Saturday, August 31, 2013


Al Jazeera and Japan

So, if you would like to see my interview from Thursday night on Al Jazeera, it is now online here.  Oddly, they seem to jump-cut a lot from me to some guys smoking a bong.  Sigh.

If that isn't weird enough for you, check out these fascinating commercials Bob Darden shared with me:

Friday, August 30, 2013


Haiku Friday: School Supplies!

Last night I was at the Minnesota Gophers-UNLV game as the sun was going down... just a beautiful end-of-summer evening.  Then I went downtown to do an interview with Al Jazeera America about the DOJ's views on marijuana legalization, and as I was waiting in the green room I found myself thinking not about narcotics policy, but about what a great time of year this is.  I've spent most of my life attending or working at schools, and the academic calendar is etched in my heart.  This is the start of the year, a new beginning.  It is just about my favorite time of the year.

Part of what defines it is the annual ritual of getting school supplies-- and yes, I do restock for my own purposes at this time of year.  I love the stacks of notebooks and pencils, the backpacks ready to be hauled to a locker, the shiny pens and tape dispensers.

Let's haiku about them today.  I'll go first:

Yearly ritual:
Buying a new protractor.
But... what does it do?

Seriously, I still don't know.  Yet, I feel like buying one.

Now, you go.  Use the 5 syllable/7 syllable/5 syllable formula, please.  I think this will bring out some great work... or at least some decent nostalgia.

Thursday, August 29, 2013


Political Mayhem Thursday: Down With Fashion Week!

It appears that we are coming up on Fashion Week in New York soon, meaning that we will be treated to a parade of emaciated models wearing clothes that no one in the real world wears while bored-looking celebrities look on.

Could someone please explain to me what social utility this event has?  It seems morally caustic-- making people feel like they aren't skinny enough, that clothes are meant to be about the maker, not the wearer, and that what a small cabal of people from New York feel is attractive is, necessarily, attractive.

The Dorothea Lange photo pictured above features many of the same elements you will see in pictures from fashion week.  The thinness of the model, the shape of what she is wearing, even her expression will be echoed by the models on the runway in New York.  This picture, though, the one above, is of a starving girl.

Of course, the ones from fashion week are, too.  And what, exactly, is so great about that?

Wednesday, August 28, 2013


Woodward Avenue

A few years ago, I had a remarkable day in Detroit.

I had two things on my plate:  First, I was to do a little research for Bob Darden, and then I was supposed to have lunch with Judge Avern Cohn.

Bob was working on his book about gospel music and the civil rights movement, and had a particular request.  The week before his "I Have a Dream" speech in DC, Martin Luther King had given a similar speech in Detroit.  Bob wanted to know who the gospel singers were who sang before the speech, and what songs they had sung.

I went down to what remains of the Detroit Public Library downtown, and went to the room where they store microfiche of the black newspapers.  I dug around and found remarkable reports of that day-- the astonishing speech, the crowds, the sense of change.  I made some copies for Bob, and became so lost in the project that I almost forgot about my lunch.

A little late, I raced down to the courthouse and up to Judge Cohn's chambers.  He greeted me warmly, and I told him about my project at the library.

He smiled and laughed, reached behind him and took a framed photo off the shelf.  It was a remarkable photo.  He was there with King, walking down Woodward Avenue, as the crowds followed.

I looked at the picture incredulously as he gathered his things to go.

What history are we witness to?  Are there still those moments?

Tuesday, August 27, 2013


A & M!

So, I found the above carved into the Colosseum in Rome this summer.  It made me really sad-- did someone really think that was good advertising for Texas A & M?

[Side note to people not from Texas:  Aggies signify their school, apparently without irony, with this style of the letters "ATM."]

[Side note 2:  Yes, those are my dad's initials right above "ATM," but I'm pretty sure he did not carve them into the Colosseum.]

Monday, August 26, 2013


Dad Haiku

I love my dad.
I also loved his haiku this week (the theme was "beauty"):

The plastic bottle
rolled up against the curb 
into a ray of light

the man sitting on
that same curb smiled and said
life is beautiful.

Meanwhile, I really want to meet the people Renee has been writing about!

Sunday, August 25, 2013


From Florida...

My segment starts at about 6:30....


Sunday Reflection: The Good Teacher

Last November, I posted a story about one of my most important teachers, Dr. Joanne Braxton of William and Mary.  A few months later, I was surprised and very happy to get a message from Prof. Braxton, who had stumbled across the post.  We began to correspond, and last March I traveled back to Williamsburg.  Professor Braxton had invited me to speak to her class and give a sermon in William and Mary's historic Wren Chapel.

It was a remarkable trip.  Prof. Braxton was a powerful formative influence on me in a variety of ways, and the idea of teaching and preaching with her was thrilling and a little intimidating.

I needn't have worried.

On Sunday, I met her before the service, and the connection was recast.  She explained the liturgy, but I had no idea of what was to come.

The Wren Chapel, miraculously, held a variety of people from different points in my life-- Prof. Braxton, Tom Stanton from Waco, Laurie Smith Dowdesdell, Craig Anderson, George Greenia, and others.  It was the single most moving service I have been a part of, and my sermon was only a small part of it.  Collaborating with Prof. Braxton was one of the greatest honors of my life.  Remembering that morning still makes me smile with joy.

The next day, I was to speak to her advanced writing class.  Prior to the beginning of the class, we met briefly in her office.  She carefully pulled something out of a drawer and with the tips of her fingers pushed it to me as if it were a jewel.  It was a book, a slim volume:  Ernest J. Gaines's "A Lesson Before Dying."  It was just that, only that, a paperback book, but that was everything; because to the people who know me, there is no gift quite like the exactly right book.

Gaines's story revolves around a man condemned to die and the teacher who somewhat reluctantly reaches out to him on death row.

Why was this the exactly right book?  In part, because of its darkness.  It is all tragedy, every bit of it, and my students know well that this is precisely how I describe the enterprise of criminal law. I have never before found a story that embodies that belief of mine as completely as this one.  The stark lines of race that too often divide us (not only physically and politically, but even in terms of how we see the same event) were also clearly drawn, much as they have been in my own life.

Also, though, it was exactly right because of the hope it conveyed.  In a broad arc, yes, the hope that people can change, even those who are most oppressed and seemingly hopeless.  In a sharper way, there is also hope that societies can change, and that people like me can sometimes cross over from one side to the other, painful as that is, to challenge systems that cause harm.

Finally, too, there was faith.  The teacher Gaines imagined into being was challenged in his faith the way I sometimes am, as the brokenness and unfairnesses of the world create doubt that a loving God exists.

When I was done with the book, I sat quietly and held it in my hand, this precious gift, chosen so well and carefully.   I was thankful, as I too rarely am.  Teachers, the best ones, can move us that way.

Saturday, August 24, 2013


Island Poem 7: Bear


More myth than thing
Even here, among eagles,
They are the ghosts
In stories and sounds.

I did see one once,
I saw it swimming
From island to shore
It shook itself dry.

They shot that one.

It got too close to a cabin,
They do that, I guess,
We do fear the ghosts
When they get too near.

Friday, August 23, 2013


Haiku Friday: On Beauty

Because my dad is an artist, I grew up with deep discussions on things like the definition or value of beauty.  It is a difficult and deep subject.

As a kid (even as a teenager and college student) I didn't understand how guys could look at a picture of a woman and declare that she was beautiful, because to me people always became beautiful as I grow to know them.  I'm still that way, and many of you are, too.  When I watch my dad paint, I see this same thing happening-- he creates the image and only by that process does something beautiful emerge.  In other words, when he starts the relationship with his subject, there is no beauty, only an idea of form.  But then, as the subject is imbued with life, beauty becomes clearer with each stroke.  Each movement of a brush is an event, an experience, something he shares with that emerging being, and it is form plus life that makes beauty.

So let's haiku about beauty today-- a person or thing you find beautiful, from nature or your family or from something else.  It's a broad subject.  Have fun!

Here is mine:

It scrambles quickly
Under water, feet splayed.
There!  Exquisite shell.

Now it is your turn... make it five syllables, then seven, then five, and enjoy yourself!

Thursday, August 22, 2013


Political Mayhem Thursday: Syria

Things continue to get worse in Syria as rebels fight against the longstanding Assad government there.  The latest reports are that the government has used poison gas against its citizens.  The rebels seem to be no angels, either; their ranks include Islamic extremists who have executed prisoners of war.

The hard question is this:  What should the United States do?

Doing anything, of course is predicated on which side you choose to support-- the Assad government or the rebels.

Naturally, I throw these two questions over to you:  First, which side should we support (if any), and second, what should we do?

Wednesday, August 21, 2013


Island Poems 6: Bad Nicknames

Stem Cell
JV Mike
Butt Feasor

And that was just
The football team.

At graduation, 600 walked.
"David Livingston III!"
I did not know him
Except as Butt Feasor.

His parents were there,
So I turned to see
Mr. and Mrs. Butt Feasor.



Island Poem 5: A Market Abroad

Between us, eight words:
We talk about food
And then I move on;
Hello, gone, dead.

Tuesday, August 20, 2013


Island Poem 4: (Parenthetical)

Gentle curves
Carefully employed.

It's my habit
To put the best words
Between, within,
Those curves.

My finger traces it;
The rustle of a skirt.


Island Poem 3: Approaching Boat

We are quite remote
On our distant island
Shrouded in pines 
And calm.

A boat approaches
(a rare deep roar)
The engine constant
Just over... there.

I scowl and look
Want no intrusion
I'm busy here

Monday, August 19, 2013


Island Poem 2: Limbaugh

Once I heard him pause
A full beat, silence
Not for drama
But uncertainty.

I stopped my car
went silent myself
What would come next?
But no waver lingered.

But for that one moment...
I kind of liked him.


Island Poem 1: Unsung

"No one wants to hear you sing"
Was cruel and true.
Ten year olds do that to one another
And it works.  I stopped.

Me, though, I want to hear anyone sing
Even him, older now
His voice rugged, spare,
Fraught with life.


25 Haiku!

... and all (except one) were really good.

Can you guess which one I didn't like?

And which did YOU like?

Sunday, August 18, 2013


Sunday Reflection: The Things They Write From Prison

Next week, on Sunday, I will write about a book that Prof. Joanne Braxton gave me, Ernest J. Gaines's "A Lesson Before Dying."  It is about a man in prison, condemned to die.  It is set in a time when  black Americans saw Joe Louis, the boxer from Detroit, as the kind of hero we find hard to imagine anymore.

In one of the more painful passages of the book, Gaines describes a young man about to be executed:

And my mind went back to that cell uptown, then to another cell, somewhere in Florida.  After reading about the execution there, I had dreamed about it over and over and over.  As vividly as if I were there, I had seen that cell, heard that boy crying while being dragged to that chair, "Please, Joe Louis, help me.  Please help me.  Help me."  And after he had been strapped in the chair, the man who wrote the story could still hear him cry "Mr. Joe Louis help me, Mr. Joe Louis help me."

I'm no Joe Louis, but we have one thing in common.

I was gone this summer, and my mail piled up.  I have spent part of this week sorting through it all, and there is one large pile of similar letters.  I get them often.  They are in white rectangular envelopes, with neat pencil addresses on the front:

"Dr. Mark Osler, Professor of Law"
"Prof. Mark Osler, Lawyer"
"Professor Mark Osler, Esq."

Inside, carefully handwritten, is a story.  It is always a tragic story.  They are from men, and sometimes women, who are in prison for life or a very long term.  They have exhausted their appeals.  They have no more hope through a habeas petition.  So they write to me.  They think I will know a way to get them out of prison, after 20 or 27 or 35 years there for a narcotics case no one but them remembers.

Sometimes, the letter is not from a prisoner.  It is from a wife who has been alone those 20 years, or a despairing sister, or a pastor who has seen too many families dissolve.

They often begin their letter by explaining why they chose me to write to.  Sometimes, often, they have read something I have written, something like the things I wrote in the past week.  Other times, they know someone our clinic has helped.  More often than I am comfortable with, they say "I know you are a Christian man...."

I can't help them, usually, not in the way they want.  The answer is nearly always "no."

It is a compliment, I suppose, that they write to me, but the appearance of these letters fill me with dread.  It is exhausting, emotionally, to read the stories, even to see the painstaking handwriting or the row of stamps purchased with prison wages of 45 cents an hour.  I feel guilty just to hold them in my hand.

I am about as much good to nearly all of them as Joe Louis was to the young man being strapped to that chair.

Or, maybe not.

Maybe, if we keep fighting there will be a change, a movement towards mercy, towards the good, a reform of what clemency means.  Perhaps we can win at wholesale what I cannot give them at retail.  Maybe.  There is some bit of hope.  Maybe.

Still, every stamp hurts my soul.  I need grace to open my mail.  I need forgiveness to get through the day.  It is never enough.  My words are never enough, and I always know that the next day, the nest week, there will be another letter addressed to me in neat pencil letters because the river of tragedy will flow and flow and flow.

Saturday, August 17, 2013


In today's Minneapolis Star Tribune....

.... is a new piece I did about the Holder speech.

In a week in which it felt like I didn't get much done, I did get a lot of writing out there:  this piece, one on MSNBC, and another in the Waco Tribune Herald on sentencing, and the article about Jesus on the Huffington Post.

Jesus and sentencing... what a weird career.


It's for sale!

I re-watched some of "Ferris Bueller's Day Off" yesterday, and once again admired Cameron's house, the glass-box-in-the-woods classic.

Well... it is for sale!  The price is now down to $1.5 million, Ferrari not included.

Friday, August 16, 2013


Haiku Friday: European Trip!

Hello, Haiku friends!  This week, let's write about trips to Europe-- the ones you've had, the ones you hope to have, or the ones you don't want at all.

I'm not sure why the trip to Europe so captures the hearts of Americans, but there can be no doubt that it does.

Here, I will go first:

Bought a guide:  "Let's Go!"
Got it used, dated '02,
Turns out, things do change!

Now it is your turn!  Use the 5/7/5 syllable format, and have fun!

Thursday, August 15, 2013


Just up on HuffPo!

.... my take on the whole "Millennials are leaving the church!" debate, Five Reasons Jesus is a Millennial.


Political Mayhem Thursday: The New-Look AG?

This may be way more exciting for sentencing geeks than everyone else, but Eric Holder gave a remarkable speech on Monday at the ABA convention.  Some of my thoughts about it are in this new piece over at MSNBC.

Here was the part that jumped out at me the most:

As the so-called “war on drugs” enters its fifth decade, we need to ask whether it, and the approaches that comprise it, have been truly effective – and build on the Administration’s efforts, led by the Office of National Drug Control Policy, to usher in a new approach.  And with an outsized, unnecessarily large prison population, we need to ensure that incarceration is used to punish, deter, and rehabilitate – not merely to warehouse and forget.

          Today, a vicious cycle of poverty, criminality, and incarceration traps too many Americans and weakens too many communities.  And many aspects of our criminal justice system may actually exacerbate these problems, rather than alleviate them.

Wow!  It's like something I would write.  Or, did write at various times, as did a lot of other people.

Sadly, though, this passage was not followed by it's logical successor:  The announcement of a broad commutation for those who have been over-sentenced for narcotics.  DOJ is going to give prosecutors more leeway to avoid mandatory minimums, but they already have this in many cases through the "safety valve" provision in 18 U.S.C. 3553(f).

I hope that the Holder speech was the start of a new project based on the concern he expressed so eloquently, not the end of one.

Am I being too optimistic in hoping for and expecting more in the coming days and weeks?

Wednesday, August 14, 2013


I'm back from Osler Island!

As many of you have guessed, I've been off on my annual sojourn to Osler Island.  It was a good little break, and I managed not to injure myself in any major way.  I did write some poetry, which I will post next week-- and yes, we WILL go back to actually having Political Mayhem Thursday and Haiku Friday!  By the way, I like the way that people improvised last week... good leadership by the Spanish Medievalist.

One thing I missed was the announcement by Eric Holder on Monday that the DOJ is changing some things, in a very positive way.  We'll get to that tomorrow.  Also, on Sunday the Waco Tribune Herald ran my piece on criminal justice in Finland, which was something I got a little obsessed with this summer.  

It's good to be back!

Tuesday, August 13, 2013


Rome photos, part 6

Monday, August 12, 2013


Rome photos, part 5

The angel is delivering good and terrifying news...

Sunday, August 11, 2013


Rome photos, part 4

Saturday, August 10, 2013


Rome photos, part 3

Friday, August 09, 2013


Rome photos, part 2

Thursday, August 08, 2013


Rome Photos, pt. 1

If you (1) are very Italian, and (2) are a fan of the "Smeg" brand of appliances, this is the refrigerator for you!

Of course, there are others to choose from (including one, not pictured, covered in blue denim):

Wednesday, August 07, 2013


More curveballs in Detroit!

Wow!  A write-in candidate, former hospital executive Mike Duggan, was the top finisher in Detroit's mayoral primary yesterday, with 46% of the vote, according to the Detroit Free Press.

In second place was Wayne County sheriff Benny Napolean, pictured above at left, who got 30% of the vote. 

What makes Duggan's victory more stiking is that he is a white candidate in Detroit, which is 80% black.  It might be that the African-American residents of Detroit are more open to leaders of another race than white residents of the suburbs.... 


And in other NCAA news...

Sure we all know who won the NCAA basketball and football championships, but what about all of those other sports?  Let's check out a few:

Women's Bowling:  Your 2013 National champion was the University of Nebraska!  They ended the two-year reign of Maryland-Eastern Shore, which had inexplicably dominated the sport.

Field Hockey:  This is a fall sport, so we have to go back to 2012 to find our defending Div. 1 champion, which is... Princeton!  Pretty good for a school with no athletic scholarships.  They ended the two-year reign of the University of Maryland, which is probably some satellite campus of Maryland-Eastern Shore.

Fencing:  The 2013 champion was Princeton, finishing just ahead of Notre Dame.  Why haven't I heard of this school before?  They appear to be really good at sports!

Squash:  The Harvard women won a squeaker over Trinity, but in the Men's division it was all Trinity! I think there are 9 or 10 Trinity Colleges in the US, but I'm pretty sure it is the one in Connecticut that is pretty good at squash.

Men's Golf:  Alabama!  Bet you didn't see that coming.

Rifle:  West Virginia over Kentucky.  Which kind of makes sense, right?

Skiing:  Colorado won, and the championships were held at Middlebury, which has the cutest little ski area ever!

Women's Rowing (Heavyweight 8):  Yeah, there really is a sport where women are called "heavyweight."  Anyways, UVA is the defending champion, though Brown usually seems to win.

Men's Volleyball:  UC Irvine is your defending champ.  Go Anteaters!

Tuesday, August 06, 2013


What is going on?

If you haven't been following the news too closely, you may have missed the recent reports on closures of US embassies in the middle east, based on reported terrorist threats from an Al Queda affiliate.

There hasn't been much information made public about what the threats are, but it is deeply unsettling, in two respects.  First, the bare fact of the threats and what they might mean.  Second, the fact that we can know there is a danger without quite knowing what it is.  War has become very gray that way, hasn't it?

Monday, August 05, 2013


Now that is an internship!

What intriguing haikus on internships.  Of them all, this one by Renee most made see something differently:

They were clowns,really.
One who made grandiose statements
That were very true.

He tried to show off
Walking on water to his
Lord. Then said he did

Not even know the guy,
When He was in trouble.He
Founded the Church. "Rock."

Poet boy of whom the
Lord was very fond. James,his
Brother,their mother,planned

Where their placecards would
Sit at the feast board in Heaven
At Jesus'right hand.

One Bean-counter who
Didn't like kids,and gals who
Bought high-priced scent to

Anoint His Feet. Tsk! Tsk!
Sold Him for thirty pieces
Of silver. and hung

Himself,pierced by guilt.
A twin,who did not believe
Had to put fingers

In the nail holes of
His hands and spear holes of side.
My Lord and my God.

All of them ran from
The cross. But the poet boy,
And the women. They stayed.

These women.Marys.
Stayed to hold his eyes.Defy
Death,stand up for Friend.

So these were his interns.
Women who had struggled

With mental illness
And Passion,but He took faults
And turned them to strength.

This ragged band of
Heroes and cowards,and made
Seeds of Faith.

Sunday, August 04, 2013


Sunday Reflection: Rainwalker

This week, I returned from a six-week stint of teaching in Rome.  

I taught a class in comparative sentencing at John Cabot University, and had students from eight different law schools from across the United States.  I loved teaching the class, and it was fascinating to have students from such different places.  Italians were uniformly kind to me despite my poor language skills, and the art and history of the city is remarkable.

Still, it was a very hard summer.  I'm a bad fit for Italy, which is a city of gregarious people who have built a culture around sitting around talking with people they may or may not know.  They buy coffee and drink it at the counter, engaging in animated conversation with whoever else wanders in at the same time.  As an introvert who doesn't speak the language, though, this was isolating.  The effects of the financial crisis in Italy seem to have hit Rome pretty hard, too-- it seems to be a dirtier and more dangerous place than the last time I was there, in 1995.  

Almost from the start, I knew it was going to be a challenge.  I found myself uncharacteristically negative about things.  I fantasized about leaving early.  

There was one moment, standing under a tree waiting out a rainstorm, that I noticed the guy pictured above.  He was making the best of it:  He put a plastic bag over his head and made a break for it, stomping in puddles on his way just for fun.  He was having a lot more fun than I was, huddled under the tree.

In the end, that is how I made it through, more or less.

It was a worthwhile summer in terms of realizing things about myself.  I know now that I am not meant to be an expatriate.  I realize that I don't adjust well to abrupt cultural change.  I sometimes struggle to find meaning where it should be easy.

Part of it, too, was a faith challenge.  I can't remember the last time I went for six weeks without going to church, but today will be my first time in two months.  There was something about the enormity of churches in Rome that pushed me away, I suppose.  God speaks to me in quiet, usually, or through simple things.  The frescoes and sculptures and grand scale of the (often empty) churches in Rome seemed alien to my soul.  Nothing sang out to me, nor did I sing out to God.  

The problem wasn't Rome.  The problem was me.  But now I have to change that, and rebuild.

Saturday, August 03, 2013


A Busy, Busy Fall!

This fall I'll be teaching Sentencing and my clinic, both of which I love.  In addition, I have a lot of other stuff to do. Here is the schedule:

9/22:  Sermon, First Covenant Church, Minneapolis MN

10/1:  Public lecture on narcotics policy, Savannah Law School, Savannah GA

10/6:  Paper presentation, College of William and Mary, Williamsburg VA

10/11:  Public lecture on social justice, Anchorage AK

10/13:  Sermon, St. Mary’s Episcopal ch., Anchorage AK

10/14:  Public lecture on narc. policy, Stanford Law School

10/16:  Public lecture on narcotics policy, UCLA

10/23:  Panel presentation on narcotics policy, Loyola Law School, Los Angeles

10/29:  Public lecture on narcotics policy, Harvard Law School

11/8-11:  Trial of Christ  in Baton Rouge, Lafayette, and New Orleans LA

Friday, August 02, 2013


Haiku Friday: Internships!

Over the years, most of us have had an internship of one kind or another.  They make for some weird, weird lessons.  Let's haiku about those today!  If you didn't have an internship, you can haiku about your first paid job (which probably worked much the same way).  Or, fantasize about an internship with IPLawGuy (if that is your kind of thing).

Here is mine:

CTL, intern
Made both copies and a bomb--
That is real talent!

Now it is your turn.... the formula is 5 syllables/7/5, and have some fun!

Thursday, August 01, 2013


Political Mayhem Thursday: Texas Secession!?!

Rick Perry seems intrigued by the idea.
RRL (he's a partner at a large law firm who is also very conservative) likes it.
IPLawGuy has always been a supporter.
The Paper even suggested that it may have already started without us noticing.

So... should Texas secede from the U.S.?

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