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First Person Personal

My personal views on a variety of matters ranging from popular culture to quantum physics to religion to politics to history to bushido to ... well, whatever I feel like, really. Warning: we all have agendas. Trust no one totally, myself most specifically included. Email me at wbrerwolf at gmail.com

Thursday, April 27, 2006

Thinking about Iraq

I believe that President Bush will be most remembered for the Iraqi War and its disasterous aftermath. I was against the war at the time for various reasons, but I completely failed to predict this slide into Hell. What makes this mess bearable to the American citizenry is that we usually just get "the big picture": over thirty thousand Iraqis and over two thousand Americans dead for no discernible benefit to our nation or to the Iraqi people as a whole (indeed it can be argued that this war has considerably worsened our situation and it is undeniable that the current situation in Iraq is very bad indeed).

Thirty two thousand dead is just a number. Human beings cannot accept that many deaths as real. Those of us with my particular mindset realize that this number is a very bad indicator of what is going on in Iraq but even we cannot effectivly relate this number to the human suffering it represents. So we react the way we react to a major hardware failure in our computer system: annoyance, a desire to fix the problem, serious irritation directed towards the manufacturer, but no real emotional involvement.

A few weeks ago NPR aired an interview with a virologist who specializes in the Spanish Flu outbreak of the early twentieth century which killed over two million people. The doctor discovered that some people were buried in lead coffins which preserved the lethal virus. He used newspaper obituaries to find people who died of the Flu and how they were buried. Then, something unexpected happened.

Two million dead is just another number, something that has no emotional impact. But consider reading about a couple who married and started their new life together. Before their first anniversary, the husband became ill from the Flu. Recognizing the risk of contagion, the wife refused to leave her husband and tried to nurse him back to health. Both died, both were buried in a way that preserved their killer for the doctor to extract almost a century later.

The virologist keeps a copy of their wedding picture on his wall. You see, you can't mourn two million dead, but you can mourn two people.

Individuals make things real.

Riverbend, creator of the blog Baghdad Burning is the person who makes the Iraqi experience real for me.

Riverbend is a young Iraqi woman who has been posting her blog about life in Baghdad for several years. For obvious reasons, she has kept her real name a secret. Early portions of her blog have been published as a paperback under the title Baghdad Burning with Riverbend listed as the author and both the book and her blog are up for or have won several awards, a fact of which she is justly proud.

As I read her blog, I become more and more aware of the human toll that our government's tragic blunder has imposed upon the people of Iraq. Over the months since we invaded Iraq, things went from hard to bad to the current threat of civil war. Riverbend's posts document the deterioration of Iraq with amazing clarity and humanity. I doubt that I would have had the emotional strength to continue posting if I was in her situation: courage is not facing down a tiger with a broken pocketknife, courage is getting out of bed and dealing with your world getting worse every day. By this standard, I think that Riverbend is considerably braver than I am.

One of her most compelling posts is devoted to mourning her friend Alan Enwiya, who was the translator for Jill Carroll when she was abducted. As they normally do with Iraqis accompanying their main target, the kidnappers shot and killed Alan. Alan left behind his family: a much-cherished wife, two small children and the rest of his immediate family, including his parents. Riverbend makes me appreciate how great a loss Alan's death was not just to his immediate circle of friends but to his city and nation. Another Iraqi blogger, Ms. Fayrouz of - Iraqi In America kept a pay-pal link on her site until the Christian Science Monitor took over the fund-raising. Alan's family has left Iraq and hopes to come to America. Christian Science Monitor had an article about Alan where I got much of the more recent information and quotes extensively from Baghdad Burning, who in turn is quoting Pink Floyd.

More recent posts document the increasingly bad situation in Baghdad. Prior posts concentrated on physical discomforts: massive (and increasingly common) power and water outages. Current posts are about the increasingly violent situation in Iraq: she describes people lined up outside a morgue to try to find the corpse of a missing relative and mentions how almost every morning corpses are found in the streets of Baghdad, often showing signs of torture.

Riverbend regularly goes for days without posting: no power, no internet, no posting. At such times, I find myself worrying about her. Odd, to be concerned about a person who I will never meet in the flesh when I am often indifferent to the problems of people I see on the street.

Still, you care about the people you care about. In keeping with this concern and with the full knowledge that nobody on the planet is really interested in my opinion, I would like to devote my next few blog entries to the situation in Iraq and possible solutions that suggest themselves to me. I am also going to apply some programming techniques to my blog entries. I intend at this time to have four or five main postings under the general heading "Unsolicited Advice: Iraq". Each post will be devoted to a separate subject such as: personal survival; community safety; nation building; possibly useful parables; who's who. I will modify the blog entries as I go, starting with fairly simple posts and then expanding them as I have the time and resources. I will start off by labeling them in the traditional way: Alpha 1, Alpha 2, then Beta 1, Beta 2 and, if I can get that far, actual release versions 1.0, 1.1, etc. If you are interested in the process, feel free to copy the earlier versions and compare them with the later versions. As for me, this is a work in progress and I am working on each new version as it arrives in my head.

Monday, March 20, 2006

Poem: My Guitar Version 1.0


She’s got scratches, dents and nicks.
The neck’s been broke a time or two.
The strings are silver,
Stained with age and wear.
The pegs loosen up sometimes
In the middle of a song.
Maybe should get a new guitar,
One’a those electrical things . . .
Hell, I can’t play this guitar
The way she should be played.

Guitar’s damned flexible, she can cry and sing.
Self-taught, the fingers fumble on the strings.
Never went to school, maybe played the fool
But always had to make new mistakes,
Always had to trip and stumble into joy.
So don’t, can’t play like Dylan;
But he never touched the songs
That this guitar can play.

Don’t play for someone else
Nor to hear the people cheer –
Play ‘cause there’s something inside
That has to come out,
Either in the song
Or snarling, bloody-clawed,
Carve it’s own birth canal.
No, don’t play no pretty songs
Like McKuen and the boys;
Nor yet the heavy metal sound
That gets you high on noise.
The score ain’t right for none’a these.

Maybe should’a got a different Muse,
One that don’t wear combat boots;
But no one else could teach me
The songs I have to play.
So I sit here and fumble with the strings,
Watch the Muse’s face, an old road map of Hell;
The eyes alive with fire, like blood on a lover’s skin;
The hands, the claws that hold the score
A hairsbreadth out of reach.
The lips that kind’a smile, that sometimes allow
That when the fingers dance, the strings are tight
The music ain’t half bad.

Brer Wolf, copyright 2006.

Wednesday, March 08, 2006


I am starting this post off with some useful reference material.

Amendment V
No person shall be held to answer for a capital, or otherwise infamous crime, unless on a presentment or indictment of a grand jury, except in cases arising in the land or naval forces, or in the militia, when in actual service in time of war or public danger; nor shall any person be subject for the same offense to be twice put in jeopardy of life or limb; nor shall be compelled in any criminal case to be a witness against himself, nor be deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor shall private property be taken for public use, without just compensation.

Amendment VIII

Excessive bail shall not be required, nor excessive fines imposed, nor cruel and unusual punishments inflicted.

Section 1.
All persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the State wherein they reside. No State shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.

The Fifth, Eighth and Fourteenth Amendments to the Constitution of the United States of America.

He who fights with monsters might take care lest he thereby become a monster. And if you gaze for long into an abyss, the abyss gazes also into you. Friedrich Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil, Aphorism 146

As I said in my last post, I do not believe that torture is an acceptable option. However, not everyone agrees with me.

To my mind, Alan Dershowitz presents a compelling argument for legalizing torture in Chapter 4 of his book WHY TERRORISM WORKS (R. R. Donnelley & Sons Co., Inc, 2002) which I will summarize below and give reference pages:

Firstly, Dershowitz makes the point that the word “torture” covers a vast range of activities which “can range from the most unmitigated cruelty as a prelude to death to the most antiseptic, nonlethal and even nonphysical mind games” (Dershowitz, 124). He then goes on to argue that in extreme cases torture can be used by a democracy against a suspect in order to attempt to prevent one or more innocent people from coming to harm.

Dershowitz also discusses the implications if torture was incorporated into our legal system. For example he argues that the Fifth Amendment prohibits compelled self- incrimination so evidence obtained by torture could not be used against the person who was tortured. However, if a subject is given immunity and then tortured, anything he says could be used but only against others. This torture does not count as cruel and unusual punishment: the subject is not being punished, he is being interrogated. The only constitutional bars to legalized torture, Dershowitz continues, are the due process provisions of the Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments, which, he argues, can be gotten around by requiring the torturers to be able to prove probable cause to a judge (Dershowitz, 135).

Dershowitz believes the fact that we are signatories to the Geneva Convention Against Torture is a far more significant bar to legalized torture than the Constitution is. However, there is a loophole: we agreed to be bound by the Convention only as long as it was consistent with the Eighth Amendment. And various courts in our country have already suggested that the Eighth Amendment would not stand in the way of using torture to save lives, especially if the torture left no lasting injuries. For instance, our courts according to Dershowitz already routinely overlook psychological torture in many cases. Thus we could use torture and still technically be in accord with the Geneva Convention (Dershowitz, 135-136).

Now, as regards the accuracy of information obtained by torture: Dershowitz does not deny that much of the information obtained by torture is invalid; he contends instead that sometimes torture works and that it can and has saved lives (Dershowitz, 137). This, he says, is why torture continues to exist everywhere in the world. Even our own country farms out suspected terrorists to friendly countries such as Egypt and Jordan who torture them and pass the information back to us in violation of the Geneva Convention. (http://www.cbsnews.com/stories/2005/03/04/60minutes/main678155.shtml ). Dershowitz (138) maintains that we would be far better served by directly confronting this fact and either eliminating torture altogether or by placing it inside our legal structure as an extreme option reserved for extreme circumstances and requiring judicial approval. This would, he believes, reduce torture to the irreducible minimum, a level that he believes would be considerably under what we now actually practice (as opposed to what we admit to) (Dershowitz, 141).

Dershowitz (146-149) then addresses the issue of the “slippery slope”. This is the argument that once torture is legalized for any reason, it will inevitably be legalized for much less serious cases. He cites two major classes: case utilitarianism and rule utilitarianism. With case utilitarianism, the argument is that in a particular case, the benefits of torture outweigh its costs. Rule utilitarianism takes a more strategic viewpoint: it considers the implications of establishing a precedent that would inevitably be expanded, i.e. the “slippery slope” mentioned above. As Dershowitz says, you can justify any excess provided that the ultimate results outweigh the costs. Such a belief in ultimate good results led the Soviets to kill millions of people, mass murder that they justified as necessary to benefit all future generations (finite cost versus infinite gains: a no-brainer). Dershowitz seems to believe that the solution to this problem is to build in a “principled break” into the legal structure, that, say, only convicted terrorists who had knowledge of future terrorist activities and who refused to provide information even after being granted immunity should be tortured. Unfortunately, he does not make clear how this “principled break” should be maintained in the future and I personally see no way that it would endure.

He makes several good logical arguments in his attempt to justify legalizing torture:
· Comparing torture to imprisonment (imprisonment can be used to coerce testimony: prison is unpleasant, often physically painful and potentially life threatening, so why not use careful, non-lethal torture to produce a positive goal?)
· The execution of murderers (if you kill someone (permanent, extreme damage) who can’t reasonably be expected to harm anyone ever again, why not torture someone (temporary pain, no permanent physical damage) to prevent mass murders?)
· We endorse the use of lethal force against suspects fleeing the scene of a major crime. They are not currently a threat to the officer, they have not been convicted of any crime, they are, in fact, only suspects. So why not use nonlethal force against people who are already convicted to prevent future crimes?
· Our own government has attempted to coerce other nations through the use of saturation bombing, or trade blockades that cause immense suffering to the general population of a country while not greatly affecting their leaders. Recently, we have practiced simple invasion and occupation that produces considerable collateral damage for very little gain. Why is the suffering of one guilty person worse than the suffering of a thousand innocents who live far, far away? Dershowitz says that it is because we are aware of the one person suffering while the thousand innocents are hidden from our view

Dershowitz (150) says that there are four basic approaches to the use of torture by various security or police organizations:
1. Consider such things to be in a “gray area”, outside of normal law.
2. Ignore the practice of torture and publicly proclaim our virtuous stance on the subject of torture (see, for instance Vice-President Cheney and Secretary of State Rice’s recent statements on the subject. Dershowitz quotes an Israeli commission on torture as calling this “the way of the hypocrites,” which is certainly an apt description.).
3. Bring torture inside the legal structure and regulate it carefully.
4. Completely forbid torture under any circumstances whatsoever.

As best I can determine, Dershowitz considers the first two options to be too dangerous – in both options, torture can be conducted essentially on whim, and that the greater populace of the nation (indeed, the government itself) has no way of restraining the inevitable excesses. Thus, the only real options are three and four. He believes (I think correctly) that the fourth option would immediately be overruled in a democracy such as our own after any sort of September 11th attack and so the only truly practical option is option three.

Dershowitz goes on (151-154) to describe the values at war on the question of torture. Firstly, there is the need to keep the citizens of your country as safe as possible, to prevent them from being harmed by extremists. This value argues that no matter what, the population must be kept safe. Secondly, the question of preserving civil liberties and human rights cannot be neglected. This value argues that no matter what, torture cannot be permitted. Thirdly, no matter what, we must have open accountability and visibility. If we do not know of an action, we can neither approve nor disapprove of it and such unmonitored actions can go horribly out of control.

So: which no matter what is the most important? The safety of our citizens? Civil liberties and human rights? The open oversight of our government’s activities? No matter what we do, it appears inevitable that at least one of these values must be violated.

Dershowitz argues that the practice of torture should be put into law, that it should require judicial oversight, that torture be reserved for the most extreme cases of public safety and, I believe, that the records of torture be available for later review. He presents the argument that we are doing it anyway, “under the radar” and that public oversight can only serve to reduce the amount of torture committed below the levels that we currently sanction.

I don’t pretend to be as smart as Dershowitz. I am most certainly not one of the foremost defense attorneys currently alive. I do have a good enough education that I can appreciate his logic that it is better that one guilty man suffer pain and humiliation than any innocents should perish.

However, like Senator McCain, I am very uncomfortable with the idea of accepting torture, even as carefully regulated a form of torture as Dershowitz proposes. It is, I think, not just wrong, it is actively un-American. I see it as a betrayal of our ideals, an admission that everything comes down to brute force, that logic, reason, justice (as opposed to law) and morality should be discarded whenever the price becomes too high. It would mean that we Americans would have to abandon or at least seriously modify our belief that we are “the good guys”. There are some things that “good guys” just do not do, and torture is one of them.

How many lives is too high a price for maintaining our moral superiority? I don’t know, and I must admit that I am glad that I am not one of those who have to decide that question. If the choice was up to me, I think that I would have to reluctantly opt to legalize torture only under the extreme circumstances that Dershowitz cites. I would also argue for even more strict controls than Dershowitz suggests. For example, perhaps we should require that the authorization of torture should be subject to later review and that if the torture is shown to be unjustified the official requesting the torture should be sentenced to 5 to 10 years in a federal prison. Or possibly we should require that the official requesting the torture should be tortured in tandem with the prisoner. After all, it is better that two people suffer than that we should allow many people to die.

I want everyone involved to be sure that there is no other way.

Dershowitz makes a very compelling case for legalizing torture. But that is what lawyers do: make compelling cases. Just because something is logically argued does not make it right. You can make a good case for:

· legalizing incest (the royal families of Europe and a couple of the old Egyptian dynasties come to mind: it concentrated power and wealth in certain families)
· exterminating or sterilizing the mentally ill (not just a Nazi practice: they had legal forcible sterilizing of mentally retarded people here in the U.S of A as well)
· contributing to the ecosystem by converting dead humans into animal (or even people) food (it seems to work fine for ants)
· torturing, imprisoning and killing people because of their beliefs (such as happened during the Inquisition as well as during McCarthy’s Red Scare and the purges in the early Soviet Union)

As a species, we are not truly logical creatures. For most of us, logic is a tool, not a driving force. We must be very careful when examining a logical argument, for such arguments almost always serve someone else’s agenda. Instinct matters for a lot, especially to semi-intelligent apes like us.

In the martial arts, we are trained to listen to our instincts, to override them only if we know what rang our alarms.

And the idea of legalizing torture sets off my alarms big time.

I have spent some time thinking about why this should alarm me so, and I think that Dershowitz glosses over a lot of the details: how, for instance, will we train our torturers? These specialists are supposed to be able to inflict excruciating pain without inflicting permanent damage: how are they to learn these skills without practicing on humans? Conceivably, they will practice on each other. Perhaps they should use pre-law students instead. However, this is a practical objection, and doubtless can be overcome in some way, perhaps by using computer-controlled manikins such as are used in some first aid classes; this cannot be the core reason for my uneasiness. More important would be the effect on the torturers. How many of them would take their work home with them, perhaps growing to enjoy torturing people more than they wish to get useful information? Would we be training the next generation of serial killers?

Dershowitz seems to believe that pain is temporary, that once the body heals, the mind heals as well. I must disagree: I have endured considerable pain in my life and my mind was distorted by the experience long after the pain itself stopped (see Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder). Still, this is a quibble: the entire point of Dershowitz’s argument is that it is better for one person to suffer than for many to die; the fact that the subject’s mind may be distorted by his suffering seems to be largely irrelevant.

What happens to the rest of the world if we incorporate torture into our legal system? It certainly seems likely that human rights everywhere would take a huge step backwards and that many countries would follow our lead and incorporate torture into their own culture as both interrogation and punishment. Further, many countries would use torture in ways that we would find to be distasteful: to crush political dissent, to intimidate religious or political minorities or just for fun. Still, that is not our problem. Our problem is how to keep our people safe. If torture does this, perhaps we should consider incorporating it into our system, regardless of how other nations are influenced by our choices.

But if we choose to incorporate torture into our system, there will be a terrible cost: not just the physical suffering of the people being tortured but to our view of ourselves and the world’s view of us. The cultural cost to us would be enormous and one that we cannot exactly predict. This is a question that needs serious debate before the next major terrorist assault drives us to legalize torture without any safeguards whatsoever: and we are, with the exception of Dershowitz and a few others, not talking about it seriously. We are instead either saying nothing or posturing for the cameras.

Business as usual.

Other references

LRB | Slavoj Zizek : Are we in a war? Do we have an enemy? - A detailed argument against torture
Pentagon Report Set Framework For Use of Torture - Published on Monday, June 7, 2004 by the Wall Street Journal

Wednesday, November 23, 2005

Torture, Part One - I'm against it.

I, personally, am of the old school on torture.

I do not believe that torture works well enough to justify the costs involved.

Now, let’s say that you are in an interrogation room and the interrogator is breaking your fingers until you tell him what he wants to know. Do you tell him the truth, no matter how unpleasant or unbelievable he might find it, or do you come up with a plausible lie? Remember that Galileo told the Inquisition what they wanted to hear. You’d be surprised at how good you can be at sucking up to someone who can run an electric current through your genitals.

What if you don’t know the answers to the questions the torturer is asking you? The torturer obviously thinks you know something, so if you say “I don’t know”, he’s only going to think that you’re resisting, so he will step up the pressure. Eventually, you come up with an acceptable lie. Senator John McCain, a man who was actually tortured during the Vietnam war confirms this.

Let’s say you do know something and tell it to the torturer. Many torturers assume that you know more than you are telling and try to get more information out of you by continuing the torture. Sooner or later, you run out of things to tell him and you have to start feeding him plausible lies. The French used continuing torture in Vietnam and this was cited by Robert McNamara in his book ARGUMENT WITHOUT END as a reason why Vietnamese prisoners uniformly refused to talk while in custody, regardless of whether or not they had ties to the Viet Minh.

Suppose that they ask you for your collaborators, your fellow conspirators. Perhaps you give them up, perhaps you simply throw out names, more or less at random. Very likely there are at least a few people that you’d pay to have tortured, just to settle some old scores. So the torturers drag in the people you have named and work them over. Some of them know things that the torturer wants to know, some do not. Quite a lot of what the torturers get from these people are lies.

So torture produces quite a lot of bad information, possibly enough to actually interfere with the information gathering process. Crosschecking with other sources can eliminate bad information, which is a time consuming and manpower intensive process. Still, this is part of the normal verification process, so in and of itself, this is not a problem. But what if the person you are torturing is the only source you have? Is he lying or is he giving you vital information? This is, of course, a general problem with intelligence gathering, but I contend that information obtained through torture only exacerbates the problem.

Further, torture produces other bad effects.

Firstly, whom do you torture?

Do you torture only terrorists who are believed to have vital information? How about torturing anyone who is a terrorist and hoping that some of them know something important? How about torturing people who might be terrorists? How about the friends and relatives of suspected terrorists? How about foreign nationals who are not actively harming anyone but instead organizing mass protests against your country’s polices? How about torturing citizens of your own country, obviously traitors or fellow travelers, who are likewise protesting your country’s policies to see what links, if any, exist between them and various terror organizations? How about people you or someone in a position of power just don’t like very much? As a little bit of thought will reveal, once you start torturing someone, it is a very small step to torturing anyone.

And even if “proper” targets are selected for interrogation by torture, there are other side effects. Let’s say that you have Achmed in custody and are persuading him to talk with a bit of light torture. Nothing too serious, just interfering with his sleep, preventing him from bathing, causing him to miss his religious observances, giving him food he finds to be unclean, perhaps a bit of sexual humiliation by a female guard.

You know: head games.

Let’s further assume that you run the first absolutely leak proof operation in human history, that no one outside your authorized circle knows who you have, where they are or what you are doing with them.

But Achmed and his fellow prisoners did not come out of a vacuum. They have friends, family, neighbors and comrades who are wondering what happened to them. Human nature being what it is, if they do not know what has happened to Achmed, they start making things up. Probably they end up by accusing you of doing worse things than you are actually doing. Further, since you are running a leak proof operation, any missing person is considered to be in your prison, regardless of whether they are or not.

So the foreign populace becomes increasingly upset with you. People who had neutral or friendly attitudes towards you become hostile. They may not decide to take up arms against you, but they do become increasingly willing to work against you and your cause and increasingly unwilling to cooperate with you. Those who already are hostile to you become increasingly fanatical and desperate to strike back in revenge or they fight to the death to avoid being taken to your camps. Suicide attacks become more common.

You are now faced with some very unpleasant alternatives. You can stonewall and watch as enemy propaganda accuses you of everything up to and including running death camps. You can parade a select group of prisoners in front of the camera, tell them what to say and hope that they look more convincing than the American POWs in Vietnam looked when they were talking about how well they were being treated in the Hanoi Hilton. Or you can open up your prisons and interrogation procedures to the scrutiny of some impartial third party such as the Red Cross or Amnesty International and deal with the political fallout involved by promising – and delivering – major reforms. Or you can blame all of this on people low in the chain of command exceeding their authority and making them into scapegoats. Military morale and initiative plummet. Or you can kill everyone in the prisons, destroy the corpses, and deny that you ever had anyone there. This last would be particularly bad for military morale as the guards and staff would probably consider themselves to be next on the list to be disappeared as possible embarrassments to the State. Further, you have established a government policy of mass murder, a policy that is almost certain to be eventually revealed.

Such things would be very bad for us domestically. Earlier civilizations could shrug off human rights violations as part of the cost of empire and not worry about them very much. We, however, like to think of ourselves as “the good guys”. As a matter of definition, good guys do not resort to torture and mass murder. If we torture prisoners, it becomes increasingly difficult to think of ourselves as being the heroes. This could make our government increasingly unpopular as happened during the Vietnam era. I very seriously doubt that we would find ourselves in open revolt over such matters. However, I would anticipate an increase in cynicism along with an overall reduction in morale.

I don’t want to be a citizen of the new Evil Empire.

I don’t think that many Americans do.

Thursday, November 17, 2005

With My Back Against the Wall

“You are overdrawn by $2,800.”

About the only good thing about this announcement was that I was talking to an automated system. I find this to be considerably less humiliating than dealing with a human being.

Strangely enough, there are fairly obvious similarities between a sword fight and a financial meltdown. First off, you set up your priorities: what must be protected? In a sword fight, you protect your vital organs, your sword arm and, if you can, your legs. Flesh wounds can be ignored; even major wounds that will not kill you or stop you from fighting in the next fifteen minutes or so can be tolerated. You are concerned with what will keep you alive right now. You look for every advantage, fair or foul. This is a fight for survival, not an Olympic match.

Likewise, the financial injuries must be prioritized. A lot of the $2800 temporarily disappeared as some checks bounced. The account was still negative, but only by about $800. The checks will come back with added fees later, but I was only trying to get through the week or possibly the day. The bank is willing to cover SOME checks as I have automatic deposit on my paycheck, but I don’t get paid that much every check.

Some debts must be paid immediately: Utilities, such as power and water must be paid or some arrangements must be made or they will shut you off. Modern homes require power to be livable. Once they turned off our electricity, twice our water and our garbage collection service has been interrupted twice as well. I was reduced to stealing water from a nearby construction site and dumping our trash in the construction site Dumpster.

Communications are also important: if you are involved in a job hunt, there must be some way for an employer to find you, so the phone must stay on. However, luxuries such as a second line or a cell phone can be dispensed with until things improve. If you are broke and people are looking to get money out of you, a call identifier and voicemail is not a luxury, it is a necessary medical expense: I find that I must duck calls from bill collectors if I am to be able to function during the day. Likewise, I need to keep the computer line up to be able to check jobs online. In our case, the computer line is a package deal with our cable company, and my wife wants to keep the TV as well as the computers.

Transport is likewise important: unless you can walk to your job, or can take a bus, you must have enough money to keep your car on the road. Some maintenance can be postponed, but critical repairs (brakes and steering, for instance) must be paid for somehow. Right now, my brakes are making the metal on metal sound and I hope they will last until I can afford to buy new pads and have them installed. Likewise, your car will not accept IOUs for gas or oil. Insurance and registration can be skimped on, but depending on your area you could face serious legal charges if they catch you. You must understand the law in order to break it with minimum risk. Further, if you do not own your car outright, you must keep up the payments or they will take it back. Right now, my wife has to pay $125 a month on her car, money we could use for other items. If we can double up a few payments, this obligation could disappear by spring. You may decide that your best option is to get rid of all except one car to save on money. As for me, carpooling with my wife comes very close to my definition of eternal damnation. If you live in the right neighborhood, you might decide to walk or bicycle to work; in my area, this seems to be a synonym for suicide, not because the neighbors are scary, but because the drivers are. I like to have a lot of steel between the Driver’s Ed dropouts and me.

Then we have the expenses of living: food, both for family and pets, basic supplies such as toilet paper and soap, clothing, grooming (if looking for work or working, neither of these last two can be totally eliminated, although they can be reduced somewhat). I have friends who can shop off the rack at Goodwill or some other thrift store. I, unfortunately, am a bit too oddly built for that. If at all possible, budget something for morale: perhaps a matinee at a local movie and eating before you go: the movie is not that expensive, but popcorn and drinks are: for a few bucks more you can get a good meal. Some people smuggle in drinks and munchies, but I prefer not to. It strikes me as rude. Other morale builders can be quite inexpensive: picnics at public camp grounds, hikes through national parks, some videos and music are available through your local library as well as books, another good morale builder. My wife enjoys a good, long hot bath with scented candles. Pets, also, cannot be neglected as morale builders. There is nothing like a pet to make you feel better about yourself when everything else in your environment is turning to crap. Our dogs Y and Z as well as our late cat C were well worth every penny we spent on them.

But battles are not survived by being on the defensive. One must also attempt to damage the enemy, kill the enemy. In a financial meltdown, this means that one must somehow bring in more money. The best way of doing this is by looking for a new or a second job. For no particularly good reason, I have decided to look for jobs with a twenty-percent higher salary and/or some sort of health benefits. Just getting a new job is no guarantee of being able to keep it, so one must factor in the risk of being fired in a few weeks. Increased reward must balance increased risk. So far, I have had three interviews and no strong nibbles. My wife is currently up for a job that will bring in three times what my current job does. If she gets it, she will have to temporally relocate to another state, coming home only on days off until she gains enough seniority to be transferred back to this area. This will be a major sacrifice for both of us: I cannot seem to really relax without her being around and she has similar issues. Costs and benefits, again.

After actual short-term survival, one must deal with major injuries.

Most important are the injuries that will kill you in the near term. At the very top are the bad checks or other items with serious legal consequences such as IRS or government fines and fees. Failing to honor bad checks can put you in jail eventually. Fortunately, most places would rather have their money than have you in jail and are willing to work with you for quite a long while, but not forever. I have been arrested several times for bad checks in the past and it seems very likely that I will be arrested again as a result of this meltdown. So far, I have not done any jail time, but it sure screws any chance I might have had of getting a security clearance. As far as taxes, or other government debts, these expenses must be paid eventually. Cheating the government is a bad plan; however, the government tends to move very slowly, perhaps giving you time to cut a deal with them.

One must also somehow stop blood loss if one is to survive. To survive in the short term, one often is forced to take extremely disadvantageous loans, pawn valuable possessions for a fraction of their worth and max out your credit cards. Pay off high interest loans ASAP. It is horrifying how much of these loans go to interest and how little towards the principal. Each small decrease in the principal reduces the horrific interest that one must pay each and every month and thus makes it possible to cut into the principal even more. Even very small bites out of the principal add up surprisingly quickly. Some folks recommend hitting the smallest loans first and wiping them out as a morale builder. However, at the moment I am trying to keep attacking the largest interest loans first. It may not be smart, but it seems like a good idea to me. Every month I debate with myself about simply abandoning the items we have in pawn, but so far I keep paying the ruinous interest and buy down the principal as I can.

Messages from people who you don’t know who refuse to say why they are calling should be ignored until the money comes back: these people are bill collectors and are NOT nice people. They will not have pity on you and they do not have noticeable amounts of mercy in their dispositions. Their job doesn’t pay all that much, they just like doing it. You don’t have the money to pay them or you would be paying them and all any conversation with them will do is confirm this and tell them that they should take you to court and get what they can out of you. Even when you have money again, these people should be approached cautiously; lawyers might be a good investment here. Also remember that there are several reverse switchboard sites that can tell you who a particular number belongs to.

Then, one must begin to heal injuries. Perhaps most important are the debts of honor, monies owed to friends and relatives who probably do not ever expect to see the money again. Remember that you are not giving the money back to them as much as you are buying back your self-respect. Next, the devastated credit record must be carefully examined, corrected and each item must be dealt with one at a time. This allows you to hopefully build up some sort of security against future catastrophe. If you don’t really need it, you can get a loan at an amazingly low rate of interest. If you really need it, you have to pay with jugs full of your life’s blood. In particular, I have borrowed over five thousand dollars from my widowed mother. I cannot tell you how much it upsets me to do this, but I could see no alternative. If the situation gets worse, I hope that I can muster the courage to go down by myself and not take my mother with me.

Finally, we must look towards the future somehow; without hope for the future, we might as well give up and die now. I must bring in more money somehow; I must devote some effort towards being more employable. So I am going back to school to try to join the modern workforce. In a peculiar sort of way, our current financial situation is beneficial: if we were just getting by, the expenses involved in going back to school could not be defended. As things are, a few thousand dollars more due and payable after I finish my classes won’t make much difference. My wife and I discussed this and I asked my sister to cosign a loan so that I could go back to school and upgrade my computer skills. She agreed and I started classes in September of 2005 while continuing to work full time. So far, it is a big morale builder; I feel like I am accomplishing something worthwhile. Considering everything, it seems like a very good investment. Again, this is a debt I must cover, and a task that I cannot allow myself to fail at. So far, seven weeks into the quarter, I have a straight A average. On the other hand, this is just review with a few new things for me to soak up. When I get to the new stuff in a quarter or so, things could change dramatically for the worse.

Still, I am usually pretty optimistic about the future these days. As some old Chinese general once wrote: “This situation is desperate, the prospects are excellent.”

Note: while I was writing this, one of the Blogs I follow (Whatever at Scalzi.com) posted Being Poor – some of his stuff really hit a chord with me. For me, being poor in the sense of going without luxuries or even missing the occasional meal does not bother me very much. What bothers me is feeling that I am a drain, a burden that others must carry rather than being able to help others. It bothers me that I owe my mother money and have no idea of when I can pay her back. It bothers me that my sister had to cosign my loan. It bothers me that I cannot be sure that I can pay for my wife’s medications each month. It bothers me that I cannot even donate ten dollars to a worthy cause such as the recent hurricane relief or for books and materials for poor children to go to school.

Back where I came from, we have a saying: “A hand full of nothing and a mouth full of ‘gimme’.”

I really hate having to apply that phrase to myself.

Thursday, November 10, 2005

And my dog died

One of my dogs died over the Labor Day weekend. Y was a miniature schnauzer and weighed about twenty-five pounds. He was very affectionate and loving, always ready to cuddle. Like most of his breed, he was very powerfully built and energetic. We inherited Y when his previous owner D died of complications from AIDS. My wife was D’s primary caregiver and I helped out some, mostly by taking care of Y and doing some muscle work. D left him to me in the will with the understanding that Y would be buried with him when the time came.

I first met Y before S and I got married; he was about nine weeks old at the time and S was babysitting him while his owners were elsewhere. S’s cat C immediately started to stalk Y.

Y was very (and justifiably) wary of C. While he was a bit bigger and his bite was worse, he did not have claws and was always more of a lover than a fighter. I warned S against leaving Y alone with C. S, as per usual, ignored me.

When we got back to S’s apartment, C had backed Y into the corner next to the outside door. Y had made a heroic effort to dig under the door to get away. The linoleum had to be replaced because of this.

Y lived a very full life for a little dog: he was part of at least five households, with ours being the last. D, before his final illness, was deeply involved with care giving for other AIDS sufferers. I think that D, a natural scholar, was studying how to face his own death. Y was by D’s side throughout all this and I believe that he was a great comfort to the people that D was taking care of and I know that he was a great comfort to D.

I don’t know if Y ever understood what was going on around him. I mean, I know that he knew that a lot of people were sick, but I don’t know if he knew that most of the people in his various households died and that the other dogs died or were relocated when their owner’s died. I think he just thought that people and other dogs kept abandoning him. He didn’t mind being left with new people, but it seemed to make him nervous to be left alone for extended periods of time.

Y had an amazing talent for getting along with other dogs. One day Y got away from me and ran up to three Rotties that were being walked by their owner. I knew the dogs were guard dogs and each one was at least a hundred pounds of solid muscle and bone. I thought that I was going to have to bring Y home in a plastic bag and spend the rest of my life apologizing to S for letting Y commit suicide.

All three Rotties sniffed Y and their tails started wagging in unison, as if to say, “Aren’t you the cutest little dog!”

I have only run into two dogs that weren’t at least willing to tolerate Y, and I think that both of those dogs were dangerous and should have been put down for public safety reasons. Even if the other dog was much smaller than Y, Y would befriend it rather than try to be the “big dog”.

About a year ago, Y had to have major surgery because of problems with his pancreas. Strangely enough, Knoxville has a vet who specializes in pancreatic surgery, and we were able to fix Y up with her. It cost a lot of money, a major contributing factor towards our current financial mess, but we hoped that it, along with switching Y to a prescription diet, would buy him another five or ten years.

It did not.

In late July, Y started to refuse food. We thought that it might be his teeth and switched him over to soft food. This worked OK for about a week, and then he started to refuse it and began to occasionally vomit. My wife is, among other things, a very skilled professional cook and she started to cook his food from scratch. This worked for another couple of weeks, and then he started to refuse these meals as well as vomiting what little he ate. We scraped together enough money to get Y to his vet.

I believe that Y realized that he was at the end of his life because of the expression on his face when I took him to the vet. He normally enjoyed his visits there, but this time he seemed to be very unhappy to be left.

The vet kept Y for two days and ran several tests, rehydrated him with an IV, diagnosed liver problems and attempted to treat him with various medications, all to no avail. Y was more alert, in less discomfort, but was still dying of liver failure.

The vet called and told us it was time.

My wife and I went to the vet’s office and they brought Y in. He was very glad to see us and we played with him for perhaps a half-hour and took a few pictures. Y was almost his old self, except that his skin had taken on a yellowish color indicative of liver failure. The vet told us that we could take Y home and let nature take its course or we could end Y’s life immediately.

We decided to have him put to sleep while my wife was holding him and I was stroking his head. We did this because we did not want Y to suffer and perhaps die alone, with neither my wife nor myself around.

We were impressed with how quickly the drugs worked. Y apparently felt no pain and was dead between one second and the next. I think he was a little surprised, but not afraid when he died. S told me afterwards that if she knew she was dying, this was how she wanted to go, surrounded by loved ones and quickly, with no pain.

Just in case some parts of his central nervous system were still sending in reports, I held Y in my arms for about twenty minutes while S was preparing the coffin and his shroud. S cut Y’s sleeping blanket to fit and we wrapped it around his little body with strapping tape, then we put him in a cardboard box that I had picked up for the occasion.

S had wanted to bury Y’s bowl with him, but we forgot to bring it. Later, S had me break it with a hammer and scatter the pieces above Y’s grave. It is amazingly satisfying to pulverize a ceramic bowl when you are feeling sad. Maybe this is why so many of the Ancients buried broken utensils with their dead.

We got a plant for cover, just in case anyone should ask why we were digging in the graveyard and then fulfilled D’s request, burying Y in between D and his lifemate’s graves. Y liked to sleep in between two people he loved; I hope he is happy there.

Saturday, October 22, 2005


Here, cat.
Have a drink.
Bleedin’s thirsty work.
Tough luck.
You’ll remember tonight
Every time it rains.
And it don’t bear rememberin’:
To have a rival down,
The prize won
‘Til she half claws out yer eye.
The rules say “Winner take all”,
But rules come from books,
Actions from the heart;
And who knows another’s heart
‘Til hear actions make things plain?
Old cat, new wounds . . .
I wonder, do your scars pain you
As much as mine pain me?
Do your unseen wounds hurt
Worse than any open sore?
Desire’s a funny thing:
You can feel it,
Strong enough to kill for,
To die for,
For someone who don’t feel for you at all.
Or you can feel for,
Feel with a passing stranger
Who wears upon his naked face
Clothing you have worn.
So we sit, the cat and me,
Drinking cold water
And wearing fellowship
Instead’a bloody linen.

Brer Wolf, copyright 2005.