The Great Asian Peace Offensive

by Kent Ballard


About a year ago North Korea announced it was suspending all non-aggression pacts with South Korea. They shut down the North-South hotline and closed the only shared opening in their border. They also moved two regiments of self-propelled artillery to the border and shelled an island belonging to the South.

They then announced their “right” to conduct nuclear first-strikes against the United States.

Technically, we were in a state of war with North Korea. Big deal.

We’ve been in a technical state of war with the goofy SOBs for sixty years now. They’ve been in a technical state of war with the entire United Nations for that time. They never signed a peace treaty, only a cease-fire. But they’ve become even more alarmingly insane recently, now that Russia, China, and the United States have all signed a United Nations decree forcing them to allow their ships to be inspected at sea by any naval force. They’ve had their assets frozen in many different countries, travel sanctions imposed on different NK government individuals and corporations, and suffer even tighter trade sanctions. This includes food, something the country consistently lacks.

China is their major trading partner. Pakistan runs a distant second. And that’s it. Those are the only trading partners they have besides very minor paper agreements. Also, China controls all of the oil going into North Korea, as well as much of its food. Beijing called in the North Korean ambassador just before NKs latest nuclear test and told him the Chinese were gravely concerned about a nuclear arms race on the Korean peninsula, further distancing of North Korea by governments all around the world, the potential for Japan to develop nuclear weapons in response, and last but not least, pissing off the United States.

North Korea ignored China’s warning. They detonated another nuke and then fired a cheap satellite off into an erratic and unstable orbit.

China then voted with us, the Russians, and the rest of the world to tighten the noose around North Korea’s neck even more after that.

A White House spokesman said the United States was perfectly capable of defending itself, which is true. But even in a fully conventional attack, we’d lose almost all ten thousand American soldiers, Marines, sailors, and airmen, plus our air bases and naval facilities in South Korea in the opening salvos of hundreds or thousands of conventional rockets. Seoul would fall within hours and be leveled in the process.

And that would piss off America. And Japan. The Russians would shit their pants. China would no longer be able to deter any response we countered with. The general consensus around the world is we’d go nuclear as soon as friendly voices quit answering the telephone in South Korea.

The family monarchy of dwarfs and hunchbacks who’ve been the North Korean dictators for the past sixty-some years are lousy poker players. They’ve bluffed, cheated, and been caught looking at everyone’s cards too often. They and Pakistan, our dependable allies in the Mideast, have been caught sharing nuclear weapons and missile technology illegally. If you don’t think the North Korean government is dangerously insane, keep in mind they’re the only nation with a scientific community who claims to have found unicorn breeding grounds. And they’re dead serious.

I was never a great fan of Bill Clinton. But I think he said it best when, on a tour to the DMZ in South Korea a reporter asked him, “What would happen, Mr. President? What would we do if the whole North Korean Army and Air Force came roaring over that border in the middle of the night?”

Clinton blinked at the reporter as if he was a very slow child, then replied, “Well, North Korea would cease to exist in about 30 minutes.” I think that was not only one of the most honest answers he ever gave, but possibly one of the most humorous if you like your comedy black.

At any given time, the U.S. Navy has at least one and often two missile submarines parked just off the North Korean coast. Missile flight times across the whole country would be in the neighborhood of five minutes or less. In a comic reversal of the threat in The Hunt For Red October we have kids sitting out there, listening to rock n’ roll, and conducting nuclear missile drills on them weekly while feasting on cheeseburgers and pizza.

China naturally wants a vassal state between it and the gaudy capitalists in South Korea. It wouldn’t do to have their citizens look across the Yalu river and see brightly-lit skyscrapers and a powerful capitalistic economic engine running 24 hours a day. But now even China is getting fed up with the screeching rhetoric coming out of that vassal state, and as crazy as the world is getting anymore they might just ask America to plant its nukes where the wind would not carry fallout over their country. The Chinese have now become gaudy capitalists too, in everything but name.

Shhh! It’s a secret. Don’t tell anybody.

Every government knows that the United States remains the only nation on earth to use nuclear weapons in anger. Most of them think it’s best to keep it that way. That would keep all the criticism off their backs, allow them to take the moral high road (which never existed in international politics anyway), and give them a good look at what we can and cannot do with all those expensive toys we’ve been buying over the years.

There is another possibility. China could act alone. There’s literally a giant pipeline running under the Yalu river between China and North Korea. There is a valve to that pipeline on the Chinese side. If it were to be shut off, one hell of a lot of North Koreans would begin freezing very quickly, and it’s damned hard to run a war on empty gas tanks. Sure, the NKs have military fuel stockpiles—but not enough to fight a full scale war for more than just a few days. China has seen to that already. They still want that buffer-nation between them and the South, but there is a limit even to their patience. After North Korea rebuked their warnings last year, Beijing hinted darkly at a possible “regime change” in that country. That’s diplomat-speak for Chinese Special Forces armed with sniper rifles.

From what I’ve read, there was an extremely unusual outbreak of common sense at the UN between America, Russia, China, the UK, France, and other nations. We all know that any serious squeezing we do to North Korea will simply starve more of their innocent people and the leadership will remain unaffected. The latest UN resolutions were tailored to put the heat on the leadership, not the peasants, although they will undoubtedly suffer even more now. Still, the United Nations is aiming at the head, not the feet of North Korea.

But I have a better idea.

A preemptive strike on North Korea using our stealth strategic nuclear weapons delivery systems.

A military mission even Gandhi would love.

If the B-2 bomber is as good as they say it is, we could overfly North Korean airspace without being detected. And we could pull off one of the craziest—and greatest—humanitarian stunts in history.

Load the bomb bays of a dozen B-2s with canisters, hundreds of them, containing cell phones, solar chargers, and miniaturized satellite antennas. Put a few laptop computers in each canister, along with every scrap of rice, flour, and powdered milk we can cram into them. Basic medicines, candies, and infant formula. Mix up everything in the canisters, a little of this and some of that. Send written instructions in Korean. No propaganda, not a single word of it. No American markings on the canisters or cargo or parachutes. Nothing that would clearly mark where these things came from—although everyone would know anyway.

Then on a moonless night at 3:00 AM local time, fly over North Korea and bomb the daylights out of the countryside with the means to communicate, to see and understand what’s going on in the real world. Bomb the population with medicines and rice. Keep everything small—even the food packets—and quick and easy to hide. Scatter those canisters everywhere in the country. When sent on conventional missions, those B-2 Spirits can haul eighty 500 pound bombs apiece. A dozen of them would have a payload of nearly half a million pounds. (You can be as critical as you want, but you can never say we bought second-rate bombers.)

Of course, the North Korean army would shoot anyone caught with anything that came from one of those canisters and confiscate whatever they could lay their hands on. The captured material would go up through the ranks—and probably a great deal of it would disappear before it got to headquarters. Would you trust a nineteen year old North Korean corporal—who only knew poverty and hunger his whole life—to turn in everything he found? Everything? What if his family, his little brother and sister, are hungry too? They almost certainly will be.

Regardless, some of it—maybe most of it—would remain in the hands of the peasants. Those who could read would explain to the others what all the instructions said. Enclosed pictographic instructions would do the rest. Communication links would begin to open with the world. The food would be eaten instantly, and the medicines would begin saving lives. The satellite antennas could be based on the kinds our troops carry with them in the field—pop open, snap shut. Yes, very many would make it to the people themselves, and they must certainly know how to hide things by now.

Think about that for a minute.

Sure, it’d cost a lot of money. But only a tiny fraction of what one battle in one war would cost. If we could get in and out without losing any bombers we could whistle and look innocent and tell everyone we had no idea what the North Korean government was babbling about this time. Everyone would know we were lying, but no one, allies or enemies, could prove a thing. We could even put out public international feelers, asking the Egyptians if they did it, or maybe Iceland. Maybe it was Bulgaria. Or Peru.

Crazy? Hell yes, it’s crazy! So crazy that many people simply wouldn’t believe it. And those who did and managed to put two and two together would think about it for a moment and then see the sheer brilliance of such a mission—using stealthy nuclear weapons delivery systems to drop food, communications, medicines, knowledge, and hope. And someday, after such a bombing mission, if the North Korean people changed their leadership by themselves they would almost certainly install a new government much more friendly to the United States than anything put in place by China.

What would China do? Rattle their nuclear sabers at us for doing such an imperialist thing like dropping food and medicine? Would Russia put its missiles on alert for dropping smart phones and hand-cranked radio receivers?

It would confuse the hell out of everybody. And when the confusion ended, I think half the world would burst out laughing and America’s stock would go up everywhere. Dropping bombs is an act of war. Dropping powdered milk…I don’t think the world has a response for that.

No Slice In Time

by Kent Ballard

It’s maddening when you get an idea that won’t quite jell in your mind. What’s worse are the ideas that jell very nicely but are so abstract you cannot find words to express them.

I was thinking something that has probably occurred to other people before, but a thing that was new to me. I don’t know where this thought came from. I don’t know where the term “metrosexual” came from either. It doesn’t matter. It seems to fit a certain part of the population and we will just accept it and move on.

I’d been thinking about all those JFK assassination conspiracy theories. Not the theories themselves actually, but the sheer amount of information researchers have uncovered over all these years for those three seconds in Dallas. It’s as if that time and place were locked into another reality, a museum somewhere, where the curious could go forevermore and look at it not only from all angles but multiple slices of times and fractions of those seconds. It’s been frozen in perfect three dimensional and temporal space. Things might be a little foggy before Zapruder filmed Kennedy’s reaction to the first shot and they might get alarmingly foggy after the last one, but those three seconds are more real to us today than they were to the people present at the time. From that place and time came thousands of books, television reports, eyewitness interviews, articles, movies, news stories, and memorials and they’re still being written today. I won’t bring up all the arguments. You’ve heard many yourself and you will hear more in the future. Nor will I delve into the two full-blown federal investigations that drew opposing conclusions. They’ve generated their own tonnage of written, visual, and audio commentary.

No, I wasn’t pondering the Kennedy assassination and it really wasn’t about the theories. My idea concerned the freezing in time of an event. My idea was that you could take any event, freeze it in time, go over it repeatedly with a fine-tooth comb, and find many strange and contradictory things about it. You could eventually find anything you wanted to about it. You could make the case that the event never even happened. You could wade into the seemingly endless amount of information gleaned by additional points of view and time lines and the introduction of unlikely characters magnified out of proportion and come to any conclusion you wanted. At some point you would believe this was an event of unprecedented magnitude simply because of all that had been learned about it.

I think if you were to freeze any point in time and look at it from every possible angle, you’d have so much information you could make a strong case for anything. People would come to believe it true. A few more years of research and debate, sprinkled with new findings and new technology to re-comb all the old evidence, and you’d have a public uproar. The people would clamor for Congress to do something! People would have fistfights about the last time you touched your mailbox.

Because I’m going to freeze that moment in time. Freeze the last time you touched your mailbox. We will keep that forever now.

Allow me to dance through time a bit here. It lends itself to my point.

Let’s say the kid at the end of the block briefly caught you in the corner of his cell phone camera while he was filming his friend ride a bike over a little homemade ski jump in his yard. Okay. We have a clear video recording of the event now. You can briefly be seen at the last moment you touched your mailbox. That will become known in the legend I’m about to construct as the “McQueen Film,” which countless writers will explain as a wobbly reference to Steve McQueen’s famous motorcycle jump in “The Great Escape.” It will be considered the gold standard of that frozen moment in time. All other evidence will be measured against those two seconds you appeared on that screen. Relentless investigation will eventually turn up three photographs, two known and one highly disputed, of the same instant too. There will be another much-argued film.

One photo was taken through a second story window across the street by a mother who snapped her sleeping newborn baby. In the lower left quarter of the photo, through that room’s window, down, and across the street you can see part of another house and a person standing at the mailbox. That is you. That’s been verified now, but it took the better part of a decade, much arguing, and fifteen years of technological advances to prove it.

It’ll take two and a quarter million dollars and six years of the best photographic analysis available, but another one of those still pictures shows both you (they proved it was you after the enhancements, color reversals, and shadow comparisons) and a man much farther away in a heavy red plaid winter jacket. But the day was warm. And they’ve proved it through weather records of your city. He’s now known as “the Red Jacket Man” or simply “Red Jacket.” There will a book and two movies about him, none of which agree.

People who were there that day testified a traffic helicopter was going overhead at the time. Some eyewitnesses passed lie detector tests, some didn’t. They made one hell of an effort digging for that film, I’m here to tell you. But they found a fragment on an old DVD. While the copter was banking around to cover a car wreck three quarters of a mile away, someone was taping a rerun of “Laverne and Shirley.” A much-investigated and never-resolved mistake was made at the TV station at that instant. Some argue it was only that. Some argue it was done purposely. But a switch was thrown for six seconds that did not direct the broadcast to a taped commercial, but to a live feed from the chopper on that fateful afternoon. They will look for over a decade for the engineer who threw that switch. They will never find him. But all agree whoever he was, he had his hand on that switch while you had yours on your mailbox. The timing is just too uncanny to be otherwise. Because the Red Jacket Man can be seen from above in it as well, and forensic anthropologists have said he was seen taking the same step as was captured in the now-famous photo including you.

(They also investigated the car wreck being filmed and the chopper pilot flying that day. Most of those theories have been dismissed but die-hard believers in conspiracies were able to draw a great deal of attention to the idea the car had been rocketed by a military attack helicopter flying in the colors of your local TV station. This was linked to conspiracy theories involving PRISM, domestic terrorism, UFOs, and renegade nuclear secrets. Two books were written about the found DVD alone.“Why Did Time Stop?” and “The Fool’s Show-The Morrison DVD” were at total odds with each other.)

The “ghost cat” remains a mystery to everyone. He can clearly be seen in one photo, but nowhere to be found in the second, and is unverifiable in the third and still-disputed picture. All agree the cat could never have been seen from the helicopter, which is the only thing certain about him.

Thirty years from your time PBS and the BBC will co-underwrite a two hour television special about all this. Every photo and film will be taken apart pixel by pixel. There will be a re-airing of scores of old eyewitness testimonies and many new ones will be included. They will film computer reenactments, perform a carefully executed flyby with the same type of helicopter over the exact same neighborhood, have both professional and amateur photographers debate differing types of visual images over the years, and do everything within man’s technological power to recreate that exact moment in time. But…

Do you see what I mean?

Do you see the potential for such a thing getting out of hand? You can’t save history. You can save an accounting of it but you will never save that instant, because if you try you will destroy that thing you’re trying to save. You cannot save a slice in time. It will spoil and go moldy and when it turns black it will never resemble the thing it once was. You cannot save time, nor can you save any point in it.

We will never truly know the past. All we can hope for is a good accounting, someone’s story of what really happened. We hope they told it correctly. We create slices of history with every breath, with every move, and it doesn’t matter if there are witnesses or not. We are justifiably proud of our greater moments and we skulk around the weaker ones, all of us, but in the end there is only one truth and it will never be told.

I had a terrible time getting my head around this idea and how to go about telling it. When I figure it all out I’ll let you know. But if there are kids playing down the block and a helicopter anywhere within earshot the next time you reach for your mail, you might think about this. And if you do you will change the course of history forever.

It’s then not only a question of what histories we don’t know, but what histories never came to be. No language lends itself to this. There cannot be words for thoughts that never were. No wonder I could not describe what I was thinking, because it never came to be.

Tread lightly for your mail next time.

Death of a Cold Warrior


               Kent Ballard                

 For years, Stewart Alsop wrote the full back-page socio-political column for Newsweek magazine. In those days there wasn’t a bulier pulpit to be had. I started reading him while still a teenager and got hooked for some unknown reason. He was a great writer, one of the very first guys I ever saw who could shoot thunder and lightning from a page. He didn’t do it every week but he did it when he wanted to. Sometimes you would come to the end of his column and simply sit and stare at the page because you did not know what to think. I thought he was a Commie one week and a Nazi the next, but most of that might have been the mirror he held up to America in the last years of the 1960’s and the first few years of the 1970’s.

The guy had everything going for him. Vast audience, great writing, dinners with the President, luncheon meetings with Congressional leaders. Smart politicians courted him and smarter ones never crossed him. He was often a guest on Sunday afternoon TV political talk shows. He wasn’t handsome, kind of a plain-looking man. He knew this. He was bald and was the first one to point it out on panel shows and then laugh about it. No one laughed until he laughed. Then everyone laughed at once and stopped at once and watching their actions gave you the understanding this was a powerful man.

By then I had the habit–like many others–of reading Newsweek backwards. You opened the back cover of the magazine first to see what Alsop had to say about the previous week’s glory/horror/tragedy/amazement/bewilderment. Imagine a guy like that coming to his full power in the 1960’s. There were endless new things a columnist could write about but one week he wrote of surgeons and doctors and bad luck and closed his column by telling his readers that he had been diagnosed with inoperable cancer and was given six months to live. He said he would stay at his typewriter as long as he possibly could.

And then the world gathered around to watch him die in inches, a little each week.

Sometimes he’d fool them. He’d go for three or four weeks, hammering and railing about this or that and we all wondered if he had forgotten he was supposed to be a dying man. Then he would write a column that haunted your soul and told you precisely what it felt like to be in his shoes and it was not a pleasant feeling. If memory serves, he said one surprising thing that bothered him were ticking clocks. He could wrap himself in his work and usually stay busy enough to distract himself. But…ticking clocks. They were another thing that came out of nowhere to trouble him. He wrote about how silly that was. He joked that he’d watched Alfred Hitchcock too often and followed that with what Hitchcock said to him just the other day about the matter. And why he suddenly felt sorry for Hitchcock. And then how everything hit him at once like a locomotive. He’d made a sad and terrible mistake. Hitchcock was not dying. He was. He said moments like that we becoming more frequent and harder to shake.

We all stepped inside his hospital room. He said he’d made his peace with God and was as prepared as he could make himself. But now the cancer had advanced to the point he had to schedule his writing around medication times. And he described how badly it hurt and we all felt the pain in his words as if we were there.

And that’s when he wrote the column, one of his last, that said something unexpected from an old Cold Warrior.

He was dying in a time of ignorance, he said. Only morphine–or better yet–heroin could ease this level of pain. No amount of synthetic painkillers could touch it. He’d already had the conversations with his doctor and attending pharmacologist. He knew this time would come. But knowing that and bracing himself against it had done no good. He had hoped and prayed they were wrong, like all terminal patients do, but they were not.

President Nixon had been wrong too, Alsop wrote. He’d been wrong on one count with his new declaration of war on drugs. The new-found DEA had been set loose with the wrong sense of direction. They should have been tasked to beat away the terrible man-made street drugs, to wipe America clean from them indeed. But not opiates. Not heroin. You could almost hear the man struggling to breathe at this point.

No, he said, not them. They should be reclassified. They should never have been classed with other street drugs that were dangerous and highly addictive because they were more than that. They held the final glimmer of peace in this world for the dying, the freedom from pain. They alone were all that man had at the very end. Alsop said Nixon had done well when he rightfully championed billions of dollars into research and challenged America to find the illusive cure for his other highly publicized war, the one on cancer. But it would never come in time for Alsop or millions of other Americans every year and it has not arrived yet. Alsop pretty much called Nixon and Congress out of the saloon for one last showdown to rectify their mistake, but he would not live to reach for his pistol. I think this was his next-to-last or third from last column. They said he was lucid to the end but in unimaginable agony.

There remains to this day a controversy whether Alsop was provided heroin at the final stage of his life. Even under a doctor’s care that would have been illegal, both then and now. But he seemed to rally at the end, writing with his same power and grace. We may never know and, in my book, it’s best not to question such things. What is left for us all to question is how we will exit this world, and if the federal government will hound us to our very graves claiming that it is correct.

Today many doctors refuse to prescribe pain killers powerful enough to be worthy of the name. Others will not prescribe any. The curse of addiction and all its attendant evils needs to be fought, no question of it. It’s easy for an innocent person to become addicted to painkillers and narcotics prescribed for a variety of reasons. It would be easy for you, too, unless you are a superior life form which will never break a bone or succumb to a painful illness. But you might take a few moments to ponder, as Stewart Alsop did when faced with his eventual death, the risks and benefits of powerful drugs for those who will not live long enough to become a problem to society yet have nowhere else to turn.


by Kent Ballard

No, I’m not a man of wealth and taste, nor did I hold a general’s rank when the Blitzkrieg raged. That title may have confused me with someone else. But you won’t confuse me with Zach.

When Zach first approached me with the idea of a joint blog, him taking it one week, me taking it the other, I naturally assumed, “Jeeze, he’s far more desperate than I thought…” Then I remembered his recent shoulder surgery and figured he tires easily while hanging upside down like a bat to type. That was understandable enough. If the eyebolts in his ceiling ever work loose, he’d crash face-first into his computer and that would be the tragic loss of a good laptop.

So after some emailing and yakking over the phone, I’ve agreed to take over Just Sayin’ every other week for six months. When that time is up, we’ll figure out if we want to continue this odd marriage or if we want a divorce. (I’m going to hold out for the house and the furniture if it comes to that.)

I’ve known Zach for thirty years. I only met him face to face once, and then for only seven hours at another writer’s house. I remember the food being good and the liquor flowing freely. I quit drinking in 1999, and was amazed to see his photo when he started Just Sayin’ because I always thought he was the Chinese guy at the party. Turns out I’d been wrong all these years. This explains the strange looks I got from the Chinese gentleman when I began a tirade against him and the city of Boston over the Big Dig.

I agree with Zachary on many things. With everything else, I am right and he is wrong. That’s the American Way on the Internet, and I’m a proud supporter of my own beliefs. Years ago, on another forum, I pointed out that he was to the left of Vladimir Lenin. He unkindly reminded me that I had once called for a nuclear first strike on Massachusetts to rid the nation of socialists and ne’er-do-wells. I had in fact made that statement, but of course was simply joking. Multiple hydrogen bombs landing on Boston would only cause the Department of Homeland Security to take away yet more of our civil rights. Hey, if they can do it with a kettle bomb powered by charcoal…

Mr. Klein and I live not only in different worlds, but in different centuries. He lives the easy city life, where you can flip open your cell phone and get a pizza or chop suey dinner delivered to your front door. The city plows the snow off his streets. He has limitless luxuries like a four-minute police response should he call them, a fire department, hell, even paved streets. I used to have such things myself, for I lived in Indianapolis for twenty-three years. I hated it.

I was born and raised on a small farm one county east of Indy. I got a job in Indianapolis, met a girl, got married, and soon was tripping over kids toys in my yard. Turns out I had married the wrong girl so a divorce followed ten years later. I kept the house, the major appliances, and got joint custody of the kids. I am one of the very few men you will ever meet who actually won a divorce. (The judge thought she was awful too. He was right.) I then set out on a quest to get to know the rest of the ladies in Indianapolis in the Biblical sense, and was about halfway through the project when I found a quiet, meek, shy beauty and fell head over heels in love. Twenty-eight years later we are still together, and living with me has had its effect on her. She can cuss, clean fish, shoot her 9mm with deadly accuracy, and fears no living thing.

When our kids were grown and gone, it was during our peak earning years. I wanted out of the city, and she was happy to follow me. It took three solid years of searching, but we found our new home.

I can’t tell you which town I live in, because the nearest thing that would pass for a town is fourteen miles away. My home is in far west-central Indiana, in the middle of what is known as a “geologic anomaly.” The great mile-high sheets of frozen ocean paused here during the last Ice Age and carved out some extremely weird topography. Then it covered itself with forest. I own 71 acres of that land, my home being in the middle of it. My driveway is a half-mile long, going back into what appears to be the Black Forest. Beyond that is my dead-end road. Beyond that, and you have the most wretched mud-and-dust roads imaginable to the nearest blacktop. A very peculiar location, as I have the telephone number of one county, the mailing address of a second, and my home is actually in a third.

It keeps the riff-raff away. I value my privacy. We supposedly have a sheriff’s department around here somewhere, but they’re never seen this far into the boonies. My insurance company charges me the maximum rate for fire insurance, because in the event of a fire—as my agent explained—there will be nothing left except for the basement. The deep forest starts twenty yards to my south and east, about twelve yards to my north, and all the storms, lightning and snow come from the west. You could literally become hopelessly lost and never set foot off my property. I know. I did that for a couple of years.

We love it here. This is the kind of land you see in picture books and winter holiday greeting cards. It will also probably kill me someday when I grow too old to care for the land properly. When I want to hunt, I go out the back door. When I want to fish, I go out the front. I couldn’t do that in any city.

I’m the Police Chief, Fire Marshal, Mayor, and Chief Engineer here. I can pee off my front porch and shoot out my back door. We skinny-dip in our largest pond. The only loud sounds here are the ones I make. It’s very different from Boston. There is no pizza delivery, no Chinese delivery, no sirens, no door-to-door unconstitutional searches by paramilitary SWAT teams. Indiana is the only state in the Union which has a law on the books allowing you to shoot a uniformed police officer if he breaks into your home. (And a very strange court case behind that.) In the winter when the power goes out we simply step back 150 years and carry on. Our ancestors made out pretty well with kerosene lamps and wood burning stoves. We can too. And I defy anyone on the planet to show me a more serene, peaceful, and meditative spot than my little four-inch deep creek that bubbles through the forest at my extreme northern boundary. If I could bottle that sound, Prozac would go bankrupt.

I registered to vote during the first year 18 year-olds got suffrage, 1971. I was and am a registered Independent, though very few Independents run for anything nowadays. I consider myself a Libertarian and often wonder why Zach and I have not strangled each other over these many years. It’s because he’s a great guy and I’m not too bad a soul either. We are both well educated, stay well informed, both listen carefully to other points of view, and both see in shades of gray—not black and white. And when he comes away with some ridiculous, half-wit idea of how this world should work, it ain’t my fault.

I hope you’ll find me acceptable for this while. At one time or another I have argued with everyone I know and yet if I have an enemy, I’m not aware of it. All I ask of you is a chance. You may grow to like me too if you’re not careful.







 (Although my name is at the top of the post, the author is Kent Ballard, one of my great guest columnists.)

By Kent Ballard

When the news reports came about the death of Robin Williams, most folks were stunned. How could one of the funniest men in America be gone so suddenly, with no warning? Within hours the press informed us it was a suicide. Further reports went into more detail—damn their eyes—that he’d hanged himself with his belt and there were superficial cuts on his arms. I think that information should have been kept private for his family’s sake, but then I’m not a mega-conglomerate interested only in how much money I can rake in selling dog food and beer commercials.

Yes, I was offended. Because Robin Williams and I were from the same family, in a manner of speaking.

In 1991 I was diagnosed with Bipolar Disorder, Type II. For 23 years I’ve been with the same psychiatrist. In that length of time he’s risen through the ranks to become the head of the Indianapolis Psychiatric Association, because he’s good, very good, at what he does. I’m lucky to have him. I clearly remember our first few talks. There is actually very little known about Bipolar Disorder, much less than you might think. Even the discovery that lithium can treat some portions of it was made by accident. To this day no one has a clue what it does or how it works but it’s the prime drug prescribed to bipolars. Everything about Bipolar Disorder is mysterious in some way. It used to simply be known as “manic-depression” which is actually more descriptive, but now considered politically incorrect.

The symptoms usually manifest themselves in the late teens to early twenties, but there are many exceptions. People can develop this in their 40’s or 50’s. In my case, when I pressed my shrink, asking him when Bipolar Disorder took over my head, he gave me a straight answer: “Kent, you should have had lithium in your baby bottle. As nearly as I can tell, you were born with it. That’s rare, but not unheard of.” He then leaned in a bit closer, as if he wanted to get a point across to me in a manner that I would never forget. “Do you realize what that means? It means your entire sum total of life experience was lived as a bipolar. Every book you ever read, every movie you ever saw, every conversation in your life, every friend you ever made, everything you ever learned, every date you ever went on, all of your experiences, every one, was lived through and understood and became part of you filtered through Bipolar Disorder. You’ve never known anything else. You probably never will.”

As you might guess, THAT rocked me back on my heels. I sat there and blinked for some time, then quietly asked, “Doctor, are you telling me that…that I’m crazy?”

No, quite the opposite was the case. Take a moment and do something interesting. Google “famous bipolars” and see what you get. You’ll see a list of some of the world’s greatest artists, military leaders, composers, physicists, doctors, a whole galaxy of people you’ve studied in school or know about from their sheer fame. In that sense, I’m in wonderful company. What made them famous, regardless of their field of expertise, was their ability to think outside the box, to see around corners, to think thoughts and dream up concepts no one ever had before. As Patty Duke Austin wrote in her magnificent autobiography of a bipolar life, “A Brilliant Madness,” “Manic-depression is the only mental disorder with a GOOD side.”

And it is. Believe me when I tell you there is no high like a bipolar high. If they could put that into a bottle the world would become addicted overnight. I’ve had moments of nearly superhuman strength, of being involved in affairs where people would later say I was either the bravest—or the craziest—person they had ever met, of days when I required no sleep, of having every child I ever met fall in love with me, the ability to tell almost instantly when I am being lied to, and ten thousand other things that have been pretty handy over the years. But it’s no free ride. There is a price to pay for all this, one so heavy it literally kills people.

And this is what took Robin Williams. Sir Winston Churchill used to write about the “black dog” of depression in his private journals. Many bipolars have days when they cannot force themselves out of bed. And all bipolars drink. And they will drink to excess as soon as they can supply themselves with alcohol. I started at age 13 and never stopped until 1999, and it damned near killed me in the process. Science at least has an answer for that. They now know it to be a misguided–almost pitiful– attempt at self-medication.

Go through YouTube and look at some of Williams’ work. Can you imagine how incredibly fast he must have been thinking? How he seems to come at you from all sides at once? How he appears to be almost maniacal in his thoughts? He wasn’t acting. Bipolars think faster than other people. But they often think so fast they become erratic. Watch enough of his films and sooner or later you’ll see spots where he was not controlling it. It was controlling him.

The leading cause of death among those with Bipolar Disorder is suicide. More bipolars die of that than any other cause. With typical perversity, it can simply pop into a bipolar’s mind that this is the answer to the questions they’ve asked all their lives. It can and will kill bipolars in mere minutes. A sudden depression so deep no human can withstand it. Also perversely, bipolars tend to leave behind cheerful suicide notes. My shrink told me fascinating stories of some he had read. Many were actually so happy and funny that he found himself laughing until he remembered what he was reading.

Bipolar Disorder is not genetic. It is not passed via genes from parent to child. But it is “familial,” meaning it tends to run in families in odd spurts here and there. There were once three bipolars in my family. When my niece committed suicide she left a warm, loving note telling everyone how much she cared for them. Later, when they were cleaning her apartment, they found a note they’d overlooked. In her handwriting, Gina said there were clothes still running in the dryer, and would someone take them out?

Whatever overcame her took her that fast. She could not and would not wait for the dryer to finish its cycle.

When I got the telephone call in 2008 that my only daughter, Annie, had taken her life my mind flashed back to the several conversations we’d had about the subject. I warned her time and again this was a possibility for all of us, to be frightened of it and to call me, her mother, anyone if she ever felt suicidal. She never had the time to do that. It was as if she’d been cut down by a sniper. Annie loved life and ate it in big bites. She had more friends than I could count, had recently gotten an impressive promotion at her job and a new apartment. Everything was going great for her. Right up until the end.

So don’t think me cruel or uncaring when I say that Robin Williams’ death came as no surprise to me. I’ve had 23 years of training and counseling, learning never to listen to the voice of Death calling me. He’s never far away and I know that. He’s whispered to me more than once and I had the ability to run away. I’ve been careful and lucky so far. Mostly lucky.

If you know someone who’s bipolar, tell them they can call you at any hour. You might make the difference for them. Generally, suicide is preventable among normally depressed people who’ve simply suffered a string of bad things which have happened to them. With bipolars it’s a crap shoot. Whatever hits us so suddenly, and with such speed and overwhelming force, there’s often nothing you can do except listen to your heart rip apart when you get the news they’re gone.

But were these lives wasted? Not really, not in my opinion. Because when they were riding that high bipolar wave they had more fun than you will ever know. They laughed and enjoyed life and were brilliant and deeply, truly, knew they were loved and gave tremendous love in return. They were not candles in the wind. They were, and are, more like skyrockets. It’s only after they roar and shriek up to their zenith and dazzle us all with blinding lights of many colors that, after a moment, we realize how dark the night really is. But friend, when they were firing, they were magnificent.

“My candle burns at both ends

It will not last the night

But oh my foes, and oh my friends

It gives a lovely light” ~ Edna St. Vincent Millay