Monday, December 14, 2009

What? Nothing About Tiger Woods?

Yes, I have nothing to say about Mr. Woods. Alright, that's not true. I never liked Tiger Woods, he dropped out of the At&T Pro/Am here at Pebble Beach because of he couldn't handle Bill Murry's antics and all the photographers. Boo hoo.

So all I will say is this: I am enjoying watching Tiger squirm.

That's all I have to say.

Sunday, November 29, 2009

A Rough Year Draws to an End.

George Clooney observed that everyone has a year where they age ten years. 2009 has been one of those years for me. I lost a good friend and I hate a mild heart attack, and both left me in a deep funk that has been hard to climb out of. I figure that the best way to beat this depression is to write about it, and once it's out in the open I can put it away. In the last ten days there has been a slow turn around, so I ask you to bear with me as I spew what is most likely emotional gobbledygook.

Last December I came to work and was told that my friend/coworker, Tim, had died in Chicago a day before. This was doubly sad because Tim had just finished four months of Chemotherapy for esophageal cancer, and was 100% cancer free. He had beat it. The problem was that it takes almost a year after chemo for the body to fully recover, and Tim had decided to take a road trip with his wife. He died in their hotel room a day after Christmas.

Tim was a great guy, he was in his mid-fifties, and had been around the block a few times. He loved to try new things (he had many tattoos and piercings), and he loved to fuck with people whenever he could. Since Tim was 6'5" he was an imposing presence, and he could tell someone off with the kind of authority I could only dream of. Tim never sugar-coated anything, and I learned a lot from that. Tim was also a great cheerleader for his many diverse friends, and was always reaching out to help someone. He often lent his cell phone to strangers to make emergency calls, and he gave more than a few surprised guests a ride in his Jeep to Santa Cruz or San Jose just for the hell of it. Tim's many friends included ex-cons, Air Force pilots (he was in the USAF), homeless guys, porn stars, bus drivers, and everything in between. He was a master of figuring people out, and could tell me what made them tick. Every day was a party, and he was always telling me that I deserved to treat myself better especially since the world never seems to want to.

When Tim died I was mad at him. That's the only way to put it. He had beat cancer, and then went on a road trip that killed him. What an asshole (this is what Tim would say if the situation were reversed). That anger masked something deeper; not only had a lost a friend but I had lost a mentor. I'm heading into the last half of my life and Tim seemed to be getting the most out of his. I could have learned so much more. I realize that this is selfish, but as Tim would tell you...why the hell not be selfish about it? He would tell you that some people don't feel anything and that I should be glad that I have any kind of emotions whatsoever. As the year has progressed I find myself missing Tim more and more. All the stupid things that we laughed about, all the crazy things that he loved are still going on without him. I've tried to enjoy them without him, but it all seems so hollow. Everyone has to deal with grief in their own way, and I have dealt with Tim's death the way I thought that Tim would want me to. That has made it a little easier, but it doesn't work as well now. So I'll just be honest and say that it hurts me that Tim is dead, I lost a special friend, and while I was lucky to have him in my life I am sad and angry that he is gone now.

Then there is the small matter of my heart attack...

I almost joined Tim in March. I was on the back end of a cold, and it had got into my lungs. Since I am asthmatic this is bad. I woke up around 9:00am and had taken a shower when my chest just locked up. I went to the ventilator and popped in some medication hoping to free up my breathing. After the ten minutes required I was still no better, so I went into my room to get my rescue inhaler. I took a lung full and then dropped to my knees, and I stayed there for almost forty-five minutes curled up in a ball. Everything was wrong. Sparks were flying through my eyes, and my breathing was exotically labored. There was a strange fire in my chest that hurt like a mother. There is no way I can describe this to you. I hit my cheap backup inhaler a couple more times and my chest eased up. I got up off the floor and sat on my bed, I was thinking about going to the hospital. I can't afford the hospital, and I was feeling better. So I got dressed, and I got in my truck and went to work. In late April I was at the gym, and I ran into my doctor friend. I'm telling him about my near death from asthma, and after I give him all the details he tells me that I'm lucky, and that it wasn't an asthma attack but a HEART ATTACK. Well fuck me six ways from Sunday, a heart attack. While I'm glad to be alive and all, it added to my depression.
Heart attacks are supposed to be for old people, I was 45. I guess that's old. So I found myself withdrawing from the world. I haven't hiked nearly as much as I did the year before, and I don't seem to enjoy a lot of things that I normally enjoy. I think almost dying makes you afraid to live a normal life. The thing I kept thinking as I was curled up on my bedroom floor trying to breathe was "I don't want to die now, not this way", and I felt so helpless about it all. Looking back on it now I see that some of my depression is based on that fear. Fear I can deal with much easier than grief. So already the weight on my brain has begun to lift.

As the semester draws to an end it will free up some time. I can use the extra time to start exercising again, something I loved to do all the time , but I have abandoned in the last year. I only have one class for next semester so I can really step things up. Tim was all about seeking out joy and bringing it into your life, and that is a gift that he has given me that I plan to use to the fullest. As 2010 approaches I am optimistic for the first time in a long while.

Saturday, November 28, 2009

English Romanticism and Early Modernism’s Warnings for the 20th & 21st Centuries.

The poems of English Romanticism warned of the dangers to mankind as we moved away from nature to indulge ourselves in the industrial revolution. The “Romantic Crisis” was seen as the loss of imagination as we disconnected with nature. John Keats said “Beauty is truth and truth beauty…”, and in the century that has passed since he wrote those words it is clear that western society no longer can recognize neither truth nor beauty. Worse, society no longer even seems to care that it cannot grasp these concepts, and it seems perfectly happy fabricating its own truths, and its own definition of beauty. The Romantic Crisis bore itself out at the end of the 19th century and early 20th century. This is best witnessed in the writings of James Joyce, and in the early work of Ernest Hemingway. Joyce’s “The Dubliners” is a stark, depressing look at life in Dublin at the turn of the last century. People are without joy, they have lost their faith in their church, their families, and themselves. There are repeated themes of emotional paralysis as we see people not only unable, but unwilling to improve their lives by reaching for better things. Hemingway’s “In Our Time” is a collection of short stories that revolve around the zeitgeist of disillusionment. Disillusionment of home, marriage, family, and society are explored in brief vignettes. This paralysis and disillusionment by society at large would open the door to Communism, Fascism, and Nazism in the 20th century.
The First World War had a devastating impact on western societies both in Europe, and the United States. In Europe cities were destroyed, and in both Europe and the US lives were destroyed. Men returned home to the United States changed by the Great War. In Europe after the war, veterans of both sides wandered the cities and countryside of France, Spain, and Italy. The popular notion is that these men were mesmerized by the pleasures that these places offered, and were not in a hurry to return home to Kansas or West Virginia. The truth was that they needed to come to grips with what they had seen, and what they had done as soldiers in the war. Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) was called “Shell Shock” in those days, and has taken almost a full century to be understood. The men didn’t know that they might be sick, but they sure knew that they weren’t well. So they wandered Europe trying to find themselves before they returned home. Adolf Hitler was one of those men, who like Hemingway, was wounded in the war, and found himself disillusioned after the war. Hitler chose to fill the void of disillusionment with anger and hatred. In Munich, Germany, Hitler would find other disillusioned war veterans to sell his vision of a new Germany to.
The danger of mass disillusionment of a segment of a population is that as they reject a belief system, they will embrace another almost without question. Hitler was a decorated war veteran, in the mind of those wayward German vets he had earned his bones, and thus they gave him the benefit of the doubt. Hitler took their disillusionment in their government, and turned it into anger towards their government. Hitler took advantage of the universal anti-Semitism in Europe to further fix (or put a face on) the target of all the things that were wrong with Germany and the world. Earlier, while the war was going on, Communists took over Russia in a fairly popular revolution. The Russian people had grown disillusioned with the Czar and his many failing, and the Communists were able to take advantage of this just as Hitler would sixteen years later.
Today there is much disillusionment again in the zeitgeist of America. Our economy has failed because smart people in finance bought into an economic model that was a lie. We will have spent seven years in Iraq after been told that their former government had stockpiles of WMDs. Many people view 9/11 as a failure of religion. So they want to throw the whole thing out.
All I ask is that you be careful that you think about what you are going to replace it all with before you throw the NOW out.
Let’s look at the Tea Party movement. The root of this movement is disillusionment of the government. Last summer over a million people converged on Washington DC to protest with little or no external organization. A second, smaller demonstration was convened a few months ago almost on the spur of the moment. The mainstream media belittles them, and barely mentions them in their broadcasts. They should be looking at this because just as in Munich in 1921, there is an opportunity to turn disillusionment into anger. In Arizona, some Tea Party folks showed up to a Presidential speech with their AR-15 assault rifles.
What if the million + that went to Washington DC last summer had all been armed? How would the government stop them if someone yelled “Charge!”.
I’m sure that most of the Tea Party people are fine, honest, and patriotic Americans who want to work for change in the government. I support this. Yet there has been a fracture within the movement because some do not believe that it is aggressive enough. They want to take more action. At the moment, the Tea Party movement has no direction, but that can change. All they need is a leader. One man or woman who can relate to the disillusionment, and then turn it into anger, and then things will get interesting.
We have become lost in our synthetic world. We no longer recognize truth, and we are blind to beauty. These are most dangerous times, my friends.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Unintended Consequences of Well Meaning People

I make $24,000 a year before taxes. In Monterey County a person needs to make around $34,000 to be considered "Low Income", and that makes me "Poor". I'm not complaining, I made a series of bad life choices that kept me in poor paying jobs that had no future. Today I am taking classes at the local junior college with an eye on a degree, and I hope to be able to finally have a job where I take home at least $2000 a month.

That said, in the last few years after I had been injured I found myself in "The System" of employment aid, various state and federal programs that are designed to help "The Poor". For the most part they were beneficial to me; I received an education in computers, and I managed to get an assistance check whenever I was desperate. That system was the "One Stop" employment assistance program that the state of California runs, and if you are out of work I recommend that you give them a shot. However the real story that I want to tell you about is a little incident that happened to us about three years ago this coming December.

I live in a mobile home with my mother, who is partially disabled, and my younger adult brother who is almost completely disabled. My mother lives on $1000 per month pension, and some money she makes from a part time job. Her rent is $1200 a month, which I help out with. She also has a mortgage payment. So we don't have extra money for things. If something breaks it is up to me to fix it. If I can't fix it, it stays broken. We had some serious water damage that had lead to floors collapsing, and I know nothing about repairing floors. My mother was discussing our home problems with a friend of hers from church, and she came over to see for herself. She decided to "Help us out"; she rented rooms to men who work in construction, and she arranged for them to come over and fix our floor. Great, right? Initially, yes it was great, the guys came over and showed me how to fix stuff as they replaced the damaged segments of flooring. My mom also arranged for a former plumber come over and coach me through installing a new toilet.
Had this stopped with the new flooring everything would have been great, but this woman friend decided that since we were getting new floors that we should get new carpet as well. There was a charitable program through the church that would give us new carpeting for free. Sounded cool, BUT then she decided to push for new linoleum too. So I find myself tearing out the old linoleum in the entire house, and then hauling it to the dump at my own expense. In fact, there was a growing tab on my dime for this "Charitable" operation. I had to buy paint, because this woman decided that since we were getting new carpet that we should repaint everything too. Since I am disabled I had to buy special polls for the paint rollers. Then some electricians show up and I find out that I'm paying them $400 too. Then we need more plywood, so I go and buy four more sheets. Since this is my home, I buy the best stuff because good wood lasts longer than cheap wood.
Then the carpet guys come, and for some reason the lady has them only carpet HALF of the living room. They tell us they will return once the lady has made up her mind. Also, they cannot put linoleum over the cheap plywood floor that the guys had initially used. So we would need to tear out the floors completely. An argument broke out between the lady and my mother because this was all too much for her. My mother is in a pre-leukemia stage, and stress can push her into full-on cancer, and this haphazard remodel job was killer her. So the lady just stopped everything.
So half of our living room had a carpet, the rest is covered by carpet remnant that my brother scrounged. Our kitchen and bathroom floors are bare wood. This charity ended up costing me around $1,500 which is on my Visa card. My mother is now gun shy about accepting any help from anybody, and I can't say that I blame her.

So I guess there are a couple of messages that I hope you take away from this story. If you are receiving some kind of help, don't be afraid to ask question first. Make sure the project is defined in advance and then stick to it. Make sure that the people involved actually know what they are doing. Make sure that you have your own set of contact numbers of all the people who are helping you out in case the leader quits. Help out as much as you can so that you can learn to repair things on your own. People who are kind enough to help out those in need should understand that while those folks are grateful they will feel bad about receiving help. So pushing them around will only make them feel worse about themselves, and if you have done that you aren't really helping anyone are you?

Saturday, August 01, 2009

Of Oaks and Fog.

Hiking the Central Coast can be rewarding on many different levels. If you want a leisurely stroll along the sea shore you can do that. If a demanding hike that requires some skill is your thing, Monterey County has some great places for you too. The gentle rolling hills of Steinbeck country are dotted with California Live Oak and Valley Oak trees. They cluster themselves into thick forests where the Santa Lucias begin their sharp rise to the sky. While their neighbors, the Coastal Redwoods, dominate the canyons and valleys where water is a constant either from spring-fed streams, or heavy rainfall; the Oak's deep root system allows them to drink from deep underground sources. So the Oaks make their home in the more arid places in the county, which is MOST of the county, and their commonality tends to make them invisible. While people flock from around the globe to see the Redwoods, the Oaks are mostly ignored except by landscape painters.

This is exactly how the Oaks like it too.

Redwoods are a social tree. They grow in clusters, and the talk to each other. If you have ever been in the Redwoods you know what I say is true. As the wind blows throw the tree tops, the Redwoods creek and groan. Their needles are groups to tightly that even the slightest breeze creates a hiss, and from the ground this sounds as if they are whispering to each other. They drop their needles on the ground, which makes for a comfortable carpet to walk on. The Redwoods are hospitable, and they are friendly. Oaks are different. They are quiet, and they space themselves evenly from each other. Their leaves have barbs so they jab those who walk barefoot, and as the leaves dry they crunch loudly as one walks over them. While Redwood is a soft wood, oak is hard. Oaks initially offer little in the way of hospitality. It is as if they desire to move visitors quickly from beneath their shade so that they can be left alone. The Coastal Live Oak often seems to invite Poison Oak to grow on the ground beneath it's canopy for the express purpose of driving the uninvited away.

The Oaks have have a weakness. They are vain. They secretly love the attention, and they love to be admired. The key is to subtly praise them as you walk in their shadow. Speak aloud about how beautiful they are. Over time they come to recognize your presence, and then they will begin to show you things. Oak forests are places full of secrets. Barn and Great Horned owls find the seclusion of the Oaks to their liking. It is not uncommon to be walking though a thick Oak forest and be startled by a large raptor who has been startled by you. The large bird will quickly vanish behind the thick Oak canopy, and you must look sharp if you want to identify what species it is. Once the Oaks know you they begin to show you these birds. For some reason the sun will shine differently, and a Barn Owl comes into view on an upper branch. The Oaks even become better hosts than the Redwoods. Low hanging branches reveal themselves at a height that makes for the perfect park bench. Their hardwood is cool as you sit down on a hot day.
Once accepted into this secretive Oak society you come to appreciate their silent cabal. You then learn their greatest secret, that Live Oaks have a mistress: The Fog. Oak trees are very different on a foggy day, they are much more relaxed. However, it is in the low misty fog that the affair is revealed. The Oaks seem to blush as the fog weaves through their branches, and the Fog seems to caress and tickle the Oaks. It's not obscene, it is the act of two ancient lovers who's time together is limited. While the Oaks remain silent, the Fog whispers as it moves through the leaves. While this is going on (and there is no other way to say this) the Oaks seem to smile. It's a secret smile, revealed only to those of us who they have allowed into their world. The water in the Fog quenches the Oak's thirst, and the Fog then becomes lighter. If you have ever walked in an Oak forest on a foggy night then the affair becomes more visual. The Fog, driven by the sea breeze, will dance amongst the Oak trees. It is like some witches ballet. The Fog takes on shapes as is swirls around the Oak trunks, and then flies up into the branches. The uninitiated would see this as maybe ghosts, but this is simply ancient primal romance. As the Oaks are ignored, the Fog which is mostly scorned by the children of the sun has found a grateful partner. While in an open field, the Fog will just sit, but within the Oak forest the Fog becomes a thing of beauty.
It took me almost twenty years before the Oaks let me in on their secrets. Maybe you can see these things too but I suspect not for a while. The Oaks admire persistence, and they will reward those who return to admire them. So be patient.

Of Oaks and Fog.

Friday, July 03, 2009

Healthcare Costs Explained

Doctors are expensive, but so are plumbers. Granted a plumber bill rarely exceeds $2000, but for a lot of people that is expensive. Yet nobody is advocating for "Plumbing Insurance", and I think that we should look at the reasons why. So imagine that plumbing insurance was as wide-spread as medical insurance...

First off, you would need to find a plumber who took your insurance. Then after that you would need to make an appointment, since your insurer is one of the more popular ones it will be about ten days until the plumber can see you. Because people have plumbing insurance they call the plumber for all kinds of little things that they never would have dreamed of before plumbing insurance. So the plumbers are all over-worked. So you'll have to use the kid's bathroom until the plumber can come.

Thanks to plumbing insurance, the plumber's rates have gone upwards to almost 15 times what they were before insurance covered them. This is because the insurance companies simply refuse to pay for certain plumbing procedures because they feel that they are unwarranted. The people at the insurance companies who make this judgement calls have no plumbing experience, or have a plumbing advisor who was a plumber in Guatemala back in the 1960s.

Since insurance companies have lawyers, plumbers have to carry malpractice insurance, and this also adds about 35% to 60% to the cost of fixing your sink.

As plumbers become over-worked, they begin to specialize. Some do toilets, some to garbage disposals, and others do water heaters. So what happens next is that you will have a primary plumber, whom you will see first, and then he will refer you to a specialist plumber. So now you can tack on another week to that initial ten day wait.

Then the government will be pressured to step in to cover those who can't afford plumbing insurance. With the government plan will come a ton of new rules for the plumbers to follow. The government will negotiate with plumbing supply companies to get lower prices for replacement parts. The insurance companies will also do this too. In order to cover costs that they lose under the government plans they pass a higher rate along to the insurance companies AND the general public. So a copper elbow joint that was once $1.37 before insurance and government plumbing assistance will now run around $12. Americans anticipating plumbing repairs would soon turn to purchasing replacement parts from Canada or Mexico. In Canada, they have a single-payer plumbing care system, but they don't regulate replacement parts. In Mexico, you're never sure if you are buying counterfeit plumbing parts. After a while the elected officials hold public hearings to get to the bottom of the plumbing costs that are now skyrocketing. They will make a big show out of it and blame the plumbers for being greedy.

Right now, if you go into your local plumber's office you will see maybe one or two administrative staff. Someone to answer the phones and someone to do the billing. Some plumbers have no office , and they work from home. After the advent of plumbing insurance they will need a staff of for or five administrative people for each plumber. The paperwork will be overwhelming otherwise, and this staff will also drive up the cost of plumbing. Then when the government steps in, the plumbers will need to hire at least two additional administrators just to deal with government paperwork.

Fun right? Way to go, right?

I didn't think so. Yet we have done this with our doctors , and our hospitals.

Doctors have a mountain of paperwork that they need to file to get paid. Then the insurance companies pick and choose what they feel like paying for; which precipitates a back & forth battle as each side haggles over how much a treatment should cost. Insurance companies make no such options available to their customers.

Because people have insurance they can get treatments that they could never pay for themselves. What most doctors tell me is that these treatments are unnecessary, but they have to provide the treatments/tests because they run the risk of lawsuits AND the treatment/tests are required by the insurance companies for payment. So we have people taking up the doctor's time getting tests or treatments that they don't need. We also have people who need tests or treatments but cannot get them. This is all due to insurance companies.

This is going to sound weird but the single best way to get health care costs down is to get rid of general health insurance, and end government programs like Medicare. Then once the prices have settled, offer a catastrophic medical insurance for car wrecks and cancer. Then look at what the government can do to help poor folks pay, but without the red tape.

Friday, June 26, 2009

A Quick Thought About Michael Jackson, And How The Media Still Sucks

Michael Jackson died yesterday.

My brother told me as I was on a break from the X-Box 360, and on my way to the kitchen. It was a surprise, the news at the time was saying that he had died from a heart attack. I told my brother that as this story worked itself out that Jackson was probably abusing prescription drugs, and that the death would be more seedy in the end. As it turned out this is the case.

I'm not a Michael Jackson fan by any stretch of the imagination. However I did buy "Thriller" in 1984, mostly because Eddie Van Halen played the guitar solo on the song: "Beat It". The album itself was a solid offering of high quality Quincy Jones-produced pop music, and most of the guys from Toto played back-up for Jackson. "Thriller" became background music for my friends and me during the summer of 1984. My friend, Bruce, had a 1968 LTD station wagon, and "Thriller" was almost always in the cassette player. Since Bruce was good looking the rear seat of the LTD was usually packed with girls, and as we'd taxi them to the beach Michael Jackson's music usually got them grooving. Girls in bikini tops grooving is a good thing.

Bruce's place was party central, and by June there were a few guys who could "Moonwalk". 1984 was the first year that you could order MTV in stereo, and needless to say Bruce had it. So MTV was always on during the party, and Jackson's videos usually warranted scrutiny by just about everyone there. Michael Jackson ended up being an important part of one of the greatest summers of my life, and for all the stuff that has happened with him since there is no denying this.

Whenever I hear a song off of "Thriller" I smile.

The thing that is disgusting me now is the wall-to-wall coverage by all the networks, with special segments now dedicated to telling Jackson's life. This is ironic because the media has spent the last few years destroying Michael Jackson. Sure, Jackson gave them ammunition, his problem with young boys is well documented. However, the media went beyond the facts, and printed/broadcast almost every allegation without due investigation as to their truthfulness. Stories about Jackson symbolized the legitimate news media's descent into tabloid journalism.

So now that Jackson has died, the media is now milking him for every ratings point they can. His funeral will probably be an epic. Not an ounce of shame will be displayed on the part of the news outlets who will cover it live. Then in the coming months and years we will be flooded with tell-all book that will make Jackson look like a Saint, or Jack the Ripper.

I am not a Jackson fan. I like one of his albums. I was hoping maybe the media in the age of Obama, and economic crisis was going to grow up. I guess not.

Sunday, May 31, 2009

Thinking About Anger.

I was an angry young man. I didn't know this at the time. I did a lot of crazy, and self destructive things to myself. There was almost no forethought before I did things, so I just did them. It is funny that people can exist in a clueless condition, completely unaware of themselves.
It is also frightening to me to think that I could have gone on much longer without even getting a clue to my underlying motivations.

I had bad things done to me as a child by a family member, but at an age when I was too young to fully understand what had happened. When you are a child you think that those things are somehow normal, even though you know that you don't like them. Then in your pre-teen years you begin to understand your body, and you get some sex education in school then suddenly you are forced to confront some ugly things. It is like a time-release poison because just as you come to grips with one incident, you then remember something else, and so you are thrown into another whirlpool of emotional confusion.
I was lucky in that I got help in my sophomore year in high school. I was directed to a psychologist who was able to guide me in evaluating my feelings. Which lead to my ability to understand the underlying motivations behind some of the stupid things I was doing. I reached a point to where I felt in control enough to stop going to this doctor. I think I had gone as far as I could anyway. I then entered the second phase of my life. I became a musician and pursued a brief studio career. I began playing guitar in my Freshman year in high school, and I practiced four to six hours every day. EVERY DAY. I took theory classes at the junior college, as well as private lessons. When I listen to the old tapes from those days I hear an intensity that is missing from my playing today. I have said before that I would eventually quit from the stress of studio work, and the hassles of being a guitar player. I still play today but there is no drive for me to take it out of the bedroom.

Something changed in 1990.

My dad (the offending family member) died. We would find out through his autopsy that his actions were caused from brain trauma. So he had no real control over his impulses. This was liberating for me because I feared that my father's behavior would be transmitted to me in much the same way as a werewolf curse. With the knowledge that my father's condition was organic and exclusive to him I was able to relax. The other thing that happened was that I was no longer angry at my father, and I suddenly felt a great weight lifted from me. What I didn't expect was that this revelation would lead to the next phase of my life, and in many ways it would be much harder.

With my deep-rooted anger gone, my life had no foundation to orbit around. The anger of my past had so much defined who I was that without it I lost all direction in my life. I suddenly had nothing to prove, no chip on my shoulder, and I no longer walked with the swagger of an angry man. The problem was that I found that I had lost my ability to assess certain situations and judge people. So I was soon taken advantage of by people that the "Old Me" would have seen coming a mile away. So I began to withdraw from people. My social life evaporated, and my life became work. In 2001, I was laid off after a devastating injury, so I found myself angry once again. I picked up and wore my anger like one would wear a favorite set of clothes from their youth that still fit perfectly. My anger quickly gave me direction again and I was soon learning new things, and began research on my book. It has lead me back to school, and driven me to study hard.

While I hate being angry all the time, I like what my anger does for me. I have a direction again, and I'm moving along with great velocity. I'm not drinking booze nor using drugs, and I'm not using my anger in social settings to justify using women (as I did when I was younger). I go to school, then go to work, and then I come home. The only expression of anger is on my TV screen as I blast Nazis on my X-Box360. What I worry about today is what else is my anger doing to me? Since I was so unaware of how anger affected my life when I was young, it is not unreasonable to assume that I still have a blind-spot. Am I ignoring a chance a love? Have I turned a blind eye to a life-changing opportunity?

I guess that because I'm writing this I may actually be in good shape. That I can still self-evaluated is probably a good sign. I have my fingers crossed.

Friday, May 22, 2009

The Central Intelligence Agency: Reform of Replace?

Following the attacks by Al Qaeda on the World Trade Center (WTC) in New York and the Pentagon in Washington D.C. there were many questions raised about the Central Intelligence Agency’s (CIA) ability to effectively provide the intelligence needed to protect the United States from international terrorism. It took the recommendations of the 9/11 Commission to get the ball rolling on reform, and even then it took: “… [A] bruising fight on Capitol Hill for Congress to pass a reform bill addressing the issue of intelligence failure” (Fessenden). While many reforms were passed into law, including the creation of a new intelligence office, almost none of them address the CIA’s consistently uneven performance in intelligence collection, dissemination, and distribution of vital information to the government bodies it serves. A few question if the numerous flaws can ever be reformed, and suggest that the CIA be replaced altogether with a new agency.
The failure to head off the attacks of 9/11/2001 is probably the CIA’s greatest intelligence failure, so analyzing the events that lead to that tragic September morning reveals the fundamental flaws of the CIA. According to the 9/11 Commission Report, in the summer of 2001, “The system was blinking red” (254), The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) even had a man named Zacarias Moussaoi in custody (273). Moussaoi would later be convicted as the twentieth 9/11 Hijacker. However, at the time of his arrest, the CIA didn’t reveal that Moussaoi‘s association with key Al Qaeda figures, thus the FBI was unable to present an urgent enough case to search his lap-top computer. Had the CIA been forthcoming with vital information the FBI could have at least had a clearer picture of the coming attacks (Wright 397).
The CIA’s unwillingness to share information with the FBI was only matched by its unwillingness to share information between different offices, or provide resources within the CIA itself. The Agency’s hierarchy is inter-competitive often to the point of endangering national security. In April-May, 1998, the CIA’s dedicated Bin Laden unit “Alec Station” was ordered to be shut down and consolidated. This was done without the knowledge of the Director of Central Intelligence’s (DCI) knowledge, and when he found out about it he countermanded the order. However, this created confusion within the unit, and while they continued to do their jobs they were distracted as uncertainty prevailed. This may have contributed to the successful bombings of the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania a few months later on August 8, 1998 (Scheuer)
One would think that after the deaths of eight Americans and over 450 African civilians that the CIA would have poured resources into Alec Station so that it could better, and for about a month the leadership complied with many of the requests for Alec Station. All too soon, assistance like complete transcripts of recorded communications between Al Qaeda operatives instead of summaries dried up. Direct assistance from the U.S. military to plan strikes against Al Qaeda targets, never materialized; while the Armydid send two officers to Alec Station, neither had special operations experience, and both were experts on Iran. In fact after 1999, Alec Station was run by Directorate of Operations (DO) personnel who had had little or no knowledge of Osama bin Laden or Al Qaeda (Scheuer).
It’s not that the CIA was doing nothing. In his testimony before the 9/11 Commission in 2004, George Tenent listed a number of successful CIA counter-terrorist operations against Al Qaeda:
The third period of peak threat was in the spring and summer 2001. As with the Millennium and Ramadan 2000, we increased the tempo of our operations against al-Qa‘ida. We stopped some attacks and caused the terrorists to postpone others.
We [the CIA] helped to break up another terrorist cell in Jordan and seized a large quantity of weapons, including rockets and high explosives.
Working with another foreign partner, we broke up a plan to attack US facilities in Yemen.
In June, CIA worked with a Middle Eastern partner to arrest two Bin Ladin operatives planning attacks on US facilities in Saudi Arabia.
In June and July, CIA launched a wide-ranging disruption effort against Bin Ladin’s organization, with targets in almost two-dozen countries. Our intent was to drive up Bin Ladin’s security concerns and lead his organization to delay or cancel its attacks. We subsequently received reporting that attacks were delayed, including an attack against the US military in Europe.
In July, a different Middle East partner helped bring about the detention of a terrorist who had been directed to begin an operation to attack the US Embassy or cultural center in a European capital.
In addition, in the summer of 2001, local authorities, acting on our information, arrested an operative described as Bin Ladin’s man in East Asia.
We assisted another foreign partner in the rendition of a senior Bin Ladin associate. Information he provided included plans to kidnap Americans in three countries and to carry out hijackings.
We provided intelligence to a Latin American service on a band of terrorists considering hijackings and bombings. An FBI team detected explosives residue in their hotel rooms
The problem is that none of these actions brought the CIA closer to the inner circle of Al Qaeda, and none of these successful operations prevented the attacks of September 11, 2001. Reform would be needed and that meant that Congress would have to step in. The attacks of 9/11/2001 and the subsequent failure to capture bin Laden as of this date should not be a surprise to anyone. This should be especially true for Congress, who can produce a long list of committee and commission reports and recommendations on how to reform the CIA dating back to the 1970s
After September 11, 2001, the House and the Senate intelligence committees began work on legislation that would lead to the creation of the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI). After a hard fight, a compromise was reached in December, 2004, and the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI) was created. While this is viewed as a step forward for national security it is also an acknowledgement of the failure of the CIA.
The DNI’s mission is to be a central clearing-house for intelligence, intelligence collection, and intelligence policy which then reports to the President and the National Security Council (NSC). In short, the DNI is a central intelligence agency, which has the same task that the CIA was supposed to control, and for the most part still has. Lost in the debate of the 9/11 Commission’s recommendation to create the DNI was the question of weather the CIA was still up to the job of keeping the United States safe from attack. The National Security Act of 1947 called for the creation of the CIA with the purpose of preventing another Pearl Harbor style attack. The eleven-story deep hole between Liberty and Vesey streets in Manhattan, New York, is mortal proof that the CIA failed to do its most basic mission. The war in Iraq was based solely on Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD) intelligence gathered by the CIA. This intelligence turned out to be as much an estimate about Iraqi WMDs based on a formula (60 Minutes) as it was traditional intelligence collection procedures. The Bush Administration’s rushed to invade Iraq, which put off or diluted any immediate short-term reforms.
This has become apparent with the revelations that the CIA was sending captured Al Qaeda operatives in secret to foreign prisons to be tortured by the local intelligence entity. Also the “Water Boarding” of suspects directly by the CIA, and other interrogation techniques that were traditionally viewed as torture. The torture issue was emblematic of an Agency that still refused to share information and tactics with other intelligence
The U.S. Army Intelligence and Naval Intelligence had amassed years of doctrine on interrogation dating all the way back to the Civil War. Their tactics had been honed and refined after each war or conflict, and was the most up-to-date as far as Islamic extremists were concerned based on their experiences in Somalia and the Balkans. Although the CIA had a reliable doctrine via the Army, it instead chose to bow to pressure from the White House to use more questionable methods to extract information from suspected Al Qaeda fighters. The revelation of torture has lead to calls that the CIA be abolished. In an editorial in Slate online magazine, Christopher Hitchens argues: “The next stage, very often, is that certain inconveniently damaged secret prisoners have to be made to "disappear," as in the death-squad regimes of Latin America…” (Yet Another).
This is not to say that the CIA is completely useless, since the “War on Terror” began in October, 2001, the CIA has seen many success stories. Most of these stories come out of Afghanistan, where the CIA spearheaded the counter-insurgency movement to drive the Taliban out of power. Afghanistan had been the scene of the CIA’s greatest Cold-War triumph; it had organized Afghan freedom fighters, called Mujahedeen, into a cohesive fighting force which they trained, and equipped with modern Soviet weapons the new “Stinger” anti-aircraft missiles. With the CIA’s backing, the Mujahedeen were able to defeat the Soviet army, and retake the country.

So almost fifteen years later, many of the same CIA veterans from the first Afghan war returned to duty, some even coming out of retirement to strap on boots and operate in the high mountains of Afghanistan (Bernsten 72-74). Their number being less than twenty, they secretly infiltrated Afghanistan on helicopters, and then linked up with old friends in the Afghan “Northern Alliance”. They set up introductions between local warlords and members of U.S. Army Special Forces “A-Teams”, these A-Teams would then train, assess, equip, and assist the various warlords and their tribes so that they could better defeat the Taliban and Al Qaeda(Bernsten 79).
This turned out to be a winning combination for the defeat and overthrow of the Taliban. Northern Alliance tanks rolled into the capitol city of Kabul in November, 2001, less than seven weeks after the beginning of the U.S. lead drive to defeat the Taliban. At the same time, Al Qaeda along with its leader, Osama bin Laden, found themselves cornered at a mountainous region called “Tora Bora.” During the Afghan War against the Soviets Tora Bora had been a Mujahedeen strong-hold and hideout. Bin Laden had designed and built many tunnel systems within the mountains here, and the Soviets found it to be impenetrable. The U.S. special operations teams did not.
On the Pakistan side of the border, the CIA began working with the Pakistani Government to hunt senior Al Qaeda leadership. Within 14 months of the September attacks, the CIA would capture or kill:
Khalid Shaykh Muhammad, al-Qa‘ida’s operations chief and the mastermind of the September 11 attacks.
Nashiri, the senior operational planner for the Arabian Gulf area.

Abu Zubayda, a senior logistics officer and plotter.
Hasan Ghul, a senior facilitator who was sent to case Iraq for an expanded al-Qa‘ida presence there.
Harithi and al-Makki, the most senior plotters in Yemen, who were involved in the bombing of the USS Cole.
Hambali, the senior operational planner in Southeast Asia. (Tenent)
However, there was a four year gap void of CIA “Predator” drone action within Pakistan, and it was not until the appointment of Robert Gates as Secretary of Defense in December, 2006, that U.S. covert activity on the Pakistan side of the border escalated. Secretary Gates had worked at the CIA for 27 years, and would become the only career CIA officer to ever serve as DCI (1991-1993). Since August of 2008, the CIA has conducted over 55 attacks on Al Qaeda safe-houses in Pakistan using “Predator Drones” that fire guided missiles (Hammond). These constant attacks have affected the surviving Al Qaeda Leadership to the point that they have begun to flee to Yemen and Somalia (Maclean).
In a way, Gates embodies everything that the CIA needs in it leadership, he is willing to take risks and is prone to deal with problems directly. Former Alec Station Chief Michael Scheuer wrote in an open letter to the House and Senate Intelligence Committees complaining:
In the CIA's core, U.S.-based Bin Laden operational unit today there are fewer Directorate of Operations officers with substantive expertise on al-Qaeda than there were on 11 September 2001. There has been no systematic effort to groom al-Qaeda expertise among Directorate of Operations officers since 11 September ... The excellent management team now running operations against al-Qaeda has made repeated, detailed, and on-paper pleas for more officers to work against the al-Qaeda—and have done so for years, not weeks or months—but have been ignored ...
The U.S.-based Bin Laden unit, Alec Station, was deactivated for good in late 2004. Former CIA agent Robert Baer sites that much of the CIA’s senior leadership lacks and foreign experience whatsoever (Getting the CIA), and that since the end of the Cold War, the Agency has shifted away from recruiting new assets overseas. Baer says that instead, the Agency relies too much on technical data and foreign intelligence services.
All of this draws into question weather the CIA can ever be fixed so that it becomes more effective. The Agency has demonstrated that it can collect intelligence when it wants to, and that it can conduct proactive covert action, again when it wants to. The problem is that too often, senior officers don’t want to do anything. At least not anything that would jeopardize their careers. The senior case managers at the CIA are largely risk-averse, which protects their own careers but does little to protect the country.
I would argue that the smart move would be to dismantle the CIA altogether, and create a new spy agency. It would be an agency that would be much smaller and somewhat less reliant on electronic or technical intelligence gathering, and focus more on human intelligence (HUMINT). The CIA has never had the ability to directly infiltrate an enemy’s strategic center to obtain vital intelligence. The CIA never penetrated the Soviet Politburo, the leadership of Cuba, or other enemies of the United States. Instead, the CIA relied on luck, a chance encounter or the defection of a key foreign leader to the west. Both the U.S. Army and Navy’s special operations units have long practiced infiltration of enemy installations. The Navy has detailed bathometric maps of harbors in North Korea, Russia, Iran, Libya and Venezuela. These maps are all hand-drawn by Navy commandos. The U.S. Army successfully infiltrated southern China during the Vietnam War, to kidnap or assassinate Chinese military advisors who were training North Vietnamese army officers (Pearson). This new agency would draw upon this country’s rich immigrant population, and the military as the backbone of the operational arm for intelligence gathering.
With the creation of the ODNI, there is no need for supplemental covert action policy development as there is now at the CIA (which used to be the principle developer of policy), so this new Agency would have a flexible operational doctrine since would not be directly intellectually invested in a set doctrine. This way the new agency could more rapidly adapt to changing world threats to the United States. The CIA is weighed down by its middle and senior management. It is operationally inbred. A new agency would not be handicapped by outdated operational policies that no longer make sense. The new agency could take the things that worked at CIA, and discard the things that did not.

The CIA has many talented, gifted and dedicated people who work hard to protect this country. Unfortunately, because of weak policies that promote the inexperienced to key management positions, the CIA is restrained from doing everything within its capability to gather information. Worse, this leadership has proven that when the White House suggested illegal (or questionable) interrogation practices, they were reluctant to say “No”. Inter-departmental games denied Alec Station vital intelligence assets even after the catastrophic attacks on the US Embassies in east Africa. The CIA dragged its feet on drone attacks in Pakistan for almost four years. Even after the CIA’s extreme caution have proven to be fatal to innocent Americans, they are still constricted by a pre-9/11 mind-set. The country would be better served, and in safer hands with an all new intelligence agency.

Works Sited:

“At the Center of the Storm”. 60 Minutes. CBS News. New York. April 29, 2007
Bentsen, Gary. Puzzulo, Ralph. Jawbreaker: The Attack on Bin Laden and Al Qaeda: A Personal Account by the CIA’s Key Field Commander. Crown. 2005.
Baer, Robert. “Getting the CIA Back in the Game”. Foreign Policy. New York.
March 2005.
Fessenden, Helen. ”The Limits of Intelligence Reform”. Foreign Affairs; Nov/Dec2005, Vol. 84 Issue 6, p106-120.
Hammond, Jeremy R., “Pakistan: Half a Million Refugees as Fighting Continues in Swat”, Foreign Policy Journal. May 13, 2009.
Hitchens, Christopher. “Yet Another CIA Failure”. April 27, 2009.
Maclean, William. “Pakistan Instability Draws Foreign Militants”. Kuwait Times. May 10, 2009.
National Commission on Terrorist Attacks upon the United States. The 9/11 Commission Report. W.W. Norton & Co. New York. 2004.
Pearson, Roger. Major. US Army Retired. Personal interview.
Scheuer, Michael. “How Not To Catch a Terrorist”. Atlanic Monthly. New York. 2004.
Tenent, George, Written Statement for the Record of the Director of Central Intelligence Before the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States. 2004.

Saturday, February 07, 2009

Starships Or Submarines?

When I was a kid in the late 1960s and throughout the 1970s my loyalty was divided between two fictional TV Captains. On Star Trek the star ship Enterprise was commanded by James T. Kirk, who along with Mr. Spock, Dr. McCoy and the rest of the crew zipped around the galaxy seeking out strange new worlds. The Enterprise was cool. It looked cool, it had cool weapons, it had cool technology, and it had hot women in miniskirts. My other escape was the SSN Seaview, the fantastic submarine of the show "Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea", where Captain David Crane ran the show. Captain Crane lead a crew of interesting guys such as Chief Sharky, Ensign Blake and Admiral Nelson (who actually built the Seaview as part of the Nelson Institute) around the world from adventure to adventure. The Seaview was cool. It looked cool, it had big windows on the front, it made a cool sonar noise, and it had a flying sub. As a boy, the idea of a big star ship that went faster than the speed of light was a concept that could only be rivaled by a big submarine.
"Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea" was a fun show that was created by Irwin Allen; the creator of Lost In Space, Land of the Giants and director of "The Towering Inferno", Allen was an interesting character himself who was legendarily cheap. He was the king of stock footage and recycled special effects footage and monster suits between his various shows. As a result, "Voyage" doesn't hold up too well over time as Star Trek has. "Voyage" also was handicapped by bad writing and some lame story ideas. Star Trek used SciFi writers as well as first time writers to generate interesting and compelling stories for the show. This doesn't make "Voyage" a total dog though, there are a handful of great shows in each season that keep it from becoming a total joke. The average story line either involved international terrorists or an uncharted island. Sometimes the show featured an environmental disaster which ring more true today than it did in 1966. Terrorists threatening America was also a concept that was ahead of it's time. As a young boy none of these concepts mattered, all that mattered was that Captain Crane ran a tight ship and if he had to put on his yellow wetsuit and lock-out of the Seaview to kick some ass then that's what he'd do. The Seaview's crew were regular guys who got scared and sometimes had no idea of what to do, especially when the Seaweed monster got loose in the missile bay. As a kid I could totally relate to them because I grew up near the sea and it can be a scary place. Today as I re-watch the show on DVD it is pretty hokey. They spent no money on the show and often the 20th Century Fox back lot doubled as a top secret facility run by a mad scientist. The stories often repeated themselves (how many times was the Seaview stuck below crush-depth with no hope of escape?) and the special effects were pretty lame. I still love the Seaview and I think that Captain Crane was a well fleshed-out character.
Star Trek's appeal is obvious. The show was ahead of it's time in every way and featured high quality writing that is as fresh today as it was when it first aired back in the 1960s. Captain Kirk was everything I wanted to be, good looking, smart, cool and fearless. The Enterprise represented a future that I wanted to become real. Much has been written about Star Trek and there isn't much that I could add to the admiration of this show. I liked that the crew came from all walks of humanity and they were each accepted on their own merits. As a kid I liked the hand phasers. Set to "Stun" was a great concept that was very progressive for a Science Fiction show, this is true even today where the hero still is more likely to shoot first and shoot later. On Star Trek is was "Hey, we don't need to kill these guys if we don't have to," and I like that even when the aliens took the first shot at the Enterprise; Captain Kirk would still go out of his way to try to understand WHY they were shooting, and then try to work out a peaceful solution. This is still (sadly) a very sophisticated concept even in today's world. As I grew into a young man, Star Trek's tendency to cast hot women and dress them in slinky outfits helped keep me loyal to the show, granted for more prurient reasons.
In the end it came down to two Captains. I didn't have a father so David Crane and Jim Kirk became my male role models. Captain Crane was a tough but fair guy. He was very hands-on but he also had earned the respect of his crew. Kirk was clever and brave. Both men were fair and patient with people and chose to do the right thing even if it was hard to do. They both also got the hot women. What helped me was that both Captains were great at avoiding trouble and talking their way out of ugly situations. It has been a long time since I've looked to either Captain for guidance, I've become a man with my own ways of dealing with challenges and I've long since left my youth behind. Still, every once in a while the little boy inside of me comes out and looks at the man I've become; he then measures me against my boyhood heroes, and between the one on the Star ship, and the one on the Submarine I sometimes come up short. I don't see any harm in looking to those guys as I head into the second half of my life.
I sure couldn't do any worse.

Friday, January 02, 2009

Into The Green Again

New Years Day, 2009, I decide that I'm just going to go on a hike just to get my fat ass outside and moving. I put on my boots and drove to Fort Ord again. I had no plan, no objective and I didn't even bring my camera. I just wanted to move and I wanted to get some sweat out of it. So I locked up my truck and slung my hydration bladder onto my back and started moving.

It was a beautiful day, around sixty degrees with the sun in the sky. There were many mountain bikers and horseback riders out and why not? I couldn't think of any place where I'd rather be once my hike was under way. I had decided on a three mile loop that would take me up and down and up and down the hills of Planet Ord. I also figured that if an opportunity presented itself I would explore. Almost right off the bat, as I had descended to a road in a shallow canyon I veered off into the Oak trees that lined an open area. I have walked by this place hundreds of times but I'd never explored the opposite side. Needless to say that as soon as I was in the shade of the Oaks I was surrounded by fighting positions, some still had their green sandbags in place. The recent rains had exposed dozens of spent .762 shells. As I moved beneath the trees I found the white splatter droppings from a large bird-of-prey. I quickly spotted a "Pod" from an Owl and then looked to the branches to locate the bird. This is a fun exercise as your eyes scan for an animal who will remain invisible until it moves. I guess I made it nervous because a Barn Owl broke cover and flew a short distance to another stand of trees. It's massive wings made no sound. I then cut across the field which had once been the site for M.A.S.H., CPs and LZs for choppers. I saw spent simulated .203 rounds and other remnants of the Army dating back to the 1940s.
I then moved up a ridge, moving close to a gully that has been slowly eroded into the hillside since 1994. I do this to look for unexploded munitions and other goodies that may be revealed by the rains. I found nothing new by the time I got to the top. From the top I looked down onto another road that lay about 200 feet below me. I followed a secondary trail down to the road and rambled down to an area just past the ancient plow. There has been clearing of this area for development, which is sad, so I wanted to see what the clearing had revealed. As it turned out, not much had been hidden by the thick brush. After a quick look I began another climb up the ridge adjacent the clearing zone and made my way to the top where I was soon enveloped by the Oak trees at the top. The Oaks are thick here and the angle of the Sun paints everything in a green halo. Many plants are starting to bud which means that we are in a drought. I moved down the trail to begin to return to my truck, which was about a mile and a half from here.
I love moving through the green. Everything smells good and the green light makes me feel thirty years younger. My mind wanders in different directions. For a while I think about when I was a kid and how I loved to ride my bike in places like this. Then I think about the Army that trained here and I wondered if a place could have an impact of the quality of soldier and I decided that it did. Every man and woman who was based at Fort Ord loved being here. In Vietnam, Fort Ord graduated always stood out. I wondered if a place could make you a better person? Maybe, it was making me feel better at the very least. I moved easily through the trees and along the trail. Birds sang and rodents rooted through the underbrush as I passed by. I finally broke out into the open again and I made good time back to where I was parked. Once there I paused a few minutes to enjoy a little floor-show put on by a Turkey Vulture and a Raven. The Vulture had perched upon an electrical tower and the Raven didn't like it one bit. So the Raven puffed up his feathers until he was almost as big as the buzzard and eventually he decided to leave.

It was a good day and it felt good to vanish into the green light of the Oak trees of Fort Ord for a couple of hours.