How Can We Cure Our Chronic Illness of Police Murder?

The only thing new is our collective awareness of the problem. 

This week, two incidents of police violence are in the national spotlight.  The first, in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, involved a man, Alton Sterling, selling CDs outside a gas station.  Two police officers threw the man violently against the hood of a car, forced him to the ground, pinned him in a prone position, and then shot him several times in the chest.  He died.

Across the country, in Minnesota, a man, Philando Castille, was pulled over for an allegedly busted tail light.  He had his girlfriend and a four-year-old in the car with him.  He told the officer that he had a (legal) firearm, but was going to retrieve his ID from his pocket.  The officer shot him several times in the arm and chest.  He died.

Both men were black.  All police involved were not.

This week’s tragedies are the latest installment in an ongoing narrative about police violence against black men.  Eric Garner, Michael Brown, Dante Parker, Tamir Rice, Walter Scott. The list goes on.  Each time, there is outrage on social media, and the same tired choreography plays out in public: the authorities pledge to get to the bottom of things, usually in press conferences held by white leaders surrounding themselves with people of color.  Protesters chant and demand justice, remind us that black lives matter.  The right wing retorts that blue lives matter, or all lives matter.  There are investigations, sometimes charges are even brought, but more often they aren’t.  There are acquittals of those charged.  Rinse, repeat.

This parade of horribleness has been featured prominently in the culture these past few years, leading some- including me, at one time- to wonder: what’s changed?  Why is this happening now?

The sad truth is that nothing has changed.  This violence isn’t new.  What’s new is that we have become a society of camera-wielders.  We capture these deadly encounters.  Where a mere decade ago, Alton Sterling would be dismissed as another stupid criminal who pulled a gun on some cops and was killed, now we have evidence that directly, indisputably refutes the police account of his murder.  We have cell phone video from Minnesota, where we can see and hear the rabid, berserk police officer who had just killed Philando Castille, still inexplicably pointing his gun at the dying man and his girlfriend with a four year old child in the backseat.

The culture has changed.  People are aware, and with that awareness comes anger.  With that anger comes calls for accountability.  And as yet, there is no accountability.  Black teenagers are told that they must take great care not to provoke police, not to do anything that might be interpreted as threatening.  They get shot anyway.  Their very existence is perceived as a threat.  Police are not yet facing legal consequences.  Social consequences are ill-defined, trickier to employ.  George Zimmerman gained a following of idiots after shooting Trayvon Martin.  Society is sick.

I feel sick, watching this.  Sick, and helpless to make it right, or even to make it better.  Petitions and protests don’t seem to be working.  Spilled ink- or pixels, let’s update the metaphor- isn’t helping.  I’m a middle-class white male professional, full of privilege, and I can’t figure out how to leverage that privilege to stop this madness.  I want desperately to stand up and be counted as an ally, to affirm that black lives matter, but somehow my efforts seem at best futile, and at worst, appropriative of a movement and a mantle that isn’t mine to claim.

Thank you, Michael Heyliger, for your suggestion that would-be allies put pen to paper.  Expressing anger isn’t a solution, but it’s as good a first step as any.



Butchering Foreign Languages

Thousands of miles apart, two butchers are cut from the same apron.

Last year, I had the opportunity to spend a week in Germany.  It was my second visit to the country, and one of the most surprising- and relieving- things that I learned is that the majority of Germans appear to have at least some degree of fluency in English.  As I speak no other languages apart from the smattering of phrases I pick up any time I travel abroad, this helped immeasurably; I was able to converse mostly without the assistance of my bilingual host.

On one particular day of our visit there, we stopped into a butcher shop.  Our host selected some local delicacy as a morning snack, and it was beyond good. The meat was fresh, the cheese was potent and creamy, and the bread was crispy on the edges and soft in the middle.  As we were standing just outside the shop, munching on our delightful meal, I remembered Black Forest Ham.

I capitalized the term for a reason.  Here in the states, there is a trendy meat product labeled black forest ham.  Like applewood smoked bacon or slow roasted chicken, that product is more adjective than substance; it still tastes like only a slight departure from the central protein with which we are all familiar.  So, when my host offered me Black Forest Ham on my first day in Heidelberg, I assumed I knew what I was in for.

I was wrong.

Among other natural features, there is a forest near Heidelberg called the Black Forest.  They produce, inter alia, ham.  Or, rather, Ham.  It tastes closer to prosciutto than to the stateside protein slop that passes as black forest ham in America, with a peppery smell and a crispness that is just…no, an adjective won’t work here.  You really should just to try it.

So, back to the butcher, we’re standing outside and I’m remembering how good that Black Forest Ham was, and I decide that I’m going to do something nice for my traveling companions.  I resolve to go back into the butcher shop, order about half a pound of Black Forest Ham, and we can take it along as a snack during our day, in which we planned to do several miles of country walking.  Resolved, I headed back into the shop.

Now, earlier I mentioned that most Germans I encountered speak at least some English.  The elderly man behind the counter in the butcher shop was not one of them.  Not only that, he didn’t even want to try.  No matter, I thought, I can point to what I want, and I know how to count to ten in German.  What could possibly go wrong?

Several things, as quickly became apparent.  First of all, counting to ten doesn’t give you the ability to say “one half pound.”  I tried to say “zero point five pounds” but that didn’t seem to translate, not the least of which because, like the rest of the civilized world, Germany is on the metric system.  The butcher looked bored.  Nobody else was in the store.  We were getting nowhere.

Frantically, I tried to remember my conversion tables between pounds and kilos.  One of them is bigger, about two times bigger, I seemed to recall.  I couldn’t remember which was bigger.  I decided to take a gamble.  “Ein kilo,” I clearly articulated, pointing to the Black Forest Ham.  Without a word, he lifted the meat, and began slicing.

It only took a few moments for me to realize that this was going to be more than half a pound.  The pile of meat kept growing.  Finally, he stopped.  It was five inches tall.  He reached for another piece of meat, and continued slicing.  My friends were at the window, still outside, looking at me with a mix of humor and confusion.  I had purchased 2.2 pounds of meat “as a snack.”  We ate it for the rest of our trip, with every meal, and never did finish it.  It still tasted great.

That anecdote was on my mind today as I walked into the grocery store around the corner from my apartment in Queens, New York.  I needed a pound of skirt steak, and walked up to the butcher.  Now, I should mention here that Queens is a big, diverse place, and my neighborhood, Jackson Heights, is overwhelmingly Ecuadoran and Columbian.  I am in the vast linguistic minority.  Still, most shop owners here can at least manage enough English to conduct transactions.

Not this butcher.

I pointed to the skirt steak, and confidently asked for one pound.  “Una pieza?”  He said.  “No, one pound, not one piece.”

He shook his head.  “Non, una pieza.”  He had decided for me.  With experience on my side from that German butcher last year, I decided not to take it lying down.  “No,” I said, “uno POUND.”


Frustrated, I pulled out my phone and started looking up the translation.  The metric system shouldn’t be an issue, I figured, as the prices were all listed by the pound.  Google came to the rescue. “Una libra!”  I was triumphant.

“Non,” he calmly replied, “una pieza.”

I got mad.  “Una libra!  Non una pieza.”

“Si, una pieza.”

“No!” I said, maybe a little too loudly.  Other customers were taking notice, which is always to be avoided in New York’s public places.  He didn’t respond.  He just put the single piece, una pieza, on the scale.

It weighed 0.98 pounds.

I’m not entirely sure if I blushed in embarrassment, but it’s likely.  I finished my shopping quickly and headed home, thinking of Germany, Jackson Heights, and the two unwritten rules I had learned: butchers can speak whatever language they damn well please, and we challenge them at our own peril.  Enough writing, dinner’s almost ready.


Published in: on June 14, 2016 at 4:45 pm  Leave a Comment  
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Matt Santos Redux

Obama’s political team borrows a cliche, and ineffective, tactic from The West Wing.

For those of us who spent the earliest part of this century in disbelief at the election and re-election of George Bush, The West Wing was a refuge.  In Aaron Sorkin’s liberal fantasy, we could watch week-by-week as a brilliant president and his competent staff wrestled with political issues in an intelligent, thoughtful way, their decision based on public policy rather than monied interests and cynical political calculations.

Towards the end of the series, President Bartlet, portrayed by Martin Sheen, was termed out, and the show shifted its focus to the election battle between Republican candidate Arnold Vinick and Democratic candidate Matt Santos.  On election night, just as Santos was eking out a victory, his vice-presidential candidate, Leo McGarry (portrayed by the late John Spencer) died.  Typical Hollywood melodrama.

With his running mate dead, the president-elect had to select a new person to appoint.  Republicans threatened to make it a difficult confirmation process.  Santos decided to float the idea of nominating his former opponent, Arnold Vinick.  The two meet in the penultimate episode.

“I know your game,” Vinick says.  “Get me to say I’d consider it, then you have your people leak it to the press. You figure that’ll soften the Republicans and they’ll talk about a confirmation for Vinick.  Then you announce who you really want, which I assume is Baker. Then you put public pressure on the Senate to give the same speedy confirmation to Baker that they were gonna give to Vinick.”

This scene returned to my mind this week with the news that Obama is considering- just possibly- nominating Nevada Governor Brian Sandoval to the Supreme Court.  Sandoval, a moderate Republican, is very popular in his state, and was seen as a rising star in the party before its sudden and precipitous lurch to the right.

Of course, no formal vetting has taken place, and the president has not said a word about Sandoval, but the mere rumors have already led the media to ask pointedly of Senate Republicans, what would you do if it was a member of your team nominated to the bench?

So far, the Republicans haven’t bought it.  I am not aware of a single member of the caucus who has softened their position based on a prospective Sandoval nomination.  It’s a good thing, too: I do not believe President Obama has any intention of nominating Brian Sandoval.  This leak, which is surely coming from his administration, is designed to put the Republicans in an even more ridiculous posture than they have put themselves, arguing that they will not give hearings or consideration to a nominee well before a nominee has been named.

Based on their bizarre and foolhardy opening salvos in the nomination fight, one might forgive Obama for assuming that the Matt Santos tactic would catch at least a handful of Senate Republicans with promises of consideration for the nominee.  However, they- and we- have not been so easily fooled.

In the end, Matt Santos nominated Vinick as Secretary of State, choosing a more preferred candidate for the vice-presidency.  Obama will likely nominate one of his preferred candidates- the smart money is on Sri Srinavasan but I’m personally hoping for Loretta Lynch- to the Supreme Court.

The Brian Sandoval name-floating is nothing more than a political gamble.  It appears to have failed.


Careful What I Wish For

Hell has cold days, too.

As I watched the returns from the New Hampshire primary this week, I sat by with a very distinct division of reactions.  The Democratic results felt like a body blow, while those of the Republicans elated me.

As you might surmise from those twin responses, I am a supporter of Hillary Clinton, the erstwhile front-runner for the Democratic nomination.  I never expected her to win New Hampshire, but was shocked by the margin of loss.  It was as though she never competed there at all.

On the other hand, the prospect of a Republican campaign with Donald Trump at the helm makes me almost giddy.  I can’t imagine a more flawed, hopeless candidate on a national level than The Donald.

I imagine this as a dramatic if not inevitable result of the Republican party’s shift towards radicalism in its primary process, a shift that causes their candidates to run far right in pursuit of the nomination.  The result has been, for several cycles, candidates who then need to lurch back towards the center (shake that Etch-a-Sketch, Mitt!) in an attempt to relate to the often-pursued, always-elusive moderate voter.

Now, perhaps, a Trump candidacy in the general election will be the one that breaks the system.  Trump has shown little appetite nor inclination to moderate his views based on the electorate, and some of his more extreme policy positions and comments will be extraordinarily hard to walk back.

It’s unlikely he can appeal to moderate voters.

Consequently, I have found myself rooting for Donald Trump, not because I support him- far from it!- but because I believe his nomination is the most favorable for the hopes of his eventual Democratic opponent.

It occurred to me, though, that my support for Trump is in actuality a yuge risk  (we both see what I did there, reader, let’s just agree to ignore it).  Thus far, Trump’s candidacy has been a master class in proving pundits and common sense prognosticators wrong.

He was never supposed to register on the national polls, nor be able to recover from speaking gaffes that would have sunk any other candidate, any other cycle.  He was never supposed to get near the front of the pack, nor sustain a lead.  He was never supposed to place near the top of the caucuses, nor win any states.  Common sense dictates that he will crash and burn before posing any real threat to the presidential election process.

He sure as hell wasn’t supposed to be the front-runner in mid-February.

So I, as a Democrat, sit comfortably back and watch the increasing panic in the Republican Party as their presidential hopes seem destined to settle on the absurdly-coiffed head of The Donald.  Of course, I assume, common sense dictates that once he is nominated, he will be overwhelmed by the Democratic candidate, who will likely provide coattails to other office-seekers, resulting in a Democratic landslide….

…and then it hit me.  I’m basing my own peace of mind on the same common sense set of political prognostications that Donald Trump has made a political career out of defying.  If he is nominated by the Republicans, there is a very real possibility that the rest of the GOP will hold their noses and support him, some enthusiastically.  The Republican Party is more adept than average at rationalizing political decisions that I find repellent.  It is also a very real possibility that the average voters- let’s not fall into the trap of idealizing the mostly-apathetic majority of voters in this country- will vote for him in unexpectedly high numbers.

It is possible that he will be elected President.

Once I recovered from that realization, and the dry-heaving that accompanied it, I took some time to seriously reconsider my opinions.  Here is what I have decided: I still don’t think he can win.  I still think a Trump nomination, or a Cruz nomination, to be fair, would absolutely devastate the Republican hopes of retaking the White House, and could help down-ticket.

I’m going to dial back the giddiness, however, until November 8th, circa 11pm Eastern Standard Time.



Published in: on February 12, 2016 at 1:44 pm  Leave a Comment  
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Fourteen Years Later

Some thoughts on the anniversary of September 11, 2001.

Fourteen years ago, I was in college, living with my girlfriend and two roommates in an off-campus hovel.  It was my practice at that time to schedule my classes as late in the day as possible- I am not, and never have been, a morning person.

So, I was asleep when my girlfriend shook me awake to say that something was happening in Washington, something about a bombing.  We didn’t have a television, and this was the era before smartphones.  It took most of the morning, making calls to friends and family, before we pieced together what was happening.  My dad was traveling, and I remembered him talking about a meeting he would have in the World Trade Center.  I was very worried until I called my mom, who reassured me that my dad was stranded in Canada, which, all things considered, was not a bad place to be.

Looking back on that day, what I recall most strongly is the lack of finality.  We didn’t know that it was over, that the four planes were the entirety of the attack.  We spent the entire day fearing that there was more to come, that it wasn’t over yet.  That feeling persisted for several days.  I skipped class on September 11.  I think the other students did, too.

Of course, living in Lexington, I was far from the places directly impacted.  In the weeks that followed, my friend Dimitri and I drove to New York to see what had happened and find a way to help.  This was prior to the construction of the visitors’ dome: New York had not yet learned how to properly host a disaster.

When I returned to Kentucky, I wrote a personal narrative about the experience.  It was for a writing class, a “Noticing” assignment that was focused on senses other than sight: I threaded observations about smell throughout the piece.  At the time, and for several years after, I considered it my strongest writing, but somewhat atypically I did not retain a copy, and that piece is lost; each year on this day I wish I could revisit it.

Since moving to New York three years ago, my perception of September 11 has changed.  I see the way it has left a legacy on the city.  People tell with muted voices about where they were, what was happening that day, people they knew and lost.  Every fire station is a memorial to the first responders who died.

This past year, I visited the museum, a jarring look back at the events as they unfolded.  I know there have been many controversies about that museum, but I found it compelling.  I left feeling sad, but with a sense of perspective that makes me appreciate how far we have come from that time.

On the morning commute today, the bus pulled over, and the driver said, in typical barely-understandable announcement fashion, that we would be stopping for a minute of silent remembrance.  I looked at my watch- it was the very minute the first plane hit the towers.

September 11 means different things to different people.  I lived far from the tragedy, and I did not know any of the victims.  It still impacted my life, as it did, in some way, the lives of everyone.  Its effects rippled across the globe, across the next decade.  It is still felt today, in our policies and our national memory.  I write this post to lay down my own personal marker: I remember that day.


Published in: on September 11, 2015 at 9:21 am  Leave a Comment  
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Peanuts and Crackerjack

A few thoughts from my recent trip to Citi Field. 

When I was growing up, baseball was the only sport that consistently held my attention.  Around the age of ten, I collected baseball cards, with a particular focus on my favorite player, Barry Bonds*.

I played on my high school team, an undersized underclassman with funky hair and a funkier sidearm-delivery pitch.  I wasn’t good, but I wasn’t terrible, and playing the game was always a joy.  I stopped after my sophomore year, with the recognition that any aspirations to be a professional athlete were woefully misplaced.

Still, I remained and remain a baseball fan.  While I don’t follow my beloved San Francisco Giants with anywhere near the fanboy enthusiasm I reserve for Kentucky basketball, I keep up with the team, cheering at their successes and commiserating when they lose.

About a month ago, it came to my attention that they were doing quite well this year.  That recognition- prompted by a series sweep of the hated Dodgers- was coupled by another: I lived in New York for three years, and had never been to Citi Field.  So, I did a quick search on, and found out that yes, the Giants were coming to town, in mid-June, for three weekday games….at 4:30 in the afternoon.

I was pissed.  Like many professionals, my work obligations are not consistent with mid-afternoon weekday games.  The more I thought about it, the more angry I became.  We taxpayers fund the bonds that built Citi Field, and for our troubles we get games that we can’t attend?  No wonder their attendance is piss poor!  I wrote a Facebook rant, my venom seething from each pixel, and was about to click “submit” when a thought occurred to me: I had viewed the time on the Giants’ web site.  The San Francisco Giants’ web site.  Listing times in Pacific Standard Time.  Locally, the games started at 7:30.

Social media crisis averted, I bought a ticket for the June 9 game.  I was very excited: the last game I attended was Barry Bonds* last home game, played in San Francisco’s AT&T Park.  It had been several years, and I was eager to return to the ballpark, and watch the game I have enjoyed, in various degrees, for most of my life.

I arrived early: my bosses were so amused by my ticket purchase story that they encouraged me to take an early exit and catch batting practice.  My seats, in the left field bleachers, were prime real estate during the pregame, and as luck would have it, I managed to catch a practice home run ball hit by Buster Posey, the best of the current crop of Giants hitters, checking a minor item off my personal bucket list.

The game itself was everything I remember.  Now, baseball games on TV are boring, but in person the atmosphere is wonderful.  This was a memorable game, too: the Giants managed to win by way of a no-hitter, only the second in history against the Mets.  I was in full Giants’ regalia, including my Barry Bonds* jersey, and found moments of camaraderie with fellow fans of the visiting club.

An afternoon at the ballpark is a really great way to break up the work week.  I recommend it to anyone.


*Barry Bonds is still the greatest player in the history of the game, full stop.  Haters gonna hate.

Published in: on June 10, 2015 at 1:19 pm  Leave a Comment  
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Money Screams

Is money in politics an intractable problem?

Courtesy of my Aunt Mikki, I read a fascinating article today about Lawrence Lessig’s Quixotic quest to bring about an “atomic” change to campaign finance law.  His approach is to help elect candidates pledging to support reform, but as even he concedes, any laws restricting spending are likely to be struck down as unconstitutional.

In my view, the Supreme Court has truly made this an intractable problem.  The issue is very real: in order to secure election, a candidate needs to raise hundreds of thousands of dollars for every office.  Senate campaigns require millions.  Presidential races will soon be billion dollar enterprises.

This means, in practical terms, that our representatives are really only part-time public servants.  A large portion of their time must be spent courting donors and dialing for dollars.  This is an acknowledged problem, and a vast majority of us think it should be fixed.  A vast majority of us are also convinced that it won’t be.

Lessig is a great thinker; I most admire his effort to establish Creative Commons to address draconian copyright laws.  He is not a very savvy political operator, and from the narrative it appears the he reached too far, too fast.  Whether his efforts are ever met with success on the electoral front remains to be seen.

I want to address a more fundamental question: if we were able to reform campaign finance, what would the result look like?

After considering the problems and the extreme limitations on any effort at reform, I am most intrigued by a set of rules that would dramatically impair the right to use money on races outside one’s district or state of residence.  It would look something like this:

Only individuals (read: people, with flesh and blood, corporations and other entities excluded) can contribute to political campaigns.  There is no maximum limit on such contributions.  However, individuals can only contribute to races for seats that directly represent them in government, based on their actual residence.  All donations will be a matter of public record.  So-called “issue ads” are entirely permissible, but for nine months preceding an election, they may not use the name or likeness of a candidate.

Here is my reasoning: if we start from the premise that the Supreme Court treats monetary donations as a form of speech, we have to be very careful about restricting it.  Hence, no limit on individual expenditures.  The protections usually afforded by the option of anonymity in speech is in this case trumped by the compelling governmental interest in election transparency.

There is also legal precedent for restricting money-as-speech rights for outsiders.  We already restrict foreign citizens from contributing to our elections.  A restriction barring a Nevada resident from giving money to a Delaware senate race is a reasonable restriction to prevent Sheldon…ahem…said Nevada resident from exercising an undue amount of influence on an election for an office that does not represent him, er, them.

Similarly, these rules address the farcical distinction drawn by the Citizens United decision regarding “coordination” or “direct electoral appeals.”  First of all, I believe the constitutional concerns regarding association and speech are equally present in a rule forbidding “coordination,” if that rule has any real substance at all.  Isn’t engagement and association the backbone of democratic government?  Additionally, permitting ads saying “Senator Such and Such is a terrible human being, let him know!” while prohibiting ads saying “Vote against Senator Such and Such” makes little sense.  Both ads have comparable effects.

Prohibiting candidate names and likenesses while permitting issue ads means that only voters who actually know the issues on some level can be persuaded/manipulated by a high-dollar ad campaign.  The more aware a voter is, the less likely they are to be persuaded by crappy political advertisements.

There are, of course, several downsides to this approach. A billionaire activist could simply overwhelm his local house race under this rule, giving an unlimited amount of money directly to the campaign.  This concern is somewhat mitigated by the transparency rule.  Since the identity of the donor and the amount of the contributions are public, both the media and other concerned citizens could scrutinize these contributions and factor them in when casting their ballots.  “We all hate Mr. Moneybags, he has been a blight on our community, and he’s given a half million dollars to Senator Such and Such” would be an available line of attack, especially on a local level where the big contributors can be quickly identified and assessed.

In large statewide elections, the benefits are limited, and for the presidential election, they are virtually non-existent.  Electoral college reform merits its own full-length article, and would somewhat mitigate that problem.  The biggest impact would be felt in house races, which are already reaching monetary levels that seemed improbable even a decade ago.  This is crucial, because the House is designed to be a representative body for the people.

As I have previously discussed, our districts are too large, and should be made smaller and more responsive to constituent demands.  Fair and transparent elections, and our methods of funding and conducting them, are the foremost constituent demand.

Finally, prohibitions on corporate and entity-level contributions are currently held unconstitutional by the Supreme Court, but these donations are anathema to fair elections.  They permit an end-run around transparency laws, and allow the wealthy to funnel donations on a large and pervasive scale.  Simply put, this is a problem and needs to stop.  My hope is that the reforms described above, when considered as a whole, would pass constitutional muster.

I should probably conclude by cynically acknowledging that the likelihood of bringing this type of reform is almost zero.  The reason is that elected officials, with the powers and influence of incumbency, rely heavily on out-of-district and organizational/corporate donations to secure re-election. They are afraid to rely solely on the actual citizens they represent.

Which, when you consider it, is really the core of the problem.


Published in: on January 9, 2015 at 11:45 am  Leave a Comment  
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Pieces of Grandma Jeanne

About ten years ago, my paternal grandmother, Grandma Jeanne, passed away.  She was a giant figure in my childhood, and in our family, and I want to share a few reflections about her.

Thanksgiving was her holiday, which is to say, it was our holiday with her.  This was fairly significant when I was young, because she lived in California, and we were in Kentucky.  Each year, she would make the trek across the country to join us for the holiday meal.  I don’t think she missed a single one.

Her life was one of glamour and intrigue.  She married several times, including my grandfather, twice.  She was tall and elegant, always wearing huge jewelry and displaying amazing works of original art in her home.  She worked, and had some hazy ties to the mafia, eventually running into trouble with law enforcement when she refused to snitch.  I’m told that a former Las Vegas mayor still owes her lunch.

Her voice was loud, her wit was sharp, and her tone often stern.  She didn’t need to spank her kids or grandkids; after two minutes of reprimand by Grandma Jeanne, a spanking would have been a welcome reprieve.  She had two children: my dad, and a daughter who died way, way too young.  Aside from my siblings and I, she had another grandson, my cousin Jasha, and she lived just long enough to become a great-grandmother thanks to him.

In her later years, she moved to Kentucky to be closer to my dad.  We started a family tradition of having a bagel brunch at her home each Sunday.  It was an opportunity for us to spend time together as a family each week, and to really be active in each other’s lives.

She was a heavy smoker, and in her later years developed emphysema.  She couldn’t get around very easily, and soon became virtually confined to her home, dependent on a breathing machine.  As an invincible teenager, I used to smoke with her after our folks left.  Grandma and I had a special camaraderie, and we shared stories from her life, and mine.

Complications from smoking took her life, in the end, ten years ago this spring.

When she passed, I received three items to remember her by.  The first is a keychain I wove for her at summer camp as a small child, twisted bits of much-abused leather, which I still use every day.  The second is a bright orange sports coat, a relic from her glamorous days on the West Coast.  I wear it occasionally to whimsical parties, and it never fails to make an impression.

The last is a two foot high replica of a Rodin statue, depicting a man kneeling in front of a nude woman, kissing her midsection.  When we would visit Grandma Jeanne as children, she would hide that piece, since it was considered too erotic for kids.

For the longest time, both she and my dad told me it was Rodin’s “The Kiss,” but last year I learned that it is actually a different work, called “The Eternal Idol,” a small piece from his master work “The Gates of Hell.”  Funny, the disillusionment of learning that something you learned young and were very sure about was totally wrong.  Today, it sits in a place of honor on my bookshelf.

Grandma Jeanne may be gone, but she is certainly not forgotten.  I’m reminded of her style, her wit, and her contagious laugh almost every day.

One last note: after she passed, my family stopped doing Thanksgiving together.  Her last year with us was the last time my immediate family all gathered for the holiday meal.  Last November, four of us got together and decided that we need to rekindle that tradition, and with any luck, this year will bring us all together again.  Grandma Jeanne won’t be with us, except in spirit.

I’m thankful she was a part of my life.




Published in: on January 5, 2015 at 11:10 am  Leave a Comment  
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If My Thought-Dreams Could Be Seen

Discussing the guillotine lays bare some  uncomfortable truths about the death penalty.

Unlike most countries in the world, the United States sees capital punishment as a legitimate political choice.  32 of our 50 states have legalized the death penalty for some crimes, though some of those states seldom enforce it.

The death penalty has a long and troubling history in America. It has been with us since our founding, which is among the strongest arguments for its constitutionality.  However, squaring the practice with our founders’ intentions doesn’t resolve the fundamental question: is this an acceptable practice today?  There has also been a tremendous racial bias in its application, and black murderers are far more likely to be sentenced to death than their white counterparts, even today.

I submit that the methods of carrying out the death penalty betray a real problem in public perception of capital punishment: we are accepting of state-sanctioned murder, as long as we are not required to face the reality of the sentence we are imposing on the condemned.  Our death penalty practices are more about protecting the sensitivities of the observers and the public, and less about effectuating the sentence in the most humane ways possible.

For the purpose of this discussion, let’s focus on the three most common methods of execution: lethal injection, electrocution, and asphyxiation (gas chamber).

Lethal injection is by far the most prevalent means of capital punishment in the United States.  It is also the most sterile to the observers.  In their view, the prisoner is simply put to sleep, like a terminally-ill pet.  Of course, the real function of the first drugs in the “cocktail” is to paralyze the muscles, so that even if the condemned is in excruciating pain when their heart is chemically stopped, they cannot physically express it.

This form of punishment has made headlines recently for all the wrong reasons.  Other countries condemn the United States for what they term barbarism, and many have forbidden the sale of necessary chemicals to the United States for use in executions. The result has been new cocktails, some of which have been catastrophic failures, with inmates waking up and screaming during what was supposed to be a nice, quiet execution.

Electrocution, likewise, is designed to be sterile for the observer.  The prisoner has a hood placed over their head so that their agonized expression as they are exposed to lethal currents is hidden from the audience.  This form of punishment also focuses on stopping the heart, which anyone who has had a heart attack will tell you is an excruciatingly painful experience.  We hide the faces so that we don’t need to face the consequences of our political choices.

The gas chamber is similar in that it is not quick, it is not painless, but it is relatively mild from the perspective of the observer.  While this method has fallen into relative disuse, it is still the third most common form of execution in America, and once again, the black hood is employed to lessen the impact on the fragile viewing audience, who sees a hooded figure thrash a bit, and then slump forward.

Of course, one need not look far for a form of execution that is instant, painless, and effective.  The guillotine, infamous for its use during the reign of terror in France, operates by means of a large blade, and gravity.  The condemned has their head separated from their body in a fraction of a second, which causes instant death, some urban legends to the contrary notwithstanding.

There is absolutely no question this would be a more effective and less painful means of execution, a more humane way to perform the inherently inhumane act of murder.  So why is it completely ignored in America?

The answer lies in our real motivation for choosing methods of execution.  The goal is not to be humane, it is to be considerate of the public, and the observers.  True, the guillotine would be less ghastly than our currently-used methods of killing prisoners, but it would also be bloody, and graphic.  It would undeniably show that these are not people drifting gently off to sleep, they are being killed, by the state, on purpose.

For this reason, it will never be utilized.  There is zero chance that politicians would sign off on bringing back the guillotine for executions.  This fact should cause us to take a step back and consider, are we really behind this practice?  If we choose to countenance a death penalty, can we face the consequences of our actions?

Published in: on November 4, 2014 at 3:32 pm  Leave a Comment  
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It was hot, so very hot, as I walked through Crocheron Park in Bayside. For most of the last year, it had been my practice to take a “walking lunch,” pounding three miles of pavement in the middle of my workday, an unrestful siesta from my desk-bound job function.

I have done my walk in the rain, in the snow, in the heat, the cold. During February’s blizzard, a city worker stopped his snow plow and rolled down his window just to say to me “man, I KNOW you are not out here in a suit right now!” Suffice it to say, I’m a dedicated walker.

Still, I am not immune from the challenges of climate, and on this particular Monday, the sun was bearing down in full-on oppression. The asphalt was radiating heat, the breeze was too slight, too broken by the trees and fences and buildings bordering the park, and I found myself in a full rolling sweat, a motile watering unit for the grass on either side of the trail.

As I turned the corner and began the uphill climb towards the school on the far end of the park, I saw bright colored sidewalk art, announcing in big, block letters, “FREE LEMONADE,” punctuated with an arrow indicating the direction in which I was walking.

Buoyed by this promise, I increased my pace, confident that my wallet contained at least a few dollars, a dollar being the maximum I could fathom a child would charge for a glass of lemonade, adjusting my childhood memories for inflation (the word “free” had clearly failed to register). I also realized that there was at least an even chance the lemonade would be too sour, too sugary, too watered down: judging by the chalksmanship, these were, after all, children. Mostly, I hoped they had ice.

Soon, more sidewalk art appeared: “The Mormon church is the answer,” “latter day saints” (the children sadly omitted the hyphen), “do you know Jesus?” and, with a nod to our present century, scrawled in at least a dozen places, “MORMON.ORG.”

So, this was to be the price of my refreshment: a sales pitch for the afterlife, an eager greeting on behalf of a church that evangelizes like no other.

Now, I try to cultivate a certain level of respect for religion, though I concede that most of the time, the absence of complete disdain is as far as I consistently achieve. I don’t believe in the myths, the rituals, the carrot-and-stick, the blind adherence to impossible things not condemned as madness, but praised as faith. The Mormons, however, are in an entirely different category.

They interfere in our politics, in a major and regrettable way. I recall them sinking huge money into anti-gay campaigns in California, scaring voters, using children to stoke disgust and intolerance. I know enough about their own beliefs and practices to realize that, even grading religions on a curve, they are pretty out there in terms of simply making it up as they go. I saw The Book of Mormon, and laughed so hard I cried.

This was going to be a challenge, but I was up to it: I have had many experiences with missionaries from their church, the baby-faced adolescents they ridiculously term “elders,” that were not unpleasant. One even gave me the fabled Book, which I dutifully shelved with my fiction collection, under author’s name “Smith, Joseph.”

I have also had several colleagues who were practicing members over the years, and by and large I found them to be upright, good people, invariably drawn to community service and exhibiting a high level of personal ethics. I don’t dislike Mormons, but their odds of making me a convert approach absolute zero.

With all this in mind, still dripping sweat, I rounded the corner, ready to trade a few minutes of polite attention for a refreshing beverage or two. There, at the center of the path’s homestretch, stood several benches, and just past them, mirror-image sidewalk art promising “FREE LEMONADE,” with arrows pointing in the opposite direction. The benches were empty.

All at once, it dawned on me: the signs were for an event over the now-past weekend, probably Sunday afternoon, after temple services. The enthusiastic younglings who drew the sidewalk art had no such enthusiasm about removing it when the event ended, likely heading home with their families, or to the movies, or an early dinner.

There was no lemonade, only another empty promise from an institution from which, to be fair, I should expect nothing more.

The walk back was miserable, though I did stop on Bell Boulevard for an ice-cold canned energy drink, finding good use for my unneeded dollars. As I returned to work, to finish the first installment in another work week, I was reminded of an old adage, about those times- and we all have them- when life hands you lemons.

Published in: on June 23, 2014 at 7:12 pm  Comments (2)  
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