Spare the Rod

He who withholds his rod hates his son, But he who loves him disciplines him diligently. — Proverbs 13:24

“Proverbs,” of course, refers to one of the books of the Christian Bible, located in the Old Testament between the Psalms (Protestant/Roman Bible) or The Prayer of Manasseh (Orthodox Bible), and Ecclesiastes.

“The rod” refers to beating a child with a stick.

This traditional wisdom says that beating a child with a stick is a sign of love, and that not beating a child with a stick is the sign of an unloving, uncaring parent. This one passage in the Bible underlies the entire US American idea of “spanking” and “corporal punishment.”

Let me propose a purely hypothetical consideration. Let’s say — just for argument’s sake — that beating a child with a stick, however lovingly, always and without exception causes lifelong and irreparable damage to the child: not so much to the body, which will heal with minimal scarring, but to the mind, the heart, and the soul. Let’s also say — just for argument’s sake — that this can be clearly demonstrated to anyone willing to examine the question.

Given this hypothetical situation, how many parents would still insist on beating their children with a stick?

I think the answer would be, “Many.”

There are first the parents who actually want to damage their kids, or who don’t care if they do, or who are acting out some fantasy of an unbalanced mind: these parents beat their children out of their own need to commit violence. It has nothing much to do with the child at all, and any evidence that it harms the child is at best irrelevant.

Then there are the ignorant parents — the ones who have heard proverbs like the one above and have never had any opportunity to learn otherwise. Their own parents doubtless beat them with a stick, and they’ve managed to stagger more-or-less erect into adulthood despite their physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual scars — indeed, surviving that violent childhood assault by a parent may be the one thing in their life they claim to be proud of — and they figure this is just part of growing up, like getting through measles and puberty. Any child who doesn’t make it through all that, they believe, is weak and probably doesn’t deserve to live, anyway.

Then there are the herd-followers: the parents who already know they are harming their children, but fear even more the consequences of going against the Proverbs of their tribe. They reason that it is better for their children to suffer a relatively minor physical or spiritual scarring now, at their hands, than for them all to face the uncontrolled wrath of a community that will destroy them for the blasphemy of ignoring the Proverbs.

Finally, there are the ideological purists. These are the parents who believe in the ideology of punishment, who claim loyalty to the ideology, and who will persist in upholding the ideology regardless of any and all evidence that it is harmful. These are the parents who say, “Don’t confuse me with facts: this is my belief. It is God’s Will, and you are a blasphemer.”

Maybe it’s just my training as a scientist, and my long career as a technologist, but I tend to insist that solutions to problems actually solve the problems, and without causing more harm than good. Folding the candy-bar wrapper after eating the candy-bar to make it “thinner” isn’t going to solve a weight-gain problem; and while cutting off your leg will, in fact, reduce your weight (and quickly!) it’s hardly what I’d call a satisfactory solution to being overweight.

Solutions that don’t work are not solutions. Solutions that cause more harm than good are not solutions. In my view, it isn’t in any way “disloyal” to abandon them: to the contrary, it’s merely good sense.

Now, it turns out that this post has nothing to do with children, or beating them with a stick.

It’s about the War on Drugs.

On my flight back from Australia — it’s a long flight — I read a book called Chasing the Scream, by Johann Hari. The subtitle is “The First and Last Days of the War on Drugs,” and I certainly hope it is an accurate subtitle, because the War on Drugs has very nearly wrecked the US American nation in ways that run so deep, it’s frightening.

Not drugs, mind you: the War on Drugs. The War on Drugs has been put forth as the preferred solution — the only solution — to the drug problem. It doesn’t in fact solve the drug problem — it makes it substantially worse. And it causes a great deal of secondary harm in the process of not working.

The book begins the story of the War on Drugs with the rise of Harry Anslinger, who in 1930 inherited control of the defunct Bureau of Prohibition, renamed the Bureau of Narcotics, and remained in control of that bureau until 1962. President Richard Nixon escalated the war that Harry started during his term in office (1969-1974), and Ronald Reagan escalated it again during his term (1981-1988). During this entire period, Anslinger’s Bureau pressed the entire world into copying his Prohibition model, strong-arming them as necessary through threat of US sanctions.

At the core of the War on Drugs is a fundamental misunderstanding of the nature of drug use and addiction.

The War on Drugs model is drawn directly from Medieval demonology.

In the Medieval view of demons, if you consort with the Devil, His demons will possess you, and you will lose your will and your way. In the modern case, the demons are any psychotropic drug, whether it is Demon Rum or Demon Marijuana or Demon Cocaine or Demon Heroin or Demon Meth. These demons, though they are merely chemicals, have a Demonic Power, which is the power to steal your soul. Once your soul is in thrall to the drug, you have no more will power: you have no choice but to do the Evil Bidding of the Demonic Drug and thus, the Devil.

The only possible way to combat this possession by drug-demons is, first, do not get possessed (Just Say No); second, if you do get possessed, you must have the demon driven out of you, typically through some form of severe punishment of the flesh, rigorous asceticism, and heartfelt prayer: the more severe the punishment, the more profound the asceticism, and the more earnest the prayer, the more likely you are to regain your soul. But rather than have a priest of the Church lock you in an Iron Maiden until the demon leaves you, we call upon Sheriff Joe Arpaio of Arizona to lock you in an iron cage exposed to the Arizona sun until the heat bakes the demon out of you.

If the treatment kills you — well, you were too weak. You deserved death anyway, for dancing with the Devil: it is no great loss to any of the rest of us. Indeed, we went far outside our way to even try to save you. It isn’t our fault you died.

If the treatment succeeds, then you will have your soul back, but you will never again be robust and whole — should you so much as glance back at your wicked ways, much less “fall off the wagon,” you will be gripped again by the demons. So you are not trustworthy; you are a moral leper to be shunned forevermore, denied jobs, voting rights, and any participation in normal society. You are a drug felon.

It should not be terribly surprising that scientific research into addiction tells us that this Medieval myth is total crap, top to bottom, and the alleged “cure” is nothing other than thinly disguised sadism.

One of the early scientific supports for this Medieval model of possession comes from rat research, in which a rat is placed in a cage with two bottles of water, one normal, one laced with cocaine. The rat comes to prefer the cocaine-laced water, and begins to drink, and drink, and drink, until the cocaine kills the rat. The rat has lost its will to the Demon Cocaine, you see, and has been dragged into Hell. A television commercial, paid for by The Partnership for a Drug-Free America, propagandized and popularized this research extensively in the 1980’s.

Another researcher named Bruce Alexander reviewed these experiments, and noticed something interesting: the rats in the experiments were always alone in a cage with nothing to do but drink water. So he re-created the experiments after constructing something he called Rat Park: an environment where rats (which are social animals) could interact freely with other rats, and had toys to play with and places to explore. His control — rats stuck in solitary confinement with nothing to do but drink cocaine-laced water — killed themselves, exactly as before. The rats in Rat Park did not: in fact, they tended to avoid the cocaine-laced water. Those that used it, used it recreationally. They controlled their intake, remained healthy, and continued to act normally. None of them died.

They took the experiment one step further: they let rats in isolation drink themselves nearly to death, allowing them to become as completely addicted to cocaine as is possible for a rat. Then they removed the addicted rats from solitary confinement and put them in Rat Park.

The addicted rats stopped using the cocaine. They got healthy, and started to behave just like the other healthy rats in Rat Park.

Of course, that’s just rats. Rats aren’t people.

Well, it turns out that humans behave exactly the same way, and Hari gives numerous examples. It’s fascinating and heart-breaking to read about them. That’s when the full sadistic brutality of the Drug War comes into full focus.

This is the same story I’ve heard from the high-functioning drug users I’ve known: they are often self-medicating, not tripping, and they manage their “addiction” quite well. I knew one woman years ago who sprinkled just a bit of crystal meth in her coffee every morning, and for her it served much like the Ritalin (an amphetamine, in case you didn’t know) that we force our “hyperactive” children to take — it calmed her down, steadied her nerves, let her focus on her work. She wasn’t looking for a “high.” She took it to have a normal life, because her “normal” life required focus, and her natural brain chemistry and psychological history didn’t permit focus. In exactly the same way, narcotic addicts typically use narcotics to mask horrific chronic pain — physical or mental — that prevents them from functioning at all.

Studies show that approximately 85% of all chronic illegal drug users hold jobs, have marriages, go to church, and function in society. They may be thoroughly addicted, but their addiction is self-regulated, and it’s something that helps them to survive and continue to function.

The remaining 15% have a deeper drug problem, but it is usually layered on top of serious psychological problems, most often childhood trauma resulting from a too-liberal application of “the rod” by overzealous (or psychotic) parents, or an underlying mental illness, or both.

Drugs are not demons, and Medieval exorcisms and tortures don’t solve the problem. In fact, given that most users — even the 15% with a real drug problem — are self-medicating to manage underlying pain, the brutality of our legal “solution,” which includes incarceration, violence, isolation, torture, and lifelong ostracism, is pretty much guaranteed to make their drug problem worse.

Our Drug War system is like the old saying: the beatings will continue until morale improves.

Apart from its grotesque failure as a means of solving the drug problem, the Drug War itself is enormously destructive to society.

The biggest problem is that the Drug War creates nearly all the crime, and all of the most violent and disruptive crime, associated with drugs.

We saw this play out with the prohibition of alcohol in the US, beginning in 1920, and ending in 1930 when prohibition was repealed. We’ve seen exactly the same process in the subsequent Drug War, and the outraged question asked by anyone who even glances at this history is invariably, “How can our government be so stupid?”

I don’t really know how to answer that question. Mark Twain once commented that a flea can be taught anything a Congressman knows. Whether our modern Congresscritters are fully twice as intelligent as Twain’s Congressmen, or only half as intelligent, it isn’t surprising that they don’t learn much from history.

However, it’s worth noting that the government in Mexico is currently all-but ruled by the Mexican drug cartel leaders, and one has to question to what extent the US government is also in the grip of the cartels.

You see, the drug cartels, worldwide, love the global Drug War. In fact, they can’t exist without it.

Without Prohibition, Al Capone was a two-bit hood from New Jersey — with Prohibition, he became one of the richest and most famous men in the country. There is not a single drug lord in Colombia, Mexico, China, Turkey, or the US, who does not owe his position to the US-led criminalization of drugs. The last thing they want to see is the end of the Drug War, and the rise of legitimate businesses that supply their black-market product to their customers.

It also seems that the last thing the US Government wants is an end to the Drug War.

Maybe it’s just reflex. Government Bureaus become autonomous money-eating machines, and the DEA is certainly no exception.

Maybe it’s an “enemy of my enemy” thing. Drug cartels and the US government both want the Drug War to continue, not because they’re actually working together, but because they both benefit enormously from the War.

Or perhaps the US government is one of those parents that will continue to beat their children with a stick regardless of the damage that it does, because they are ideologically committed to solutions that don’t solve the problem, and cause more harm than good.

Or just possibly the US government is in bed with the cartels, just like the Mexican government. I’ve heard repeatedly that a lot of CIA black-money comes from drug trafficking, and that simply isn’t going to happen without cartel involvement.

I don’t know. What is clear is that the cartels want the Drug War to continue. It’s the source of all their wealth and power.

The link between the Drug War and crime isn’t just a statistical correlation based on Prohibition: there’s a straightforward cause-and-effect involved.

When you criminalize the sale of a product that people want, they obtain it through the black market. A legitimate business can draw up agreements — call them treaties or call them contracts — with other businesses, and can rely on the government to enforce those agreements. The black market is, by definition, unregulated by government, and contract-enforcement must therefore be done by the business itself: typically through violence. As Hari points out, however, it isn’t enough to just kill partners who cheat you, or competitors who move in on your territory, because there are always more willing to take their place and do it again. If you want any profitable peace in your business at all, you have to terrify your competitors into not even thinking about crossing you. So violence quickly escalates into ever-more-grotesque atrocity.

Read about the way Al Capone personally handled the partners that he believed had cheated him. Read about the atrocities happening right now in Mexico. This violence isn’t the consequence of drug use. It is the consequence of an unregulated drug business. And it is an inevitable as water flowing downhill.

The Iron Law of Prohibition mandates that popular but mild drugs like beer or marijuana be replaced by hard drugs, like whiskey or heroin, not because the users want harder drugs, but because the profit margins are higher and these drugs become the only things the users can get on the black market. Prices rise, and addicts are forced into crime to afford their fix. Drugs are resold by addicts and dealers alike after being cut with all kinds of adulterants, which cause health problems that weaken the users until they can’t function and end up on the street. Drugs are taken in secret, leading to overdosing and death.

It’s a social catastrophe. It’s been a social catastrophe from the start.

Here’s what happens when you fully legalize (and regulate) drugs — all drugs — and shut down the Medieval exorcisms managed by our prisons-for-profit legal system. According to Hari, this is not theory — it’s what has already happened in the cases where countries have had the nerve to go against the will of the US government and its Medieval War on Demon Drugs.

First, the drug cartels get out of the business. No one buys hooch on the black market any more, like they did in the 1920’s: instead, you go to the liquor store and buy high-quality beer, wine, and whiskey for reasonable prices — you take your conservative in-laws on brewery tours, or take them on a vacation to Napa to sample wines. After legalizing drugs for sale and use, the drug cartels vanish and their leaders either retire to the Bahamas or move into the shadows of some other black-market trade.

All of the violence associated with the unregulated drug business vanishes — or rather, it moves into contract-law offices and the courts. Drug-business-related gang activity drops. Street dealers disappear.

Because the wildly inflated black-market prices for drugs drop, addicts no longer have to commit as much crime to support their habit. They might even be able to take a normal job and still pay for the habit, just as Great-Great-Aunt Tilly used to buy a spot of morphine for her aching joints in the form of Mrs. Winslow’s Soothing Syrup.

Adulterated drugs are replaced by inspected high-quality drugs that are readily available, so addicts’ general health improves: they now know the dose they’re getting, and they are no longer injecting talcum powder or corn starch into their veins. They can obtain and use clean needles. The AIDS rate drops. The rate at which overdosed dead bodies pile up in alleyways drops.

Since drug sale and use is now legal, cops are no longer forced to violate the Fourth Amendment on a regular basis. Relations with their communities improve, and their jobs become easier and less dangerous. The prison population drops. The racism inherent in the Drug War — built into it by Anslinger, who was an unashamed racist, and used race-fears freely in the drug-propaganda of the 30’s and 40’s — declines.

Drug usage patterns shift. Many hard drug users will shift back to softer drugs as they become available, just as beer replaced whiskey when Prohibition ended. Some alcohol users will shift to marijuana, which will by itself be a significant benefit to society. Some users — particularly among the 15% of addicts who are not able to manage their addiction — will increase their usage, or move to stronger drugs.

Then drug use stabilizes.

Now you can take things a step further, by treating the addicts like people instead of dehumanized host bodies for Demonic Influences.

You can do as they do in Portugal — anyone caught taking drugs in public is issued a ticket, requiring them to go to a clinic for evaluation. The clinic tries to determine if they are merely recreational users, or addicted. If they are recreational users, they’re given medical advice on doses, safe practices, the need to have friends around rather than shooting up alone to avoid overdosing, and are told to stop making a public spectacle of themselves. Then they walk away, and that’s the last time the recreational user interacts with the law.

If they are addicted, they are given free treatment options, much of which involves developing alternative ways to cope with whatever agony they are using the drugs to mitigate. But the most important part of their therapy is integrating them into a meaningful, productive life: a community that is not their old drug-using community, and assistance in getting and holding a decent job. They are integrated into a Rat Park of human dimensions, and that’s often enough, by itself, to get them off and keep them off drugs. Just as with the rats.

Not all of the addicts are necessarily ready to quit, so (in Portugal, where heroin is the main problem) they can receive free methadone for as long as they need it.

You can now take this one step further, and simply regulate, prescribe, and administer hard drugs to the addicts, be it cocaine or heroin or meth, in conjunction with helping them come to terms with the underlying pain they are trying to escape.

As it happens, even hard-core addicts, if they live long enough, tend to taper off and eventually stop using the drugs. Who knew?

But even if the drug use were to eventually kill them, as with the rats in solitary confinement — well, at least they go out peacefully.

Compare that to Sheriff Joe Arpaio’s little slice of Hell on Earth in the Arizona desert, where a bipolar woman convicted on drug abuse charges was placed in a cage in the sun and allowed to bake to death, in full view of the guards: when she asked for water, they ignored her, and when they finally decided to call the medics because she was “unresponsive,” her internal temperature was over 108 — the thermometers didn’t go any higher — and she died a few hours later.

Baked to death in the sun.

As for the cold-hearted conservatives who only want to count bottom-line costs and don’t want “their” tax money being wasted on drug addicts, I invite you to do the math.

How much does it cost to arrest, try, convict, imprison, and bake an addict to death in the sun?

How much does it cost to offer an addict a free shot of heroin three times a week for the rest of his life?

Are you really that hung up on torturing them?

I hope Johann Hari is right, and that the various humane drug treatment policies breaking out around the world will, indeed, spell the end of the Harry Anslinger’s Drug War.

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Home from Down Under

20150216_140906I just got back from a business trip to Australia, and some snapshots are up on the Images page. Enjoy.

The trip was for a two-day company conference in Sydney (SID-nigh). I had six presentations. (Yes, that is a lot.)

Dealing with the International Date Line is fun. I left LAX near midnight on Saturday, endured the Longest Night as the plane chased the long-set sun, and approached Australia near dawn after nearly 16 hours in the air. When I arrived, it was Monday morning — Sunday had vanished during the flight.

Coming back was even stranger: wheels left the ground near sunset on Saturday, and after experiencing the Shortest Night and Shortest Morning, arrived a bit after noon on Saturday. Yes, I arrived the same day, before I left. Wish I’d thought to e-mail myself some stock tips.

Sydney is a beautiful city, and it is, of course, high summer right now, which would be beastly hot anywhere but the coast, which was fortunately where I was. It was still hot and (to my senses) extremely humid. One fellow who had flown in from Singapore liked the dryness of Sydney — so remind me to never travel in Singapore.

One thing that really struck me about Sydney was how clean it looked, and smelled. Most oceanside cities I’ve been near have a “harbor smell” that can be hard to tolerate at times: a bit like the “smell of money” near a cattle or pig feed lot, though different, of course. You could certainly smell the sea all around Sydney, but at it’s fishiest, it smelled like fresh crabmeat — that is, edible fresh crabmeat.

I did not do a lot of touring in my one week there.

Monday (my arrival day) I hung out on the beach and tried to stay awake until after sunset (which would have been about 1:00 or 2:00 in the morning on my body’s clock) after a very crappy Longest Night’s dozing on the plane.

Tuesday, I took the bus into downtown Sydney for a Long Lunch on one of the Captain Cook cruises, and wandered about downtown until dinnertime.

Wednesday and Thursday were filled with the conference, and talking with the people who use our product.

Friday, I was mostly burned-out by the conference, and decided to hang out at the beach. This turns out to be a significant pastime for many Sydney citizens. I stayed at the Coogie (KUH-jee) Sands Hotel Apartments, at Coogie Beach. The more famous Bondi (BAHN-digh) Beach, known for its surfing, was a little north of me, but it would have been a very long walk over almost San Francisco-like hills. Coogie, Bondi, and Manly Beaches were all highly-recommended, but I think the right way to do it would be to take the bus to a Quay (KEE) and get a Hop-On-Hop-Off pass and travel the beaches by ferry. Traveling overland takes forever, and taxis are very expensive. Busses are cheap.

I had thought to fit in a tour of the (insides of the) Sydney Opera House, but as packing, check-out, and breakfast played out, I realized I’d be seriously stressing to fit in a tour, manage luggage, and get to the airport in time. So I took a long breakfast with one of the other conference attendees (the one from Singapore), then headed for the airport.

Enjoy the pictures and the comments (click to advance — or just wait — and hover for the comments).

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A.C.I.D.

Marta hates acronyms, and I’m getting there myself. While preparing to present a series of talks in Australia next week, I ran across the term ACID-compliant.

What the hell is ACID-compliant? Turns out, it’s a term for database design, and stands for Atomicity, Consistency, Isolation, and Durability.

But what does it really mean? I will now explain using an accessible metaphor, which I hope to expand into a whole book someday. So listen up, kiddos, you’re about to learn some computer science.

Atomicity

This is when you step into the public hotel restroom on the ground floor outside the conference room, and before you reach for your belt-buckle and sit down, you check for toilet paper and paper towels, and confirm that the toilet will flush and the faucets work. Atomicity requires that you finish what you start, and if you can’t finish, you can’t even start. You also have to lock the door so no one comes in and steals all the paper towels while you’re sitting there.

Consistency

Consistency requires that you not leave the restroom in an “inconsistent state,” such as having unwashed hands, an open fly, or toilet paper stuck to your shoe.

Isolation

Isolation demands that, regardless of how good you are at multi-tasking while you are in the restroom, the end result must be exactly the same as if you did everything in sequence in the correct order. For instance, if you do your business, wipe your bum, and wash your hands at the same time to be more efficient, you must nevertheless leave the bathroom with business done, bum wiped, and hands clean. No exceptions. No excuses.

Durability

Durability means that once you flush the toilet and unlock the restroom door, the toilet must stay flushed, even if the power goes out and the water stops running. If the power goes out while you are doing your business, you must remain in the restroom until the power is back on. Alternately, if you do leave the restroom, you must steal the key, lock the restroom from the outside, and put a sign on the door that says, “unfinished business,” which you must return to complete as soon as the power comes back on.

 

Now you know more about database design than I did a week ago.

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Bullies

One of those bumper-stickers crossed my Facebook feed today, on the subject of bullying (“repost this if you are against bullying” — which is a little like, “repost this if you are against unprovoked genocide,” with the implication that if I don’t comply with this stupid chain letter request, I must somehow be for the atrocity in question — I always ignore these).

But it did remind me of an incident I witnessed when I was in seventh grade.

Bullying was endemic in our public schools in Cheyenne in the 1960’s. As I recall, grade school featured someone being “called out” to fight at least once a week, usually a little kid being called out by a bigger kid. An after-school fight would ensue where Big Tough Todd would take a couple of manly (fifth-grader) swings at Pussy Mark (who might be a fourth-grader), knock him down and split his lip, and then it was over, obligations of preening machismo satisfied.

My mother insisted that I not fight the other boys, and I complied — complicated story, there — which gave me the reputation of being a “mama’s boy.” Knowing that I wouldn’t fight only made me an especially convenient and low-risk target for being called out. Not that I didn’t want to crush the life out of those cocky little bastards that made my life so miserable. But family life as I knew it didn’t permit such things, on top of which I was a pretty scrawny kid before sixth grade, and didn’t think I could manage to inflict the mayhem I so ardently desired to inflict. So I avoided the fights behind the gym, and behind the swimming pool fence, and behind the church, and in the vacant lot, and found ways to get home without encountering any of the nascent “gangs” of Big Tough Todd types who had called me out, ways which sometimes involved running very fast.

The one time I got dragged into a playground fight was in sixth grade, which was the first year I had male teachers — both sixth-grade tracks had men teaching them. Years later, an old grade-school friend and I were catching up, and he reminded me of that fight, my first and only actual fist-fight, and he told me that I’d delivered a “karate chop” to the other kid’s shoulder and ended the fight right there.

That certainly wasn’t how I remembered it. Frankly, I didn’t remember much about the fight at all — it was fast and chaotic. I remember at one point he had me by the collar, and I had him by his; we spun around like contra dancers, and I could not get myself in a position to knock his head off. I took at least one punch to the face, tasted blood — a familiar taste, as I was prone to nosebleeds at that age in the high, dry air —  and then I remember that the bell rang, and we all lined up like dutiful little 1960’s duck-and-cover citizens, and I figured I’d lost the fight. Badly. Humiliatingly.

I remember walking into the classroom area where we hung our coats while spitting blood all over the floor. I looked at the blood, and realized I needed to clean up the mess, so I went over to the classroom sink, got some paper towels wet, and mopped up my own blood while the other kids sat down like good little duck-and-cover citizens. I don’t know if they were watching me — I kept my back to them as I mopped blood and dripped more on the floor. I don’t recall any “coddling” from the (male) teacher of the class. He just let me clean up the mess. No one helped. Maybe I got sent to the nurse afterward, maybe I stuffed some dampened paper towels up my nose and sat down. I don’t remember.

All that I remember clearly is that inside, I was a white-hot inferno of rage.

It wasn’t so much about the fight. It was about the male teacher of the other sixth-grade class, who had been on playground duty when the fight happened. When I’d come into the building, blood streaming down my face, he’d — smirked. It was a very long time ago, and memory is a shifting bog covered with mists, but my adult mind tells me that it was an “Attaboy!” smirk. That is, he was proud of me for (finally) getting my nose bloodied in a playground fight, and standing up for myself. At the time, as the perpetual target of every wannabe Tough Guy who needed an easy target, I didn’t see it that way. I saw it as just another smirking bully, an adult bully, a fucking goddamn grown-up siding with the little shits who chased me home most days. The injustice and betrayal of that smirk was complete and pure in a way that is only possible for a very young person to appreciate.

Mine was the rage of being trapped in Hell, not allowed even to scream.

Junior High was worse. We had mandatory education in the state through eighth grade, but Junior High ran through the ninth grade, so most of the true psychopaths — and we had a fair number of those, some of whom ended up with life sentences in high-security prisons for brutal killings later in life — hung on through all of Junior High, right through that growth spurt at fourteen that gave them an extra six inches in height and a full bush of hair around their cocks. I spent a fair number of days at home during those three years with full-on panic attacks, and I remember noticing with fatalistic detachment how my hands would shake on bad days during the school year, and toward the end of summer vacation as Hell once again came into season.

With High School, everything changed. The psychopaths dropped out to pursue their twisted dreams (none of which required a diploma), and because High School was no longer mandatory, the school felt no qualms about expelling kids, permanently. The teachers weren’t required to pass anyone. School became a privilege, rather than a sentence.

I loved High School. I thrived, and my Junior High anxieties dissolved and did not come back. Though I never quite grasped the fact that I had somehow become both a bit of a celebrity — I was involved in everything that wasn’t sports, from debate to music to theater to high-profile pranks (we once set out to steal October 20 and hold it ransom) — and a Mystery Man of Intrigue, since I’d been such a cipher through Junior High. I discovered only many years later how easy it would have been to lose my virginity my senior year, something I would not have believed if my future self had invented a time machine and come back in time to tell me in person. At the time, I still considered myself the butt of every joke, and rebuffed every admirer, fearing a trap.

But I wanted to talk about seventh grade, not High School.

One of my good friends in grade school was — let’s call him Mark. Smaller and scrawnier than me, platinum blond hair, delicate features, Swedish by surname. Quiet, and a sweet kid. I stayed over at his house a couple of times, and I seem to remember we had special pancakes for breakfast that his father made for us.

In sixth grade, Big Bad Todd called out Mark, and Mark responded by foolishly showing up at the appointed time and place. As Mark was taking his jacket off, Big Bad Todd rushed him, punched him in the chest and knocked the wind out of him, then strutted away like some triumphant Nacho Libre surrounded by his Big Bad Entourage of groupies. My best friend — the one I would reminisce with years later — and I stayed with Mark, and waited for him to catch his breath. He was injured, I don’t know how badly. Maybe a cracked rib, maybe just a bruise, maybe just humiliation. We walked him home.

I lost track of Mark shortly after that. There were family troubles. As I recall, his mother got ill, and then died — or maybe she just left. I’m not sure I ever heard the real story about his mother, other than that she was gone. What I do recall is that his father, who had apparently always suffered from depression, killed himself, and Mark was taken out of school. I remember my parents reading about it in the paper and talking about it. I remember thinking about Mark’s father, whom I’d liked, and wondering why he’d done such a thing.

Seventh grade was very different from sixth. We changed schools, no longer the elementary school down the block, but an overcrowded penal institution (or zoo) nearly two miles away.  The Junior High facility had been designed for 900 students, and had something like 1700 by my ninth-grade year. We encountered for the first time the classroom-by-subject, rather than the classroom-by-teacher, with the consequent random migration through the halls every fifty minutes, a commuter traffic jam of a sort that only people in Boston or Denver can fully appreciate. We had to deal with lockers, and combination locks, and PE where we were required to get naked and wear jock straps and march through needle-spray showers in a line and deal with ninth-graders who needed to shave their backs. It was chaos, and devils roamed the halls, ready at any moment to dump your books or rabbit-punch you in the neck.

It must have been the Spring of that year when Mark showed up in one of my classes, the first time I’d seen him since sixth grade. Mark was clearly … broken. He’d put on some height, but he was even thinner than before, and everything about him looked bruised, ungroomed, uncared-for. He did not make eye contact. He did not respond to people. His soul had checked out for some kind of deep-grief rehab somewhere very distant, and his body was just making the rounds, hoping and waiting for his soul to return.

The class, seventh-grade social studies, was taught by Mr. R — a grizzled lump of a man in a green suit he wore every day, iron-gray hair cut in a severe 50’s flat-top, face pocked by some childhood disease and lungs destroyed by a lifetime of smoking and more recent emphysema, only a few years from retirement and in a clear race with Mr. Brink for the first-place prize of his pension, or the second-place prize of his life insurance policy. I later learned there was kindness in the man, but early that Spring, he played the martinet.

On one of the first days in class, he asked Mark a question. Mark did not respond. Mr. R repeated the question. Mark did not respond. The room grew deathly quiet.

Corporal punishment was still the norm in those days. The male teachers, and some of the female teachers, had “the board” hanging on the wall, a paddle about three feet long and shaped like a cricket bat. They occasionally used them, and when they did, they swung hard — the contact of wood with buttocks made a sound like a crack of nearby lightning, or of a sniper rifle, and it would echo down the tiled halls. The student would limp for a few hours, but there was a strong ethic of “not blubbering” among the students singled out. After all, they deserved it.

I was terrified that Mr. R would use “the board” on Mark. As fragile as Mark looked, it seemed it could break him in half. Perhaps Mr. R could see that as well — I don’t recall him using “the board.”

Instead, he did something worse. He spent the next five, perhaps ten minutes, tearing down Mark’s character in front of the class, like a drill sergeant tearing down a recruit during boot camp. He held Mark up as an example of everything that was wrong with “young people these days” — a lazy slacker, a waste of teaching effort, of food, of air. A speck of nothing destined for nothing. The degradation went on and on, and I cringed in my seat, staring forward, unable to watch, unable to listen, unable to do anything.

To this day, there is a part of me that blames myself for not standing up and shouting, “His father just died, you miserable baboon’s arse!” Or at least the first part of that. Some act of support. Some act of acknowledgement of Mark’s pain, his loss, his legitimate grief. Some act of humanity.

I did nothing. I was a good little duck-and-cover citizen in a classroom with a green-suited drill sergeant and a board hanging on the wall. I was cowed, and afraid. As was intended.

Shortly after that, Mark vanished again, and that is the last I remember of him.

Bullying never occurs in a vacuum.

Bullying occurs in a cultural environment that reveres bullying, encourages it, supports it, and rewards it. An environment where adults smile fondly when a bullied kid “stands up for himself.” Where a person in power can tear down a child’s character as an example of what happens to bad little boys who don’t answer when asked a question.

A culture where an authority figure can bind your hands, and then, because they didn’t like the way you looked at them, or the color of your skin, or the name on your driver’s license, can knock you down, beat you, kick you, choke you, peel your eyelids back and spray mace in your eyes, sodomize you with a nightstick, break your bones, and then shoot you dead, and the other sixth-grade teacher on playground duty — the district attorney, the judge, the jury of peers — smirks, and comes back with a verdict of, “No, you deserved that. You fucking well deserved that. Justice is done.”

You want the cause of children bullying other children? The children learn it from us.

It’s really that simple.

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Surviving TEOTWAWKI

images-1TEOTWAWKI — The End Of The World As We Know It.

Every place you turn on the web, you see this message. Fox News, the tabloids, the main-stream media, are all filled with this message. The sky is falling, the world is ending, and you need to “get yourself to safety.”

As an example, I just browsed this gem, which is fairly typical.

There’s a consistent message in all of these warnings, which is this:

Buy My Book! Now!

I would probably be classified by some as a “doomer” because I have little hope for our current, specifically US American “way of life.” But all that means is that I see change coming — not The End Of The World, but merely The End Of The World As We Know It.

And yes, it will likely be disruptive change, though it doesn’t absolutely need to be: it will be disruptive because people on the whole aren’t very bright, or aware, and people with money and influence and the presumed ability to inspire large numbers of people to work together toward a common goal by paying them to do it, seem significantly less bright and less aware than most people. Or perhaps they’re just playing dumb for personal gain; I don’t know how one can tell the difference.

The question that always comes up when faced with TEOTWAWKI is, “What can I do? What can I do? What can I do?”

The only answer anyone ever gives is, “Buy my book!” If you make the mistake of buying the book, you’ll get a seventeen chapters about all the catastrophes we will certainly face, and how horrible they will be. In the final chapter, there will be a handful of common-sense bromides, like “Keep three days of fresh drinking water in your house and a flashlight handy, and floss regularly,” mixed with absolutely insane suggestions to invest in gold futures, or to buy a goat so you can make your own cheese.

Here’s the advice I offer: do whatever you would have done if the world were not ending. Do whatever seems right and good and honest and compassionate and generally excellent. Don’t worry about TEOTWAWKI. At least, not until Godzilla roars, and then you can run around screaming and getting trampled along with everyone else.

We just had a plumber in to replace our dying hot water heater, and he had the best plumbing story I’ve heard yet. He’d been hired to look for a water leak in a high-end house in Boulder. They knew there was a leak, and a big one, because the owner was paying over $1000/month in water bills. But the owner could not find the leak. The plumber came in, and he could not find the leak. Yet gallons and gallons of water were disappearing somewhere.

In desperation, the plumber rented a thermal imaging camera, and started scanning the house for cold spots, which normally means water behind the walls. He found nothing until he pointed it at a bookcase in the basement, which showed up as a solid square of cold. He and his assistant tried to move the bookcase, so they could maybe drill a hole in the concrete wall to try to find out what was behind it, but when they pulled, the bookcase swung open on hinges, and a flood of water poured into the room.

Behind the bookcase was a bunker — a panic-room — with bunk beds, canned food, potable water barrels, guns, ammunition, and (of course) a whole lot of free water that was now flooding the basement. When they inspected the room, they found an independent tap into the city water supply, done poorly, which had sprung a major leak and filled the room with water until the weight of it forced the water out the small floor drain as fast as it was pouring into the room.

The tragic irony in this whole situation was this: the current owner didn’t know about the panic-room, because he’d just bought the house. It had gone up for sale because the previous owner and his wife — the presumed builders of the panic-room — had both died in a traffic accident.

Every person on this planet is going to die. Every child and grandchild is going to die. Every distant descendant is going to die. This isn’t a problem to be solved: it’s how life works.

The only thing anyone can, or should, do during their short life is to live honorably, by whatever light illuminates their path to the good. Yes, avoid getting hit by a bus along the way, if you can. But like the couple that prepared for Apocalypse and died in a car accident, you may not be able to avoid the bus, or the cement truck, or the piano dropped from the seventh floor. Don’t sweat it. You’re going to die. So live well.

I don’t think this is really about fear of death, though. I think it’s fear of embarrassment.

If you look at the way TEOTWAWKI authors sell their books, it isn’t pushing the death button so much as the “don’t be caught with your pants down” button. Neener, neener, you’re a loser for not being properly prepared. You were a fool.

A couple I knew that divorced acrimoniously many years ago, had conversations with me independently about what was going on, and what they told me about their lawyers fascinated me. To the man, the lawyers said, “The smartest thing you can do is….” To the woman, the lawyers said, “What you have to do to protect yourself and your children is….” They appealed to the man’s fear of embarrassment over appearing foolish. They appealed to woman’s fear of embarrassment over appearing to be an inadequate mother. Both of them ate right out of the lawyers’ hands, and it was a financial bloodbath, with the spoils going to the lawyers.

It’s always a very successful strategy, appealing to the fear of embarrassment.

It’s pretty much the same thing here, I think: fear of the embarrassment of being caught without gold under the bed when the dollar collapses; fear of standing in a bread line with a bunch of other unprepared losers; fear of being seen as a fool who should have known better. If only you had bought that book and followed the author’s advice….

But being properly prepared depends on a long series of accidents throughout your life that leave you in exactly the right place to recognize what is going on, when no one else does. Being properly prepared is a matter of purest luck, of birth, of education, of circumstance, and the only things you can do to improve on that blind luck are to read widely, live broadly, keep your eyes and ears open, and make enough stupid mistakes throughout your life to develop a good working set of bullshit filters — and, of course, be lucky enough that your stupid mistakes don’t kill you, instead of making your stronger.

Seriously — at the individual level, no one is prepared to survive the collapse of major social institutions, save by purest accident. If you try to prepare, it will just drive you nuts. You’ll end up with a bunker under your house full of water.

At the collective level, on the other hand, there are some things that can be done.

Most small towns out here in the West — and probably around the country — have some kind of “pancake breakfast” at some summer festival or another, usually sponsored by the Kiwanis Club or the Rotary Club or some other civic organization. It’s something I never thought much about until a few years ago, when I realized that this is also a dry run for a disaster relief kitchen. Some of these pancake breakfasts can feed the entire town in a matter of hours. Having lots of people who know how to organize such an event, means that an entire town can be fed even if people are picking through the rubble left by an earthquake or tornado. If supplies can be airlifted in, the town can take care of itself.

Going back into iron-age history, there have always been the “annual games,” featuring competitions in all kinds of useful skills associated with farming, ranching, hunting, and fighting. It’s invariably a fun and socially healthy event with a serious undercurrent — collective preparation for unexpected disasters.

So if you want to prepare collectively for disaster, join a civic organization and help organize civic events. Get good at it, whether it’s a pancake breakfast or a city-wide Iron Man marathon or a music festival. If you can do that for 500 people, or 5,000, or 50,000, then you will have developed some extremely valuable survival skills for the day that the sky falls. And the best part is, you’ll have a lot of fun doing it.

As far as staving off the major man-made disasters, such as the collapse of the US economy and the US dollar’s failure as a world reserve currency, which is TEOTWAWKI that the author I cited above is trying to peddle… well, that’s in the hands of those people with money and power who seem to be clueless, and are maybe faking it, but probably aren’t. I’m pretty sure Sarah Palin isn’t faking it, nor Rep. Steve King from Iowa, nor Donald Trump. None of them has had the series of accidents that might have given them the opportunity (read: kick in the pants) to see past the end of their shallow ideologies.

So those disasters are going to happen, or not, with little input from the likes of you or me. If you happen to spot that particular bus in time to avoid getting hit by it, good on you. Otherwise, it really isn’t worth worrying about.

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