Saturday, October 1, 2011

Book Review: Anatomy of a Kidnapping by Steven L. Berk

What started as one of those lazy Sunday mornings that every busy man or woman longs for — clear blue skies and no schedule to adhere to — in one of America's safest communities, the town of Amarillo, Texas, on March 6, 2005, the tranquility of personal freedom was shockingly transformed into two hours of terror for a prominent doctor and the dean of the medical school, Steven Berk.

Dr Berk photoAfter seeing his wife off to church that morning, while his teenage son was practicing guitar and waiting for his ride from a friend, Dr. Berk was settling into a day of rest and a planned phone call with his elder son who had asked Berk to review one of his papers before turning it into his professor at Brandeis University, when a parolee from the Texas prison system, Jack Lindsey Jordan, entered Berk's home through an open garage door and held a shotgun to Berk's back from inside the home's utility room while he bade his son goodbye, having no idea if it might be his last.  Thus began the two-hour ordeal where Berk's medical training empowered him to gain the abductor's trust and avoid a violent death.

Jordan, a confessed methamphetamine user with a violent past, held Dr. Berk at gunpoint while driving the empty streets of Amarillo, typical of Sunday mornings in this community of many churches, large and small.  Searching for an ATM machine so cash could be withdrawn for Jordan to move on down the road to his next victim, Jordan confided in Berk about such things as his drug use and the loneliness he lived with after the accidental death of his wife, caused by Jordan's own driving while under the influence of drugs and alcohol.

Throughout the ride on the streets and an eventual brief return to Berk's home to retrieve jewelry from his wife's collection, Berk reflected on the lessons he had learned as a doctor, noting particularly Dr. William Osler's famous farewell address, "Aequanimitas," to gain the strength to overcome his captor through equanimity and cool-headedness.

A book perfectly suited for a "required reading" list for medical students and young doctors, Anatomy of a Kidnapping offers much more than a lesson about winning over a confused and violent kidnapper.  Through countless personal stories of his own experiences in medical residency and physician practice, Berk does what he loves most — he teaches people how to live in balance with the terror that befalls those who are not prepared for the vicissitudes of life.

Readers of management literature and connoisseurs of leadership studies will find stories and inspiration similar to that of Stephen Covey.  It is "boots on the ground" leadership style, packed full of example after example of making the most of one's mistakes, discovering one's core principles, and the value of recognizing the pain in others well enough to neutralize even the most criminal intent.

Berk includes court transcript, dialogue with the perpetrator of the crime, and carefully woven stories of his past to tell this most unusual story.  Published in September 2011, Anatomy of a Kidnapping deserves a place on the bookshelves of those students of medicine and life who want to be reminded of the value of humility and even-mindedness when challenged by the evil forces of violence and domination.

Published first as Book Review: Anatomy of a Kidnapping by Steven L. Berk on Blogcritics.

Friday, September 30, 2011

Pendulum Swings For the Dallas Cowboys in the Young Season

With a record of 2 wins and 1 loss, the Dallas Cowboys are already ahead of where many local pundits thought they would be. Predictions of a 9-7 season were the norm, a record which would likely not give the Cowboys a chance to make the playoffs.

Game 1 Loss to the New York Jets

In game 1, the Cowboys played on the road against a very good New York Jets team, and they came very close to winning it but blew a 14-point lead in the 4th quarter.  Quarterback Tony Romo threw a last-minute interception after fumbling in a previous goal line Tony Romoplay in which he pretended he was former running back Marion Barber trying to bulldoze his way through a pile of bodies.  It was a play reminiscent of those that the former coach of the Cowboys, Bill Parcells, feared most about Romo's decision-making ability in pressure situations.  Fans of the Cowboys will remember Parcells' cautionary remarks when he was responding to criticism about staying with veteran quarterback Drew Bledsoe as the starter, whom many thought to be on his last leg before he ever arrived in Dallas to play.

Romo the Worst Quarterback in History

Like every win and every loss in Dallas, the tendency is to overreact.  During the following week, the local and national press jumped on the bandwagon in blaming Romo for the loss, despite the Cowboys having given up a blocked punt for a touchdown and a botched field goal attempt earlier in the game from extra-point territory.

Romo the Messiah, Victory in San Francisco

The following week, playing the San Francisco 49'ers on the road, they pulled off a narrow victory in which Romo and kicker Dan Bailey both redeemed themselves.  In a storybook scenario, Romo left the game with a broken rib and sat out much of it while old-timer quarterback Jon Kitna handled the Cowboys offense, that is, until Romo came running onto the field to lead the team to its first win of the season.
The following day it was reported that Romo had not only broken his rib, he had also suffered a slight puncture in his lung.  It was played locally as an "outhouse-to-the-White-House" comeback for Romo given the bad publicity from the week before.  Like I said, it's an overreaction city and always has been since the days of their earliest successes under Coach Tom Landry.

Victory in Dallas Over Nemesis Washington Redskins

Finally coming home for their first game in Cowboys Stadium in Arlington, they faced their age-old nemesis, the Washington Redskins, now coached by Super Bowl winner Mike Shanahan, whose record was 2-0.  Fighting through miscues, 4 premature snaps of the ball on offense, injuries to star receiver Miles Austin, Dez Bryant, and a couple of interior offensive linemen, Tony Romo did something fans have been waiting to see.  Not only did he overcome the pain of his injury, but he exhibited field leadership in his handling of the players on the field.  In similar situations in the past, Romo has been criticized for becoming a loner, with his head down and withdrawing to the end of the bench.

Still, with the victory over the Redskins, the Cowboys offense did not score a touchdown.  They scored six field goals, Dan Bailey now having experienced the full redemption of his first-game miss, that is, until he misses his next one.  They beat the Redskins 18-16, so their record is now 2-1 which ties them for first place in the division with the Redskins and the New York Giants.

Rob RyanDefense, Defense, Defense

Probably the best off-season decision by the Cowboys was hiring Defensive Coordinator Rob Ryan.  In spite of key injuries to Cowboys cornerbacks, the defense is playing very well.  The new all-out blitz schemes are hiding the weaknesses in the Dallas secondary.

Could Sean Lee Be the Second Coming of LeeRoy Jordan

One very bright spot is 2-year linebacker Sean Lee who replaced Keith Brooking in the starting role.  Sean LeeLee was named NFC Defensive Player of the Month for September, the first time a Cowboy player has won this award since its inception in 1986 (Source: ESPN website).  Sean Lee's numbers are impressive after three starts.  He is credited with 36 tackles, of which 23 were solo, two interceptions, two fumble recoveries, not to mention his style of play which exhibits.  Veteran DeMarcus Ware has been phenomenal as well, lining up all over the field to avoid double-team blocks and giving him just one blocker to overcome on his way to the quarterback.

Don't Forget, It's Still the Cowboys

There are problems however.  At some point very soon — the Cowboys play the undefeated Detroit Lions this weekend — the mistakes on offense will thwart any effort to come from behind.  Romo is demonstrating better field leadership, but play-calling and offensive schemes will eventually have to pick up the pace as well as just plain "football smarts."  Receivers and Romo need to get on the same page fast!  Missed routes and terrible secondary reads by inexperienced receivers will frustrate the entire team, and the Cowboys will sink back into the muck and mire of the recent seasons under Head Coach Wade Phillips.

It is still questionable whether the Dallas defense has been fully tested.  Folks in Dallas did not expect them to be as good as they have shown to be so far.  The biggest test in this young season will be the Detroit Lions this Sunday.  A Lions drought spanning two decades appears to be over.  Matthew StaffordThey bring their 3-0 record to Dallas this weekend with their quarterback, Matthew Stafford, who has shown brilliance thus far with 997 yard passing and a 67% completion average with 9 touchdowns.  Rob Ryan seems to be made for this kind of challenge, and fans expect to see just how good his defensive schemes and players are this week.

It is still hard to tell how the team will fare.  It is a long season, and injuries have come early and often.  Knowing the pulse of the local fan base, even though many folks thought the Cowboys would win no more than ten games, expectations are high, way too high.  They have weaknesses that have not yet been exposed by great teams.  I'm still holding to my prediction of 9-7, but of course, like all lifelong Cowboys fans, I'll overreact at every loss and every win.

Seven Ways to Manage Risk in Vacant Buildings

Recessionary pressures are in full force again, and another wave of layoffs does not bode well for the commercial real estate market. Vacancies in office buildings and warehouses rise as businesses close their doors, and property management companies have a lot on their plate as they simply try to maintain non-producing properties. A recent example of the risks clarifies the issue.
A Missed Sale in a Sluggish Economy
An office building in Texas that had been empty since the precipitating events of the recession had an asking price of $1.1 million in 2011. After a long period of dormancy, a local prospective buyer came knocking, stating he was interested in obtaining the property by January 2012 for a move-in of his growing business.
After some negotiation, a price of $850,000 was settled upon. The prospective buyer secured a banker and began a budget bidding process with general contractors. The more contractors who were invited to participate, the greater the variance was in the construction costs. The banker and the prospective buyer collaborated and offered the management company a much lesser sum of money. The owner’s price was lowered to $650,000 because of the added construction costs. So, what was the problem?
Vandals had removed all the copper from the large HVAC units on the roof, requiring an unanticipated, six-figure sum of money. Additionally, there were 350 fluorescent light fixtures that had been destroyed and the electrical service panels in the building had been scavenged for copper. Broken glass was scattered throughout the building and the restrooms were caked with mold. The more the potential buyer looked into costs of construction, the less attractive the 40% reduction in the asking price became. The seller not only lost the sale, he also suffered the continuous financial drain on his investment property. It has become a money pit.
Mitigating Losses With Tighter Security
What could have limited the exposure of this property to vandalism and the severity of the loss? With the exception of the mold, most of the nonredeemable casualties of the building could have been prevented by a security system which included intrusion detection, monitoring, and video surveillance. Not only do these systems offer a forensic record, they also offer a beneficial deterrent factor.
An investment of no more than $25,000, possibly much less, could have saved the property management company an easy $300,000 in losses. Additionally, the negative drain on the future value of this latent money could easily grow to a loss of $1 million dollars or more. The property might sit for another four years without a suitor.
Seven Security Components to Manage Risk
Security considerations should include the following:
  1. Perimeter electronic detection of rooftops and outbuildings containing the mechanical equipment
  2. Interior motion detection systems
  3. Glass break monitoring devices
  4. Prominent video surveillance cameras
  5. 24/7 monitoring services to interface with local law enforcement authorities and building owners
  6. Controlled lighting (interior and exterior) monitored by a nighttime security company
  7. Quarterly fire alarm inspections
This is not an exhaustive list. Property owners will have to decide what makes the most sense in terms of risk management. The cost of doing nothing, or too little, however, can be devastating.
Todd Thompson
The article originally appeared as Seven Ways to Manage Vacant Buildings Risk on Risk Management Monitor.  

Thursday, September 29, 2011

Next Up, A True Crime Book in the Medical Field

My next writing task is to provide a book review for Steven Berk's Anatomy of a Kidnapping.  It is a story touted to be a "must read" for medical students and new doctors.  Having a nephew in medical residency and a niece working as a hospitalist, I was interested in the book.  It also returns me to one of my favorite genres of True Crime.  I'm looking forward to finishing it up this weekend.

Review: The Little Girl of the Favela, by M.K. Bates

New novelist, M.K. Bates of London, after spending his professional life as an accountant, makes his debut with this ambitious plot about a young Brazilian woman who grows up in a "favela," a term drawn from "fava beans," which denotes a hillside community outside of Rio de Janeiro.  There are an estimated 750 favelas outside Rio today.

Pilar possesses psychic powers passed on to her from her grandmother.  Worldly at a young age because of the harsh settings of the favela with its crime and drug culture, Pilar finds herself in England Bates pictureworking as an escort where it is her good fortune to meet the main male character, Shaun, rebounding from a brief relationship with a German academician, Christiana, who has a secret past working in the porn industry.

Shaun, an entrepreneur, through a lucrative business deal, sells his company and is financially set for life at a relatively young age.  Lonely, somewhat bored, and coming off his relationship in Hamburg with Christiana, decides to seek out the companionship of an escort from the agency for whom Pilar is their top-rated call girl.  Pilar enters the picture, and Christiana will return later in one of the major plot twists that locks in the reader until it is resolved in the climax.

The story moves between Brazil, Germany, and London, with rapid pace, marking the key points of the plot path.  Intrigue, sex, violence, and cultural navigation are key themes in Bates' novel.  Readers will enjoy a balance of these themes throughout the reading of this 266-page book.

At times, The Little Girl of the Favela may put in the reader's mind the style of Hemingway with its brevity in descriptive passages.  The characters are developed primarily through dialogue.  Reader preferences will determine whether the dialogue carries the burden well enough.  Those who like deeper narrative texturing of characters and plot may be disappointed.

Some of the more enjoyable passages in the book are those which allude to the psychic powers of Pilar.  There is a level of mystique in her character that intensifies the plot at points, often yielding the novel's most passionate moments.  Margaret Craven's I Heard the Owl Call My Name came to mind frequently during my reading because of its mystical quality.

An ambitious plot that succeeds in achieving the reader's interest, though sometimes lacking in depth, moves quickly, ends well, and begs for a sequel.

Article first appeared as Book Review: The Little Girl of the Favelaby M.K. Bates on Blogcritcs.

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Reviews on Review, The Rogue

My recent review of Joe McGinniss' book, The Rogue: Searching for the Real Sarah Palin, has done what I predicted in the small confines of my readership.  In the article I wrote the following in my concluding remarks:
The polarization which marks the life of Sarah Palin as she performs on the national stage is not narrowed by this book. It will add to that polarization, not by fabrication or biased authorship, but by McGinniss lifting the veil behind which both the Palin supporters and her opponents view her performance presently. Those who oppose her now will oppose her more. Those who support her now will continue to build a Palin apologetic that will serve their own self-deception further. Some of the supporters will quietly move to the other side because rationality will require it. Some will remain in her camp but would be relieved if she would simply "go away" from the spotlight. Others will stand firm in their support because of their admiration of her style, rather than her substance. Still others will stand firm in their support of her because she represents a blended ideology of religion and political power that does not normally reach this level of notoriety before it dies under the weight of human ethics and the undeniability of American pluralism.
I originally posted the article on Blogcritics, but once published there I always copy it to my ToddTSays blog and then to the Amazon Customer Reviews. Normally, the books I read and review are about subjects far less volatile than is Sarah Palin. This one has generated a lot more heat than my usually sedate reviews have had in the past. On Amazon, the "helpful" votes have increased by about one per hour since it was first published on Sunday afternoon, September 25.  My previous "helpful" percentage was at 98%.  It's fallen to 87% as of this writing on Tuesday afternoon.

I don't write for approval, nor for "helpful."  I write because I read, and I read because I'm interested in perspectives and experiences beyond my own.  Both reading and writing help me in the process of learning.  Feedback tells me how I'm doing.  I'm happy with the results.

Monday, September 26, 2011

Top 25 North Texas Non-Profits Executive Compensation

This week, the Dallas Business Journal (September 16-22, 2011) posted a list of the top 25 executive salaries in non-profit businesses in North Texas. The numbers are shocking!

The figures on total compensation come from the most recent fiscal year reported, and they include salary, bonus, benefits, and the ambiguous “other.” Of the top 25, there are thirteen health care organizations, primarily the hospitals and facility networks that fall under the auspices of non-profit status.

The top compensation package belongs to the CEO of Texas Health Resources, a large and growing network of medical facilities, currently owning 24 hospitals in the area. The compensation for the CEO with Texas Health Resources is reported to be $5,716,724, which includes a salary alone of over $5 million, and over one-half million in the category of “other.”

The total revenue for THR in the same time period was $334,944,000. In other words the CEO’s compensation equals about 1.7% of the organization’s total revenue. If you went to a THR hospital last year, and you and your insurance company were billed $10,000 for a short stay, Mr. CEO himself was paid $170 of it. This is a new definition of “obscene.” It also represents one decent paying 8-hour day of wages ($21.25/hr). And, this is just one example of one short-stay billing for one patient.

Texas Health Resources can also tout, if they want to show off their numbers, having positions five and fourteen on the DBJ top 25 list. Together, just among the top 25 executive salaries, THR paid out in total compensation of almost $7.5 million. This is roughly equivalent to the salaries of 43 U.S. Senators or 300 regular jobs at $25,000 annual salary. Swallow hard, and look at this next example!

Baylor Health Care System is one of the area’s most highly regarded medical operations. It is heard often, “If you ever get really sick, go to Baylor.” The DBJ top 25 list includes six executives within the Baylor system. The total compensation of these six executives is reportedly $4.85 million, roughly equivalent to the salaries of 28 more U.S. Senators.

Other Medical Facilities and Systems

Other top 25 executive salaries within the general category of health care are employed by Children’s Medical Center, Cook Children’s, and Methodist Hospitals of Dallas. Through the organizations of these five entities, including the aforementioned two, one would suppose, is the majority of health care distributed to citizens of North Texas. It is safe to assume, based on the THR statistic cited above, that one dollar out of every one hundred dollars the citizens of North Texas pay in health care goes directly into the wallets of a relative handful of executives.

It should also be mentioned, since we’re focusing on health care, that number 21 on the top 25 list is the President and CEO of the Dallas-Fort Worth Hospital Council whose total compensation is listed as $451,156. Sitting on the ledger beside revenue of $2.99 million, this chief executive receives about 15% of the fees and services they receive from member organizations, such as hospitals and other medical facilities.

The Dallas-Fort Worth Hospital Council describes their mission as (from their website):
• Creating innovative solutions through collaboration and coordination of efforts;
• Serving as advocates for day-to-day issues that affect hospitals, while balancing the demands of the region with state and national issues;
• Providing the most accurate, timely and comprehensive information to our members and other constituents; and,
• Improving the workforce numbers in our region.
Advocacy sounds a lot like lobbying. Guess who sits on their governing board? There are thirteen regional hospital executives who make up this board of trustees. Ten of the thirteen are in positions as CEO or president of their hospitals.

It’s Not Just Health Care

While health care executives dominate the DBJ’s top 25 list, there are some notable surprises: the Boy Scouts of America (#4 at over $1.2 million), Carter Blood Care (#6, the only woman in the top 10, $1.05 million), three institutions of higher education, the American Heart Association, the United Way, the YMCA of Metropolitan Dallas, The State Fair of Texas, two performing arts organizations, and the Dallas Convention and Visitors Bureau.

Altogether, the top 25 executive compensation packages amount to $26.5 million per year. This would roughly fund the entire salaries of the President of the United States, all 100 U.S. senators, and about 10% of the U.S. House of Representatives.

An Idea

It does not make sense that non-profits can pay this kind of money to top executives without being subject to the corporate taxation that for-profit companies must pay. It is a poor reflection on what it means to be charitable. It is UN-charitable and greedy. No, beyond that, it is shameful.

Many people believe that it is not the top executives who really get things done. Many of them are said to be the visionaries of the organization, the spiritual leaders, but how much should be paid for vision?

It is commonly believed that it is the number two’s and three’s, and the executive secretaries, who manage to make their organizations run effectively, that is, when they get out of the way of the mid-managers and lower-tiered employees who actually meet their customers.

So, what about this? Dismiss the top 25 executives in North Texas, let the two’s and three’s and the people who really get things done run these non-profit organizations, and use all that saved money to fund the Washington politicians’ salaries.

And, if some of the other regions in Texas, and maybe even other states, would pitch in on the same basis, maybe we could throw in the Cabinet and the salaries of the top bureaucrats in Washington who in spite of their alleged regulations are not really regulating much of anything in non-profit organizations.

Article first published as Executive Compensation in Non-Profit Organizations on Blogcritics.

Sunday, September 25, 2011

Book Review: The Rogue: Searching for the Real Sarah Palin

One way to segregate a roomful of normally friendly people is to throw out the name of Sarah Palin for discussion. Sparks fly! Flames fill the room! Before long, there is little left to talk about. Add a little heat to the fire by moving next door to her for several months to conduct research for a book about her, in the small Alaskan town of Wasilla where local politics and gossip are blood sports, and you have a recipe for a conflagration.

When the news broke over a year ago that Sarah Palin was being stalked by a journalist who moved into a rented home next door to Palin and her family, admittedly, it was unsettling. To think someone would go to this extreme just to add more fuel to the media fire that was, and still is, Sarah Palin moved most people toward a level of cynicism about journalism never before held. It does not appear they have retreated from these toxic levels.

Joe McGinniss is no stranger to controversy. Blogging about the release of his new book, The Rogue: Searching for the Real Sarah Palin, McGinniss says his books are "shaped by events that haven't occurred when (he) start(s) his work." He adds, "nothing is predictable, thus everything is volatile."  Quoting Flannery O'Connor, McGinniss writes, "I write because I don't know what I think until I read what I say."

Joe McGinniss photoPlunging into a subject without wearing blinders is an engaging investigative method, and McGinniss, as he always manages to do, pushes the story forward in momentum while continuing to link new material with bits of information from past experiences and interviews. He weaves together portraits of public figures that serve as predictors of future behavior. In the case of Sarah Palin, the portrait is one of narcissism disguised as selfless public service, serious multigenerational family dysfunction disguised as family honor and values, and self-deceiving religious conviction as a call to political power.

McGinniss begins his book with an explanation of how he came to live next door to the Palin family. Trying to find a place to rent for several months while he conducted his research, he planned to get a temporary place in Anchorage. As luck would have it, a property owner in Wasilla (not among the Palin supporters) who was acquainted with McGinniss from a previous visit to the area contacted him about the availability of the property next door to Palin on Lake Lucille. It had previously been inhabited by a halfway house run amok in which the basement had been temporarily converted to a meth lab.

Within the confines of the halfway house were men who had served prison time for a variety of crimes, not exactly the kind of next door neighbors one would choose, though the Palins seemed to get along with them just fine. Later, when McGinniss had moved in to the vacant house, Sarah Palin, now in the glare of the national public spotlight day after day, took to her Facebook page to claim McGinniss was peering over the fence into her young daughter's bedroom, something she had not previously complained about when the next door neighbors may have had such a history. McGinniss thoroughly discredits this claim in his book.

Palin Family PhotoThe ploy of Palin's claim on Facebook worked to perfection as she endeared herself even more deeply to her national audience with the aid of Fox News' Glenn Beck as well as the mainstream media. But, while the national audience was being whipped into a frenzy, Wasillans were rolling their eyes and concluding, "that's just the Palins."

The Rogue is the story of an ordinary person with average intelligence, motivated by a narcissistic vision, empowered by family bullies willing to dispose of personal integrity, who achieves a meteoric rise in popularity due to a naive and bone-headed political calculation by her political party's presidential nominee. Packaged with outward beauty and possessing the "Mean Girl" experience to know how to use it, the portrait of Sarah Palin is one to admire from a distance. The closer you get, the feeling is not one of attraction but one of revulsion, if not pity.

The polarization which marks the life of Sarah Palin as she performs on the national stage is not narrowed by this book. It will add to that polarization, not by fabrication or biased authorship, but by McGinniss lifting the veil behind which both the Palin supporters and her opponents view her performance presently. Those who oppose her now will oppose her more. Those who support her now will continue to build a Palin apologetic that will serve their own self-deception further. Some of the supporters will quietly move to the other side because rationality will require it. Some will remain in her camp but would be relieved if she would simply "go away" from the spotlight. Others will stand firm in their support because of their admiration of her style, rather than her substance. Still others will stand firm in their support of her because she represents a blended ideology of religion and political power that does not normally reach this level of notoriety before it dies under the weight of human ethics and the undeniability of American pluralism.


Article first  published Book Review: The Rogue: Searching for the Real Sarah Palin on Blogcritics.

Saturday, September 17, 2011

Book Review: Twilight of the Bombs by Richard Rhodes

The career of author Richard Rhodes spans over four decades of history as well as subject matter ranging from early articles on dogs and horses for publications such as Harper's and Esquire to a handful of novels since 1973. Rhodes photo However, he has made his most important mark in nonfiction (or "verity," a term he prefers), with an impressive bibliography on the subject of nuclear bombs.

The Twilight of the Bombs: Recent Challenges, New Dangers, and the Prospects for a World Without Nuclear Weapons, published first in 2010 and released this month by Vintage Books in a trade paper edition, is his latest treasure of information and anecdotes that mark the landscape of international politics and nuclear history in the post-Cold War era.  It is a book of remarkable depth, unbiased in its presentation, and powerfully logical in its conclusions.

Daisy Girl in 1964 adChildren of the Cold War will easily recall the heated debates as well as the horrific nightmares dramatically expressed in the political arena, dating back to such television campaign ads as the one by Lyndon Baines Johnson, the "Daisy Girl" ad, in his successful 1964 bid for the White House against Arizona senator, and noted conservative idealogue, Barry Goldwater.  

Fear haunted the generation of American children born in that era as they became aware of their vulnerability to nuclear attacks by America's ideological foes.  A measure of false comfort was attempted upon children against the Bomb drills in public schoolshopelessness and fear of a real attack.  In public schools, students were required to participate in atomic bomb drills using a "duck and cover" defense, sometimes evoking increased fear, rather than a feeling of security.  

Though the public's understanding of the power of nuclear bombs was severely lacking, it was nonetheless only a modest picture of the horror that would be visited upon Americans in the event of a real attack upon the country. Until the 1990s when the Cold War ended, the subject of nuclear arms was debated during political contests, citing mind-numbing facts and figures, to the point of Americans being lulled asleep regarding the potential of mass destruction.  It was a state of sleep from which they would not awaken until September 11, 2001, when their vulnerability was exposed, for real this time, in the tragic events in New York, Pennsylvania, and the Pentagon in Washington D.C.

One of the dangerous by-products of this era of terrorism is that it causes politicians and their advisors to take their eyes off the ball in the nuclear arena. Rhodes describes this very reality during the George W. Bush administration, consumed by a war on terrorism and an eerily personal vendetta against Iraq and Saddam Hussein, in which careless rhetoric and threats against bomb-holding states such as North Korea were preferred to diplomacy and negotiations with regard to nuclear arms reductions.  

Though the Cold War has ended, Rhodes says there are still over 20,000 warheads held between the two nuclear states of Russia and the United States, about 96% of the world's total inventory.  Other countries known to be holding nuclear weapons are France, China, Britain, Israel, India, Pakistan, and North Korea.

Another alarming statistic the author presents is that over $50 billion is required annually by the United States simply to maintain its nuclear arsenal.  This budget, as Rhodes emphasizes, exceeds all anticipated expenditures on international diplomacy and foreign assistance, which is approximately $39.5 billion.  He says, "It is nearly double the budget for general science, space and technology." The costs are more than economic.  Maintenance of nuclear weaponry and resources, which experts believe will never be used, are also siphoning off the dollars which could be invested in the expansion of technologies in fields such as medical, agricultural, and environmental.

The Twilight of the Bombs is a highly detailed account of the post-Cold War dilemma, "What do we do now?"  It is heavy reading, though eloquent.  At points, it is inspiring.  The influence of such statesmen as Senator Sam Nunn (Ga.) and President Jimmy Carter cannot be overstated.  Rhodes, though unbiased, does not fall short in giving credit where credit is due.  It is a book that will be appreciated most by those who are familiar with the nuclear issues and international politics.  Though Rhodes' background is that of a writer and journalist, his 30 years of writing on this technical subject gives him nothing less than expert qualifications.  His access to primary sources, the specific players, and the politicians gives the book extraordinary depth and credibility.  

Monday, September 12, 2011

Book Review: Shelter Puppies, by Michael Kloth

If pictures tell a thousand words, then Michael Kloth's photography in Shelter Puppies, a book to be published on October 4, 2011, is a story of satisfying triumph over cruelty and tragedy.  

According to the National Animal Interest Alliance about four million dogs per year enter shelters, of which 2.2 million are strays and another 1.8 million are surrendered by their owners.  Approximately 
1 million of these are placed in permanent homes, while over 2 million are euthanized.

Michael Kloth is a professional photographer who volunteers with shelters and animal placement organizations to build pictorial portfolios to help them "market" their adoptable residents to the public.  By Kloth's own confession, he believes that anyone looking for a dog can find a good match among the shelters and rescue organizations, many of which have nationwide networks on the internet, complete with histories and pictures to assist the potential owner.

One can expect from Shelter Puppies dozens of beautiful pictures of cute, cuddly, and playful pets.  Kloth's photography captures the engaging elements of puppy personalities very well, some of which expose the unfathomable curiosity of these animals as well as some that disclose stories of abuse and abandonment.  Kloth includes notes on some of the puppies after they have found permanent homes, many written by those new pet owners who have found deep levels of companionship with their new family members.   

One note written by Terra and Jason Kelly about their adoption of Jerry, a border collie mix, says, "We've never loved a dog like this.  Our little man Jerry is family, a true best friend.  We knew he was ours the moment we saw this picture online, and we drove halfway across the state to adopt him.  His charm and affection have filled our lives with joy ever since."

Pet owners who have experienced the undeniable connections between themselves and their companions from the canine world will enjoy Michael Kloth's photography.  Shelter Puppies is not a book for those who are searching for in-depth reporting on the societal problem of animal cruelty and abandonment.  It is not meant for that audience, though Kloth cites some statistics and lists numerous organizations who can provide such information for those who want to explore the issue further.  Shelter Puppies is a book to enjoy for what it is, a photo album, professionally created and assembled, telling a story through the language of pictures.


Article first published as Book Review: Shelter Puppies by Michael Kloth on Blogcritics.

The Insanity Season Is Here For Dallas Sports Fans

Living in Dallas, Texas, this time of year is all it takes to drive a sports fan insane. It's still baseball time at present, and the Texas Rangers are surviving, and the hopes of a decent season from the boys with the stars on their helmets (Dallas Cowboys) are running high among the rabid and dreadfully low among the realists like myself who have been in Dallas since day one in 1960.

Rangers LogoThe famous Texas heat wave of 2011 is not over yet. Unfortunately, the only things not catching fire right now are Rangers pitching and hitting, the Cowboys defense, and a lackluster fan base who is excruciatingly tired of disappointment. My pulling for the Green Bay Packers last night as it opened the 2011 NFL season against the New Orleans Saints would cause my father to turn over in his grave, but that's how far desperation has come to find a brand of football that resembles the glory days.

Meanwhile, the Rangers have a decent shot at finishing out the season as the AL West Division winners despite themselves, thanks to an equally inconsistent season from the L.A. Angels and the dismal performance by the other two teams (Oakland A's and Seattle Mariners) this year.

The killers for the Rangers this year have been the big innings early in games against starting pitchers. Jon Daniels, the Rangers' GM, upgraded their bullpen before the trade deadline, and it was a good move. However, it hasn't done anything to solve the Jekyll and Hyde nature of the starting pitchers. Colby Lewis is not pitching like the "Yankee Killer" of a year ago. For the most part, the fans like our pitchers, our coaches, our GM, and the ownership group. It's not personal ... yet. But, our tolerance for roller coaster pitching is getting tiresome.

On the other hand, big innings on the offensive side have helped the Rangers on occasion, but there has also been enough small ball to win some games with risk and speed. This has probably made the difference between being a contender for the AL West and a no-show in the playoff picture.

The Rangers, should they indeed make the playoffs, will have to count on inconsistency in Boston Red Sox pitching, a New York Yankees collapse, or their own explosion of big inning offense to take a five-game series from either, or they will be knocked out in the first round. Small ball will not be enough to win it. The careless errors in the Rangers infield this year, if they continue, will offset any potential small ball victories in the playoffs. Rangers hitters will have to show up with their big-boy britches on and pound away at every rare opportunity they may have. This will be the reality for the entire playoff run for Texas.

Cowboys logoAs for the Cowboys, I'll have my new just-in-time-for-football 50" Panasonic Viera 
GT30 tuned in with high hopes, but 8-8 looks likely for Jerry's boys.

More and more folks around North Central Texas have been keeping an eye on their calendars the past few years, wondering when the (defending NBA champion) Dallas Mavericks tip off. It is becoming a main attraction, and it should be. Mark Cuban will probably never overcome Nolan Ryan in the popularity vote locally, but the man does spend his money wisely, unlike Jerry Jones, and he has a lot of it.

The insanity begins in earnest this Sunday night when the once-dominant sporting interest in Dallas kicks off against the Jets. I'm counting the hours, but I'm not holding my breath.

This article was first published on Blogcritics as The Insanity Season is Here for Dallas Sports Fans.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

We're Not Leaving, by Benjamin J. Luft, M.D.

Layer upon layer of heroic stories, opinions, and interpretations of 9/11 have taken on the character and power of myth in the ten years since tragedy struck the United States in the form of hijacked airliners exploding into New York's World Trade Center and the Pentagon in Washington D.C. Not forgotten is the attempt of other hijackers to attack government buildings in Washington D.C., only to be thwarted by courageous passengers before the mission could be accomplished.

Portrait of the Pile

Dr. Benjamin J. Luft is the Director of the Long Island Medical Monitoring and Treatment Program at State University of New York. In his work there, Luft has provided care for over 6,000 responders and workers who were exposed first-hand not only to the tragedy of 9/11, but also to the health hazards of "the pile" on which they worked for over a year to clear the site.

His book, We're Not Leaving: 9/11 Responders Tell Their Stories of Courage, Sacrifice, and Renewal, is a collection of first-hand accounts drawn from the voices of the people whose lives have been marked permanently by doing society's hardest work of removing the sad, visible reminders of a nation's vulnerability.

This layer of stories and reflections are those at the core, those in the pre-interpretive time period in which the concerns were the facts, the people, the deceased, and the horror of never knowing if one can take another breath before succumbing to the death that surrounds them all.

Lost in the ten years since, amidst the growing American story of its heroes and its struggle to memorialize the events in the most meaningful way, are the accounts of those who were most exposed to the hazardous aftermath of the rubble, the random body parts, and the suffocating air and odors of "the pile." Luft has compiled 32 first-hand stories of workers, medical personnel, clergy, and common citizens who for months dedicated themselves to be the hands and arms of a nation to cleanse America's landscape and to enable its citizens to begin its processes of grief and tribute.

Divided into five sections, covering the minutes after the attack through the continuing years of healing, Luft has chosen stories that come from virtually all sectors of the recovery team. Some stories are centered on the worker himself and his own struggles with coping with the tragedy while others exhibit the selfless, sometimes self-denying, reflections of heroes.

We're Not Leaving is a book which should be consumed in small bites, a story at a time, to avoid losing the substantial impact which each story provides on its own. It serves best those who want to know what really happened at Ground Zero regardless of what happened in the skies above or in the politics abroad. In an effort to assimilate the 9/11 story into one's own life, this collection of stories provides stark points of identity for any reader.


Article first published as Book Review: We're Not Leaving: 9/11 Responders Tell Their Stories of Courage, Sacrifice, and Renewal by Benjamin J. Luft, M.D. on Blogcritics.

Thursday, September 1, 2011

No Fear by Marsha Coleman-Adebayo

David put his hand in his bag and took out a stone and slung it and struck the Philistine on his forehead.  The stone sank into his forehead, and he fell on his face to the ground.  So David prevailed over the Philistine with a sling and with a stone, and struck the Philistine and killed him.  There was no sword in the hand of David.I Samuel 17:49-50

Taking on the United States government, who has shown itself capable of printing as much money as it needs when it is deemed necessary by circumstances to do so, is to face an infinite army of Goliaths.  When the challenger is one person, an African-American woman, and her attorney who is working on a contingency basis, armed only with the twin modesties of truth and persistence, to hold any hope of success seems foolish, if not mad.  Yet, it is the force of facts upon which justice rests.  Marsha Coleman-Adebayo, for ten years, was its champion, a relentless pursuer of the protective guarantees provided by law.

Marsha Coleman-Adebayo pictureNo Fear is Ms. Coleman-Adebayo’s account of her long struggle to correct the systemic racism within the Environmental Protection Agency, from which she had been fired, during the early years of the Clinton-Gore administration through the early years of the Bush White House.  Dubbed as the first civil rights and whistleblower legislation of the twenty-first century, the No FEAR Act assures federal government employees that the law is on their side when they report corruption, criminal activity, and unlawful discrimination within the government.

After being reared by her mother Marsha Coleman attended Barnard College, and later earned her doctorate from MIT where noted activist, Noam Chomsky, served on her dissertation committee.  She became passionate about African studies while at MIT and quickly became active in human rights issues in South Africa in the early years after Nelson Mandela’s release from prison.  While at MIT, she met her future husband, Segun Adebayo, whom she frequently credits in her book as being a source of endless strength and spiritual support.

By all appearances Coleman-Adebayo was on the fast track.  She earned a position with the EPA under the administration of Carol Browner and was appointed as the lead person in the Gore-Mbeki initiative, presumably to aid the new government in its exodus out of the throes of apartheid.  Coleman-Adebayo took her mission seriously, too seriously for the EPA.

Thrust upon her in South Africa was a deadly environmental illness occurring in workers who were exposed daily to the mineral vanadium, a lightweight mineral considered strategic because of its ability to strengthen steel.  It became apparent to Coleman-Adebayo that the EPA was interested in serving big business rather than alleviating human suffering.  She watched as her position of leadership was handed to lesser qualified colleagues who were more willing to provide the kind of emphasis the EPA had in mind, that is, the enhancement of business opportunities for American multinational companies.  Not clearly stated in her book, but implied, is that the EPA was serving the interests of the Vice President’s office.

The book details the long journey to justice, her victory over the EPA in its discriminatory practices resulting in an award of $600,000 in her court case, her long trek through the legislative process, aided by a unanimous vote in the House of Representatives, then the struggle to get out of Senator Joe Lieberman’s Committee on Governmental Affairs for a Senate floor vote, and finally the signing into law by President George W. Bush in 2002.

The strengths of Coleman-Adebayo’s book are its fine details, its personal passion and warmth, and the template it offers to aspiring activists.  Readers who reach for such details, those who have more than a cursory interest in the workings of massive government bureaucracy and the corruption that often accompanies it, will give No Fear a prominent place on their bookshelves.  Coleman-Adebayo is engaging, and her story is well-told.

Standing against the forces of giants, speaking truth to power, is one of the loneliest places one can stand.  It causes one to question her own abilities, her own faults, and her own motives.  The author says, “All I had to do was stop being me.”  Almost unanimously, people choose the easier path, one of non-resistance, ultimately complicit, the “play along to get along” mentality.  But, tide-turning historical events are those whose champions, sometimes armed only with small stones, deliver their arsenal of truth with divine precision and unwavering commitment.  This is the story of No Fear.


Article first appeared on Blogcritics as Book Review: No Fear: A Whistleblower's Triumph Over Corruption and Retaliation at the EPA by Marsha Coleman-Adebayo.

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

I Killed Scheherazade by Joumana Haddad

Joumana Haddad photo
Tsunamis have their origins at the point of the earthquake or volcanic eruption, seemingly coming out of nowhere.  Always unexpected, they carry with them the potential of changing the landscape in dramatic ways by destroying what is old or ungrounded in its path.

Joumana Haddad, an award-winning poet and journalist, kicked off the first erotic cultural magazine in the Arab world in 2008, JASAD (Body), for which she made international headlines as "the Carrie Bradshaw of Beirut."

Born in Beirut to Christian parents, Haddad was a lover of books.  As a young child, she took advantage of her father's frequent absence from the home to climb to the top shelves of his library to read Marquis de Sade whom Haddad says, "changed (her) irrevocably."  Other authors with whose works she became intimately familiar at a young age were Dostoyevsky, Sallinger, Gibran, and √Čluard.

I Killed Scheherazade is a rapid-fire literary, often poetic, attack upon the enemies of full, thus explicit, feminist expression, both the covert adversaries and the obvious ones, that hits the bullseye time after time.  With the precision of a sniper and the tenacity of a pit bull, Joumana Haddad turns over all the rocks to expose the life beneath them: Western feminist ideas about Arab women, Arab hypocrisy in literary criticism, and Christian and Islamic fundamentalism.

Autobiographically weaving her interaction with the literary giants she has known since her childhood through her consumption of the forbidden books, she constructs a journal of thought that has the intellectual markings of a manifesto. It is solid, perceptive beyond the norm, and has a forward-leaning push that will generate ample force to resist the social pressures to marginalize or to quieten her.

I Killed Scheherazade is not for those readers who must have their philosophies written as a "system" of thought.  Rather, it will suit well those curious readers who want the windows flung wide open to all the possible objections, thus opening the possibilities for deeper, more serious conversations, with their cultures.

A force this strong has the potential to become a tsunami, given time, circumstances, and audience.  As a young author living in a time of revolution and liberation, Haddad's ebullient expression is a foretaste of the broader vision that will surely be realized, one which her own voice has inspired.

160 pages, Lawrence Hill Books, September 1, 2011

Highly recommended

Article first published as Book Review: I Killed Scheherazade: Confessions of an Angry Arab Woman by Joumana Haddad on Blogcritics.

Sunday, August 28, 2011

A First-Rate Madness by Nassir Ghaemi

The next time you hear someone suggest that a politician is crazy, you might want to consider the benefits of keeping her in office! In the book, A First-Rate Madness by Nassir Ghaemi, a professor of psychiatry at Tufts University School of Medicine and director Nassir Ghaemi photoof the Mood Disorders Program at Tufts Medical Center in Boston, Dr. Ghaemi sets forth this thesis: The best crisis leaders are either mentally ill or mentally abnormal; the worst crisis leaders are mentally healthy.

Sure to raise all kinds of eye-bulging arguments between otherwise friendly people is the notion that our best interests are sometimes served best by those who could be diagnosed as manic depressive, bipolar, or clinically depressed.

Dr. Ghaemi's thesis is based on his study of the psychological history of some of the most effective leaders during times of crisis.  Included in his survey are Civil War general, William T. Sherman, FDR, Ted Turner, Martin Luther King, Jr., John F. Kennedy, and in a different sort of way, Adolf Hitler.

He uses four areas of analysis: realism, creativity, empathy, resilience.  These four characteristics of leadership, Dr. Ghaemi argues, are also characteristics found in large supply among the depressed and manic during times of crisis.  He explains that the type of thinking and courses of action required to navigate people through tough times are usually unconventional and would not normally occur to those who are mentally healthy. 

When creative thinking is needed, it is not a matter of intelligence that is required; rather, it is the ability to assess reality in its deepest and most honest sense.  Then, the effective leader must initiate bold actions, sometimes unorthodox, that respond to the right issues at the right time. Kennedy's response to Kruschev during the Cuban missile crisis is an example of this creative leadership and risky action, culminating in a meteoric rise of a nation's confidence in its president.

Only those who can synchronize with reality are able to know what the right issues are at the right moment.  This "depressive realism," Ghaemi argues, is one of the benefits of depression just as creativity and resilience are beneficial characteristics of the manic phase of manic-depressive illness.

The arguments put forth by Dr. Ghaemi are based on a controversial method of studying history, that is, with the purpose of gleaning psychological evidence of mental health or illness.  He dismisses critics somewhat convincingly in the introduction to his book by pointing out that historical perspective is more accurate than that of the present.  He says we see the past much more clearly, making more precise judgments about it, than we are able to see and do in the present.

In applying this method he is dependent on anecdotal evidence, and upon documents written by people, such as spouses, whose assessments can be too subjective at times.  The reader can never be quite sure that all the pieces have been pulled together, though Dr. Ghaemi offers multiple sources in his evaluation.  The stories match up beautifully with his propositions, sometimes, perhaps, too beautifully.  Still, the crux of his argument is convincing and worthy of much deeper exploration in future works.

Perhaps, in Dr. Ghaemi's next book, which I look forward to reading, it would be helpful to take his thesis to the next step and describe it in relation to common everyday people, such as civic leaders and entrepreneurs.  He is onto something in this book, and it merits more attention.

I would also like to see what Dr. Ghaemi has to say about the implications of his thesis for psychiatric practice and for those living with manic depressive illness.  Is there a way to "coach" depressed persons, or those with manic episodes, into greater creativity, and ultimately productivity?

A First-Rate Madness to be insightful and extraordinary.  Readers will see the soft spots in the thesis, spots, I believe, that Dr. Ghaemi also acknowledges.  He is, after all, placing before the reading public the notion that mental illness has benefits that are sometimes only available to those who suffer from it.
I don’t mean to claim that it always takes a disturbed person to have a nuanced and humble view of life and the world. Many probably mentally healthy leaders are also complex and insightful.... My claim is that mental illnesses, like depression, do not detract from such abilities, but in fact can enhance them. (p. 260)

Sunday, August 21, 2011

Kindle Single Review: A Predator Priest, by David Margolick

David Margolick, an accomplished writer and contributor to such outstanding publications as Vanity FairNewsweek, and the New York Times places on his own shoulders the burden of telling a story about another pedophile priest and the deafening silence — some would argue "collusion by default" — of the Catholic church in its practice of moving problem priests to remote unknown territories only to inflict more abuse upon parishioners in uninformed communities.

The burden borne by Margolick is not his telling of the story but his doing so in a way that respects the objective distance a journalist must keep from his subject. Margolick is not shy about the details of Father Bernard Bissonnette's lifetime of abuse and the church's scandal of keeping his trespasses secret for over thirty years. The reader however is left to make the judgment for himself regarding Bissonnette's actions.

The story of Bernard Bissonnette (pictured below) begins in his home parish of Grosvenordale, Connecticut, where he was known even before his ordination, having spent his Bissonnette photoearly years there. In retrospect, community members noted that his early tendencies were odd as he seemed more interested in very personal sexual behaviors among his peers, such as the frequency of their masturbation, rather than the typical interests of teenage boys.

The church would later speculate that had they known of some of the things he was reputed to have done, Bissonnette would never have been ordained in the first place. This hindsight however fell far short of being a satisfying response to the men and the families victimized by Bissonnette's crimes.

The story centers on one particular victim and his family. Tommy Deary was one of many children in the Deary family, an athlete and an altar boy, who belonged to a prominent Catholic family in nearby Putnam. Deary was devoted to his faith, the church, and to his priest. Like many victims of sexual abuse, Tommy Deary would not turn against the perpetrator, Bissonnette, who had explained to Deary that God was pleased with his sexual actions. Bissonnette, many years later, explained to Deary's family that he had done nothing wrong and that he had only helped Tommy to become a man.

After a troubled marriage, numerous cycles of depression, and finally revelation to his family, Tommy Deary took his own life by connecting a hose from his car's exhaust into the back seat of his idling car where he waited to die with the Bible on his lap. He was found dead a couple of days later by one of his sisters.

Tommy's younger brother, Gene Michael Deary, found Bissonnette in a remote town in Southern New Mexico. He and two of his brothers traveled to the state to confront the retired priest who was then in failing health after his lifelong abuse of alcohol and his diabetes. Bissonnette explained to the Deary brothers only that the family's accusations had ruined his life as a priest, and he showed no remorse nor an admission of his guilt.

This Kindle Single is said to be 54 pages in book page length. Margolick manages to keep the scope of his story on Bissonnette and Deary, and it is covered well. He is successful in engaging the reader from the outset and maintaining a high level of interest throughout the book. The only distraction in the book is the dozen or so editing errors such as misspelled and repeated words or phrases that any careful reader would notice. These were not distracting enough to cast a shadow upon this story which needed to be told, and it is told well.

Article first published as Kindle Short Review: A Predator Priest by David Margolick on Blogcritics.