

From Brunner's deftly woven tale we hie over a couple of avenues so Lynn Abbey can show us a little bit about the lives of Dubro the smith and Illyra the fortune teller, in a story impelled by the charmingly prosaic motivation of those two character's sudden need to secure a replacement for Dubro's broken iron anvil. And while I normally like little of Poul Anderson's output, his story 'The Gate of Flying Knives' is pretty cool, as is his character, the minstrel Cappan Varra.

Following that, Andrew Offutt acquaints us with the quirkily interesting gutter thief Shadowspawn, after which Robert Asprin unfortunately lowers the entire tone of the enterprise with a fairly tedious and not particularly well plotted tale called "The Price of Doing Business". (Apparently, if you want to read a THIEVES' WORLD anthology, the 'price of doing business' is you have to wade through what results when Asprin decides to pay himself as a contributor in addition to the paycheck he's pocketing as editor. Asprin's character Jubal, an ex-gladiator turned ruthless crime boss, is without a doubt the most boring creation in the entire book, as is the story surrounding him. Asprin also has no compunctions about throwing similar charity to his girlfriend of the time, the previously unpublished Lynn Abbey, but as I've already noted, Ms. Abbey's story was much more than merely readable, which is about the best one could say for Asprin's contribution.)

After Asprin finally stops fucking around, the pace picks up again (and fucking how) as we swing into "Blood Brothers", Joe Haldeman's tale of murder, drug running, rape, wizardly intrigue and overall depravity, featuring the relentlessly vicious One Thumb, whose deservedly gruesome end makes for a far more satisfyingly just fictional resolution than S.M. Stirling ever gave us in any Draka novel.

Next up it's Christine DeWees, and if you've never heard of Christine DeWees don't feel bad. I'm fairly sure she's never been published anywhere but in a THIEVES' WORLD anthology, and she is less an accomplished author than she is a walking talking breathing typing avatar of the truism regarding who you know being far more important than what. Asprin advises in his essay on how the book came into existence that with a deadline looming and several stories from big name contributors having been withdrawn or postponed, he turned to some old lady with a motorcycle he knew who liked to write amateur fantasy. She cranked out a story centering around someone else's character, and while it's not a bad story, again, all I can say is, it pays to cultivate editors, because based on my own experiences, neither this thing of DeWees nor the story Asprin himself wrote would have ever sold to any other professional editor anywhere.

Last up we have Marion Zimmer Bradley telling us the story of Lythande the Star-Browed, and if you can't figure out three paragraphs in from the way Bradley carefully positions her pronouns exactly what Lythande's big secret is, you're just not paying close enough attention. Although, having said that, I think the ending hit me as much more of a surprise the first time I read the story, some twenty five years ago.

So that's THIEVES' WORLD, and now that I really think of it, I believe I must have read at least one more volume in the series, because I can vaguely recall some sort of Andrew Offutt story about a weird cult that worshipped a god of spiders, and I'm pretty sure that was a Thieves' World story, and it sure isn't in this volume.

Maybe I'll keep an eye out for that one, too.

Saturday, March 15, 2008

Gunshot wounds

So here's the situation: I'm out driving around River City when I see a young man loitering on a street corner. Another young man approaches him and what is obviously an illegal transaction involving the sale of controlled and/or prohibited substances takes place. I call the local police dispatcher and ask for a unit to be sent out to the scene, then get out of my car, draw my legally permitted side arm, and order the drug dealer to put his hands up. Instead, he turns and begins to flee. I warn him to stop or I'll shoot. He continues to beat feet. I shoot him in the back. He dies.

How do we feel about that?

Okay, now, suppose I'm a trained police officer with a badge, in uniform, in my patrol car, on my designated beat, when all this jumps off. Does that change how we feel about it?

If it does, then... why? How is the situation changed if I'm wearing a uniform and have a badge?

Would the situation change again if I was still a cop but out of uniform? If I was off duty? If I was a trained police officer from the city of Chicago, out of my jurisdiction, visiting my sick aunt in Louisville, when I decide to throw down on a drug dealer in my aunt's neighborhood?

And, again, if it does... why?

What is it that, in the eyes of some people, makes it okay for me to kill someone under a specific set of circumstances if I am in uniform under the color of authority, and that makes it reprehensible if I am a private citizen?

The situation hasn't changed. I'm still an adult individual citizen pointing a weapon at another citizen whom I have directly witnessed committing a crime. I have still ordered that other citizen to surrender, and he has still refused to obey my order, and turned to flee. I have warned him that if he does not surrender I will shoot him. And then, when he does not surrender, I still shot him, and he still died.

I shot him. He was in the act of running away from me. He was not threatening me or anyone else. I rolled up on him, pointed a gun at him, ordered him to hold still, and when he refused, and began running away from the guy pointing a gun at him, I shot him, and I killed him.

This is shocking and reprehensible if I am just a private citizen concerned about young men dealing drugs on street corners in my neighborhood, but it is perfectly acceptable, if somewhat regrettable, if I have a badge and a uniform and a police union card in my wallet.

Is it because as a private citizen I have no right to exert any sort of authority over another private citizen, even one I have seen committing a crime? While, on the other hand, as a police officer I have not only the right but the actual duty to enforce the law whenever I see it being violated?

Well, that sounds good. But if that's the case, shouldn't I have tried to arrest the drug dealer's customer along with the drug dealer? Shouldn't I be running in every prostitute I see? Cops routinely choose not to do this; if cops arrested every drug buyer or every hooker they encountered on their daily patrols, the courts would be paralyzed and overwhelmed by the resultant glut of perpetrators.

If cops are allowed... if, in fact, cops are actively encouraged... to turn a blind eye to certain illegal acts, if they are allowed, or even required, to use their judgement in such matters as who they will arrest and who they will not arrest, how much more important is it for us to expect an armed officer of the law to apply that same level of judgement and discrimination to decisions involving who they will shoot, and under what circumstances they will shoot them?

If a cop sees a guy dealing drugs on a street corner, yes, he's seen a crime being committed, and yes, there's a legitimate public service involved in bringing the perpetrator of that crime to justice. But the cop has not witnessed a violent crime. The cop is not in any danger to life or limb, nor is anyone else around him in any reasonable danger from a drug dealer who is running away up the street. Under those circumstances, I am not convinced it is justifiable for a police officer to use lethal force. No overt act of violence. No credible threat to himself or others. Just a drug dealer disobeying an order to surrender, but, geez, if somebody pointed a gun at you, wouldn't you be tempted to run away from them?

There is an argument that can be made that the police officer in question has a right, if not a duty, to enforce not only his own authority, but the authority of all police everywhere. That if he chooses not to shoot, or, worse, if he shoots and some judge rules that he shouldn't have, that in this circumstance he was not justified in taking potentially lethal action, then people, and especially criminals, will cease to respect the police. That if people know they can run away from armed police officers with impunity, armed police officers will have a very difficult time arresting perpetrators.

I understand that argument, and I even respect it to an extent.

I'm simply not certain, or convinced, that the weight of that argument outweighs the sanctity of human life.

I'm not at all sure we should have different rules for different people, as regards the act of taking a human life.

This is an old, old debate. I remember twenty years ago, I was outraged when somebody explained to me that in New York State, if I walked in on a burglar carrying my TV set out my window, I wasn't allowed to shoot him. Absent a threat to my safety or wellbeing, I was considered to have no right to use lethal force on a person who had broken into my home and was in the process of stealing my private property. This struck me as insane, and yet, today I find myself arguing for this essential principle -- after all, isn't the life of a human being, even one in the process of committing a crime, worth more than a TV set or a busted lock?

There's a principle involved here, and it's a slippery, shady one. That principle is, if you go out and commit a crime, especially a violent crime, you have placed yourself outside the normal considerations of society. You no longer have a right to life and liberty and the safety of your own person. By breaking into someone's house, by committing an assault, by stealing, by threatening with violence, by performing an unacceptably antisocial act, you have placed yourself in a position whereby other, more law-abiding members of society may disregard considerations of your safety and employ whatever force is necessary to defend themselves against your depredations and/or make themselves whole from whatever damages you may have inflicted on them.

This sounds great when one takes the point of view of the victim of a violent crime.

And yet... in the particular situation I've outlined above, the criminal in question has not committed a violent crime, He poses no immediate credible threat to the police officer pointing a gun at him, or anyone else. He didn't break in to anyone's house and he isn't running off with anyone's property. All he is doing is running away from an armed human being who is pointing a gun at him.

How is it justifiable to shoot him in the back? How is it acceptable that he's dead? Because a man pointed a gun at him and ordered him to hold still, and he refused?

Because the man with a gun had a badge, too?

I guess I can see that. I guess if you're in for a penny, you're in for a pound, and if you believe that a criminal running away from one kind of crime scene can be gunned down and killed by an armed authority, then pretty much any criminal has to expect the same.

Emotionally, though, it just sits wrong with me, that somebody can be killed simply for disobeying a man with a gun, and that's legal, and it's acceptable, and we're supposed to be okay with it, if the guy with a gun also has a badge. That seems like a pretty crappy way to run things to me.

* * *

Full disclosure: the above musings were triggered by a recent discussion we had at our house, which was triggered by SuperWife's recollections of an incident that occurred several years ago in River City, where a black teenager named James Newby was shot several times in the back, and killed, by a white cop in plainclothes named McKenzie Mattingly.

SuperWife couldn't recollect all the details of the incident, although she did remember that the young black man in question had apparently been caught in the act of dealing drugs by the white cop and had attempted to flee, at which point, the cop had shot him in the back and killed him. SuperWife's contention was that the cop had ordered the man to stop, warning him that he would shoot if the man did not comply.

The crux of our difference of opinion was that SuperWife ardently and vehemently believes that police officers are charged by our society with enforcing the law and keeping order, and if a cop issues an order, the person he is giving that order to had better know that they need to obey that order, or they're at risk of taking a bullet. And I understand where she's coming from. If people start to believe that a cop can only shoot them if they are threatening him in some way, and is legally constrained from shooting them in any other circumstances, then criminals will feel they can ignore an order from an armed policeman to surrender. They will be able to flee with little fear of any consequences, which will make it difficult to capture any criminal who is inclined to make a run for it. SuperWife honestly believes that this will introduce a degree of chaos and lawlessness into our society that is not acceptable to the world our children will have to live in, so as far as she's concerned, if a cop says "stop or I'll shoot", you'd be stop, and if you don't, you get what you get. That may not be pleasant, but she regards it as a necessary cost of doing business in a world that is already dangerous enough.

I can respect that point of view. My feelings are more complex. I started out at a point where I adamantly insisted that cops should be no different from anyone else in our society as regards the rules that govern the use of lethal force -- a cop could shoot at someone who was posing an immediate, obvious threat to the life or safety of another person (obviously, including the cop him or herself) just like any of the rest of us could... but if a cop were to shoot someone who wasn't in any way threatening anyone with any kind of violence, well, that would be reckless homicide, or premeditated murder, just as it would with anyone else, badge or no badge.

Since them I've come off that a bit. Human life is precious, but, yeah, if the courts start thowing cops in jail for murder when they shoot people who disobey lawful commands, that's going to be a problem. Everyone is quickly going to figure out that as long as you don't make any kind of threatening gesture to a cop, they CAN'T shoot you, and cops will start to find it extremely difficult to manage a potentially dangerous situation. So, yeah, a cop should be able to say 'stop or I'll shoot', and, if you don't stop, then they should be able to shoot.

Of course, no police officer should ever issue any such command, or any other kind of order, unless there is a very good reason for it. And, personally, I myself would much rather that the police who patrol our neighborhoods with guns in their hands be men and women of sufficient good judgment that they would not necessarily blast in the back just anyone who ignored a police command to raise their hands. Absent any kind of perception of violent confrontation or any other real threat, I would like to see people on our police force who won't simply gun a non-violent offender down for running away. (Violent offenders are an entirely different matter; if someone is trying to leave the scene of an armed robbery or some kind of violent assault, and they won't stop when they're told to, shoot zem. Shoot zem both.)

Having said all of that, if you check out the link I've already embedded, or this one, or this one, or this one, or this one, you'll find that at no point does the Officer Mattlingly ever claim he ordered Newby to surrender. What he says, over and over again, is that Newby turned and walked towards the hood of his car, that Newby kept 'pulling up his shirt and reaching for his waistband', that Newby kept looking back at him and glaring at him, and that Newby's actions made him afraid for his life.

He never says he was aware that Newby had a gun, or that he'd seen a gun. One witness advises that after Newby was shot, when the police turned Newby over, he saw that Newby had a gun, but he also advises that ""I see the weapon after they rolled the kid over, and the weapon was down in his slacks, nestled inside of them". How someone sees a weapon 'down in his slacks, nestled inside of them' from any kind of distance I couldn't begin to tell you, but, never mind. It seems clear that the police officer who shot Newby never actually saw a gun prior to shooting him. He just felt afraid, and because he felt afraid, he shot a 19 year old man in the back three times, killing him.

Maybe there have to be different rules for cops, especially for defining specifically when they can draw their weapons and when they can fire them. Maybe cops need more leeway. Maybe they have to be able to use lethal force in circumstances when deploying such force would be illegal and unacceptable for a civilian.

Still, I'm thinking, any time a cop ends up shooting someone three times in the back, and they apparently cannot state with any certainty that they ever saw a gun or any other kind of weapon to feel threatened by, I am thinking that, at the very least, this cop does not have the kind of judgment I'd like to see in a person wandering around my community with a badge and a gun. That's 'at least'. At most, I will say that the story told by Officer Mattingly stinks like hell, and I myself have profound doubts that what actually occurred between him and James Newby that night bears more than a superficial resemblance to the account we've been given.

* * *

On a related subject, a sharp young man named Charles who sits next to me in my training class came up with a solution to the whole gun control mess that strikes me as being nothing short of brilliant: okay, you can't wave a magic wand and get rid of every existing gun in the world. And to me, this has always been a powerful argument against limiting people's access to firearms, because, well, you can't make everybody who already has them give them up, so, that being the case, people who don't have them yet should be able to get them if they want them, to defend themselves against all the other people who already have them.

But what Charles says is, to hell with the guns -- just ban manufacturing bullets.

Honestly, I just think that's amazingly intelligent. Yeah, you can have all the guns you want... you just can't get any ammunition for them.

Works for me. Of course, it will be a while before all the crazy white militias run through their ammo stockpiles, I'm sure...

Of course, as SuperWife points out, a lot of people make their own bullets. So it's not a perfect solution. But if nobody legally sells bullets, then there will be little to no demand for new handguns, so stores won't stock them, which will make it much harder for crazy people to get them... and if they do, it will be harder still for them to get ammunition for them. So I think, while it might not be a perfect solution, it's still a pretty good one.

Friday, March 14, 2008

Time for the penguin on your television to explode

After a brief intermission known locally as 'Tuesday', Monday has continued unabated throughout this week.

We need a montage:

It's Wednesday afternoon, and the minivan decides to start getting cranky right in SuperWife's face as she's driving home for lunch. She nurses its herky-jerkying progress the last few blocks to the parking lot behind our house, where it sits all afternoon while a tattooed bald man who is supposedly a very skilled mechanic, and who looks like someone you would never want to share a prison cell with, pokes and prods at it. His final diagnosis -- the transmission. Or maybe the computer that controls the transmission. Or maybe the transmission filter.

Thursday, my training class finally gets our regular trainer back. She looks and sounds like she's in the final stages of lung cancer, but swears she's nearly fully recovered from a bronchial infection, and certainly isn't contagious. Over the course of the day, she manages to contradict probably 80% of what the substitute, a woman who has actually been doing this job with a high level of expertise for five years, has taught us for the last three days.

Also on Thursday, SuperWife has the van towed over to a garage for diagnostic testing. They confirm it's the transmission, and due to their association with the dealership that sold us the thing, they'll throw us a discount and do the rebuild for only $1200. That sound you heard about 30 hours ago was the anguished shriek of our bank account bursting into flames and then suddenly imploding into nothingness.

All that, and my first week's pay does not show up via the usual direct deposit in my bank account.

Friday, I still have no pay, and SuperWife finds that she has no direct deposit either, and there seems to be some uncertainty as to whether she or anyone else in her office will be receiving paper checks, either. Such are the vagueries of many businesses, but given how our savings account has just evaporated into our van's transmission, it's a pretty crappy week for neither of us to get paid. Also, it's raining, which normally ain't no thang, but, you know, with the van h'ors combat, we're proceeding on foot to and from bus stops. Also, our class's regular trainer continues to blithely teach us how to do things that the woman who subbed for her at the start of the week entirely contradicts when she drops in after lunch to give us a few more practical lessons in what is soon to be our job. Additionally, I call my bank on break and am assured no attempt to do a direct deposit has been made by anyone. I call my agency, and am told that it's likely I will get a paper check in the mail today at home, but, you know, the guy I'm speaking with can't be sure, and the person who might be sure is on another call.

Finally, 4:30 rolls around and I take the bus home without further incident. Once home, I'm watching TV with SuperWife when the phone rings. It's my agency, and to my enormous relief, they aren't telling me I'm fired. To my even greater delight, they advise me that they've 'cut an emergency check' for me, and if they'd called me or sent me an email while I was at work downtown, I probably could have walked over and picked it up, but, since they waited until I'd taken the bus home and we have no car at the moment, well, I'm going to have to wait until Monday to pick it up. Still, it's a relief to know it's waiting for me. Maybe last Monday is finally over.

A few minutes after that, SuperWife and I adjourn to the bedroom, showing that, yeah, last Monday has at long last given up the ghost.

Whew. That was one long goddam Monday.

We hope to have the van back by this Tuesday. I s'pose I'll keep y'all posted on that.

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Quest for Tire

Just another manic Monday... if by 'manic' you mean, 'an apparently unending series of aggravations, frustrations, irritations, and exasperations'.

It started with no hot water. I had no idea why it started with no hot water. I checked the water heater in the basement, and, more meaningfully, so did SuperWife. She affirms the pilot light was on, I myself can testify that the water heater had not exploded nor was the basement flooded. But, no hot water. So, no morning shower, so, I spent the entire day at my new job feeling greasy and grungy in steadily increasing increments as said workday wound onward.

Said workday was even more of a chore than the usual workday, in that our usual trainer called in sick with a sinus infection, and we had a junior trainer who had no real idea how to teach us what we needed to know, and a tech specialist from the department I will eventually be working in coming down to help her out. Now, the junior trainer and the tech specialist between them were swell folks and very earnest about doing their very best for us, but it made for a long, dry, tedious eight and a half hours, as neither of them were particularly good at that peculiar subset of skills, talents, and techniques mankind labels 'teaching'. And the job I'm being trained for is both complex and deeply boring, so trying to teach it when you have no clue how to teach it well is, essentially, like unleashing the Grim Reaper's coma ray on an unsuspecting class room.

So, it's Monday and I'm itchy and unwashed, with my hair growing perceptibly greasier with each passing femtosecond, I'm feeling utterly bewildered and frustrated and stultified by what I'm now not-learning about my new job, and the clock is crawling like a broke-dick quadraplegic worming his anguished way through a canted concrete conduit studded with broken bottles.

Monday, Monday, hellish hellish Monday.

But then a miracle occurs, and it's 4:30, and I'm a moving unit, heading up the street to meet SuperWife at her office prior to rolling home to a long lazy evening at home, doin' nothin' and piling it up.

So we're in the new van and we're digging on the radio and rolling out of the parking lot and then SuperWife is pulling over and saying "I think we have a flat or something." And I'm getting out of the van and dread and trepidation are springing up in my heart like twin tigers of torment and terror, and, yes indeedlie-do, the left front tire is just as flat as my hopes for a peaceful pleasant dinner and a long nap in the daddy chair.

And why? Why? Because the monster of fucking Frankenstein has misplaced one of his fucking neckbolts in one of our fucking tires, that's why.

So, we called everyone, which means, we called SuperWife's niece who is somewhat handy with car stuff, and we called Nate because he's all like mechanically inclined and shit, and meanwhile, with a crappy pair of pliers SuperWife managed to hork from work, I spent thirty minutes on my back under the rear of the van trying to get a goddam screw to turn so I could get the spare from underneath where it was mounted and out to where it could do us some good, an effort ultimately futile in every regard except as it inspired me in my comprehensive scatological abuses, profanities, blasphemies, and verbal assaults upon everything ever associated with spare tires, minivans, screws that would turn but would not come off, and goddam monster of Frankenstein neck bolts that can't keep to their proper fucking place.

Then Nate arrived, and he had all these amazing tools, and he got down on the ground and rassled around with that goddam spare tire securing bolt for twenty minutes, and he eventually gave up on it too.

And then SuperWife's niece showed up and as nobody could get the goddam spare tire off we formulated another plan, whereby we'd jack up the van and pull the tire and Nate and SuperWife would roll out to a nearby Big O Tire and get the puncture patched and then come back, hopefully within an hour or so. Meanwhile, me and The Niece stayed behind to guard the van, which looked pretty vulnerable standing there with one wheel missing, quite literally all jacked up.

Half an hour later SuperWife and Nate came rolling back. I was not fooled: "It was closed?" I asked, astutely, to which my beloved spouse merely nodded.

So, the new plan was, SuperWife and Nate would roll out to a Wal-Mart that was about twenty minutes away, where hopefully the Wal-Mart autoshop could effect tire repairs. So off they went, and there the Niece and I sat, comparing notes on Quentin Tarantino movies and Showtime TV shows and Stephen King books and I can't recollect what all else and it was a reasonably pleasant forty minutes or so until SuperWife's phone rang in my jacket pocket and upon answering it I heard her advise me that the nearby Wal-Mart had closed their autoshop early and they were going to have to head on further out to another more distant Wal-Mart and it was going to take much, much longer. So the Niece and I sat there longer and bullshit some more and after a little while longer the Niece decided she had to take a shot at getting that spare tire off so she crawled underneath the back of the van and after twenty minutes crawled back out again, the spare tire securing screw as yet undefeated.

Right about then the phone rang again and SuperWife advised me that they'd reached the Wal-Mart and the garage was still open and the mechanic there would fix the tire but it would take another two hours because there were five people ahead of them in line. So she and Nate dropped off the tire and were on their way back to pick me up and we'd all go out and get something to eat and then go back and pick up the tire again.

Right about then, the Niece realized she had a Triple A membership! Whoops of joy! So she got out her card and called up the local auto club and much to my shock and surprise, I found out that if you have a Triple A membership, Triple A will actually come out and work on a car that isn't even yours that you just happen to be standing next to, if you call and ask them nicely. So the Triple A guy came out and showed me how you take the handle from our van's built in jack and you pull up this little patch of carpet and you fit the jack handle into this little socket and crank it round and round and round and that nut that secures the spare tire to the underside of the car and that WILL NOT COME OFF lowers down very nicely and the spare tire comes to a gentle rest on the ground, after which you can yank it right out and put it where you need it.

See, if one of us had known that or been able to figure it out hours earlier... yeah, you saw that already, right?

So the Triple A guy put the donut on for us and we thanked him profusely and he went away and the Niece went away too and the remainder of us rolled out to the distant Wal-Mart and got the tire and took the donut off in the parking lot and put the fixed tire on and SuperWife wasn't happy with how it looked so we went over to a neighboring service station and put air in the tire and then the key wouldn't turn in the van ignition and I screamed, I screamed a LOT, I screamed like a hot blonde chick in a slasher movie because it JUST WOULDN'T STOP BEING MONDAY and I wanted to eat something and go home and take a shower and go to bed.

So then Nate did something to the steering wheel and the ignition unlocked and we drove to Ryan's Roadhouse and it had just closed so we walked across the parking lot to this Asian Buffet that was still open and it was like the Asian Buffet That H.P. Lovecraft Built, I kid you not, I'm pretty sure N'yaarlahotep the Goat With A Thousand Young was portioned out in several steam trays with various sauces and the Cthulhu Rangoon was pretty distinctive, too. Which is to say, the food was not so much bad as it was a horror from the nether depths the likes of which one cannot truly imagine without tottering on the brink of homicidal derangement. Which made it the perfect ending of a perfect Monday.

So after that, we finally got home and I got to take a shower and do a blog post and go to bed.

Sunday, March 09, 2008

Apocalypse Watch (second installment of many to come, until, you know, we all die)

Well, here's this:

"We know we are being exposed to other people's drugs through our drinking water, and that can't be good," says Dr. David Carpenter, who directs the Institute for Health and the Environment of the State University of New York at Albany...

A vast array of pharmaceuticals — including antibiotics, anti-convulsants, mood stabilizers and sex hormones — have been found in the drinking water supplies of at least 41 million Americans, an Associated Press investigation shows... To be sure, the concentrations of these pharmaceuticals are tiny, measured in quantities of parts per billion or trillion, far below the levels of a medical dose. Also, utilities insist their water is safe...

But the presence of so many prescription drugs — and over-the-counter medicines like acetaminophen and ibuprofen — in so much of our drinking water is heightening worries among scientists of long-term consequences to human health.

In the course of a five-month inquiry, the AP discovered that drugs have been detected in the drinking water supplies of 24 major metropolitan areas — from Southern California to Northern New Jersey, from Detroit to Louisville, KY...

And while researchers do not yet understand the exact risks from decades of persistent exposure to random combinations of low levels of pharmaceuticals, recent studies — which have gone virtually unnoticed by the general public — have found alarming effects on human cells and wildlife.

Here are some of the key test results obtained by the AP:

_Officials in Philadelphia said testing there discovered 56 pharmaceuticals or byproducts in treated drinking water, including medicines for pain, infection, high cholesterol, asthma, epilepsy, mental illness and heart problems. Sixty-three pharmaceuticals or byproducts were found in the city's watersheds.

_Anti-epileptic and anti-anxiety medications were detected in a portion of the treated drinking water for 18.5 million people in Southern California.

_Researchers at the U.S. Geological Survey analyzed a Passaic Valley Water Commission drinking water treatment plant, which serves 850,000 people in Northern New Jersey, and found a metabolized angina medicine and the mood-stabilizing carbamazepine in drinking water.

_A sex hormone was detected in San Francisco's drinking water.

_The drinking water for Washington, D.C., and surrounding areas tested positive for six pharmaceuticals.

_Three medications, including an antibiotic, were found in drinking water supplied to Tucson, Ariz.

The situation is undoubtedly worse than suggested by the positive test results in the major population centers documented by the AP.

The federal government doesn't require any testing and hasn't set safety limits for drugs in water... Some providers screen only for one or two pharmaceuticals, leaving open the possibility that others are present.

The New York state health department and the USGS tested the source of the city's water, upstate. They found trace concentrations of heart medicine, infection fighters, estrogen, anti-convulsants, a mood stabilizer and a tranquilizer.

City water officials declined repeated requests for an interview. In a statement, they insisted that "New York City's drinking water continues to meet all federal and state regulations regarding drinking water quality in the watershed and the distribution system" — regulations that do not address trace pharmaceuticals.

In several cases, officials at municipal or regional water providers told the AP that pharmaceuticals had not been detected, but the AP obtained the results of tests conducted by independent researchers that showed otherwise...

Rural consumers who draw water from their own wells aren't in the clear either, experts say.

The Stroud Water Research Center, in Avondale, Pa., has measured water samples from New York City's upstate watershed for caffeine, a common contaminant that scientists often look for as a possible signal for the presence of other pharmaceuticals. Though more caffeine was detected at suburban sites, researcher Anthony Aufdenkampe was struck by the relatively high levels even in less populated areas.

He suspects it escapes from failed septic tanks, maybe with other drugs. "Septic systems are essentially small treatment plants that are essentially unmanaged and therefore tend to fail," Aufdenkampe said.

Even users of bottled water and home filtration systems don't necessarily avoid exposure. Bottlers, some of which simply repackage tap water, do not typically treat or test for pharmaceuticals, according to the industry's main trade group. The same goes for the makers of home filtration systems.

Some drugs, including widely used cholesterol fighters, tranquilizers and anti-epileptic medications, resist modern drinking water and wastewater treatment processes. Plus, the EPA says there are no sewage treatment systems specifically engineered to remove pharmaceuticals.

One technology, reverse osmosis, removes virtually all pharmaceutical contaminants but is very expensive for large-scale use and leaves several gallons of polluted water for every one that is made drinkable.

Another issue: There's evidence that adding chlorine, a common process in conventional drinking water treatment plants, makes some pharmaceuticals more toxic...

Human waste isn't the only source of contamination. Cattle, for example, are given ear implants that provide a slow release of trenbolone, an anabolic steroid used by some bodybuilders, which causes cattle to bulk up. But not all the trenbolone circulating in a steer is metabolized. A German study showed 10 percent of the steroid passed right through the animals.

Water sampled downstream of a Nebraska feedlot had steroid levels four times as high as the water taken upstream. Male fathead minnows living in that downstream area had low testosterone levels and small heads...

Ask the pharmaceutical industry whether the contamination of water supplies is a problem, and officials will tell you no...

But at a conference last summer, Mary Buzby — director of environmental technology for drug maker Merck & Co. Inc. — said: "There's no doubt about it, pharmaceuticals are being detected in the environment and there is genuine concern that these compounds, in the small concentrations that they're at, could be causing impacts to human health or to aquatic organisms."

Recent laboratory research has found that small amounts of medication have affected human embryonic kidney cells, human blood cells and human breast cancer cells. The cancer cells proliferated too quickly; the kidney cells grew too slowly; and the blood cells showed biological activity associated with inflammation.

Also, pharmaceuticals in waterways are damaging wildlife across the nation and around the globe, research shows. Notably, male fish are being feminized, creating egg yolk proteins, a process usually restricted to females. Pharmaceuticals also are affecting sentinel species at the foundation of the pyramid of life — such as earth worms in the wild and zooplankton in the laboratory, studies show.

Some scientists stress that the research is extremely limited, and there are too many unknowns. They say, though, that the documented health problems in wildlife are disconcerting...

There's growing concern in the scientific community, meanwhile, that certain drugs — or combinations of drugs — may harm humans over decades because water, unlike most specific foods, is consumed in sizable amounts every day...

Our bodies may shrug off a relatively big one-time dose, yet suffer from a smaller amount delivered continuously over a half century, perhaps subtly stirring allergies or nerve damage...

Many concerns about chronic low-level exposure focus on certain drug classes: chemotherapy that can act as a powerful poison; hormones that can hamper reproduction or development; medicines for depression and epilepsy that can damage the brain or change behavior; antibiotics that can allow human germs to mutate into more dangerous forms; pain relievers and blood-pressure diuretics...

However, some experts say medications may pose a unique danger because, unlike most pollutants, they were crafted to act on the human body.

And while drugs are tested to be safe for humans, the timeframe is usually over a matter of months, not a lifetime. Pharmaceuticals also can produce side effects and interact with other drugs at normal medical doses....

Then, of course, there's the recent unprecedented global proliferation of poisonous jellyfish.

Follow the links. Read all about it. And then, if you're like me, go sit in a dark room and gibber in terror for about half an hour.

Thursday, March 06, 2008

Drive by

New job started Monday. No Internet access at work. All is chaos. You might get updates here on weekends, but, y'know, no promises.

Peace out.