Saturday, April 25, 2009

String Theory

I heard a tune the other day which sounded familiar. It was recorded by the Andrews Sisters in 1940, but I couldn't place where I had heard it before. (Why I was listening to the Andrews Sisters probably requires another explanation, but we’ll leave that for another time.)

I've got no strings
To hold me down
To make me fret, or make me frown
I had strings
But now I'm free
There are no strings on me

A Google search quickly provided the answer, which seems obvious in retrospect. It is from the Disney cartoon Pinocchio (1940). I hadn’t interpreted the lyrics literally when I heard them, and perhaps the lyricist Ned Washington didn’t when he wrote them, which means he may have had some explaining to do at home about them (assuming he had strings).

I’ve taken Disney to task in the past for suckering the young (and not just the young) with false expectations of castles and fairy tale romances and happily-ever-afters. When instead they encounter mortgage payments, working-on-our-relationships, and daily stress, many naturally feel victims of a bait-and-switch. Yet, there is nothing really wrong with escapist fairy tales provided we don’t dupe ourselves into thinking they are anything else. Besides, reviewing these and other Disney lyrics, I think I may have overlooked a subtle subversive streak in Walt and his minions after all.

Sunday, April 19, 2009

A Pin in the Neck

For as long as I remember, new men's shirts have come out of the package booby-trapped. There were pins in the sleeves, pins in the collars, pins in the pockets and pins in the cuffs. No matter how many you plucked out, there was bound to be one you missed. When you put the shirt on the first time, "Gotcha!"

A couple of shirts arrived by UPS from Sheplers the other day. I was pleased to notice the fasteners were plastic clips. "Whoopie! No pins!" I shouted (I take my pleasures where I can get them these days). Last night I plucked off the clips and put on one of the shirts. "Youch!" Just for old times sake, apparently, Sheplers had left a single pin in place at the location of the top button hole by the throat. I had missed it.

I should have known the past doesn't get left behind as easily as all that. Just when you put it out of your mind, some remnant of it jabs you in the throat.

Sunday, April 12, 2009

Sex, Drugs, and Rocky Road

As reported in Scientific American, according to the National Center for Health Statistics, which conducted a survey of more than 6,000 people (a largish sample for such purposes), ninety-six percent of U.S. residents have engaged in sex by the age of 20. The report notes various patterns based on ethnicity, education, income, and so on.

I'm not quite sure why this was considered a health issue per se, since sex is dangerous, so the old line goes, only if you do it right. With reasonable precautions one usually can escape injury, but the study didn't focus on precautions.

The study moved on to substance abuse.

"More than 19 percent of those aged 20 to 29 said they had tried cocaine, crack or another street drug, excluding marijuana. This rose to 27 percent for people aged 30 to 39 and nearly 26 percent for those in their 40s."

These figures probably are on the light side as people notoriously are reluctant to answer truthfully about misbehavior. It is hard to say how much they lie, but it is likely to be at least as much as they lie about tobacco and alcohol. We have some indication of this from a review of the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration:

"According to a White House briefing paper analyzing SAMHSA's figures regarding Americans' alcohol and tobacco use, respondents have historically underreported their usage of these two legal substances by as much as 30 to 50 percent. (Revenues from alcohol and tobacco taxes allow researchers to cross check respondents admitted usage patterns with actual annual consumption rates…)" – Paul Armentano, Federal Drug Use Surveys and Fuzzy Math

Nevertheless, even taking the figures at face value, it means about a quarter of adults commit rather serious drug offenses, even when excluding from consideration marijuana, the most commonly used illegal substance. By comparison, according to the 2003 National Health Interview Survey (NHIS), 21.6 percent of U.S. adults smoke cigarettes.

In this case I agree with the NCHS (it seems like there is some duplication of alphabet soup agencies, doesn't it?). Drug abuse is a health issue. So are the laws against it.

Drug warriors by and large are well-meaning people who honestly think they are doing good. It even is likely their efforts save a few people from themselves by scaring them with the threat of punishment. At the same time, the panache of illegality actually tempts others, just as illegal booze did in the old speakeasy days. The side effects have been massive . The drug warriors inadvertently have enriched gangs and dealers, undermined civil liberties, turned neighborhoods into war zones, and made a huge percentage (by some counts a majority) of our citizens criminals. The US has the highest prison population – both per capita and in absolute terms – of any nation on earth, and two-thirds of the inmates are there for drug related crimes.

Though drug prohibition dates back to World War One (and gathered steam in the 30s), Richard Nixon declared a full scale War on Drugs 38 years ago in 1971. It is obvious drugs won. It is time for another approach. Legalization combined with an offer of treatment may not reduce the number of abusers. Reducing drug abuse simply may not be possible – you can toss lifelines to people, but ultimately you can't make them grab on – but legalization would be a kinder alternative for users and for the rest of us, and it would be cheaper too. Nor is the approach entirely untried. The Swiss and Portuguese have decriminalized heroin (Swiss hospitals actually supply it to registered addicts), and both countries have reduced street crime and new AIDS cases without any noticeable uptick in use. When the Bourbons regained the French throne after Napoleon, it was said “they have learned nothing and forgotten nothing.” The results were unfortunate. When Kentucky bourbon was restored to American taverns in 1933 after Prohibition, we failed to learn or forget. We immediately reinforced prohibition on drugs other than alcohol with results just as unfortunate.

My personal addictions are more in the nature of various flavors of ice cream, which, fortunately, are not yet illegal and need not be bought on the street, though the NIH has much to say about substances such as these too. One day at a time.

Sunday, April 5, 2009

My Favorite Marxist

Like so many folks these days, I’ve been single for by far the majority of my adult life – meaning neither married (though I was married once for a little over 3 years) nor in a “committed relationship.” Romantic relations were not absent, but were, for the most part, fleeting. So, perhaps I have no claim to be an expert on why some relationships last. On the other hand, I do have quite a lot of experience on why some don’t.

My longest-term romantic relationship was back in the 80s. Anyone who knows both of us might spot a character much like her in my short story collection Scum and Other Tales, but I’ll stop short of identifying which one. I think the reason this one lasted longer than most was the intellectual challenge she offered – yes, really. The other stuff was good too, but the good-natured adversarial discussions were fun, and she gave me a run for my money on almost any subject. We traded books regularly and always had different opinions about those too. She was a Marxist former SDS activist and I was a libertarian, so we always had something political to talk about – perhaps the fact each of us was radical, albeit in near-opposite ways, was an odd sort of commonality. She is the only one of my former partners, to my knowledge, to have left me for a woman. Still, I have fond memories.

I don’t pretend to be less shallow than the next guy. I’m as taken in by superficial prettiness as anyone, which at my stage of life is likely to be considered creepy so I’m careful about expressing the reaction. Any long term pairing, though, requires three things from both parties: loads of patience, fundamental good will, and some sort of mental connection. Lack of any of those by either partner is a deal-killer sooner or later, more likely sooner.

What of passion? Well, in the idiom of my generation, passion is a gas. A person is lucky to experience it once – and I consider myself very lucky to have done so more than once. Unfortunately, it is a volatile and explosive gas that sometimes stinks (methane?). OK enough of the metaphors. Well, maybe one more. Passion definitely should be on your life resume somewhere. If it’s what you feel for a suitable life partner, it is even better (and rare). However, if passion is your only reason for entering a committed relationship, my advice is to pass gas.