The debate is juiced

I wonder whether it’s a factor of the late-night audience for prime-time football games – a pliable, slightly boozy demographic, given to rushed judgments and home-team jingoism – but I’ve noticed two borderline insulting TV spots in the past week after the pigskin is put to bed.

The first, in which a soccer mom with two strapping children unloads groceries and gives “Washington” what-for about a proposed tax on soft drinks. She looks like a mother lion about to claw the eyes out of an approaching hyena. “Families around here are counting pennies to get through this economy,” she says. “So when we hear about another tax it gets our attention. They say it’s only pennies. Well, those pennies add up when you’re trying to feed a family. Washington, if you’re listening, what doesn’t seem like much to you can be a lot to us.”

Here’s the video. Note that its comments and ratings have been disabled:

Take a guess who’s sticking up for “families around here.” Why, it’s a friendly group called Americans Against Food Taxes! Who is this coalition of concerned Americans? Well, they describe themselves as “responsible individuals, financially strapped families, small and large businesses in communities across the country [who are] opposed to the Government’s proposed tax hike on food and beverages, including soda, juice drinks, and flavored milks.” The American Beverage Association is leading the charge; regional chairs include representatives from the likes of the National Supermarkets Association and the Florida Petroleum Marketers & Convenience Store Association. I guess “Americans With Deeply Entrenched Financial Interests In Maintaining the Pipeline of Cheap Sugary Drinks Against Food Taxes” didn’t focus-group as well.

I grant that any trade organization worth its salt (and caramel color, and high-fructose corn syrup) isn’t doing its job if it doesn’t lobby against proposed taxes on its constituents. But the AAFT’s particularly specious arguments come down to two main points: the ludicrous “feed a family” line from the ad, and the claim that the tax would be, effectively, regressive – that it would disproportionately fall on the lower and middle class. If you’ve ever looked at the grocery aisles in low-income neighborhoods, this rings true: poor children in America are fueled by generic sodas and juice drinks that contain less than 10 percent juice. But therein lies the scandal. If parents do decide (please, God) that an extra nickel on a bottle of Coke is too much, they’re free to downgrade to R.C., and if that particular extravagance breaks the bank, there’s always Sam’s Choice. If that, also, is too high, then let me suggest tap water and other sources of calories. Meanwhile we’ll use the nickels to help treat type 2 diabetes.

The other ad doesn’t raise my hackles as much. Just check out this power executive’s speed-blinking when she mentions the environment 22 seconds into the video, and tell me if you believe what she’s saying:

As the Worm Turns (Dead)

Hookworm: Worthy of scornHookworm: Worthy of scornIf you’re looking for villains – and in these times of Congressional peanut galleries, Café Press shirts and bloviating mountebanks, we all are – may I suggest you adopt a nemesis in the style of one Aaron Jackson: worms.

There’s little to like about common intestinal worms. They’re pernicious, they drink blood from your digestive system and they literally reproduce in shit. Maybe you have a soul, maybe your dog has a soul. I'm no theologian, but I am willing to entertain those possibilities. Worms, however, are soulless sucking machines that benefit humans only insofar as they remind us what a cruel bitch Nature really is, when she gets her way.

Thomas C. Cheng’s 1973 textbook “General Parasitology” enumerates the harm in the dry, disinterested prose that so often makes academic writing unexpectedly resonant:

Until recently, the human hookworm disease was numbered among the most prevalent and important of the parasitic diseases of man. Unlike malaria, amoebiasis, or schistosomiasis, hookworm disease is not spectacular. Hookworm affects populations by gradually sapping its victims of their strength, vitality and health. As exemplified in certain parts of the Middle East and the Far East, and not too many years ago in most of the southern states in the United States, the victims become lazy, shiftless and nonproductive. The resultant economic loss is beyond computation.

For obvious reasons, people in the developing world – and, speaking of the American South, you could make the case that pre-Depression Mississippi belonged in that heap – can’t abide a scourge that saps “strength, vitality and health.” Nutrition in food, already scarce, turns to supporting a worm farm in a person’s guts rather than building muscle, bone, tissue. The World Health Organization estimates that worms may pirate 20 percent of a person’s nutritional intake. For children, especially, the results can be the difference between health and malnutrition, and between malnutrition and starvation.

I’m working on a story that will try to gauge just how effective a national program would be in Haiti, where Aaron runs a handful of orphanages and coordinates distribution of a deworming agent called Albendazole to anyone who might suffer from worms. I was with Aaron and his friends Brayan Jackson (no relation) and Johnny Dieubon the day the St. Pete Times’ Latin America correspondent, the fairly gallant David Adams, and a Times photog, the intrepid John Pendygraft, also crashed at one of the orphanages Aaron and Johnny run in Port-au-Prince. It was warm and humid in the little block building, and when the sun went down, dark. We sipped Haitian beers that David managed to buy from atop a ladder behind the house, through a gap in a wall of cinder blocks. As we sat at the kitchen table and talked by candlelight (night falls early in Haiti right now; the country is on the equivalent of Central Time right now, despite having the same longitude as the Hamptons) some of the children sang in the living room. Here’s the audio:

The orphans' song

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(Download)

It’s hard to explain how flattering and enchanting it is when young children, some of them painfully undersized for their age, introduce themselves with hands extended to shake, asking, in quiet but confident Creole-accented English, “Hi, what is your name?” Before they retired for the night, Aaron opened and distributed two bags of Skittles I bought from the airport in Santo Domingo a few hours earlier.

That night we Americans slept on five foam mats: four aligned shoulder-to-shoulder, with one across the feet of the others left for the last man to bed, which happened to be me. In a pile of dead mosquitoes (thanks, DEET!) I awoke at some bleary hour (dawn, as you’d guess, comes early, as well) to the some clanging din that I later ascribed to a man across the stony road who I later observed sawing through rebar amid a collection of stray metal objects. We piled into an old donated ambulance and drove to the rural outskirts of Port-au-Prince to pass out pills to people living in homes made, in some cases, of mud and sticks. Here’s David Adams’ account (follow the link for John Pendygraft's photos):

Jackson and Dieubon walked up a stony, rubbish-strewn track going from one rickety adobe-built shack to another, looking for malnourished kids.

"See how orange the hair is?" Jackson said, pointing to a barefoot child covered in dirt, the ends of her hair tinged a rusty color, a sign of vitamin deficiency. Jackson bent over and squeezed the child's swollen belly. "See how hard it is? The worms are eating it up, man."

The symptoms are so obvious, and the cure so simple, that you don't have to be a doctor to make a diagnosis. Side effects are considered minimal. It can be given as a preventative to any child who might have worms but not yet show symptoms.

Swollen bellies are so common, many poor Haitians have no idea their children are sick. With no electricity or treated water services, they also have little means to prevent infection.

"Here it's seen as normal," said Jackson. "It's hard to prevent when it's from bad water. It's all they've got."

One thing I’ll say for Aaron: He has no compunction about lifting up a kid’s shirt – any kid anywhere, it seemed – and thumping on the kid’s swollen belly as though he were evaluating a melon. The dude hasn’t met a stranger in his life. Here’s some video from our subsequent stop at a village set back from the main road, a place he and Johnny call “Little Africa.” There, in a scratched-out patch of clay and rows of skeletal homes, we found children outside a church sitting around a water pump, playing a game with homemade playing cards. Once the Planting Peace guys arrived and started handing out pills – well, it was an event. Five white guys, a couple of them toting camera equipment, distributing mystery pills as Johnny tried to explain to kids and parents alike what they were for, why they were important, why infants couldn’t take them. One woman approached us as we were leaving and explained that while she had a baby with her (too young) she also had an older child back home who needed a dose. Brayan worried that the kids who kept holding their hands out for more pills didn't understand that it was medicine, not a tiny snack.

I’m going to ballpark it and say the Planting Peace guys handed out a hundred pills to kids that day. That’s a hundred kids who were great candidates to have parasites, and several of whom were displaying the outward signs of malnutrition: distended bellies, hair tinged the color of rust. Total cost of the pills: less than $2. One of the great things about hating worms is they’re cheap to kill. If you’re the sort who gets off on exterminating your enemies, it’s a real bargain. Aaron tells me that he’s about to be interviewed (again) by Anderson Cooper, who Aaron tells me once remarked to him, off-camera, that for the cost of a pack of cigs, you could deworm a whole school. Aaron has more information at his site, plantingpeace.org.

Hannibal Buress

I think Jimmy Fallon's about as innately funny as the nutrition label on a bag of flour, but as long as he can stick guys like Hannibal Buress in front of a camera, he's welcome to keep making television.

The amusing part about this arrangement, aside from Burress, is that he's the anti-Fallon. Whereas Fallon can't walk past his own reflection without biting his teeth, smirking, tearing up and abandoning a little-known comic technique called "staying in character," Buress can get through an entire set with a casual demeanor that smacks of natural ability. I caught his act last night at Comix in Manhattan; it didn't surprise me to hear afterward Saturday Night Live has hired him as a writer. If Tina Fey ever decides to abdicate as Weekend Update anchor, Buress' borderline-deadpan ass would fit that chair nicely.

Michael Jackson's corporeal form turns 51

Spike Lee threw a helluva little birthday party for the recently deceased frontman of the Jackson 5 on Saturday.

If you'd suspected, as perhaps nearly everyone in the country had, that the appetite for Michael Jackson news was at least in part manufactured by the sloven newsgathering sensibilities of news networks, well, that may be true. But let me vouch: People love them some MJ.

A Michael Jackson tribute: on the streets of Port-au-Prince, Haiti.A Michael Jackson tribute: on the streets of Port-au-Prince, Haiti.

Originally Lee's tribute to Jackson was slated for somewhere in Fort Greene, but somebody did the math and realized tens of thousands of people would be better accommodated on a large lawn in Prospect Park. As my friend Jena and I approached from the rather stunning north end of the park we joined a trickle of pedestrians that grew as we neared a thudding bass rolling through the damp woods. "I'm going there now," a man behind us said into his cell phone. "I'm just following the peoples. The little white peoples." But it wasn't just little white peoples: It was hipsters and black mothers with children and dudes on bikes and elegant girls in tight dresses and just about anyone you'd expect to see rocking out to Michael Jackson. And when we arrived on the green, there was a full-blown party breaking out.

Remixes of old-school MJ were blaring from speakers at the front of the green while people dance-swayed. The good Rev. Al Sharpton appeared on stage and reminded us that Jackson rose from a lower-class family in world-class shithole Gary, Ind. to become one of the great entertainment forces of the 20th century -- a tale that resonated with the overwhelmingly black crowd. As the DJ spun the likes of "Rock With You" and "Thriller" while kids in dinosaur-emblazoned raincoats bounced, and grandmothers popped-and-locked, and some dude tried to sell me burned copies of all eight of Jackson's albums for $25 (I came thisclose), the best moments were a spontaneous group dance among a maaaaaassive swath of the crowd during "Billie Jean" and a Tracy Morgan-led karaoke rendition of "The Way You Make Me Feel". Check out the audio below. (And click that Tracy Morgan link, if you know what's hilarious for you.)

The Way You Make Me Feel

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Park Slope sings "The Way You Make Me Feel" (Download)

Plax, the source

Yesterday ESPN.com ran an excerpt of an interview with one Plaxico Burress, the NFL wide receiver who's now about to do time for accidentally shooting himself in the leg, in a Manhattan nightclub, with an unregistered firearm. It's approximately the stupidest thing you can imagine, and plenty of ESPN employees have taken the chance to say so over the past few months.

But the beauty of ESPN is that it can chastise jocks and leagues while it nuzzles every closer to them. Which is how we wind up with the nauseatingly cozy teaser on this story. Are you tired of listening to critics/reporters who described Burress' monumental idiocy for accidentally blowing a hole in his thigh with a handgun? Get the real scoop here! If this is the tone of the web site, imagine the Valentine that the producers sent to Burress' camp in order to land the interview.

Such drama

An open letter to Joe Holley of the Washington Post:

Joe. Word. So in reading your obituary of Ted Kennedy -- an overall fine piece on a senator’s senator -- I was struck by one piece of what seemed like casual hyperbole, in this line: "Kennedy served in the Senate through five of the most dramatic decades of the nation's history."

With all respect, that seems a bit of a bias toward the recent. I understand, though. I’m partial to the 1980s, because of Transformers toys, New Order, the fall of communism, “Amadeus,” my birth, Tetris, and 1984 not turning out like 1984. Great. For other drama, there’s the crack epidemic, “E.T.,” our bully incursions into Latin America … but would we call this one of the most dramatic decades in U.S. history? Nah. Bottom half.

What about the '90s? We enjoyed a splendid little war in Iraq, a comparatively pissant World Trade Center attack, Rodney King riots, Oklahoma City bombing, Super Nintendo and a president whose predilection for chubby intern BJs allowed his enemies to grind the government to a standstill. Granted, we’ll all remember where we were the day we returned the Panama Canal to Panama. But could any reasonable person label this one of the most dramatic decades in U.S. history? Not unless you’re inclined to label Sunday brunch one of the most dramatic meals of the week.

Now, the '60s were about as helter-skelter as a decade gets in this country, especially for Ted Kennedy: both his brothers were assassinated, he was hurt in a plane crash that kills the pilot, and he drove a car off a bridge that killed his passenger and his presidential hopes. And the small matters of the stolen 2000 election, 9/11, Afghanistan, the less-splendid and much larger war in Iraq, the Boston Red Sox winning World Series again, worldwide financial meltdown, the battle over torture as a national policy, etc., et al, have enshrined the ‘00s as one your grandkids will ask you about. But the '70s (Viet Nam, Kent State, Bob Barker starting on “The Price is Right,” Watergate, Roe v. Wade, the Immaculate Reception) are only a middling decade as well. Top half, maybe.

All of which leads us to ask, if the past five decades are really five of the most dramatic in U.S. history, how many of them would make your list of the top five most dramatic decades? Let’s assume drama is at its peak when we wonder whether a country will survive a given time in any recognizable form, followed next by the creation of institutions or characteristics that go on to define the country. Here, then, is my list, in chronological order:

From 1776-89 (cheating, perhaps, but only sensible)
The 1810s
The 1860s
The 1940s
The 1960s

The 1840s, 1870s, 1900s, 1930s and in all likelihood the 2000s have got to follow in the conversation. Kennedy by that admittedly haphazard calculation, then, served in two of the 10 most dramatic decades in the country’s lifespan. Just because we’re here now doesn’t make this the most interesting time to be in history, merely the most convenient.

A setrec will not be necessary.

Cheers,
Sam

The road from Port-au-Prince to Santo Domingo

Mountainside mining in southeast HaitiMountainside mining in southeast HaitiThe road from Port-au-Prince to the Dominican Republic is one of those drives that reminds you: No matter how nowhere you think you are, you can always be somewhere more nowhere.

We sped east through the manic traffic at day’s end, passing first through the urban ruins of this sprawling metropolis, which gave way to the grass and sparse cinderblock shacks, which then gave way to adobe huts and fields. Those gave way to cacti and scrub brush. We saw men straining the scree they mine from denuded hillsides here (see the photo above) and a woman sifting through a smoldering dirt pile, looking for charcoal – the fate of a scary number of the trees here. Then we passed a lake that has been rising so fast the roads are disappearing. In this country, humans and nature are locked in a constant landscape-wrecking contest.

The border itself was like a post-apocalyptic disaster movie: storm clouds threatening, a landscape of mud and swamped cinder-block buildings, and sketchy taxi drivers haggling with poor schlubs like us, who arrived too late for the last bus to Santo Domingo. We agreed to pay $140 apiece for the six-hour drive. When it was settled, the owner of the car opened his trunk, pulled out a Dominican license plate, screwed it between the brake lights of his Accord, and then asked us for gas money upfront. A few minutes in, a motorcyclist pulled up beside our driver and flagged him over: a friend of his. Suddenly we were four in the car. And within a couple of miles, we were waved over by the first of a dozen military checkpoints who wanted to know who we were, where we were going and what was in our bags. No, we weren’t Haitian. No, we weren’t smuggling dope. Yes, we were journalists. So hand back the passports and piss off already.

As the road unspooled and blackened, with our driver’s weepy Mexican music seemingly on repeat the whole way, we began to see real towns, something I haven’t yet seen in Haiti: shops with standalone signs, tree-lined plazas, dedicated parking spots. As we went from third world to first world (or Santo Domingo’s passable impression of the same) the military stops got less frequent, less strict. The road went from craterous moon surface to sedan-friendly blacktop. We stopped for freezing-cold Presidentes which we drank wrapped in brown bags and stashed under the seat during checkpoints. We drove through jungles where grapefruit-sized toads and tarantulas like walking hands came into view with the headlights.

Our driver hit a four-lane stretch of burnished ebony – a velvety black carpet of highway that we knew would take us straight to the capital. After a couple of miles, he realized he was driving eastbound in the right-hand lane of the westbound lanes. He cut through a gap in the median and cussed himself. His co-pilot reassured him in Spanish, “People make mistakes.” We stopped for fried chicken and a pit stop in one of the truly skuzzy restrooms of the world: no seat, no light,Santo Domingo: A view of the Caribben Sea from our crashpad as a storm arrivesSanto Domingo: A view of the Caribben Sea from our crashpad as a storm arrives standing water on the floor, stripped shower-knob fixtures jutting out of the wall, an odor like a wet yak breaking wind. Then it was back onto the road with fried chicken and plantains and Jonathan describing the actual worst restroom in the world: a bottomless, seatless shithouse built over the edge of a chasm in the Andes, where bus tourists were expected to risk their lives just to move their bowels. Not surprisingly, the interior was coated with evidence that even Peruvians draw the line somewhere.

The checkpoints became more spare and more chill: the eleventh, in fact, consisted of little more than a quick glance at our passports, a few words from the cabbie and from Jonathan (fluent as he is in Dominican Spanish) and then a large brown hand sleeved in camouflage reaching in to give us dap. Then we arrived in Santo Domingo to find that our esteemed cabbie is allergic to city driving. He parked (again facing oncoming traffic) and left us to stew while he found a Santo Domingo cab that would take us the final few miles to the flat where we were staying. There we found splendid Spaniards, a gregarious Guadeloupean and a 2,000-or-so square foot rooftop patio with an open-air shower. I partook. The next day, as a storm moved in, I got this snapshot. Then, my camera crashed. Subsequent Hispaniola tales may be illustrated lightly.

Taptap

The taptap: carpooling as conceived by HaitiansThe taptap: carpooling as conceived by Haitians
After a morning given to tagging along on a drive around Port-au-Prince, let me now celebrate the indispensable bus/taxi trucks that trundle around, picking up workers and students and literal hangers-on from designated stops.

Haitian subway, thy name is taptap. I only wish subway cars were painted with such obvious aplomb. But then, subways have a way of keeping curls of dust from overtaking you as you sit along the insides of a moving pick-up truck.

Not all are emblazoned with English slogans; some are in Creole, others in Spanish, still others in Hebrew. Some feature little more than a skeleton of a cap above a truck bed; others, as you see in these photos, display a touch more style.

I have yet to partake but if plans hold my esteemed host and I will be hitching on the Dominican version later as we head across the border on the way to Santo Domingo. Which may make for sporadic contact for a couple of days. But what's new.

Dog day

It’s a curious thing when you know the lasting image from a day in one of the world’s truly overwhelming cities will be one of the last you saw.

I mean, we went from the hotel down a slalom of thisclose pedestrians and past a shocking flipbook of commerce and chaos. We met with, broke bread with, overlooked ravines with, visited a cockfighting arena with and visited the home of a Haitian national who was deported from South Florida to Port-au-Prince 11 years ago after his rap sheet got too big for the States to hold. We dropped in on a small business in which women weave recycled litter into purses and wallets and sandals for sale here, in the States and online. And we took the long way home, past the citadel that is the U.S. embassy and the U.N. outposts and one of the longest, craziest lines of traffic I’ve ever seen, dodging motorcycles, entrepreneurs, hello-down-there! potholes, crossing dry creekbeds with a goat foraging on one side of the bridge and a hog on the other …

Then a quarter-mile from home, we hit a damn dog. Poor thing was a variation on what I’ve come to call the Haitian national dog: a rangy long-tailed tawny dog that plumps itself to 24 pounds on the garbage it scavenges ahead of the chickens. The dog wandered into the street right in front of us, sauntered through our lane, decided better of getting hit in the oncoming lane, and backed its way under our tire. It screamed, wretchedly. Men on the sidewalk winced, then yelled at us to pull forward. The dog cried as it limped away, its back right leg now a useless gray looseness. As we had braked, we had dragged it.

It was a fuck-all rotten way to end an otherwise fine day of reporting. But it reminds me of a line from Tim Cahill’s “Road Fever” (which I’ll address more fully later): “There are no old dogs on the Pan-American Highway.” Petionville either.

I was happy hours later to dance to Cat Empire with a dog named Tarzan on some U.N. workers’ patio.

Only 700 miles from Miami

Oh, also, lest you think the Third World isn't actually on this planet, here's what was playing on the dueling flatscreens over a hotel bar last night:
Aqua Teen Hunger ForceAqua Teen Hunger ForceBrett FavreBrett Favre