Saturday, April 30, 2016


Tavern Talking

On Thursday of this week, I gave a talk at a Minneapolis bar, the 331 Club. The topic was clemency, and the crowd was a little rowdy.  I like that.

The students from my clinic came, as did Hank Shea and Eric Hylok and a bunch of other people:

Were there hecklers? Not this time, which was a little disappointing.

Friday, April 29, 2016


Haiku Friday: The Rain

Earlier this week, I was in Williamsburg. I went to college there, and for those four years it seemed to rain a lot (the city is built on a swamp, so my perception was probably correct).  Somehow, I brought that weather home to Minneapolis, and now it is raining here.

Rain evokes moods and defines moments. Let's haiku about that this week. Here, I will go first:

By Millington Hall
The grass is still wet. I stand
Just to soak my shoes.

Now it is your turn! Just use the 5/7/5 syllable plan, and have some fun! 

Thursday, April 28, 2016


Political Mayhem Thursday: A timeline for sexual assault issues with the Baylor football team

So... yesterday Sharon Grigsby of the Dallas Morning News (whom I have worked with before) wrote a fascinating piece in that paper about the problems Baylor is facing with sexual assaults by football players.  Sharon is a Baylor grad, and often a proud one, but is this piece she makes an important point:

What began as a small cesspool has spread into a full-blown swamp. Does the administration not see that Baylor’s reputation — not to mention its fundraising and its enrollment — are drowning in this unseemly episode? And, more important, what does this kind of non-response do for the safety of its students?

For what it is worth, I worried about Baylor football in a more general way on the pages of the Waco Trib back in the summer of 2015, but the fuller story started to come out later that year.  Here is a timeline of some key events leading up to this challenging moment.

2012: Shawn Oakman is dismissed from the Penn State team after trying to steal food and grabbing the arm of a female cashier.

2013:  Sam Ukwuachu is kicked off the team at Boise State, where he had been a star. His girlfriend from this period later testified that he beat and choked her. Ukwuachu then enrolls at Baylor to play football there.

2013: Having transferred to Baylor to play football, Shawn Oakman is accused of assaulting a woman. A police report is filed and no further action is taken. The investigating police officer noted in the report that the woman had bruises on both arms and a “swelled up bottom lip” and bruises.

2013: Baylor players Tre'Von Armstead and Myke Chatman are named by police in a report involving sexual assault.

2013: Baylor wins Big 12 championship in football

2014: Baylor player Tevin Elliot is sentenced to 20 years for the rape of a Baylor student. Three other Baylor students provide evidence they were sexually assaulted by him as well.

2014: Baylor wins Big 12 co-championship

2015: Sam Ukwuachu is convicted of the sexual assault of a Baylor student.

April, 2016: Shawn Oakman is arrested for the forcible rape of a Baylor student.

April, 2016: With no sense of irony whatsoever, Baylor University heralds new faculty research with the headline "Supervisors, Coworkers Tolerate Unethical Behavior When Production is Good, Baylor Study Finds." [Yes, really

Wednesday, April 27, 2016


What's up with Dad

I love my Dad's blog post for this week,  which talks about Prince, listening, Luis Resto (pictured here), and lots of other things.

It is all worth reading, but I especially liked this part:

I have some space where I can paint and store my work.. It is  a magical space above Vivios Restaurant in  Eastern Market. The space is only accessible by going to the third floor of Devries Cheese Shop and then passing through Luis Resto’s music loft. Luis could be anywhere, but chooses to create his art in the top floor of this very old building. He is here because of the sound he gets in this place with its high ceiling and  wood trusses. I would also extend to him the International Award for being a genuinely nice guy. Luis is exceptionally generous with his time, except when it is his time to create some music. He goes deep into his creative cocoon  and is completely unaware of anything or anyone around him. I know to walk quietly through his space and not disturb him when he is lost in his music. He will never look up. His concentration on his craft is inspiring to other artists.

I have seen that look of concentration many times in people I respect-- including my father.

Tuesday, April 26, 2016


Stuck in my head, V. 2,355

I saw this on an episode of "The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt," and now it is completely stuck in my head. It. Will. Not. Leave.

Which is kind of embarrassing when I am trying to be a law professor and stuff.

Monday, April 25, 2016


Poetry in Purple

There were some great haiku last Friday on a subject never covered before: Prince.

Fan fave the Medievalist offered this one:

Now doves are crying,
The great purple one is gone,
In his red Corvette.

Rene had a good story:

When I met him,me
In flight goddess guise,Hulk Hogan
His body guard,mouthpiece,

He wore violet
Knickers,& lavender poet
Shirt. "PRINCE would like a

Coke," Hulk said. Prince had
Eyelashes coated with gunk.
He was petite. This vignette

Rubbed me the wrong way.
So I did not make myself
Vulnerable to his music.

So did David Best:

Jehova's Witness,
few knew he was. But one day
he knocked on their door.

They were orthodox Jews,
it was Yom Kippur, but they
were fans, pleased to talk.

Love as faith and love
as sex, the metaphors mixed
freely for this man.

But my favorite was this, from "Anonymous:"

Heartbreak Hill mantra
April, nineteen eighty five
I would die 4 you.

Sunday, April 24, 2016


Sunday Reflection: The Way it Is

Five years ago, I first wrote about this song.  Here is what I wrote then:

Most of all, though, the song critiques a soul-killing social dialogue that still enrages me. Someone, a child perhaps, asks someone about a social injustice-- endemic racism, intolerance of religion, hatred of others, poverty amongst riches-- and the elder shrugs and says, "that's just the way it is. Some things will never change." Thus ends the conversation.

How many times was I that child, that teenager, that college student, that law student, that prosecutor, that teacher? More than I can count, and every time something in the soul God gave me, the heart of the gospels, the promise of Christ, the rolling thunder of God's own self-renewing world, told me this answer was wrong. It is wrong. 

At that time, I was about to enter the fray in favor of same-sex marriage. We won (though I had little to do with it)-- but if you read some of the 15,000+ comments to the the piece linked in the last sentence, you will see that many were saying "That's just the way it is." And then, it wasn't.

A few weeks ago, in response to what I wrote in the New York Times, a new wave of people have been telling me that the desuetude of the the pardon power is "just the way it is." I think they are wrong this time, too.    

Saturday, April 23, 2016


Mark Osler as Angry Hockey Coach

So, I gave a talk at St. Olaf College this week to a wonderful audience of students and faculty (where else would there be a "Viking Theater?").  They made this great poster, which features the "Angry Hockey Coach" photo that seems to be floating around the internet. I'm not sure where it is from, but it looks like I am about to yell at a left wing to "get back! Get back!"  


Friday, April 22, 2016


Haiku Friday: Prince

Last night, they had a free all-night dance party at First Avenue to celebrate Prince's life.  It's not quite that, but let's have a haiku tribute here.

I can go first:

There were some glimpses
In Minneapolis, yeah,
But now, just music.

Now it is your turn. Use the 5/7/5 syllable scheme, and tell us what you remember best...

Thursday, April 21, 2016


Political Mayhem Thursday: The Bathroom Terror

A few years ago, one might think that the biggest political issue in America was the terrifying specter of a Christian baker having to make a cake for a gay couple. While we are still a little obsessed with gays and cakes, we seem to have largely moved on to the latest horror: the chance that we might share a bathroom with a transgendered person.


What, exactly, do you think will happen? The fear, I suppose, is that the transgendered person has transitioned into the gender they are attracted to-- that is, that they change sex to become gay, and then for some reason will foist homosexual assaults on other bathroom patrons. I suppose that might happen, but it seems like a pretty rare thing. Also, there is a fear that men will cross-dress just to gain entrance to the women's bathroom, which also seems like a very remote chance. After all, that tactic isn't going to work unless the offender and the victim are in the bathroom alone, and if that is true, why cross-dress?

If you don't want to go to the bathroom with people who are sexually attracted to your sex, well... you are already out of luck. Gay men use the men's room and lesbians use the women's room. That's just the way it is, and it won't change. We all seem to be doing just fine.

I travel quite a bit, and since my home airport is MSP I often travel past the spot where the "Larry Craig Bathroom" used to be (it has since been removed).  For those who have forgotten, Idaho Senator Larry Craig was caught there cruising for sex in 2007.  It's a weird story,  and always makes me feel a little uncomfortable using MSP's bathrooms. However, what I'm scared of (I guess) is  Senators, and there is a factual basis for my fear-- unlike the strange bathroom fears regarding transgendered people.

Meanwhile, here are some things that are probably more worth worrying about, none of which have been effectively addressed yet by our governments:

-- Climate change
-- Domestic terrorism
-- A mortgage crisis relapse
-- Actual sexual assaults on children (of which there are hundreds per week in this country)
-- The rise in violent crime in many cities
-- The epidemic of opioid abuse, which kills more people in one year (16,000+) than 5 World Trade   Center attacks and a Titanic sinking.

Wednesday, April 20, 2016


The End of the Year

If you are on an academic calendar, this is a special time of year, a bittersweet time.  It is the end of the year, the turning of the cycle. The students you have taught for the last four years or three years or five years are graduating.

This year (because I was voted "Outstanding Professor" by the graduates), I get to play a role in graduation. Specifically, I get to hood them as they walk the stage and get their degrees.

I've done this before, and it is a remarkable experience, an emotional one. One of those emotions is joy, of course, but also loss.

The years go by quickly.

Tuesday, April 19, 2016


"Deal from Strength or Get Crushed Every Time!"

Yeah, it is the Donald Trump kids' song! I find this oddly mesmerizing.

Monday, April 18, 2016


Oh, the Terrible Twins

David Best captured their futility in haiku:

The Twins suck eggs.
That is all. // Not a haiku?
Guess we're 0 for 10.

Sigh. It is not looking good in Twin Town.  Meanwhile, St. Paul resident Susan Stabile chose to look to the past:

Cleon Jones in left,
Tommy Agee in center,
Swoboda in right.

The Amazing Mets!
They were the team of my youth.
What more can I say?

Sunday, April 17, 2016


Sunday Reflection: The Third Cellist

Earlier this week, I went to hear a trio of string quartets  perform at Carnegie Hall. They had spent the week being mentored by the Kronos Quartet, and were thrilled to have the chance to perform what they had learned.

The cello is a remarkable instrument, capable of many voices. It does not seem easy to play; it is an ungainly size and shape, so no one looks particularly elegant holding it. That is, at least until they start to play. Then it goes (in the right hands) from awkward to mesmerizing, in an instant.

The last group, the Friction Quartet from San Francisco, was fronted by two violinists who switched off playing first violin-- they literally switched seats periodically. Both are emotional, talented players. Meanwhile, the cellist seemed impassive, like the John Entwhistle of the group. But not for long. There was a passage that spoke to him, and in a spare silence you could hear him catch his breath before launching in. 

In a way, it was that negative space-- that silence before the passion-- that made it powerful. Good music, like good painting, is conscious of that negative space, the blank spot.  

It is something I wish that preachers used more often. They (we?) seem generally afraid of silence, at least when they are in the pulpit with everyone looking up.  It seems like a perfect space, though, to bring in that moment of art. Jesus did that, after all.  He will ponder a situation, then write in the dirt. We don't find out what he writes, though, and maybe that is as it should be. It is that negative space, the breath of cellist.

Saturday, April 16, 2016


Tiny Moving Parts...

I like them. But I'm not sure why their genre is called "math rock."

Friday, April 15, 2016


Haiku Friday: Baseball

Yeah, it started when I wasn't looking. That seems to happen every year! Of course, part of that is from living in Minnesota, where we are still using the sled dogs this time of year.

To people like IPLawGuy, of course, it is a big deal. So let's haiku about that this week. Here, I will go first:

I still here his voice:
Ernie Harwell calling it
I sit on a swing.

Now it is your turn! Just use the 5/7/5 syllable formula and have some fun!

Thursday, April 14, 2016


Political Mayhem Thursday: Protests in Cleveland?

It is beginning to look very likely that this July's Republican convention in Cleveland may be the most interesting since the 1968 Democratic convention in Chicago, where protests raged and the event followed on the decision by LBJ not to run and the assassination of RFK. Hubert Humphrey was the nominee, despite the fact that he had not entered a single primary.

The protests there were in support of an anti-war plank and candidate (Eugene McCarthy), both of which were rejected inside the convention.

In July, the probable (though not certain) context will be that Donald Trump will have won the plurality of the delegates, but not enough to put him over the threshold on the first ballot. 

Last week, we discussed what might happen inside the hall-- that is, who might be chosen.

This week, I am wondering what might happen outside the hall. Will there be protests? Might Trump supporters actually show up and cause trouble? And what if neither Trump or Ted Cruz are made the nominee?  Might there be a Republican version of Chicago '68?

Wednesday, April 13, 2016


It may be the Olympics of event disasters!

If you ever wanted cheap tickets to see the Olympics, this might be your year-- it looks like tickets are selling pretty slowly to this summer's event in Rio. 

There is a reason for that, or rather reasons: The Zika virus outbreak, a rise in crime, pollution issues, political instability, rampant inflation, and a general feeling that the thing is going to be a mess.

Of course, that pales in comparison to the mess that is the 2022 World Cup in Qatar, which is such a disaster that there is a Wikipedia entry for List of 2022 World Cup Controversies.  

Speaking of 2022 sport events debacles, we also can look forward to the Winter Olympics that year which will be hosted by Beijing-- a place so unsuited to winter sports that it is anticipated that all of the skiing events will have to be held on artificial snow.  In fact (and this is real), here is a photo of the mountain which will host the ski events, taken in mid-January of this year:

So much to look forward to!

Tuesday, April 12, 2016


Out Today: Ron Fournier's "Love That Boy"

Today is a big day: It's the release date for Ron Fournier's book Love That Boy: What Two Presidents, Eight Road Trips, and My Son Taught Me About a Parent's Expectations. This book is going to be important to a lot of people. You can get it here, or at bookstores starting today.

Regular readers of this blog know that Ron and I go way back; when we were 17 we co-edited the school paper and ran near-identical times on the cross-country and track teams.  We took the bus to Iowa City to attend the Iowa Young Writer's Studio, collecting adventures along the way.  We have stayed in touch even as our paths diverged and then converged again, and lately we have even collaborated.  Now, it seems, we are publishing memoirs in the same year.

Though, it might be that his is better. I have read Love That Boy, and was deeply affected by it. It's not a re-telling of Ron's remarkable career as a journalist, but rather focuses on his role as a parent. In particular, it lays out some of the joys and challenges of raising his third child and only son, Tyler, who has Asperger's Syndrome.  I had the pleasure of reading the book a few months ago.

Too often, these stories turn into a celebration of the virtue of the parent and a lament for the troubles he or she faced. There is none of that here, as those who know Ron's writing would well know. He is a rare commentator in that he admits his own mistakes and frailties up front, yet is fearless in confronting the powerful.  The same spirit animates this more personal story arc, in that he describes his stumbles and errors as part of a richer tale that he knows is grander than himself. Bill Clinton and George W. Bush are characters in the book-- important ones-- but not as important as Tyler or the towering figure of Ron's father, a Detroit cop who made sense in a time and place (Detroit in the 1970's) that often lacked those figures. I knew Ron's dad, and he made a strong impression on me: when I thought of a police officer, I thought of him, and when I went into law enforcement it was in my mind that I was going to be working in league with people like Mr. Fournier. Sometimes, that was true.

Ron Fournier could sit around and tell war stories about famous people for days, if he was that kind of person. He's not, though, and it is the human scale of this very human story that makes it important and real and moving. It's not about a famous guy and the people he met. It's about a kid with some issues and a dad with some issues, and that's pretty much the deal with us all when the truth is laid bare.

So, go ahead and buy it.  And, of course, you can pre-order my book now, too. I'm not sure if Jerry Stitzel (the guy pictured between Ron and I in the photo below) has written a book, but if he has I'll bet that would be pretty interesting, too.

Monday, April 11, 2016


Like a Virgin...

I blame the Medievalist for getting this song stuck in my head-- he did it with this haiku!

Stairway to heaven,
In Winslow Arizona,
Like a virgin, hey!

Meanwhile, David Best is all about REM (not a bad thing), and IPLawGuy is obsessed with Donald Trump...

Sunday, April 10, 2016


Sunday Reflection: One Action, Two Great Commandments

This morning I will be giving the sermon at First Covenant Church in Minneapolis, a place I dearly love.  If you are interested, the church is at 810 South 7th Street in Minneapolis, right across from the new stadium.  

It's going to be a little bit of an art history lecture (I have a bunch of slides). I am going to read a poem by Reginald Dwayne Betts. I'll probably tell some stories. A lot of it is going to be about my dad and his work.  The text for the sermon is Matthew 25, starting at verse 34-- where Jesus tells his followers that when they visit those in prison, they visit him.  

It's a startling thing for Jesus to say. It his revelation of where we need to go to see the face of Jesus: We need to find the hungry, the thirsty, the naked, we need to find the stranger and those in prison. All of  the outcasts... and then we will find Jesus. That's not my teaching; it is His.

And if we do that, it achieves this remarkable thing: We fulfill both of the Great Commandments at once. We love God, and we love our neighbor.

And that simple truth never occurred to me before this week. How did I miss that?

Saturday, April 09, 2016


Great story...

... in the New York Times tomorrow-- Frank Bruni talking about Ron Fournier's book, which comes out on Tuesday. Check it out here.

Friday, April 08, 2016


Haiku Friday: Music of the season

So, what are you listening to?

I'm kind of fascinated with Babymetal... what all is going on there? I found out about them from IPLawGuy, who has been following them around the country, often dressed in a manga costume. He sends me cassette tapes from various places, so I have been listening. 

Let's haiku about that this week!  Here is mine:

IPLawGuy's fav!
That might be him playing drums
He has that outfit.

Now it is your turn! Just make it 5/7/5 for the syllable count, and have some fun!

Thursday, April 07, 2016


Political Mayhem Thursday: If Not Trump, Then Who?

With the results of the Wisconsin primary in hand, it appears there are three possible outcomes in the Republican race for President (listed here in the order of likelihood):

1) Donald Trump receives the most delegates but does not attain enough (1237) to win the nomination outright. 

2)  Donald Trump receives the most delegates but does attain the 1237 threshold and wins the nomination outright.

3)  Ted Cruz wins the most delegates, but not enough to win the nomination outright.

In the first scenario, few expect that the convention would pick Trump. In the second scenario, they would have to pick Trump. In the third scenario, they might or might not choose Cruz.

Given that two of the three outcomes not only result in no winner on the first ballot, but probably would not result in Trump or Cruz being chosen at all (since both are highly unpopular with party leaders), who would they choose?

Here are some leading options:

Paul Ryan
Mitt Romney
John Kasich

 What do you think?  

Wednesday, April 06, 2016


Hillary & Bernie v. Trump, Cruz, and Kasich

So, why is it that we refer to the Democratic candidates by their first names, and Republican candidates by their last names? No one ponders the general election and says "I think it will be Hillary versus Ted." They say it will be "Hillary versus Cruz," instead.

I suppose that in part it is self-definition, though Ted Cruz's signs actually say "Trust Ted." But... no one calls him "Ted" when they are talking about the campaign.

What do you think is up with that?

Tuesday, April 05, 2016


Tomorrow: Come see Reginald Dwayne Betts at UST!

Four years ago, I got a message from Reginald Dwayne Betts. He told me he was writing a poem about crack, and wanted to talk to me. He was working at Harvard, and I was going there in a few weeks, so we arranged to meet.

It was a remarkable meeting, and his story is equally remarkable:

At the age of 16, Reginald Dwayne Betts and a friend carjacked a man who had fallen asleep in his car at a mall. Betts was charged as an adult and spent more than eight years in prison, where he completed high school and began reading and writing poetry. Today, Betts is a student at Yale Law School and is the author of a memoir and two books of poetry.

His memior, A Question of Freedom: A Memoir of Learning, Survival, and Coming of Age in Prison (Avery/Penguin, 2009), was awarded the 2010 NAACP Image Award for non-fiction. His books of poetry are Shahid Reads His Own Palm (Alice James, 2010) and Bastards of the Reagan Era (Four Way Books, 2015). Betts is a 2010 Soros Justice Fellow, 2011 Radcliffe Fellow, and 2012 Ruth Lilly and Dorothy Sargent Rosenberg Poetry Fellow. In 2012, Betts was appointed to the Coordinating Council of the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention by President Obama. He is a graduate of Prince George’s Community College, the University of Maryland and the MFA Program at Warren Wilson College.

His latest book of poetry, Bastards of the Reagan Era, is a startling volume. He asked me to blurb it, and this is what I said: "Dwayne Betts describes my field, criminal law, as 'the business of human tragedy.' He's right. In Bastards of the Reagan Era, Betts does a remarkable job of describing the precise shape of that tragedy. It comes at the right moment, too, as many Americans are straining to see something beyond 'guilty' and 'prisoner' when they look at criminal law. Betts is a great poet, and a witness to truths that have for too long been shrouded in media fables and easy politics.”

Tomorrow, he will be reading from the book and talking to us at UST law school-- Room 235 from 12:30 to 1:30. It is free, and all are welcome!

Monday, April 04, 2016


Things from the closet

Ah, a fine crop of haiku this week!  I found it easy to visualize David Best's:

All the contents of
the garage were moved to make
way for new shelving.

Father came and built.
With the help of his son and
his grandson he worked.

The closets were freed
for interior storage,
undoing clutter.

Built shelving from scratch.
Measure twice cut once... then build,
great closet, garage.

Christine's made me want to plant things:

Dried stems dangling,
Cages sit in the corner
Soon, fresh tomatoes

And Renee's made me want to not farm:

In the desert in
Southeast Washington State,the wind began
To blow with a lust

For fresh down seed by
A hapless farmer.My father
Reached for Maalox,drank

Coffee,two sugars and cream
And smoked Winston after Winston.
The dust blew like Oklahoma.

And the Medievalist?  Well, we are not there yet in Minnesota...

Into the closet
Go the jackets, scarves, mittens
Summer in Texas.

Sunday, April 03, 2016


Sunday Reflection: Lamar Stories

So, I know it has been a week of political mayhem, basically-- I have thrown myself into a maelstrom. 

But there is a counterpoint, too. I've decided to do something new, something gentler, something that comes from a different part of me.

I have started to write short stories. They are all about one place, a place I have never been: Lamar, Colorado.  I have written four so far, one of which (the first in the series) will be published tomorrow. Below is one of the others. Characters recur in all of them, so far.  I'm wondering what people think.

 Smile, Leah

When you play the oboe, and you're good, you can look around now and then. I can't help it, either, even in Lincoln Center with a full house. My eyes are up, looking at music and beyond at glimpses of faces and the shapes in the dark beyond our pool of brilliant light.

As I finish the little piece I used today to close my presentation, I see eleven people. Eight of them are on their phones playing a game or texting. An older couple sit in front, severe and serious. One girl, a high school kid wearing an old tie as a belt, is listening intently, nodding along.  I meet her eyes as I play and she flinches a little.

All in all, the Lamar Community Center was not my best gig. My regular job is as the principle oboe for the New York Philharmonic, which is what people always expected of me. When I was in grade school, my mother and my teacher took me from Waco to New York to see the Philharmonic, and my mom would point to an oboist and say "that will be you!" She was right. Sometimes moms are right. That, and most of the day every day in a practice room growing to know and love and hate your instrument.

But even the Philharmonic takes breaks now and then, and I needed to get out of New York to someplace far away. I had never been to Colorado, and the state funds an "artists in residence" program that was posted on a job board, so I jumped at that. When the Colorado people asked where I wanted to go, I told them I didn't care and that I just wanted to see something new. So, here I am in Lamar, a place that looks like a photo from the Times above a story about a dust rancher who has been asked about politics.

Two days into my residence, I sit on a plastic chair and watch my audience file out. I thought that the older couple might want to talk, but they head to their car almost before I am done. The others take a little longer, since they had to finish whatever they were doing on their phones. The girl with the tie for a belt is the last one out. As she gets to the door, I call out to her. "Hey, excuse me?"

She turned, again a little startled. "Yes?" she responded, and then "I liked your oboe playing." She walked back towards me.

"Thanks," I said as she looked at my instrument, "the crowd didn't seem too into it."

The girl shrugs. "Lamar is kind of a country music place."

I am desperate to keep her near, since she is the closest thing I have to a friend in the place I have dedicated three weeks of my life to. I motion to her to sit down in a blue plastic chair near me. "I really like your belt," I tell her. It's true, too. The tie is a red and blue regimental stripe, like a congressman wears for C-Span. She is wearing it with jeans and a white satin top with thin straps.

She lights up. "I made this!" she says, touching it. "From one of my dad's ties, from when he was... working." She looks down at it self-consiously. "I want to wear one thing every day that isn't so, you know, so Lamar." She looks up. "I love your hair."

Instinctively, I touch my hair the way she did touched her belt. When I play, I tie it up in a thick braid of rope. Lawrence loved to hold it in the palm of his hand when I would lay next to him in the morning after a concert. I would fuss about this mistake or that one, and he would say "no, it was good. Smile, Leah."

The girl is watching me reach for my braid. "I have to keep it away from the oboe when I play," I tell her. "Does anyone here play oboe?"

"We have a little orchestra at school, and this guy Jape plays oboe, but not very well. He mostly cares about football."  There is a tiny pause, and then the girl sticks out her hand. "My name is Julie Harris," she says, with a professional air. "I'm a senior in high school. Where did you go to college?"

"Julliard," I tell her, and then wonder if that means anything to her. I look in her blue eyes, but they don't tip either way. "It's by where I work now," I tell her.

"Yes, in Lincoln Center. You're amazing."

"Have you been there?" I ask.

She shakes her head vigorously. "No, I've never been out East. But, I'm a writer, so I know it from researching stories and things like that." 

I nod. I suppose it makes sense, that she would know that. The internet changes everything.  "So, why did you come to hear me? If you don't play oboe?"

Julie looks at me intently. She is getting more confident around me. "It was assigned for music appreciation class. And I know that guy Jape who plays oboe in the orchestra, and I wanted to hear what it was supposed to really sound like." She pulls out her phone and shows me a picture of Jape and his oboe, which makes me laugh-- it looks like a football player stole an oboe on a dare-- and then Julie looks at it and laughs, too. In a flash, though, her seriousness returns. "Why are you here?" she asks.

Sometimes honesty bubbles up in me unexpectedly. I'm the kind of person who says "I love you" at the wrong time, or gives an accurate review of a child's performance on stage. So, being like that, I blurt out "I broke up with my boyfriend," one second before I realize how wrong that might be to reveal to this high school girl. It's really an understatement, too. I walked out on him, really, while we were out to dinner with another couple. He had just finished telling them how much he loved hearing me play, and it was like he put me in a cage shaped like an oboe, just like everyone else who said they loved me.

This time, Julie doesn't look startled at all, just understanding. I suppose that in high school breaking up with your boyfriend can explain any number of irrational behaviors, after all.  She accepts it, and moves on. "What is New York like?"

"Big. Busy. There's always something to do, if you want to."

Julie cocks her head. "Like what?"

It is a pointed question, a journalist's question. The answer is too large to bear, so I go for something very specific. "A few weeks ago I went to hear a band at a bar. I have a friend who plays a lot of instruments, and he's really good at baritone sax, so when a band needs a bass or a baritone sax they hire him to come in and play one or two songs. So I went down to the Mercury bar with him at, like, 11:30, and we had a beer, then he went and played the two songs and then we left and went to another bar with him carrying this gigantic saxophone, and it all was just kind of normal in New York." It wasn't a random story, I suppose; it was the last night I had with Lawrence. He loved his instrument in a way I did not. He lived it, full bore, even in those few moments with the saxophone at the Mercury.

Julie is intrigued. "There's a bass saxophone? What does that sound like?"

I think for a moment. "It's deep, really deep, and a lot of times they use it as a drone, almost, like in Indian music. Just this one long note, sometimes, and everything else layers on top of it. But the drone is there the whole time. It's like it makes the other parts stronger."

Julie nods. She is tall, and when she nods her whole body moves like a willow. "What's your favorite place in New York?" she asks.

That one is easy. "It's a bookstore," I tell her, "a couple blocks from where I live. From the outside, it always looks closed because it's kind of dark and there is no sign except a tiny one that says 'rare and used books.' But in fact it seems like it is always open. There are books stacked up everywhere, and the guy who works there, I think he lives in there. And if you need something, he always seems to have it."

Julie is leaning in now. Since she is a writer, I think that this place would appeal to her. I am about to tell her about the man who ran the place, Arnie, when she stops me with a question: "Are the books expensive?"

I shrug, remembering the faint pencil mark on the inside cover of each book, a number that is more of a baseline than a price. "Not really. It's funny. Sometimes he won't sell a book at all. Before he will sell it, it's like he is figuring out if you really need it. He asks you 'what is this for?' and then you are evaluated on your answer. I went in there once and wandered around and found an old Joy of Cooking that reminded me of my mom. He asked me if I cooked, and I told him 'no,' and then he wouldn't sell it to me. Another time, I convinced him I needed an old map of Virginia, so I could understand what this guy had said in a class I took, and he just gave it to me."  

I laugh, but Julie doesn't. "So..." she said slowly, "the books are distributed more on need than price?"

"Yeah, I suppose." I hadn't thought of it that way. "It's like you have to love it and need it, and then you get to pay for it."

"I want to go there," Julie says earnestly, "not just to New York, but to that store."

"We can," I say, quietly, meaning it.

"There is a place like that here, kind of. It's not a store, but it's full of stuff people don't know they need, or know that they need but don't want to have." Julie rubs her nose, thinking. "If that makes any sense."

And then she takes me to The Shed after I toss my oboe and its case, a little too roughly, into the back of the little Honda I had rented. We walk down the main street, then on a little residential street, and then on a dirt road. We pass people on foot or in pickup trucks, and they wave at Julie. Most of the people here seem to dress the same way I do in New York, in jeans and a t-shirt and boots. Looking down at the dust of the road, my boots look at home.

When we get there, Julie pushes open a metal door. Inside the Shed is all the stuff a town doesn't know what to do with, the things we just throw out in New York: old equipment, and banners for festivals, and barrels that might as well be labeled "misc." Julie shows me where kids hide pot and notebooks and photos. It's like a Robert Rauschenberg combine that was assembled by a whole town. I think how much Lawrence would love it, each item a found art treasure.

Out behind The Shed, under a little awning, is a worn couch. Someone had attached a little cupholder to it, and nearby was a six-pack of beer tucked under a red flannel shirt; abandoned, or set away for later, by a mysterious owner. I flopped down on one end and Julie on the other.

"Should we drink the beer?" I ask, motioning over to the shirt. 

She shakes her head. I can't tell if she is just saying no to the idea of drinking stolen beer with a visiting oboist, or if she just wouldn't drink a beer. It doesn't matter.

In front of us, dusk is preparing itself.  Lamar is a place like New York, really-- this mash-up of the mundane and stark beauty.  Julie looks over me, suddenly more woman than schoolgirl. 

"You didn't really leave your boyfriend, did you," she says, a statement more than a question.

"I don't know," I almost whisper, and look over at a soaring hawk, hunting. "I don't know." In front of me, I watch the brown landscape beneath the hawk change color, like the fading sunlight on Hudson Street on red bricks and a stoop where I fed someone else's cat. I look over at her, and she is listening intently, like almost no one listens to me ever unless I am playing the stupid fucking oboe.  She looks like she is about to cry; she is someone, I can tell, who cries.

"I have a boyfriend," she says, wiping her cheek with the back of her hand, "or I had a boyfriend." She looks at me with those blue eyes.  "He's the one who plays the oboe, Jape."

"I know," I tell her, and I did. I knew that when she told me about the guy who loved football. I know how that feels.

It was warm, like a night in Houston, and we sat and talked about boyfriends, and then the sun went down and some other girls came to get that beer they had left with the shirt.  We talked with them for a minute and then let them have the couch and set back down the dirt road to the paved road to the main road.  I walked in New York, all the time, but I never heard myself walk there, never heard the crunch of gravel under my boots or the rhythm of each footfall. It was too loud.

We were quiet, though, and my footsteps syncopated with hers and I began to hum. And another sound, too, crickets in the yards, a drone, beneath it all, making it stronger, waiting for us to add our layers on top until no one noticed them at all. But tonight, on the dirt road in my boots, I could hear my own footsteps and the earth beneath, and no one had to tell me "Smile, Leah."

Saturday, April 02, 2016


More news

So, I spent the end of the week in DC working for more federal clemency. I spoke at the White House, had other great conversations, and then Friday morning I had a piece in the New York Times titled Obama's Clemency Problem. More importantly, President Obama met and had lunch with some people who have received clemency-- and are living now as productive citizens.

Did any of this work? You won't know, really, until January 20, 2017, when this presidency is over. Still... yesterday afternoon Politico reported White House Promises to Speed Up Clemency Program. So, you gotta hope!

There is another stage to all this; the next administration. Towards that end, Nkechi Taifa and I have a piece in this weeks' New York Amsterdam News, the largest black paper in New York, under the headline If Black Lives Matter, Hillary and Bernie Should Commit to Clemency.

Friday, April 01, 2016


Haiku Friday: Out of the closet

So, it has been an interesting week. Today I have a piece in the New York Times, yesterday I was quoted in the Washington Post, and of course I got to speak at the White House.  As the to the last of these, I will unpack that once we are done with important haiku. Suffice it to say that part of what happened was that the White House Counsel insulted "naysaying law professors," and that later-- in response-- I got to respond in a few minutes that began with the statement "I feel a rant coming on." This is not hyperbole. This actually happened. Also, at the end of the session, Valerie Jarrett quoted what I said, which wasn't so much of a rant. (All of this was on a live cast, so it must be out there somewhere).  So there was that.

Anyways, let's get out a good spring haiku topic. How about this: The things we drag out of the closet in the spring. Maybe clothes, sports equipment, gardening stuff, whatever. Here, I will go first:

Linen is fussy
So much care it requires!
Save it for warm days.

Now it is your turn! Just use the 5/7/5 syllable recipe and have some fun!

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