Enough is enough

princesuperbowl

Opioids are taking a terrible toll on this country, and yet they’re perfectly legal. The Pharma companies that manufacture them are profiting from addiction and death. I’m grateful I don’t know anyone who has had an addiction to these things, but not everyone has been so fortunate.

Can we now have an honest discussion of legalizing marijuana everywhere for medical use, at the very least? I’d rather have Prince–or anybody else–walking around with a bong in his hand, treating his pain in a way that wouldn’t get him addicted to anything.

I’m in favor of legalizing it for recreational use, too, because people are going to smoke whether it’s legal or not. Alcohol takes an enormous social toll, but experience has shown that regulating people’s vices is a fool’s errand.

Sacrificing our brothers, sisters, friends, family members and music idols to the opioid makers doesn’t make sense anymore, if it ever did in the first place.

Note: This is cross-posted from something I wrote on Facebook this morning, commenting on a Washington Post story about Prince’s scheduled meeting with an opioid specialist the day after he was found dead. 

UPDATE: Apparently this approach worked for Jim McMahon. Why not allow others to self-medicate like this? I can’t think of a good reason not to.

A Freudian Slip

Frederick_Douglass_c1860s

It’s fitting, in some way, that the trial I served as a juror for ended on Tax Day. I realize that taxes aren’t due until the 18th of April this year, but everyone knows April 15 is the day that we’re supposed to settle up with the IRS by filing our tax returns. Money changes hands on that day, generally in the form of a tax refund that people use for whatever they need some extra money for.

That didn’t happen for me this year. Instead of a healthy refund, I owed something to Uncle Sam, and not a trivial amount, either. But I paid that amount because, well, that’s just what you do. It keeps the National parks open, and pays for social programs and military defense and all the other places our tax dollars go to. Living in America is a privilege that I can’t fully appreciate because I haven’t lived anyplace else. But that privilege comes with a price, and the IRS is there to extract part of it from us all, whether we want to pay it or not.

Another price of citizenship in this country is jury service. In my many years of living, I had never served on a jury, of any kind, until this past week. The right to a trial by jury is an enormous gift, and that entails giving up your time when called by the courts to do so.

The trial I served as a juror on wrapped up yesterday, and I made a point to ask the judge if I was allowed to write about the case online. Writing is a form of free, self-induced therapy for me, and I needed to put a few things out into cyberspace, before the experience fades away into memory. I expect jury service to be a once-in-a-lifetime experience, and after this trial, I very much hope that’s the case.

Part of me wants to get into the specific facts of the case, but that’s not really going to help anything. Painting in broad strokes about what happened is probably good enough, at least for my purposes. I could write a long treatise about the case I was charged with deciding, but the end result wouldn’t change, not even the tiniest bit.

The case had to do with a fraud, pure and simple. The federal government rooted out the defendant’s misdeeds, which were filing tax returns in the name of people who had no idea they were having returns filed on their behalf. Their names and social security numbers, and access to online tax filing software, are apparently all it took to set these wheels into motion.

So prisoner A (We learned his real name and saw him testify in court, but his first name began with A so I’ll call him that here) is doing time. I learned what it was for, but it really didn’t matter that much. He’s serving time, and not receiving any Social Security benefits from the government. But a tax return was sent to the IRS, indicating that not only was he receiving these benefits, but he had a portion of those benefits withheld by the IRS, and he wanted the withheld portion back. It’s a classic case of turning nothing (as in the Social security benefits which were never paid in the first place) into something (as in a few hundred dollars that wound up in the tax preparer’s pocket.

This happened for hundreds of prisoners, and the IRS paid off like a slot machine by depositing the money in waves. There were hundreds of prisoners, and thousands upon thousands of dollars being shoveled out for this scam. The legal term is “scheme,” which sounds a hair more respectable than a “scam,” but this was the scammiest thing I’ve ever seen in my life. And it makes a mockery out of those who pay taxes and wouldn’t think to  run a fraud like this.

At the close of the trial, on Thursday afternoon, the jury received instructions from the judge about what the relevant law is. We were told to follow those instructions, whether we agreed with them or not. One juror failed to do so, and that vote was enough to result in a hung jury. Our romantic notions of “Twelve Angry Men” and the noble juror who spares a defendant from being wrongly convicted by standing up to, and ultimately persuading, his fellow jurors didn’t apply in this case. Life didn’t imitate art, at least not in this instance.

But the two sides had to give closing arguments before we could begin deliberating, and the otherwise masterful defense attorney nearly gave away the game with one small, practically imperceptible slip. I may have been the only one that noticed it, but it was very telling. It didn’t make a difference, in the end, but I wanted to preserve it here, anyway.

A Freudian slip, also called a parapraxis, is when someone gives away their inner feelings by accident. As the defense attorney was summing up the defects in the government’s case–since they have the burden of proof, his job was to point out the ways they haven’t done so, regardless of whether any such defects actually existed–he said “They have fooled–failed–to show….”

The “fooling” that the defense attorney referred to, in his moment of unintended candor, wasn’t the government’s doing, but his own. He was there to fool the jury into believing that his client had been wrongly accused of defrauding the government–and by extension the taxpayers on the jury and all over the United States–out of withholding proceeds from prisoners who had not receive any Social Security benefits while they were behind bars. All he had to do was fool one juror, and the week’s worth of trial would have gone for naught. And that’s exactly how it played out, too.

I put a picture of Frederick Douglass in this post, because the holdout juror bears a strong resemblance to him. I even thought of him as Fred, though his real name was something else. Frederick Douglass became friends with Abraham Lincoln, and their unlikely rise from the circumstances they were each born into has always inspired me. I will always admire Frederick Douglass, but I’ll probably see pictures of him now and think about the juror who wouldn’t agree with the rest of us on the jury. Life takes some strange twists sometimes.

On my way home from the courthouse, after the verdict had been read and my fellow jurors and I were excused with the thanks of the court, I took a train to a bus in order to get home. The transfer point from train to bus led me to a statue of Abraham Lincoln, which I’ve written about before in this space. I looked up at Lincoln, who is depicted not as the bearded president we all know, but as a clean-shaven Illinois attorney, which he was for many years before he was elected president.

As I looked up at Lincoln’s representation, I tried putting my frustrations with the case into some type of order. And I realized that our legal system, for all of its imperfections, is still something to be proud of. The defendant wasn’t set free by my jury, and he still has to face the prospect of perhaps another trial in the weeks and months ahead. We as jury did what we had been charged with doing. I didn’t like the final result, but it was far from the first time where something I was involved with didn’t end up the way I wanted it to. Those are the breaks, whether in the courthouse or anyplace else in life.

The Lincoln statute reminded me that our legal system is worth preserving and supporting, even if it isn’t perfect. It won’t ever be perfect, but it will always seek to do justice. The truth is  that I’d rather live in such a place than anywhere else.

Everybody wants to rule the World

image

A song by Tears for Fears encapsulates the 80s for me like few others do. And the irony now, all these years laters, is that it was probably in the air when a high school teacher and coach named Hastert was doing some terrible things to trusting young kids.

He went from Yorkville High to third in line to the presidency. He literally did help to rule the world, at least in theory, and made millions in the process. Some of those millions would later be funneled to those who he abused when nobody knew his name. That’s punishment enough for what he did, right? If only if were that simple.

I never knew any of the people involved in this tale, so perhaps it’s not my place to say anything about this. But the good teachers and coaches who want the best for the kids they work with will bear the brunt of Hastert’s actions, far more than he ever will. And that is beyond unfortunate.

High school sucked for me, and I’m not the only one who felt that way. When adults in position of authority and trust use the circumstances of this difficult age of transition for their own benefit, in order to sexually prey on those who are still trying to figure out their own place in the world, all of us suffer, in ways that we may never realize. I’m grateful that nothing like this ever happened to me, but I can easily understand why others were not so fortunate.

After a long and financially rewarding stretch in the halls of power, Coach Hastert’s past finally caught up with him. He paid off his prey, but money alone can’t make everything OK, either for those he molested or the rest of us, as well. He’s old and going to die soon, so perhaps he’ll get what’s coming to him when that happens. But here on earth, his request for probation is an affront to anyone who’s paying attention.

His “family values” and likely unstated opposition to the very behaviors he engaged in as a wrestling coach makes him an outsized hypocrite. Sending him to prison won’t make him any different, but the idea that he can do this and slink off with nothing more than his own shame and humiliation seems wrong, on some level.

I have no doubt he feels bad about what he did, but this is only because it came up again. The abuser can forget his actions however he wants to, but the abused cannot. And to protect those who need it, neither should the rest of us.

Powerball and the flip of a coin

bicentennial-quarter-back-reverse

One time, just for fun, I found out what the actual odds of winning the Powerball are. Then I compared it to the real-world action of flipping a coin.

If you took a quarter and flipped heads (or tails, but I’m saying heads because it’s my example), you’d have to then flip heads another 25 times in a row, and you’d still be a flip away from getting there. My numbers may be off by a flip or two, but try flipping even seven or eight in a row and you’ll see how laughably improbable it is. Or, if you have more quarters than you do patience, throw a handful up in the air at once and see how they all come up. If the number is more than about three, they’ll have different results. No $1.5 billion  payout for you!

Yet some people (a lot of them, apparently) believe that the 27-straight-heads-flipper will be them. That’s some very wishful thinking, indeed.

Sending my best to Dominica

IMG_20150830_0001

The first time I ever left the boundaries of the United States was for my honeymoon in August of 1992. My new wife and I took a Caribbean cruise, leaving from San Juan and going through the islands of St. Thomas, St. John, St. Maarten, Barbados, Dominica, and Martinique. The sunshine and natural beauty of the Caribbean overwhelmed me, and so too did the crushing poverty that I saw. It was my first encounter with the meaning of the term “third world.”

Tourist dollars like ours seemed to be what kept these places afloat, if floating can accurately describe what was going on. The cruise ships bring the tourists, and the locals do what they can to separate the tourists from their money. Giving tours is a big moneymaker, for sure, and they may be the thing that I remember most about these islands. Our tour of Dominica may have been the one I remember the most.

The infrastructure, such as it was, of the islands seemed to decline as the cruise progressed. From Charlotte Amalie and the duty-free shopping it offered on St. Thomas, and the FU money of those who could afford to live or vacation on St. John, there was a precipitous decline when we got to Barbados, and even more so when we arrived in Dominica. But it was also the most pristine of the islands we had seen, and the explanation of how a rainforest worked was facinating, at least to me.

By the time we arrived at a waterfall on Dominica, and bought a piece of fruit from a local vendor, I had decided that the beauty and the poverty of Dominica were both beyond what I was ready for. I was grateful to have a cruise ship waiting for me, to take me onto the next island and, ultimately, away from the Caribbean altogether. But the tour guides and the fruit vendors weren’t so lucky. They had to stay on Dominica and wait for the next cruise ship to arrive, to repeat the same process all over again.

The devastation of Tropical Storm Erika on Dominica makes me sad today. The cruise ships that take their patrons to the shores of Dominca could surprise me and come up with some money or supplies to help the people of the island in their moment of need, but it would be far easier to look for other places to dock their boats, or simply bypass the island altogether. Who wants to see destruction and human misery on their vacation?

Places like Florida, which is next in the path of this storm, will also feel an impact, possibly even a strong one, but in the end they will rebuild. Insurance money and other resources will flow to Florida in a way that they never will to Dominica and the rest of the Caribbean. The people on that island–and the Caribbean as a whole–are truly on their own. I wish them the best.

On Subway and the Failings of Fogle

150707-jared-fogle-mt-1234_d1576557f05c0d7b00efe180119ffefe.nbcnews-ux-2880-1000

Unlike many people, I can remember Subway restaurants in the pre-Jared Fogle days. I first visited a Subway shop in the summer of 1988 in Evanston, Illinois, and it seemed like a revolution in fast food to me. In some ways, that’s exactly what it was.

You mean I can pick my own type of bread? and meat? Veggies, too? And sauce on the top of it all? Wow! That’s exactly what being in a Subway felt like back then.

I imagine it felt like that for Jared Fogle, too. He found that he liked the sandwiches, and he used them–and a lot of walking–to tell a compelling story about the inner determination that we all have, if we can only unlock it and harness it effectively. Those huge jeans that he never tired of holding up were his ticket–and Subway’s–to the explosive growth that has occurred over the past two decades.

Subway now has more than 44,000 restaurants all over the world. It’s safe to say that more than half of these only existed in the Jared Fogle days of the franchise. He was the face of the franchise, and quite literally its embodiment, too. Eat Subway and you, too, can get to a slimmer body size. And who doesn’t want that?

Jared is the opposite of Ronald McDonald, because he is a real-life person. His claim to fame was that he had eaten Subway and lost weight. That’s all. Athletes sometimes had endorsement deals with Subway–Apollo Ohno comes to mind on that front–but Jared didn’t have anything other than his backstory to offer. But that was enough, it seemed. Subway was Jared and Jared was Subway. And they both sold us all a lot of sandwiches as a result.

But real life people are human, after all. And when the freaky side of Jared Fogle was revealed, and then confirmed by his guilty plea to possession of child pornography, it created a major problem–perhaps even an existential one–for Subway and its owners, Doctor’s Associates. Can their brand, which depended on Jared’s smiling visage and uplifting personal tale, survive the things that Jared did on his own time? Should it survive?

Doctor’s Associates is a privately-held company headquartered in Milford, Connecticut. As a result, there’s been no precipitous crash in the company’s stock price, as there would be if this happened to McDonalds or Subway. But there’s also no spreading of the pain around between millions of individual and institutional stockholders, either. The pain is being felt by the people who own those 44,000 franchises around the world, and pay Subway for the right to use their name and sell their products.

The decline in sales at these locations is going to be very real. How could it be otherwise, when their corporate image is going to prison for at least five years? The food won’t taste any different today than it did last year or ten years ago, but everyone who steps through the door will have to ask themselves if they want to continue giving their money to a business that was at least partially created by a pedophile.

Subway has had a few weeks’ warning to scrub any and all images of Jared from their stores, and I’m sure they have done exactly that. But the benefit of the doubt, that perhaps this was all a misunderstanding of some sort, is gone, as of today. He did many terrible things, and his Subway-generated wealth will be used partially to repay his victims, and partially to pay lawyers who were able to work out a better plea deal than the average Subway customer could get in a similar situation. So Subway benefited Jared, one final time. But he now leaves an awful lot of franchise owners holding the bag, and facing a very uncertain future.

Jared will become forgotten, or the answer to trivia questions, or the target (because saying butt just felt wrong) of many cruel jokes. He brought all of that on himself, and I will shed no tears for him. But he will also serve as an object lesson for any company that expects to ride a spokesperson of any kind to bigger and better things. When you tie your wagon to just one horse, as Subway did for twenty years with Jared Fogle, you better be very sure that it’s a good one.

My Grateful Beard has disappeared

I spent much of February 2015 growing a beard. It originally grew out of the hockey-related idea of a playoff beard.
If you keep a routine that does not allow for shaving to intrude, the thinking goes, it will somehow create a benefit for one’s team. Or at least it allows you to share the experience with others who do the same silly thing.

I called this phenomenon the Grateful Beard, since it grew out of a waiting to see if I was going to get tickets to one of the reunion/farewell shows the Grateful Dead is playing this summer in Chicago.

I’ve been to four Dead shows over the years, with the last one being almost 22 years ago now. Four shows isn’t much by some standards, but most people haven’t even been to one show, so I’m happy to be as experienced as I am. For a rock lifer like me, hearing Jerry and his band play live confers some degree of street cred that few other bands can match.

Jerry Garcia once said that the trick is not to do something better than everyone else does it, but to do something that no one else is doing. The band was singular in their time, and that shows in what will surely be a hyper-crazy demand to be a part of the three shows this summer. this is a one-time thing, and I want in.

But as I posted previously, the mail order didn’t work out, and my money order arrived in the mail a few days ago. I took one last picture of my Grateful Beard, complete with a legitimate touch of gray in it, and shaved it off yesterday morning.

Now that the Beard is no more, I understand that it–like the Dead shows this summer–was a unique and singular experience. Never again will my whiskers depend on the content of my mailbox. So even though my efforts did not lead to the miracles I had been seeking, I still had some way of marking the time along the way. It’s a small thing, but I am memorializing it here, all the same.

Here’s hoping that the telephone and Internet sale this morning leads to greater success than the mail order did. What I can say confidently is that no Beard will be grown during this process.

2015/02/img_1106.jpg

Friends and Family–2013

This morning, as my teenager got in some practice ice time with her skating coach, I continued on my quest to purge my personally-identifiable pictures from Facebook. I’m working backward from the present year, and I made my way through 2013 today. It was an interesting year, but they are all with the benefit of hindsight.

Again, I’ll continue this until the storage space runs out. No explanations or captions are coming anytime soon.

Friends and Family–2014

The new Facebook Terms of Service are going into effect on January 1, 2015, and every user will have to agree to them in order to continue using their service. I’m sure Facebook expects the overwhelming majority of users to blindly click “I accept” and continue on with life. Maybe it’s a character flaw, but I’m not willing to go along so easily.

What’s the hangup?

Facebook is expecting–no, they are demanding–that any image put onto their website can be used by them for whatever commercial purposes they want, without that person’s consent, and without any compensation paid whatsoever.

Part of me is amused that Facebook thinks my image could ever be helpful selling anything to anyone. But part of me is offended that my family’s image could be used for these purposes. My grandparents, my parents, my siblings, my wife, and my children could all be put into the financial service of a multi-billion dollar business enterprise, simply because I once wanted my handful of friends to see them in a picture. My friends, colleagues, classmates, and everyone I’ve ever known, practically, could be pressed into service without their knowledge or consent.

And me, well, I’ve been in lots of photos in my life. Some of those have ended up on Facebook, on the pages of people who who go along with Facebook’s new demands. I’ll be sent into Facebook’s service, where I would prefer not to be, but there’s nothing I can do to stop it, either.

I actually don’t much care about my image, but I hate that Facebook wants to monetize millions–if not billions–of people’s images for their financial gain. Yes, Facebook is free, in the sense that it costs no money to sign up or to keep an account in your name. But when the price becomes pimping out yourself and all your friends, that’s a bit too much to pay.

So here are the images of my friends and family from my 2014 posts on Facebook. They’ve all been deleted from that site, and are being given asylum on a platform where I still think I have some control. Hope I’m not wrong about that.

How far I will take this remains to be seen. I joined Facebook in 2009, so there must be thousands of pictures that will need transferring. And I have lots of pictures from traveling, and local images I found interesting, that I don’t know if I want Facebook to control come January 1. I’d like to just take my images and walk away from Facebook altogether, but that’s a decision I don’t have to make just yet. We’ll see how that goes.

So here are the pictures. Captions and explanations won’t be forthcoming for a while, if ever.