The Checklist

Television

The Normal Heart (HBO, May 25)  
Larry Kramer’s groundbreaking drama of AIDS activism receives its long-awaited screen adaptation, nearly three decades after its stage debut. Among its star-studded cast (which includes Mark Ruffalo and Julia Roberts) are two gay Houstonians—Jim Parsons and Matt Bomer—whose success as uncloseted actors would have been unimaginable when The Normal Heart first electrified audiences in 1985.

Wyly Like a Fox

From the witness stand, Sam Wyly didn’t look like a man who could upend the way the federal government prosecutes white-collar crime. The 79-year-old Dallas billionaire cupped his hand behind his ear to hear his lawyer’s questions. He admitted repeatedly to confusion about some of the key business transactions that had made him a billionaire. “I sometimes get it garbled in my mind,” he said when asked by the judge about inconsistencies in his testimony.

The Runoffs Rundown

Thanks to the domino effect of Rick Perry’s retirement, an unusual number of high-profile Republican politicians have been vying for statewide office this year. Add to that the intensity that the tea party insurgency has brought to ideological debates within the GOP, and you’ve got a recipe for an extremely volatile primary season. Which is exactly what we’ve seen in the current election cycle, leading, as in 2012, to an atypically large number of runoff races. This year’s will be held on May 27.

Where the Jest Begins

For nine months, the same amount of time required to gestate a human being, real scientists at an actual university crunched data in order to answer a question that has never haunted anyone: Which big city in the United States is the funniest? They calculated the number of comedy clubs per square mile, surveyed comedians, and tracked visits to humorous websites.

The Effluent Society

As Kenneth McAlister drives down the buff caliche roads of Wichita County, he points out the changed landscape: Receding stock tanks wreathed with hoofprints. Dust whipping over a naked field and its failed cotton crop. Prickly pear multiplying like a virus, covering this country in a way it never has before. “It makes me wonder if the desert’s on its way,” he says.

Stash Co.

When Cheryl Schulke is working, few things can distract her—not even slicing open her finger, which she has done twice. “The first time, I rushed to the ER, but the second time, I just taped it back together and kept going.” The reason for that dedication is Stash Co., Schulke’s line of handcrafted leather bags and other goods, which she produces out of a century-old former mattress factory in Sealy, near the German community of Cat Spring, where she was raised. “When you are in the middle of nowhere, you have plenty of time to daydream,” she says.

War Without End

Dave spent 21 years in the Army, served in both Desert Storm and Operation Iraqi Freedom, and retired at the rank of major.* As a communications officer for the support command of the 1st Cavalry Division, he was stationed near Baghdad when the insurgency was inflicting heavy casualties on coalition troops in 2004 and 2005. “I was in the operations center at Taji [a base just north of Baghdad] for twelve to sixteen hours a day, hearing the war on radios and watching it on computers,” he told me. “Every detail of everything that happened in Baghdad.” The first casualty he heard about was a soldier in a Humvee who had his face blown off by an IED that was hanging from an overpass in a soda can. Not long after, he briefed a first lieutenant fresh out of college. A few hours later, the young officer’s supply convoy ran over an IED that took her leg off at the knee.

(*The full names of the veterans in this article, all of whom live in Texas, have been withheld to protect their privacy.)

“A lot of people got killed at Taji,” Dave said. “We were under constant bombardment from rockets and mortars. You never knew when it would come. A mortar destroyed my sleeping quarters at a time when I would normally have been taking a nap after a shift. A barrage of rockets slaughtered a cluster of Arkansas guardsmen gathered outside a bunker to smoke. The survivors were all screaming and crying at seeing their comrades blown apart, but their first sergeant started yelling, ‘Stop crying! This is how God makes us strong.’ ” 

Several months after returning to Texas, Dave checked himself into the mental health clinic at his military base. “I couldn’t sleep,” he said. “I was hypervigilant all the time. I bought guns for every room in my house and carried one everywhere I went. I pulled a gun on a salesman who came to my house one night after dark. I was having dangerous outbursts over trivial issues. I was drinking heavily. I was overdoing prescription drugs for pain.” He began riding his motorcycle recklessly and found himself thinking about the night in Iraq when he put his 9mm pistol in his mouth. “I thought of my wife and couldn’t do it,” he said. 

Doctors diagnosed Dave with post-traumatic stress disorder and prescribed powerful psychotropic drugs, which created a new set of problems. “They made me feel like a zombie,” he said. “I stopped being myself. Then I met some people who were smoking marijuana, so I started smoking. I noticed that the better quality marijuana I used, the less drinking I did and the less meds I needed. I would get a wonderful sense of well-being.” He thought he had discovered something new, but then he started reading about marijuana on the Internet and talking to other veterans. “Guess what? Everybody had the same story,” he said. Dave volunteered to become the veterans’ liaison for a chapter of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML). “My email exploded,” he said. “It’s amazing how many vets are using marijuana as an alternative to their meds.” 

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