Archive for January, 2007


Uncle David

I have a friend who works as a general handyman in an apartment complex. He told me how about a month ago, one of the elderly tenants, a man living alone, had been taken to a hospice. Sadly, the man seems to have had no living relatives or friends to claim his belongings.

My friend showed me an old lighter he had found there that he thought I might find interesting. It was, in fact, just an old Zippo, and while the case was somewhat unusual, it was really nothing out of the ordinary.

But the lighter had been engraved, “Uncle David”. Clearly he must have had someone in his life that cared about him at one point, since they not only gave him this lighter, but took the trouble to have it engraved. It was an inexpensive yet thoughtful gift. And yet now there was apparently no one left in his life, and he was taken to a hospice where he would die as he had lived, alone.

As I gazed at the lighter, I pondered who “Uncle David” might have been. I wondered what his days had been like. He apparently was a man of few possessions, but owned many books. Yet these evidently gave him little joy, as they were very dusty and had obviously not been touched for several years. It seems as though he spent his last years alone, watching TV and smoking. I wondered if, when he lit his cigarettes with the lighter engraved with his name, he thought about the niece or nephew who gave it to him, and if he wondered why he or she never visited him anymore.

Among the many tragedies of the human condition, loneliness, especially the loneliness of the aged, is among the most tragic. To live out one’s last days bereft of human companionship, with only memories of the loved ones who have either died or stopped visiting to provide some scant comfort, and where each soul-destroying day is as bland and as empty as the next, is simply a living death.

My heart went out to this lonely old man whom I had never met, and never would meet. I thought of him living his last days all alone, with his TV and his cigarettes, perhaps wondering if he would ever again have a visitor, and feel the comfort of human contact. What had he done to end up like this? Was he, perhaps, a difficult old man? Or had he simply become, like so many elderly people, an inconvenient old uncle, someone whom his younger relatives remembered, when they remembered him at all, with a certain sense of guilt mixed, perhaps, with a bit of resentment for having committed the sin of getting old. I wonder: are there any who will weep at the passing of “Uncle David”, or will he go to his grave alone and forgotten, with none to mourn at his graveside?



What’s wrong with this picture?

The rather worried looking woman in the middle is named Amber Abreu, and she has every right to look worried. Not only is she being charged with illegally taking prescription anti-ulcer pills to induce an abortion, but her public defender, Amanda Barker, the blond woman on the right, looks like she’s about 14 years old. Maybe it’s just a bad picture, but I half expect Amanda to blow a bubble and start twirling her hair.

But I guess that’s how it goes down in this country. O. J. Simpson gets Johnny Cochrane, F. Lee Bailey, and the best darned lawyerin’ that money can by. The 18 year old Dominican immigrant gets the public defender who looks like she just got out of law school last week.

Looks like poor Amber’s goin’ to jail. You can read the rest of this disquieting story by clicking the picture above.



Asperger’s and Peanut Butter

By now most people in the New England area have read about the horrific murder of 15 year old James Alensen, allegedly at the hands of 16 old John Odgren, a special needs student at Lincoln-Sudbury High School in Lincoln, Massachusetts. If you haven’t, you can read the story here.

While any story about teenagers committing violent crimes is disturbing, this story in particular hit home for me. John Odgren has been diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome. As the stepfather of a twelve year old with the same condition, seeing this rarely mentioned condition in the newspaper got my attention. You can learn more about this condition at the Asperger’s Disorder Homepage here. There is also a very well done introductory article written by Barbara L. Kirby here.

My concern is that now that the Asperger’s cat is out of the Asperger’s bag, all these kids will be painted with the same brush. I can see the same soccer moms who got peanut butter banned in the school cafeteria marching on their local high school once they find out it has a special needs program that includes (gasp!) Asperger’s kids. I just can’t wait to hear Soccer Mom demanding the removal of Asperger’s kids from her little darling’s school and placing them in a secure facility so they can’t murder anyone else. But don’t worry, I’m sure it will be a peanut butter free facility.

When the shrillness and hand wringing starts, and it will, it will be grossly unfair and uninformed. What Asperger’s kids have in common is a tendency to withdraw into their own little world, but they are not, as a group, violent. Asperger’s kids can tell right from wrong (as can be attested by some of the priceless looks of guilt on my stepson’s face when he screws up.) But Asperger’s kids do suffer from a condition that makes their own life a living hell.

Dealing as I do on a day to day basis with an Asperger’s kid, this is a condition I have become rather familiar with. Asperger’s is being referred to, in the almost daily newspaper articles about this tragedy, as a form of Autism. This is not precisely correct. Asperger’s falls into a larger category known as Autism Spectrum Disorders, although the term PDD (Pervasive Developmental Disorder) is more common in the United States. But it is not Autism in the usual sense of the word. Asperger’s kids (and adults, for that matter) seem to have to very marked traits in common, poor social interaction skills, and a tendency to hyper focus on one or two subjects. It is a difficult condition to diagnose and even more difficult to treat. It is often accompanied by other develepmental dissorders such as Attention Deficit Disorder.

Think about what goes on when you have a conversation with another person. Think about all the non-verbal cues that you instinctively pick up on. Facial expressions and body language are as important to communication as the words themselves. By reading these non-verbal cues, we can gauge to what extent we are being understood, and how effective we are being at maintaining the other person’s interest. A slight frown, or a look of boredom, tells us that perhaps we had either change the subject or at least change the manner in which we are communicating.

Asperger’s kids seem unable to pick up on these non-verbal cues. Furthermore, their tendency to hyper-focus on subjects that other kids do not find terribly interesting, along with this inability to see that they’re not holding their audience’s attention, of brands these kids as “strange” and subjects them to ridicule.

My twelve year old stepson is such a one. Like many Asperger’s kids, he is exceptionally intelligent, but it is a lop-sided kind of intelligence. In his case, his great fixation is Lego’s. He has been in love with them since he was old enough to walk, and as he has grown older his interest in them has grown more intense, and his creations more elaborate. His bedroom looks like Lego City.

Now, considering he wants to be an architect when he grows up, this is not necessarily a bad thing. But unfortunately he has a very difficult time transitioning away from this preoccupation, another characteristic of the Asperger’s child. It’s as though the gearbox in their brain gets stuck in one gear, and they often find transitions of any kind difficult.

He has at various times obsessed over other things that were not as healthy. When he was in first grade, his teacher conducted a class about poison, and more specifically, how to avoid them. This was the basic “don’t drink what’s under the sink” class that gets taught to all first graders. In one of our first warnings that all was not quite right with him, after that class he obsessed over the notion that he might be ingesting poison. EVERYTHING was poison in his mind: his food, his milk, even his bath water were regarded with the deepest suspicion. It got to the point where we even had to taste his food before he would eat it. This went on for about a year before he finally grew out of it.

Unfortunately, this was soon replaced by another obsession: hurricanes. Once again, something he had learned about in school had seized his imagination to the point where he could focus on little else. Even a few clouds in the sky were enough to make him apprehensive, and if there was an actual storm going on he would not leave our side, terrified by the idea that our house would be blown away with him in it. Thankfully, this too passed in time.

This condition becomes very hard for them to live with when they become teenagers. These kids spend a great deal of time in their own little world anyway. When fellow teenagers, with their notorious cruelty and lack of empathy, make them the butt of jokes and forbid them to enter their social circle, the natural reaction of the Asperger’s kid is to retreat even further into this self created world where they find protection from the meanness and cruelty they encounter in the real world. As they retreat further, their behavior becomes even more eccentric, leading to further ostracizing, and it become a vicious cycle.

In my stepson’s case, he just deals with it by building another Lego skyscraper, but John Odgren had a different, darker way of dealing with the world that was hurting him. He became obsessed with knives and, allegedly, killing.

None of this is meant to minimize the death of James Alenson or let John Odgren off the hook. Just because he has Asperger’s Syndrome doesn’t mean he can’t tell right from wrong. He has committed the greatest of all sins, and he will almost certainly pay with his young life. No, he won’t get the death penalty, but is a life sentence with no hope of parole, starting when you’re sixteen years old, really any better?

I know how incredibly difficult and frustrating it can be to deal with an Asperger’s kid. But I do wonder why there was not more concern that a teenager, who is alleged to have roamed the school corridors in a trench coat, in a conscious attempt to emulate the Columbine murderers, supposedly owned a sizable knife collection. I also wonder why, when he allegedly asked his teacher about such subjects as making a bomb, and how “get away with” murder, that no one in the school system thought this worth looking into.

I can’t help but wonder to what extent the system failed him, and by doing so, failed James Alenson. John Odgren had the right to special education, but James Alenson had an even more basic right: the right to come home from school alive. But now one teenager, a child really, is dead, and the other as good as dead.



Of pipes and presidents

Well, I thought I was done with Gerald Ford, but I came across this picture and couldn’t resist. Much has been written by now about how Ford was an under-rated president, as well as a thoroughly decent human being. What hasn’t been mentioned all that much is that he was, like myself, a dedicated pipe smoker. I’ve always felt an affinity for this particular president, even long before I knew he was a fellow pipe smoker. When I did find out that he smoked a pipe, it all made sense to me.

I love this picture. At first glance, it’s just a picture of a United States President sitting in the Oval Office, looking, well, presidential. But if you look a little closer, you will see that Ford, like all pipe smokers, littered his environment with the accoutrements of his favored mode of smoking. In the foreground there is a pipe sitting in what appears to be a crystal pipe holder. In the background you will see a pipe rack with three pipes, in close proximity to the presidential hand.  (No pipe smoker has only one pipe.  Just trust me on this one.)  No doubt there is a tobacco jar close by.

All of this might seem a little bewildering to the non-smoker, but to a fellow pipe smoker it makes perfect sense. You can always tell the home or office of a pipe smoker, as he (or she) is always careful to have at least a few pipes near at hand. They usually form a part of the decor. They certainly do in my house. It is no coincidence that in his presidential portrait, Ford is holding a pipe. To the pipe smoker, the pipe is no mere means of imbibing tobacco smoke; it is a means of self expression.

Even in these politically correct times, the pipe conjures up pleasant images in the minds of most people. Somehow pipe smokers get a bit of a free pass that cigarette smokers do not enjoy. Most people have memories of a beloved grandfather smoking his pipe, memories which are brought back to the fore whenever the aroma of pipe tobacco is encountered. In many people’s minds the pipe conjures up images of a safer, less threatening world. Reassuring figures such as Sherlock Holmes, Dr. Watson, Inspector Maigret, or even Gandalph and Aragorn are asssociated with the pipe. As the man who restored America’s faith in the presidency, our last pipe smoking president surely belongs in such company.



The span of days, a poem

I beheld the sunset, transfixed by
The inferno in the clouds.
And there I saw the angels winging
Amidst the amber sunbeams.
Angels and archangels, least perfect
Of the nine choirs, most like us,
Happy in their imperfection
To play among the clouds.
And I wished I could free my soul
From its earthly prison
To soar amongst them between the fiery cumuli.

And so it came to pass that on a night
When the trees, like souls forsaken,
Grasped vainly with withered fingers
At the sapphire moonlight
That rent the dusky clouds,
I stood upon the parapet,
Arched my back like a lyre,
And as one crucified
Spread my arms wide,
And freed myself from earth’s jealous shackles.

And thus I ascended while
The moonlit ground receded beneath me
and I was among the nine choirs,
The flaming Ophanim,
The all seeing Cherubim,
And The Seraphim,
So bright that only One
Might look upon them
In their naked incandescent splendor,
Chanting the Trisagion in the ancient modes,
Dorian, Lydian, and Phrygian.

And still I ascended,
Wishing for nothing ever more
But to listen to their canticle
Until I heard a voice,
Or rather, felt it,
For it passed through me
Like a flaming sword,
And intoned within me,
Saying, “Why have you done this thing?
Do you not know that the span of your days
Is not yours to measure?
Leave us now, for but awhile longer,
Go back whence you came,
And finish what you have begun.”
And I felt myself descend
Along the sapphire moonbeam
Until I lighted amidst the snow and the trees
And I was home once more.
I left that place,
And continued in the world,
Knowing that I once had felt the breath of God.

–Stephen P. Smith


Jury scam

I got this in my email the other day. Now, having been burnt like this once before, this time I checked it out on, and sure enough, this one is valid. I hope others find this useful.

Now, I’m kinda new to this, so if it turns out that everyone and their brother has gotten this in their email, please let me know and I’ll just clobber it and won’t post stuff like this anymore. But otherwise I hope it may save someone some unnecessary grief.


Here it is:

This helpful heads-up began appearing in inboxes in August 2005. While this particular attempt to coerce information from potential identity theft victims is not new, it is real. In a number of U.S. states, con artists have been contacting people by phone to assert those they’ve targeted have evaded jury duty and announce warrants are being issued for their arrest. When the about-to-be-duped protest they never received such notifications, that surely a mistake has been made, the sharpies go after what they really want, which is their pigeons’ personal and financial information. Under threat of being hauled off in paddy wagons unless they succeed in straightening out this terrible mess, many folks who would otherwise be more wary about what they reveal of their personal data will find themselves reeling off their birth dates and social security and credit card numbers in an effort to convince their callers the notifications that never arrived actually went to other addresses or were never meant for them in the first

However these calls conclude — whether those who have been approached are left with the impression they’ve failed to show up for jury duty and are still expected to discharge their civic duties, or that a big misunderstanding has now been resolved — their true purpose has been accomplished: the scam artists now have the information necessary to open accounts or charge goods in the names of their victims.

The scheme outlined in the message quoted above might be categorized as a “social engineering” scam — a technique which preys upon people’s unquestioning acceptance of authority and willingness to cooperate in order to extract from them sensitive information.

How to Avoid Falling Victim to ‘Jury Duty’ Scams:

* Court workers will not telephone to say you’ve missed jury duty or that they are assembling juries and need to pre-screen those who might be selected to serve on them, so dismiss as fraudulent phones call of this nature. About the only time you would hear by telephone (rather than by mail) about anything having to do with jury service would be after you have mailed back your completed questionnaire, and even then only rarely.

* Do not give out bank account, social security, or credit card numbers over the phone if you didn’t initiate the call, whether it be to someone trying to sell you something or to someone who claims to be from a bank or government department. If such callers insist upon “verifying” such information with you, have them read the data to you from their notes, with you saying yea or nay to it rather than the other way around.

* Examine your credit card and bank account statements every month, keeping an eye peeled for unauthorized charges. Immediately challenge items you did not approve.


What happened to Reg?

I’ve been following a relatively new blog, Paradise Revisited. It’s authored by a woman, who, among other things, detailed the ups and downs of a seemingly rather dysfunctional relationship. Having been in my share of those myself, last night I posted a longer than usual comment, offering my advice. I admit that I was most curious as to how she might respond.

When I went to check her blog today, it was gone, “deleted by the author”. I find this vaguely disquieting, coming as it does the day after dumped her fiance. Does anyone know what happened to her?

Reg, if you’re out there, I hope you got to see my comment before you clobbered your blog. I could tell that you are in an uncomfortable place in your life, and I want you to know that I wish you the best in the future. I enjoyed reading your blog and hope you will start another one.

Most of all, remember that if you truly believe in your heart that good things will happen to you, more often than not, they do. It took me a long time to figure that one out.

Farewell, sweet Reg.


taking up a glowing cinder with the tongs and lighting with it the long cherry-wood pipe which was wont to replace his clay when he was in a disputatious rather than a meditative mood" ~ Dr. John H. Watson ************************
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