Billy Joel Was Right

Billy Joel Was Right

We didn’t start the fire
It was always burning since the world’s been turning
We didn’t start the fire
No, we didn’t light it, but we tried to fight it

In 1989, Billy Joel released the album Storm Front that included the No. 1 hit single, We Didn’t Start the Fire. In it, Joel recounts, in rapid-fire lyrics, 119 significant historical events that took place during his life as a reminder to us that history continues, regardless what we remember or how we remember it. Everything that we live through, and that we live with today has many, many historical precedents.

The thing about history is that knowing it and living it are two very different things. Those who lived it didn’t know the end of the story, they were busy making the end of the story. The further we get from the actual events, the more we forget that and discount the importance to them of what was happening.

Here is an example: the 1940 London blitz of WWII. Admittedly an extreme example. Bombs were dropping daily, the city was being systematically flattened and in ruins, fires raged uncontrolled, thousands died, children were taken from their homes and families and evacuated to the country. Londoners did not know when or how or even if it all might end. It happened again the next day, and the one after that, with no respite. Their future looked bleak and gloomy, and despair must have been the predominant emotion. For them, democracy dying in darkness was not just a possibility, it was a probability.

In the end, of course, the Brits and their allies prevailed, and Nazism failed, at least overtly. On the other side of the conflict, the Germans later suffered as much or even more destruction, but they also prevailed. Just look at the German leadership in the world today. They lost the war, but they didn’t lose history.

History, as it is happening, is the most important thing ever to those who are living it.

There are many more examples in modern American history alone of historical precedent to our times. Japanese internment camps vs. Muslim bans; the civil rights movement vs. the LBGTQ movement; AIDS vs opioids; McCarthy and Communism vs. ISIS and sharia law; feminism vs. #metoo; Viet Nam vs. Afghanistan/Iraq/Syria; Watergate vs. Russian interference; Trump vs. Nixon; and so on. All of them have a precedent. And the precedents have precedents. That is how history works. And, at the time, no one knew how these chapters would turn out, and they were, therefore, the most important thing ever.

Today we are experiencing dramatic and possibly apocalyptic events. Evils that we thought were tamed have resurfaced; friendships and alliances are evolving, or trying to evolve, in ways that frighten us; threats to our very planet and survival seem imminent. But remember, quoting the words David Koepp put in Jeff Goldblum’s mouth in Jurassic Park, “Life finds a way.”

Life won’t be the same after the turmoil of today. We progress through learning, and we learn through experience. And the things we experience today – misogyny, racism, intolerance, greed, corruption, and all the rest – are being dragged into the light of day where we can see them clearly and where they command our attention. We can’t just continue to ignore them and leave them to percolate below the surface. They will get fixed, some before others. But eventually, all of them.

History Lessons

History Lessons

Since the nomination of Donald Trump, I have railed against him in many forums, including occasional public venues where I should know better. I am happy to continue to do so but I find myself irritated by many others who are promoting the same agenda that I am in a way that I find counter-productive, and even offensive. So, I’m going to tell you why.

Knowing that few people take the time to read more than four sentences, I will get some points across up front so you can decide whether to invest additional minutes or not.

  • America in 2016 is not Germany in the 1920’s and 1930’s, when Hitler came to power.
  • America in 2016 is not Russia in 1999 when Putin became Prime Minister.
  • Trump is not Hitler – not even close.
  • Trump is not Putin – not even close.
  • Trump is President-elect of the United States, and after inauguration he will have significant power, mostly confined to Executive Orders, a bully pulpit, influence over what Congress does, and the conduct of foreign affairs.
  • Trump cannot change the Constitution. He cannot pass laws or invalidate existing ones. He cannot control the media. He cannot ignore or suppress the voters of this country UNLESS WE LET HIM.
  • The very things that we fear will come about because of Trump have already happened, many times over, and will happen many times again after he is gone. We will survive and even become better for the experience.

For those of you making the comparisons to Hitler and Putin and Nazis and Russia, you really need to study your history for these comparisons are inaccurate and even disrespectful to those who lived through the real thing. You don’t need to look back past my own lifetime, or even consider history outside the US. Most of the things that you are hysterical about possibly happening, and worse, have already happened here, and in my lifetime. We survived and grew stronger and better because of them.

  • Senator McCarthy lied and made wanton false accusations that ruined people’s lives, and promoted some of the most evil social and cultural acts we can do to each other, while his fellow politicians, even knowing his duplicity, cooperated and supported the effort for their own selfish, parochial benefit. Corruption and ethics violations that I doubt Trump could duplicate today.
  • Women have, unfortunately, always been the target of abuse, assault, suppression, etc., by men. Not just here and in my lifetime, but everywhere and throughout time. Trump has not invented this, he has not enabled this, he has not normalized this, he has not promoted this. He has brought it out in the open where it can be addressed and, to some degree, ameliorated.
  • We can no longer disregard it, or deny it, or minimize it. We have to deal with it, and women will eventually be better off for it.
  • Police-state tactics have been used against our own citizens resulting in thousands of deaths and untold misery. Black and white civil rights advocates murdered, beaten, thrown in jail, attacked by dogs, lynched, often by the same law enforcement and political establishment charged with protecting them. Vietnam protestors attacked by police, and even killed on the campus of Kent State University by the Ohio National Guard. And so on.
  • Radical citizen groups have always fomented terror, riots, killings, fear, threats, etc. These range from Black Panthers and others bombing, robbing, and killing (and themselves being bombed and killed), to white skinheads and neo-Nazis doing the same, to local militias organizing and practicing to do even worse, and many other examples.
  • Again in my lifetime, we have invaded and savaged foreign countries for reasons noble and base. Nicaragua, Vietnam, Panama, Grenada, Afghanistan, Iraq, Yugoslavia, Kuwait, Cuba, Lebanon, Laos, Somalia, Sudan, Syria, and many, many more.
  • Political corruption and ethics violations are and have been a way of life, from your local County government to the highest levels of elected and appointed office. Examples are too numerous to name, so just look around, read the news, open your mind, and use critical thinking and you’ll find plenty. The antidote: stop following candidates who are playing on your fears with phony issues and accusations and undelivered promises; consider more than one issue when selecting who to support; vote for inherently good people, not ignorant or evil ones who happen to agree with you on some topic.
  • Attempts to suppress minorities are a standard practice here, and always have been. We fought a Civil War that was to a great degree caused by this. (That wasn’t in my lifetime, by the way, so stop smirking.) It has never worked past a period of tumult and change that is still going on today and will be going on long after I am dead.
  • Political/corporate greed and advantage is an issue almost too pervasive to identify. Rather, can you name any politician at any level of government who doesn’t benefit personally (beyond a reasonable salary) from his position? Does Congress have the same health, retirement, and social benefits that you do? Does their salary continue up while the minimum wage is too little to survive on?

We don’t need to make America great again – she has always been great. We need to continue to make her greater, and that initiative has lapsed in recent years.

And we’re not going to accomplish anything by raising the specter of Hitler and Putin to scare ourselves and others, and to reinforce our own beliefs and try to frighten others into agreeing with us.

Trump’s election is not the end of America as we know it. In fact, it is a validation of America. We have as a President-elect a man who lost the popular vote, who lied, bullied, cheated, and acted in the most vulgar way possible to get elected, and who is by all current, available measures, manifestly unfit for the office.

And yet he was peacefully elected. And he will serve after a peaceful transition of power. And he will function within the limits of our form of government and culture. He will do bad things, but not as many as you imagine. He will do good things, whether by accident or intent. He will be replaced, hopefully in four years, by someone else who will continue the traditions of America.

Final note – please don’t tell em “yeah but this is different.” Take a look at this post to see why those living the history always think it’s worse than ever before.

Driver’s Education

Driver’s Education

When I was sixteen years old, my step-father, the conservative banker, bought a new car. His previous one had been an English Ford Anglia, a car that made a Checker cab seem sporty. So my hopes for something cool to drive with my new license were limited.

He commuted from the Maryland suburbs into Washington every day and even then traffic was a somewhat organized fracas. He knew all the short cuts and detours and was quite good at navigating his way to work. And because of that daily challenge, he, as he told the Ford salesman, liked “a car with zip.” He came home with the car you see pictured. Not this precise one, but an exact duplicate except for the mag wheels. And because he liked what he called “zip”, the salesman kindly included a 390 cubic inch Police Interceptor engine and modifications and a 3-speed manual transmission. I was absolutely certain this car would get me laid. It didn’t. But on several occasions it got me screwed.

Occasion 1 was my first speeding ticket. Route 50 in Parole, Maryland – aptly named because that was what I was on with my mother for a long time after. I saw the cop entering the highway well behind me. I knew the curvature of the road would put me almost instantly out of his sight, so I never slowed down. Mistake. He had the same Police Interceptor, and he did.

But that was just the warm-up. My coup was actually hitting a traffic-directing cop with the right front fender of the car, knocking his butt to the pavement, and getting away with it.

My best friend and I from military high school were cruising the local public high-school trying to achieve the getting-laid goal. Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School at quitting time was always chaotic. The school fronted on the four-lane East-West Highway and to go east, you had to turn left in front of two lanes of traffic going west and merge into the two lanes going east. The city provided a traffic cop to prevent the inevitable result of teenagers in cars grappling with optimistic opinions of their driving ability. So there I was, first in line, top-down, exhaust gurgling like liquid testosterone, my friend in the passenger seat with his arm on the door, looking cool. The cop stopped the four lanes of traffic in both directions and blew his whistle for me to make my left turn. So I started forward to go out and around him which I, as a recent graduate of Driver’s Ed, I knew to be the proper protocol.

The cop blew his whistle like Louis Armstrong with a trumpet, threw up his hand in an angry “stop” gesture, and then waved his arm, signaling me to go in front of him. By that time I had pulled out too far to make that turn successfully, so being the polite young man I always was, I rose up over the windshield and said, “But officer, there’s not enough room.” His response was another whistle and more angry arm-waving. I sat down, shrugged, turned the wheel as far left as possible, and popped the clutch.

After he hit the pavement, I knew there would be trouble so I didn’t leave the scene. I just edged forward to get to the side of the road and await the consequences. The cop thought I was making a low-speed getaway and chased me, grabbing my friend’s arm and holding on while trotting next to the car. Did I mention that the officer might have been a little short and pudgy? Probably why he was assigned school-crossing duty. In any event, he had to work at keeping up with even a slow-moving car and needless to say, he was pissed.

I got a very serious ticket and an escort home to make sure my parents were clearly advised of my criminal behavior. My mother did not take this new infraction well. Escorted home by a police car that parked in front of our house? Oh, the scandal!

We had to go to court the next day and explain to the judge what happened. I told him my story, the traffic cop acknowledged the general accuracy of it with some stuttering, and the judge said I was right and sent me and my mother home. She, on the other hand, didn’t let me off quite so easily.

There are other stories about that car. The drag race with the Studebaker, my step-father’s belief that Ford made the cheapest clutches in the world because his kept getting worn out, etc.
All-in-all, a very good start to my driving career.

Duh! Of Course They Do.

Duh! Of Course They Do.

Joshua Keating is a staff writer for Slate Magazine and a former editor at Foreign Policy magazine. One of his recent articles led with the headline, “Malls make tempting targets for terrorists.”

Duh. (No offense, Joshua. I understand that many people don’t realize this. The “duh” was intended for them, not you.)

From a Rand study on shopping malls as potential terrorist targets from 2006:

  • “In terms of their potential role as terrorist targets, shopping centers present numerous challenges for security.”
  • “Shopping centers are distributed throughout the United States … in areas that are considered high risk for terrorist attack …”
  • “Shopping centers also allow unimpeded access to the public and attract a wide cross-section of the nation’s population.”
  • “… shopping center customers and tenants may not tolerate the expense and inconvenience of increased security.”
  • “… shopping centers may have a difficult time justifying investment in reducing the seemingly remote risk of terrorism.”

The absolutely true platitude is, “the goal of terrorism is to terrorize.” Any place with easy access and little security that attracts large crowds and is fundamental to our way of life is an ideal target, and shopping centers fill this role perfectly.

From our book, The Rockets’ Red Glare:

At the moment dirty bombs were going off in Washington and Orlando, and two terrorists were dying in Chicago, thwarted in their mission, there were 36,482 people in the mall. About a quarter of them were within the intended blast radius of the bomb vest.

At that moment in The Mall of America, all those people were going about their lives, oblivious to the events, to their danger, shopping or working or just having fun.

And at that moment in The Mall of America, nothing happened.

Their bomb was in the FBI radiation forensics lab instead of on Mervat Saad, standing with the crowds in front of Macy’s, waiting to martyr himself.

Their cesium was safely in a storage container instead of contaminating a million square feet of some of the most densely populated floor space in America.

Nothing happened at The Mall of America, and no one realized it.

This is why we called our genre Forecast Fiction. It could happen before your next birthday, exactly as we described it, and you wouldn’t be surprised. Shocked, horrified, aghast, etc. But not surprised. All of the pieces are there, right now.

The Rand study is an excellent example of a well-thought out identification of a threat, recommendations for neutralizing, or at least diminishing, it, and reasons why it won’t be done until after the fact. Even the attack in Kenya is unlikely to motivate mall owners to make the investment in the appropriate security measures. And American shoppers, halfway around the globe from Kenya, are unlikely to put up with the inconvenience of these measures when they have so many shopping options.

Again, from the Rand study:

“… disaster preparedness plans and exercises that focus primarily on emergency response do little to reduce terrorism risk. The vast majority of terrorism risk derives from attacks using explosives, for which the effects are immediate and the hazard abates very quickly. As a result, little can be done to reduce consequences (casualties or property damage) of a terrorist attack once it has occurred.”

Explosives plus radioactive materials changes the scenario dramatically. All of a sudden, the consequences to people and property damage do not abate quickly. And, as I noted in a previous post, Syrian Dirty Bomb, adding those radioactive materials does not require much effort, expense, or expertise. Just the motivation and will.

A Muslim of Convenience

One of the major themes in our book, The Rockets’ Red Glare, is the alliance between two very disparate and even hostile terror groups – al Qaeda and the domestic hate group WAR (White Aryan Resistance). A lot of people find this possibility unbelievable, an obvious contradiction to our dedication to “Forecast Fiction.” How could two groups whose long-term goal is the eradication of the other come together and plan and execute a joint attack?

The phrase “the enemy of my enemy is my friend” is generally thought to be an ancient Arabic proverb. According to the Yale Book of Quotations, it actually came from Kautilya, the “Indian Machiavelli,” in the Arthashastra, a foundational text of military strategy written in Sanskrit around the 4th century B.C.

Throughout history we have seen sworn enemies come together in the face of a common threat. The United States allied with Joseph Stalin to defeat Hitler’s Nazis. You cannot get two societies more at odds than those. After the war, the US supported murderous dictators such as Pinochet in Chile and Seko in Zaire in the Cold War with the USSR. And they in turn allied with their traditional enemy China and with anti-Communist Nasser in Egypt. In China, the arch-enemies Mao and Chiang Kai-shek allied to fight the Japanese before renewing their civil war.

And all of these unlikely alliances have taken place in the last 80 years. We have all of human history before that, full of the same phenomenon. Imagine the others that have taken place since Kautilya first codified the concept.

In 2006, Prof. George Michael of the University of Virginia’s College at Wise, published his study called The Enemy of My Enemy in which he explored the possibilities of cooperation between militant foreign Islamic groups and domestic right-wing hate groups. He noted that they share “fervent anti-Semitism, accompanied by strong pro-Palestinian views, anger over Israel’s influence on American policymakers, and opposition to the Iraq War and the U.S. presence in the Middle East.”

So here’s today’s kicker. The BBC’s in-depth research into the Boston Marathon bomber, radical Muslim terrorist Tamerlan Tsarnaev, uncovered that he “subscribed to publications espousing white supremacy and government conspiracy theories.” It is simply naïve to believe that these two groups, or others of similar beliefs, would not cooperate to attack America. These groups, despite their antipathy towards one another, are both so certain of their righteousness and ultimate predominance that expediency is seen as simply the end justifying the means.

And this presents a whole new challenge to law enforcement and homeland security. How many more Timothy McVeigh’s do you suppose are out there? And how many foreign terrorists eager to make their acquaintance?

A spokesperson for Tsarnaev’s Mosque in Cambridge, Nicole Mossalam, said he was an angry young man. “I would say he was just a Muslim of convenience.”

Isn’t that what this is all about? What is convenient today to accomplish my goals right now, working with whoever can help me? Tomorrow will take care of itself.

Syrian Dirty Bomb

A recent headline: “Syrian Radioactive Materials Out of Regulatory Control: Is Al Qaeda Looking for Dirty Bomb Materials Within Damascus?”

The news reports this past week have been consumed with the UN investigation of the Syrian government’s use of chemical weapons, the report by the UN inspection team, and the threat of military retaliation by Western powers. Lost is all of this was this item, buried at the end of a Reuters report talking about Syria’s nuclear research reactor and the possibility of damage to it from any military action:

“Olli Heinonen, a former chief IAEA inspector, said other radioactive materials may be a bigger reason to worry.

‘Syria should have substantial amounts of radiation sources such as Co-60 or Cs-137, which in my view are of a greater concern, if they end up in wrong hands. Normally they are stored in protected vaults.’ “

The paragraphs before and after this rather shocking statement (to me, anyway) ignored the serious issue of old radioactive sources that may or not be protected.

Then just recently we get this:

“Jordan says the United States has helped it boost its nuclear security by improving detection of radioactive materials at its borders as concern grows over instability in neighboring Syria. Jordanian officials have expressed worries that radioactive materials from Syria and its ally Iran could be moved across Jordan’s border to Saudi Arabia and other Gulf Arab countries in case of an all-out war in Syria. Analysts say that Syria could host ongoing, illicit nuclear weapons activity by Iran and North Korea.”

“The US donated to Jordan 35 personal radiation detectors valued altogether at nearly $106,000 on Sunday. An embassy statement said it will curb nuclear proliferation and illicit trafficking of nuclear and radioactive materials.”

The story immediately segues into chemical weapons and ignores the topic any further.

WMD’s of all types are attracting a lot of attention, but the fact remains that radiological dispersion devices, RDD’s or dirty bombs, present arguably the biggest WMD threat from terrorists. In his study, Homeland Security expert Randall Larson assesses the capability of terrorist groups to commit a WMD attack using various weapons. On a 1 to 10 scale, with 10 being the highest capability to commit such an attack, he says conventional explosives are a 10 while chemical weapons are a 3 for military grade weapons and 6 for simple industrial chemicals. Biological weapons get a 7 while nuclear bombs get a 5. So, where does a dirty bomb fall on his scale?

It’s a 10, right up there with a bag of fertilizer and some kerosene.

And that is the basis for our book, The Rockets’ Red Glare. Our primary goal was to entertain, but we wanted to do it in a realistic way, in a Forecast Fiction way. So we chose dirty bombs, and we showed how they could be acquired with not much more effort than it takes to get conventional explosives.

The delivery mechanism, fireworks on the 4th of July, was designed to scare you, period. An airburst happens to be one of the most effective delivery systems for a dirty bomb. Exploded at ground level within an urban environment limits the dispersion, so a small area gets hit very hard, as accurately described in one scene in the book. A high airburst maximizes the dispersion, so a large area gets relatively small amounts of contamination, resulting in a relatively small risk to those exposed to the point where only localized hot spots would require restoration. A low airburst, like we hypothesized, maximizes the dispersion within an area that will need to be isolated and cleaned up at a very high cost.

It appears there is concern that the turmoil and motivations of the combatants might result in terrorist groups gaining access to these materials and using them within Syria, or even more significantly, smuggling them out for use anywhere their fanaticism dictates – Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Israel, the U.S. It is another problem amongst the many resulting from the civil war there, and it is a very significant one.



I just did a quick count and there are 493,687,152 active English-language blogs, more or less. Make that 493,687,153, now.

What possible difference could this one additional blog make? In the blogosphere, probably none. But to you? Maybe something.

I’m doing a blog about the subjects and themes and issues brought up in The Rockets’ Red Glare. First thing you will notice is that I said “I’m,” not “We’re.” My co-author, Dr. Michael Gresalfi, won’t be participating. Due to the operational nature of Dr. Gresalfi’s work in the prevention and response mission areas he supports within the larger WMD emergency preparedness arena, he is unable to engage in the types of free-flow dialogue that I want to encourage with both our readership and the media.

So, you’re stuck with me. The content of this webpage, and the posted editorials, blogs, and other public interactions are mine alone.

I have been in the nuclear industry a long time, and in radiological emergency preparedness and response most recently, so I know a bit about radiation safety and emergencies, including intentional ones. Michael and I have created a new genre, we call it Forecast Fiction, to describe what we tried to accomplish with this story. So, in the course of researching and writing, I learned a lot more, and not all of it was reassuring. To be more clear, most of it wasn’t. I will be addressing some of these issues.

In addition to me, I’ll be pulling in some of our expert audience for their views and comments, and responding to any questions or comments from our readers. We’ll be covering such topics as the safeguards surrounding access to radioactive materials, the real work of the government agencies tasked to prevent exactly what we described in the book, and providing some resources that you might find interesting and useful.


My next article will cover a recent Wall Street Journal story on the Boston Marathon bombers and their ties both to radical Islam and domestic hate groups.

See, it wasn’t far-fetched at all. It was Forecast Fiction.

Canadian Hospitality

Canadian Hospitality

I do a lot of business in Canada. I like the country, I like the people, and Canadian dollars spend as well as American ones. Occasionally, better. But Canadian hospitality has reached a new high with my latest trip.

Yes, I was assaulted. I can finally scratch that off my bucket list.

My client here is in a Toronto suburb, and I stay at a nice, mid-level motel very close to their office. I’ve stayed there many times before, and I will again. They serve a nice buffet breakfast, and when I went to eat this morning, I was greeted by yelling from the lobby. When I got there, a clearly pharmaceutically-enhanced woman was terrorizing the desk clerk and shouting obscenities and breaking anything she could get her hands on, including ripping the security camera out of the ceiling.

She briefly went out the front door and the alert clerk tripped the electronic lock. Now, when I say pharmaceutically-enhanced, I’m not exaggerating. She attacked the door, and won, flinging it open in triumph and carrying on like she’d just knocked out Mike Tyson. Which I guessing she could have at that moment. She proceeded to celebrate by shouting more obscenities, breaking anything she could find, threatening guests, and generally making a nuisance of herself. She even accused me of being a lawyer!

Three of us hung around as the clerk called the police and tried to contain the damage. We were concerned for his safety but didn’t want to provoke anything, so we waited on the fringe of the action. When the police arrived, she chased the clerk to a corner of the dining area away from the door. And, of course, the door was locked.

So here’s the picture. The clerk is cowering in the corner with crazy lady threatening him, the policeman is at the glass door watching and trying to get in, and the three of us are in the hallway near the lobby. And just to prove my pharmaceutically-enhanced opinion, the policeman could not get the door open, although he tried with much vigor. Apparently not being as bright as she gave me credit for when she accused me of barrister status, I hustled to the door to let the cop in.

That was when I was cross-body blocked by a linebacker that I hadn’t previously noticed. After bouncing off the wall, I looked to see the linebacker was nowhere in sight, but crazy lady was shaking her fists at me and offering to perform some ad hoc dental work. The policeman intervened and my teeth were spared. Good thing because I don’t have dental insurance.

Everything after that was anti-climax. She continued to shout as they subdued her, accused everyone of rape and bigotry, confessed that she was on probation for assault, and said she loved the pain of handcuffs and body slams to the floor. While lying face-down with a policeman holding her there, she did a Meg Ryan in When Harry Met Sally and claimed to be sexually excited and having an orgasm.

All in all, a very entertaining morning.

Thank you, Canada.

Grossly Unremarkable

Grossly Unremarkable

The radiologist’s report of a recent ultrasound test done on me by a very prestigious California teaching hospital (nothing but the best for those of us who are medical insurance-challenged) read, in part, “the bladder and …”

Wait. Instead, let’s look at the Facebook exchange I envision resulting based on my Facebook followers demented and disrespectful natures. I’ve cleverly disguised their identities by using totally random initials.

JCD: The radiologist said my “pelvic organs were grossly unremarkable.” Can he say that?

WAD: Of course he can. For it to be slander, it can’t be true.

JCD: I was waiting to see who would raise that particular point. Had to be the lawyer. One less Christmas present to buy this year.

WAD: One less ugly polyester tie to exchange for a pair of socks this year.

HMD: Your hoo-hoo is not a pelvic organ.

JCD: I beg your pardon. Leave it to the woman to make that distinction. There are numerous pelvises who would dispute that. For one, just ask … Never mind. No need to embarrass a well-known celebrity.

HMD: Anthony Weiner?

JCD: Now that’s slander.

HMD: Only if it’s not true.

JWD: Unremarkable means nothing remarkable. You can’t get less remarkable that nothing, so why grossly unremarkable? I would focus on that. There can’t be more nothing than nothing. Either you’re something or you’re nothing.

JCD: Great point. At least someone is taking the seriously. That sounds subjective and therefore actionable.

JWD: Of course he did say “organs,” so grossly might not have been a commentary on your hoo-hoo as much as a lumping it together with gall bladders and such.

JCD: No had better be lumping my hoo-hoo with anything else. My hoo-hoo stands alone.

JWD: At your age?

JCD: Now that’s slander.

JWD: Only if it’s not true.

The whole thing started with a fairly innocuous bought of nausea and vomiting one Saturday morning. I put that off to bad salsa and went on about life. That Monday, I flew from Maryland to California on business and got in around nine PM, went to the hotel and went to bed. Woke up around 1 AM in as much pain as I have ever felt and after three hours of hoping it would go away, I went to the hospital where the aforementioned ultra sound test was conducted. Several times, along with a bunch of others. Four days of pain with no apparent cause.

On Friday, while the gall bladder/diverticulitis/pancreatitis debate raged in California, I flew home in time to get the parking ticket from the hospital and go to my family doctor on Saturday. Claire, my fiancé, had worked some telephone magic and gotten the doctors in California to communicate with the doctors in Maryland, and my family doctor read the reports and said, “Now I’m just a little maggot doctor in Thurmont, but I see two tests they should have run and didn’t.” He ran the tests, the first one concluded it was without doubt my gall bladder, and out it came on Tuesday.

Laparoscopic surgery and I have this Siren/Odysseus relationship – they make it sound so good and then, BANG, you’re on the rocks and sinking fast. My first laparoscopic surgery was to take thirty or forty minutes and leave three little nicks to remove my appendix. Instead, it took nearly five hours and I woke up the next day with a six-inch vertical scar through my naval and a section of bowel gone to the biohazard bin.

This time, it was to be a simple 40-minute gall bladder removal, only to find my gall bladder had gone zombie on me and was one of the living dead, decaying in my abdomen. That took the doctor four hours to subdue and left me in pretty sad shape.

The surgeon said afterwards, and I quote, “Your family doctor probably saved your life.” He said the gall bladder was on the verge of bursting, leaving me with the mother-of-all cases of peritonitis. So, if Claire hadn’t convinced medical bureaucrats to expedite records transfer, and if my primary care physician really had been “a little maggot doctor,” and if he hadn’t ordered the tests that a huge teaching hospital had ignored, and if the medical lab hadn’t had an opening on Monday, well, this would be my obituary.

Instead, I live to write more of my exciting adventures and cogent opinions.



After my wife died, I spent a brief time on an Internet dating site. It worked out for me, but not before a couple of things worth noting.

The first is sick/funny. The very first woman who noticed me (I was kind of passive, letting others take the lead) sent a “flirt”. I responded nicely, mentioning my status as a widower, and she replied in more detail. Here, for your horror and enjoyment is the first sentence of her note:

“At least the person you loved is dead.”

Word for word; I’m not lying. She went on to rant about her husband of however many years who was now running around making a fool of himself with a younger woman. The surprise here is that I kept on trying.

The other thing is related – baggage. Everywhere on the profiles people either had none or they wanted none. “I come without baggage” and “No baggage, please” are constant refrains in profiles. Why? When did empty-handed become an asset?

Here is my belief – we are our baggage. No baggage means you’ve led a pretty empty life and probably don’t bring a lot to the party. If you show up without baggage, I have to provide everything.

I’m full of baggage. Successes and failures; joys and regrets; fun and woe; health and illness; happy and sad. Without it, I’m really not much except an eating/breathing organism.

Baggage is the source of our memories, and as I once wrote, there comes a time in your life when remembering the past becomes more rewarding than imagining the future. When that happens, I hope your baggage is full.



I don’t have asthma, and I never did. But that doesn’t mean I’ve never taken asthma medication.

College sure was fun. Good friends, bad grades, momentous hangovers, glorious road trips, and even some knowledge gained. And lots of stories.

This one started senior year, in our four-man apartment. David, our resident pre-med study machine, discovered Asthmador in the Journal of the American Medical Association. Asthmador was an olive-green powder meant to be burned like incense, and the smoldering fumes inhaled to clear the respiratory system. According to the article he found, when mixed with a liquid and ingested orally, it resulted in “mild, hallucinatory euphoria.” That was all we needed to know.

The first step was to acquire some, and I saw two problems with that. First, it would cost money, probably a lot of it, and I didn’t have much. Any, really. Second, a bunch of college students traipsing into the small-town pharmacy, none of them wheezing, and buying Asthmador was bound to attract attention. Law enforcement attention, in my mind. Asthmador wasn’t a prescription drug, and drinking it wasn’t even a misdemeanor, yet I imagined local police (with whom I’d had experience – see My Life of Crime Part 1) would know something was up and we’d be under 24-hour surveillance.

So, it was decided that the others would pitch in and go buy it, and I would be the guinea pig and drink it. I waited in the apartment, ready to beat it down the back stairs when the SWAT team showed up. Instead, my roommates returned with what looked like a tin can of Nestle’s Quick, complete with the pry-off metal lid, and told me no one even noticed. It was about a pound of powder, and it cost something like 89¢. So much for money; so much for cops.

David took charge and made it into a scientific experiment. He measured the powder and mixed it with orange juice, using ratios he didn’t explain. The yellow juice and olive powder combined to make a soft pastel green drink, and a tentative sip revealed a sweet, creamy orange flavor – quite tasty. Maybe it was the bella donna.

Under David’s scrutiny, I drank half the glass and he noted the time. And then, in order to fully demonstrate just how foolish I was about the whole process, I drank the rest. I didn’t really hallucinate, but that’s probably because David was cautious with his ratios. I didn’t die, either, which definitely means I didn’t drink enough of it.

I spent the next four or five hours horizontal on the day bed in our living room, eyes closed, not moving a muscle, paralyzed. A party developed around me, and I could hear everything with extraordinary clarity, I could smell every cigarette or joint or perfume. I don’t know if I could feel, because I didn’t even try to move. Michael, our guitar-hero friend, seemed to be the only person who noticed me, and he was very concerned. He sat and talked to me, he asked over and over if I was OK. I didn’t answer. I just lay there in my eyelid-sealed solitude just enjoying seeing the sounds.

Youth is accompanied by a sense of immortality, the conviction that nothing bad will happen to you. You hear about car wrecks, or you go to some distant relative’s funeral, but that couldn’t happen to you. It’s not a sense of immortality – it’s more a lack of appreciation of the nature of cause and effect.

Today’s lesson in cause and effect is that if you drink poison in sufficient quantities, you will die. We were all well aware of that, theoretically, at least, but it never occurred to us to check the Asthmador label and see what we might be drinking. Later, when it was all over, we did, and found the active ingredient was the aforementioned bella donna. The same stuff Duncan the First of Scotland used it to poison the entire invading Danish army in 1035. I’m not making this up. King Sven was pissed.

© 2022 John C. Darrin