Friday, December 31, 2010

Learning Curves

As I write this, this is a brand-new blog. I've made a couple of posts, both composed offline and pasted in here.


I'm still learning some stuff. The spacing on the "Rewriting History" post looks like one and a half, while  "Notes on a Colonoscopy" is single-spaced, which I prefer. I'm visual enough, and enjoy layout enough, so that I would like to have a consistent appearance to this blog, even if I wind up abandoning it in a few days. But I can't seem to figure out how to get the whole thing single-spaced. (Judging by the "Preview" button as I write this, this little preamble is single spaced.)


There is also too much space between the paragraphs, but I can't figure out why.


Learning curves. Me no like. Grrr.

Rewriting History

The post below is a quasi-review of Vincent Bugliosi's Reclaiming History. I wrote it about five years ago. Then as now, I consider Reclaiming History a thoroughly dishonest piece of crap. I didn't say that quite so explicitly in the following, however.

The review is meant to be insulting. I hope that comes across.

"An Ass of You and of Me" has appeared here and there on the Internet, but I don't think many people ever read it.


An Ass of You and of Me

or, Buyer Beware: Initial impressions, but not really a review, of Reclaiming History

One must assume that Vincent Bugliosi is honest, and that his new book on the JFK assassination is likewise honest. Reclaiming History is Bugliosi's long awaited entry into the war of words over what really happened to John F. Kennedy on November 22, 1963.

This is a massive book, so massive that the publisher, W.W. Norton, elected to put all of its end notes and other source notes onto an accompanying CD-ROM. At more than 1,600 pages, Reclaiming History gives the appearance of a comprehensive and minutely detailed study of the crime that shook the world four decades ago. Bugliosi says he devoted twenty years to his book. I'm devoting about twenty minutes to writing this essay.

Vincent Bugliosi, of course, is the former Deputy District Attorney from Los Angeles, best known for prosecuting Charles Manson and members of his murderous "family" some thirty-five years ago. Bugliosi's resulting book Helter Skelter (written with Curt Gentry) became a best seller, and according to the press materials accompanying Reclaiming History is the best selling true crime book of all time. Bugliosi has since written several other true crime books that have also been best sellers.

Why did the former prosecutor decide to tackle the Kennedy assassination? "Over 95 percent of the books on the case happen to be pro-conspiracy and anti-Warren Commission," he says. "So certainly there is a need for far more books on the other side to give a much better balance to the debate."

Well, maybe. But what was the purpose of the Warren Report? Sylvia Meagher once observed that if the Report cannot stand on its own – if it requires additional books to prop it up – that in itself is "a total default" to its critics. In Bugliosi's case, it may be a double fault. For sheer bulk, Reclaiming History is nearly twice as long as the 888 page Warren Report it defends.

Taking Bugliosi's numbers at face value, there are still plenty of books attempting to legitimize the Warren Report, and they are typically welcomed with great praise by the mainstream media. To name just a few, Gerald Posner's Case Closed, which appeared at the time of the assassination's thirtieth anniversary, was featured prominently in U.S. News and World Report and Posner was all over the boob tube for months. Commission member Gerald Ford published a book on the case, Commission attorney David Belin published two, and Arlen Specter devoted many pages to defending the Report in his 2000 memoir. William Manchester was contracted by the Kennedy family to write a book on the assassination before the Warren Report was even published. Jim Bishop wrote a book that did not question the official story. Richard Warren Lewis and Lawrence Schiller proved two heads aren't always better than one in a book attacking the critics. And Jim Moore published a pro-Commission book in 1989. (Commission attorney Wesley Liebeler announced he was writing, but never completed, a book on the case. And former Yale University professor Jacob Cohen also announced but never published a book defending the Warren Report.)

And then there are the television networks. The electronic media convicted Oswald the weekend of the assassination and has never let up in the forty-something years since. CBS has produced multiple documentaries supporting the official story, as have NBC and ABC. Don't even get me started on Time-Life. Methinks Vince Bugliosi's protestations are without merit.

Spoiler alert! I'm going to give away the ending to Reclaiming History. Like the butler in a hackneyed murder mystery, Oswald did it. "Oswald," Bugliosi writes, was "an emotionally unhinged political malcontent who hated America [and] was as guilty as sin."

And that, really, is about all you need to know of Vincent Bugliosi's book. But I'll add that one of his objectives is to deconstruct and debunk every theory offering an explanation to the assassination – every one, that is, but the lone nut theory. If Bugliosi's comment on Lee Oswald intrigues you, or if you like to read everything you can on this case, then by all means spend the fifty dollars that is the book's suggested retail price. Otherwise, hang on to your money.

In spite of Bugliosi's explanation for why he wrote Reclaiming History – what he sees as a dearth of books supporting the official account of the assassination (again, why wasn't the Warren Report adequate?) – I can only understand his undertaking of a project such as this in the context of an ideological war. Oswald, after all, "hated America," Bugliosi says. In a section of his book describing the earliest Commission critics, he emphasizes their politics, which were mostly, but not exclusively, left-leaning. The first published book on the assassination, Bugliosi writes, was by "an expatriate American Communist living in Paris." Another early author was "a German Communist party member." The next two books were written by "leftists sympathetic to Marxist ideology." This is fifties-style red baiting, and if such criticisms are valid, then it is equally valid to argue that Vincent Bugliosi, as a former big city prosecutor, is a thoroughly entrenched Establishment figure who is parroting the party line, and summoning his considerable rhetorical skills in an effort to bully skeptical readers and reassure others.

As noted at the outset, this commentary is not really a review of Reclaiming History; I have not read the book in its entirety and do not intend to. Its point of view is plain as day, and taking the time to dissect and expose its fallacies is, for me, an errand of too few returns. I leave that necessary chore to others.

But in the interest of full disclosure, I must note that I am the author of a forthcoming book related to these matters. Praise from a Future Generation is the story of the early, "first generation" Warren Commission critics. Documents released by the Assassination Records Review Board show that the activities of virtually every one of these critics were monitored to some degree. I will briefly describe just one example, and leave it to the reader to decide whether Bugliosi's characterization is fair and impartial. The "German Communist party member" Bugliosi refers to is Joachim Joesten, the author of Oswald: Assassin or Fall Guy? [Marzani and Munsell, 1964]. Bugliosi happily acknowledges (on p. 990) that his sources on Joesten include, via the Congressional Record, Gestapo documents seized by British authorities at the end of World War Two. Copies of these Gestapo records were provided to the Warren Commission by then-CIA Deputy Director for Plans Richard Helms. One of these Gestapo documents, translated by the CIA, was a memorandum from 1937 stating that while living in Copenhagen, Joesten published an article in a French newspaper warning of Germany's military threat to Denmark. So Joesten's life work included opposing Hitler, and in Reclaiming History, Vincent Bugliosi relies on documents prepared by Hitler's Nazi regime to pass judgment on his political reliability. This, I think, is just a tad questionable.

But, one must assume that Vince Bugliosi is honest, and Reclaiming History represents his true feelings on the Kennedy assassination. His motives, surely, are pure as the driven snow.

Notes on a Colonoscopy


Colonoscopy. A visual examination of the colon (with a colonoscope) from the cecum to the rectum; requires sedation.

Colonoscope. An elongated fiberoptic endoscope for examining the entire colon from cecum to rectum.

– A couple of web definitions


Most people are afraid of colonoscopies. I read that somewhere. And the fear, I think, centers on the idea of having a probe shoved up your ass.

Colonoscopies ain’t no fun, that’s for sure – but they aren’t that bad. Fear of the probe, and anticipating it, is far worse than the procedure itself.

As is the cancer that colonoscopies detect.
Some years back, my doctor informed me that given my medical history (both my parents having had colon cancer) I should have a colonoscopy forthwith, and every five years thereafter. He promptly issued a referral, and the procedure was scheduled.

I had my first colonoscopy a week later. The attending doctor was a friendly man with an engaging smile and an unpronounceable last name. He sedated me and inserted the colonoscope, burned off a few benign polyps, and sent the bill to my insurance company.

Easy-peasy.

The twenty-four hours leading up to the procedure was the worst part of the entire experience. I had a lot of nervous tension, due mainly to fearful anticipation. Equally unpleasant, I had to drink a substance called Nulytely, trade name of a polyether compound used as a purgative. The stuff is incredibly effective. For three or four hours, the wise drinker of Nulytely does not venture further than a very short sprint from the nearest toilet.

I remember almost nothing of that first colonoscopy. The doctor said he administered a mild anesthesia, but it bludgeoned me into total insensibility.

Five years later I got to do it again. I drank the Nulytely and reported to the medical center the next morning. As before, the anesthesia knocked me out – but I swear I came to consciousness, dimly and briefly, midway through the procedure. I remember a dull pain, and the sensation of having a garden hose coiled up in my bowels.

Afterward, the doctor pronounced my colon all clear. Clean as a whistle past the graveyard.


Another five years elapsed. For my third colonoscopy, I kept notes as I began drinking the Nulytely:

2pm.
I’m supposed to drink a big jug of this stuff to flush out my intestines. Four luscious liters. The colonoscopy is scheduled for first thing in the morning.

And so it is bottoms-up now, before bottoms-up tomorrow. I’m beginning about four hours earlier than the recommended time. If I hadn’t been through this before I’d be a good boy and ask no questions; would follow the guidelines to the letter; would, as Oliver North once stated to Congress, salute smartly and charge up the hill. But the instructions – drink half today, half tomorrow morning – differ from previous ones, when I had to drink it all the day before. This variation has me uneasy. I don’t see how I could possibly drink that stuff the morning of the procedure. Imagine, blasting all over the examination table!

So I’m drinking it all today. “The adventure begins!” I remark to an empty room, and slug down the first eight-ounce tumbler.

2:45.
I’m drinking the Nulytely on an empty stomach. As with many medical procedures, doctor’s orders include not eating anything the day before, except (if I want to) some Jello (but not red Jello). I don't want any Jello.

The container I got at the pharmacy held the Nulytely in powdered form. I added water to the fill line and shook vigorously. “Nulytely is best served cold,” the instructions said.

Best?

What that means is, it kills the taste.

I exaggerate. The taste of the stuff isn’t really all that bad. There are several flavors; I chose lemon-lime. What’s bad is that I’m supposed to slam down a glass every ten minutes.

As I write this, it is coming up on 3pm and I’ve had four glasses. You may note that doesn’t add up. At 2:20, after the third glass, I skipped out of the house for a while to fulfill my obligation as a volunteer crossing guard at my kid’s school.

Time for another glass.

3:15.
I’m afraid to fart. I’m afraid that a seemingly innocent expulsion of mostly inert gas will have more substance than anticipated.

3:45.
The plastic jug holds four liters of this swill. In just a few hours’ time I have consumed nearly half of it. It is going much faster than I expected. 

Now that I’ve had numerous glasses, the unpleasantness of Nulytely is asserting itself. It isn't so much the flavor. It's a cumulative effect – the flavor and its sticky sweetness, and the aroma, and most of all the vast amount I'm obliged to drink, all on an empty belly.

To make it more bearable I’ve begun spacing out the dosages from every ten to every twenty minutes. I’ll still finish in plenty of time, and it will still have the desired effect.

4pm.
No longer afraid to fart. I can’t be! The Nulytely is making me rumbly. The eventual world of shit that will explode from me is beginning – first with the gut rumblings, followed by vaporous expulsions.

4:20
First massive explosions! More to come – a lot more. Oh boy!


The above entry marked the end of my contemporaneous notes. From that point on I was too busy sitting on the toilet to write anything down.

My description of the next few hours can be quite graphic, and for some, quite disgusting. I once described them at a social function, and one listener looked ready to vomit.

So I’ll describe it here in only the most general terms – those hours when, as I said, the wise drinker of Nulytely does not venture further than a short sprint from the nearest toilet. I discharged more than I knew I could hold. After a while it was mostly Nulytely. Though I expelled from the back, the splash sounded like urination. That stuff really cleans you out!


When the colonoscopy is over, you’re still so totally doped up that you cannot safely operate heavy machinery. By law, you must be driven home. A caring spouse is ideally suited to this task. You can eat again, and this spouse, friend, or significant other is also ideally suited to bringing you mounds of your favorite foods as you sit groggily on a couch, watching something on TV you would never ordinarily watch – Oprah Winfrey, say. Or in my case, some speculative crap on the History Channel.

I’m still a few years away from my next colonoscopy, and when the time comes I’ll have it without hesitation. They can and do save lives.


I should probably mention that people with no family history of colon cancer typically only have to have colonoscopies every ten years. I have to do every five years because both my parents had colon cancer.

I should also probably mention that both of my parents survived, and as of this writing (final day of 2010) are still around.