Monday, September 30, 2013


In my travels through Target and elsewhere, I often see “service animals” that are not assisting blind people. There are more and more of these doggies wearing their distinctive orange banners. Sometimes they are so small they are carried around in shopping bags or ride in shopping carts and are indistinguishable (aside from the banner) from pets. There are organizations that will train dogs for various purposes and certify them, but there is apparently no standardized or required process. In other words, you can just buy a service dog banner, wrap it around Fido, and take him anywhere. And that's what people do. Many of them accompany their owners for unspecified psychological reasons.

Under the Americans With Disabilities Act, service animals cannot be denied admittance to areas of public accommodation, including airplanes, hotels and restaurants. A landlord may not refuse to rent to a person with a service animal even if the housing complex completely bans animals. Also, it is a violation of the Act to demand any sort of proof that the animal has been certified or trained.

I've never seen a man with one of these animals.


We have now learned that Aaron Alexis, the madman who killed twelve people at the Washington Navy Yard, was being treated by the VA for PTSD, which almost certainly means he was taking an SSRI (selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor) drug. This SSRI group of pharmaceuticals is now the most-common form of antidepressant drug prescribed.

James Holmes, the shooter in Aurora, Colorado, was on sertraline, a generic version of Zoloft. Eric Harris (Columbine) was taking Luvox. (Medical records for Dylan Klebold remain sealed.) Seung Hui Cho, the Virginia Tech murderer, was also taking prescription medicines for psychological problems, though the name of the drug has never been released.

In fact, over the last twenty years, there have been dozens of cases involving crazed, motiveless homicide in which the killer was taking, or had just stopped taking, antidepressants. See:

This link between murder and antidepressants has gotten little publicity, for a number of reasons. First, the information may be released weeks or months after the killings, or may not be released at all. We still do not know whether Adam Lanza was on any medication when he murdered twenty-six at Sandy Hook Elementary. Second, lunatic shootings always raise new cries for gun control measures, and this dominates political discussion and leftist media coverage in the immediate aftermath, leaving little room for other issues to break through the din.

About fifteen years ago, my doctor put me on the antidepressant Wellbutrin because it is reputed to reduce nicotine craving in those who are trying to stop smoking. It didn't seem to work that way for me, but I took it for a couple of months while I was trying to quit.

At the time, I lived in South Philly and I spoke to my sister on the phone almost every day, often about our parents and other family matters. I should mention that my relations with my sister have always been good. There may have been the odd brother-sister disagreement once or twice, but never any major fights or feuds. We like each other.

After six weeks of Wellbutrin, however, I began to detect a sinister turn in her. It was never anything I could put my finger on, but after our conversations, there was always something that stuck in my head. What did she mean by that remark, I wondered. I would brood about these calls for hours, and sometimes burst into tears. I became convinced she hated me and was mocking me. But why? Why did she hate me so? What had I done to deserve this?

Then one night, my wife found me crying and demanded to know what was wrong. Blubbering, I tried to explain how my sister had turned against me, though I was aware even as I was telling the story how ridiculous it must have sounded. She cut me off.

It's that drug,” she said. “Stop taking it---now.” Two days later, my brain was working normally again. And I had learned something about psychotropic drugs.

If you start taking a new drug and it has some physical side-effect like insomnia or constipation or an upset stomach, you know it. It's obvious what is happening to you and you either learn to live with the side-effect or you stop taking the drug. Antidepressants may take a month or more to kick in, however, and when they do, the effects (good or bad) are all in your head, in your private thought processes. Most people have no way of examining, in some objective way, what is happening in their minds. I certainly didn't. There was no mechanism by which I could analyze my thinking and conclude: “Hey, Mike---you're insane.” Yet I was.

I was lucky. I had Sandy to tell me I was out of my mind. But many people do not. They live alone, or they isolate themselves and their thoughts from the scrutiny of friends and family members around them. With millions now taking antidepressant drugs, there will be people who suffer hideous mental side effects that no one notices. Until it is too late.


My buddy works at Neiman-Marcus in Las Vegas, in the cosmetics department, where there are forty or fifty young ladies and gay guys, and him, all selling high-end lotions and make-up and creams to filthy-rich wives of filthy-rich gamblers. Recently, his mother died and he took a few days off.

When he returned, various of his co-workers came to him and pressed sympathy cards upon him, five or six in all, each signed by six or eight or ten people. With each card came cash. The total was about $400. He called me about it. He was puzzled. He had never run into this before.

They're giving me money because my mother died?” he said to me. “I don't get it. It even pissed me off at first. Then I talked to my manager and she chilled me out, but I still don't quite get it.”

I have never run into this practice either, but since he told me about it, I have asked around. “Black people in West Philly do this,” I was told. “Italian families in the old neighborhood did the same thing,” someone else said.

Well, OK. There's a poverty angle that makes sense. It takes money to bury someone and throw a wake and miss some work, and if you're poor, it's nice that your friends and neighbors kick in a few bucks to help you out, and if you know everybody in the neighborhood you appreciate it and you do the same thing for them when the time comes.

But that's not the story in the Vegas Neiman-Marcus cosmetics department, is it? I'm not saying this group of retail salespeople is rich, but they have cars and they have apartments and they have nice phones and they hit the Vegas club scene once in a while. The sympathy cards with money in them is not about poverty. It's not like giving Luigi and Maria a few bucks in the “old neighborhood” when grampa Vincenzo dies.

It's not about poverty. It's about Vegas. Money is the language of Vegas, it's the lingua franca, it's the emotional currency. In a place where there is no “neighborhood,” where most people are driftwood, money and favors and tipping are how you communicate your bona fides, your status as a decent human being. Somebody gives you a lead on a job, well, you're going to take care of that guy. Or if somebody gets you and your girlfriend a comped meal at a fancy restaurant, a simple “thank you” isn't good enough. You arrange to get him a round of golf or a LeBron jersey, or something. It's how things are done. And if you don't do it, you're basically a jerk. In another place, you might say a novena for somebody or bring them a tray of macaroni and cheese. In Vegas, you tip the guy, one way or another. In Vegas, money is often not about money; money is also an instantly-understood and inoffensive way of expressing your emotions.

Friendships exist is Vegas as they do everywhere else. I'm not suggesting everyone is a stranger. But it's unlikely your best friend is somebody you went to elementary school with. It's unlikely you know his aunts and uncles, or the name of his first wife or whether he went to church as a kid, and if so, what church it was. This means that if your friend is experiencing one of those universal human events like a death in the family, and you want to make a gesture that says, “Hey, I'm human too and I care about you and I'm sorry about what happened,” your options are extremely limited. Some gesture from your traditions might be misunderstood. It might even offend. So you make a gesture that is pure Vegas.

You tip the guy.


Wednesday, September 25, 2013


As soon as my head hit the pillow, I began to dream. I was with my friend Sarah in her home on Catherine Street in South Philly, and we were walking from room to room in her rowhouse, which was completely empty of furniture. Neither of us spoke. There was no sound at all, not even the clicking of our shoes on her finished pine floors. Occasionally, our eyes would meet and she would flash me the smile I had seen from her a thousand times. I had last seen it through her oxygen mask. “Hey, Dragon,” I had said. “We've got to get you out of here.” And she smiled at hearing her nickname.

A week after that visit to her hospital room was the last time I saw her. She was still at Pennsylvania Hospital, and still in intensive care. She was alone in a room, supine on her bed, snoring rhythmically, hooked up to tubes and monitors that beeped quietly in the twilight. I watched her for a few minutes, then stepped out and found the nurse.

I'm a friend of Sarah's,” I said. “What can you tell me? Is she...still there?”

Sarah is not conscious any longer,” she told me. “We met with her family yesterday and treatment has been stopped, except for measures that will make her comfortable.”

I went back into the room and watched her breathe. Her cheeks were sunken into her face and her skin was pale and paper-thin. There wasn't much left of her anymore. Later, I learned she had lasted only a few more hours.

The dreams came about a week later, and though they were not unpleasant or frightening, I could not escape them. The first time, I awakened, shook my head, stared into the darkness for a minute, and then laid my head back upon the pillow. Instantly, I was back in her empty house with her next to me, walking through the house, floating effortlessly up the stairs and down again, and then the smile. Always the smile.

It continued all night. Though the dreams themselves were not nightmarish in any way, I began to feel trapped in them, and each time I awoke, I felt more and more uneasy. To banish them, I got out of bed, went to the john, checked the time, looked out the window, and consciously thought of other things in the hope my dreams would change. Sledding, fish in an aquarium, Chase Utley turning a double-play---anything to get my head out of that rowhouse. None of it worked. As soon as I closed my eyes, there she was, next to me---my drinking buddy, my racetrack buddy---now silent, now a wraith, but still my companion.

I awoke in the morning hardly rested at all and headed to the kitchen for a cup of strong coffee. I am a rational person. I am sometimes criticized for being too rational. However, I could not dismiss from my mind the legend or old wives' tale or whatever-it-is that the recent dead wander among us for a while before they find their rest. I am aware there are psychological explanations for what I experienced, but the feeling persists that this was not entirely a dream or a series of dreams. The feeling persists that it was Sarah.

The next night, I went to bed with some trepidation, but as I settled in and the haze of sleep began to descend upon me, I suddenly knew it was over, and that she would not return. “Goodnight, Sarah,” I whispered. “Goodbye, Dragon.”

There was no response.


Saturday, September 7, 2013


As I write this, President Obama dithers on about what sort of “message” he wishes to convey to the Syrian government. He says he strongly disapproves of Assad's recent use of chemical weapons on his people in an attack that killed hundreds and injured thousands, and he seems, at a minimum, intent in shooting a Cruise missile at something. Bill Clinton, in a similar one-off kind of military adventure, once blew up a couple of goat-herder shacks in Afghanistan and a pharmaceutical plant in Africa, and maybe that sort of manly gesture would suffice. Maybe not. With Obama, it can be hard to tell what he really cares about or thinks is important.

A guy like Bashar al-Assad is a problem. He's a truly bad guy, he's a thug, and he thinks nothing of committing any sort of atrocity to maintain his control over Syria. But he doesn't respond to conventional sorts of diplomatic pressure or economic sanctions, and even military action is probably going to have more of an effect on his already-suffering people than it will on him. So what should Obama do?

It's not the first time America has faced a problem like this. Gaddafi and Saddam Hussein posed similar dilemmas. Saddam was more than similar---like Assad, he used poison gas not only in the Iran-Iraq War but also against thousands of Iraqi Kurds in the town of Halabia.

The answer is obvious, but rarely gets said---you've got to kill the bastard. It makes no sense to destroy military assets or the poor soldiers who are forced to carry out the sick agenda of monsters like this. If Obama wants to send an unambiguous message that using chemical weapons is wrong, all he has to do is kill Assad. No explanation would even be necessary. And if the world's only superpower made it a policy to kill any person responsible for using chemical weapons, the guy who replaces Assad is going to be extremely reluctant to follow in his murderous footsteps.

Consider Exodus. Now, I don't wish to second guess God's decision in these matters, but instead of the frogs and locusts and boils and stuff, let's just suppose Moses and God had showed up at the Pharaoh's house one day and said, “Yo Pharaoh, let these Jews go---and I mean NOW!” And let's further suppose the Pharaoh said no, God vaporized him on the spot, and then trained his divine gaze on the Pharaoh’s son (who would now be the new Pharaoh).

Congratulations,” God says to the kid. “Now...what about those Jews?”

There is a myth that our law forbids a president from killing a foreign leader. This is not true. There are several Executive Orders which any president can withdraw or ignore at his pleasure. Then there is the War Crimes Act of 1996, which does not explicitly ban the killing of a guy like Assad. And let's face a more important practical point: Obama doesn't care what “the law” says. He rarely does. If he wants to kill Assad, the last thing he would ever worry about is the law.

But while the solution may be obvious, there are several reasons American presidents do not consider the option of killing a head of state. First, there is the modern idea of sovereignty. It used to be considered perfectly kosher to kill the other guy's king or hold him for ransom. (In 1192, Richard the Lion-hearted was captured by the Duke of Austria and held for ransom for more than a year.) The Congress of Vienna in 1815, however, in addition to sorting out the Papal States and the Swiss cantons and the detritus of the Napoleonic Wars, established a new tradition whereby heads of state agreed not to kill each other. There were still going to be wars, of course---no one had any delusions on that score---but decapitation of the state (or the duchy or the principality or the city-state or whatever) was forbidden.

The result, to this day, is a tacit reciprocal live-and-let-live understanding among world leaders. It makes no sense in terms of any identifiable moral principle, of course. In terms of legitimacy as rulers, Angela Merkel and Barack Obama have exactly nothing in common with Kim Jong-Un and Bashar al-Assad, and the recognition of the latter thugs as “government leaders” at all is difficult to justify. It is as if, in the 1950's, we had felt compelled to treat the Gambino family as a respected voice of the Italian-American community in New York City.

Yet this is how the world treats the various mass killers and torturers around the planet who manage to kill enough people and torture enough people so their local opposition dissolves in fear. They get welcomed to the UN and they get a spot at international conferences and they get really good seats to the Olympics. We call them bad names, of course, but the names are not that bad, and other world leaders pretend to respect them. Nobody ignores them or mocks them or sends them away and says, “No. Sorry. Go home and tell your stupid country to send us a real president.” And why not? What was gained (for example) by treating Muammar Gaddafi like a sort-of Dwight Eisenhower in drag for all those years? In geopolitical terms, why not laugh at them and refuse to take them seriously?

Another reason legitimate world leaders take a guy like Assad seriously, or pretend to, is...well, this is a guess, but maybe even the real ones like Merkel and Obama feel like their own hands are not as clean as they would like them to be. They know what deals they have had to make, of course, and some of those deals may look a little dirty in the cold light of day, and they wonder how much better they truly are than the psycho-killers of planet earth. They're wrong about this, of course. Barack Obama is not, morally, in the same universe as Kim Jong-Un. But we can understand how that thought could cross his mind.

But while we may understand the refusal to target Assad (or Gaddafi or Hussein) personally, American presidents make a fundamental political error by failing to do so. Several, in fact. First, they refuse to take advantage of the primary advantage democratically-elected rulers have over despots---legitimacy. While the popularity of a particular American president may rise or fall, they all achieve their position because, at one time, they were chosen by the American people. They got more votes than anybody else. This process is respected, which means that the individual and his office is respected even by many who dislike everything about him. An American president is, in a sense, an avatar of America itself. Many people who loath Barack Obama would view any attempt to physically harm him as an attack on the American system. I would view it as an attack on me. This is why any attack on a president (or even a former president) would be met by great vengeance and furious anger. A direct assault on an American president would be a grave strategic error for any foreign power.

Killing Assad, on the other hand, would have no such effect. A guy like him is never mourned by many and never for very long. Most Syrians would be happy to see him go, and any desire for payback would be limited to a very small number of his partisans and courtiers. Most importantly, killing Assad would not be viewed as an attack on Syria itself, but rather as the elimination of one particularly abhorrent individual.

Democracies have many disadvantages in military engagements with dictators. In a democracy, for example, it can be very difficult to forge the kind of political consensus that is needed to wage war, while all a dictator has to do is mobilize the army and start shooting. The asymmetry in the legitimacy of a dictator and a popularly-elected leader, however, is a tremendous advantage for the Obamas of the world, and it is foolish to throw it away. Assad can be killed, and apart from a few tut-tuts in certain editorial pages, no one will object.

So why not do it?