Wednesday, October 31, 2018


Who is American?

Not long ago, a friend was telling me about a fascinating new fast-food place, which offered only sushi and smoothies. It's a weird combination; hopefully there is no cross-over between the product lines. The people at the counter were Asian, and the workers making the food and the smoothies were Latino. The customers were a mix of people from a typical mixed-income urban American neighborhood. The joint was jammed, with a line out the door.

That scene is profoundly American, all of it. The jarring mash-up of cuisines and people, the innovation, the lively success. It's the kind of thing that comes from one of our greatest strengths: the ability to meld cultures into something new, prosperous, and meaningful.

So, who is American?

There seems to be a movement in this country to define "American" as white, conservative, and Christian. That movement will fail.

It will fail because it is wrong legally; the Constitution itself makes that clear.

It will fail because it is weak. Those who fear those who are unlike them are limpid, infirm.

It will fail because it is moral wrong-- even (or especially) within the morality of Christianity.

And it will fail because it will lose out to the genuine heart of America, that is alive in that place where they are (apparently) making pretty good sushi and smoothies.

Tuesday, October 30, 2018


Politics, Posturing, and death

I'm feeling a little overwhelmed lately. Yesterday I taught class and then went home and went to bed. In large part, I felt physically sick. But I had a soul injury, too. I am floored by the ginned-up hatred in this country-- and struck by the fact that most of the violent acts seem to be committed by a relatively small group of people of which I am a part: 50-something white men. As part of that group, I'm baffled by the threat they seem to feel from immigrants, Jews, and people of color.

Right now, part of the dynamic is driving by President Trump. For political gain, he has seized on a caravan of political refugees headed across Mexico with the hope to find asylum in the United States. Most recently, he announced that he is moving over 5,000 troops to the border next week-- the week of the midterm election.

That's idiotic. The caravan is 1,000 miles from the border, and they are on foot. They won't get to the border for a few months. And even at that, what are soldiers going to do-- shoot the refugees, who are legally required to present themselves at the border to claim asylum? It's a show, and it is a dangerous one. 

Robert Bowers, who killed 11 people, shot police officers, and terrorized a synagogue in Pittsburgh last Saturday, criticized Trump for being insufficiently anti-semitic, and was not the kind of avid Trump supporter we saw in Cesar Sayoc, who sent pipe bombs to Trump enemies last week. Still, it seems clear that the "Caravan" myth of invasion was a motive for his murders, according to CBS News:

On Friday, Bowers posted a link to a page from the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society (HIAS), a Jewish nonprofit that aids refugees. The HIAS link listed congregations across the country that held Shabbat services this month for refugees — including several synagogues in Pittsburgh.  
"Why hello there HIAS! You like to bring in hostile invaders to dwell among us? We appreciate the list of friends you have provided," Bowers wrote. 
In a post on Saturday morning, about two hours before the shooting, Bowers wrote: "HIAS likes to bring invaders in that kill our people. I can't sit by and watch my people get slaughtered. Screw your optics, I'm going in." 
In the weeks before the shooting, Bowers posted constantly about Jews, including denials of the Holocaust and conspiracy theories about Jews destroying the planet and secretly supporting the migrant caravan heading toward the U.S. border. 
Here's the thing... Trump defenders may say that he did not know that the anti-immigrant political narrative would fuel violence. Even accepting that, there can be no doubt that now they know that it does-- the proof is in the actions of Sayoc and Bowers. 

Perhaps before those incidents, complicity in the crimes is arguable. Now that they have occurred, though, we know what happens-- we know what the effect is on people like Sayoc and Bowers, who live among us. If this administration continues to press a fear-mongering approach to these refugees, and further violence occurs, they will not have that defense. 

Monday, October 29, 2018



There were some great haiku last week about secret talents! I loved finding out that the Medievalist can bake bread, that Jill Scoggins makes intriguing-sounding ornaments, that Silly American can parallel park, and that Christine is making book trees. (I already knew that Gavin could write haiku, but it was still a good poem).

The epic for this week, though, comes from Tall Tenor, who teaches opera in Texas (necessary context to understand this poem):

Singing I can do.
Not so much guitar playing.
But I will get it!

Country-western songs
Played in a honky-tonk bar
Make me laugh and cry.

Sunday, October 28, 2018


Today in the Waco Trib

I had a piece in the Waco Trib today, offering some advice to the incoming DA in Waco, Barry Johnson. He has a real opportunity to make some good and lasting changes!


Sunday Reflection: More death

One terrible person made a bunch of bombs. They were duds; no one was hurt. He targeted the rich and famous.

Another terrible person went into a building and shot as many people as he could, killing 11 of them. He targeted those who were worshipping.

Both did it out of hate.

Like a lot of people, I am wondering "What is going on?" How did we get to a place where (on top of school shootings and all the other violence) we now are stacking up in one week multiple acts of lethal hate on the national stage.

Part of the problem is this: There is no moral force in our society to counter hate.

The government has abdicated that role.
Faith leaders have lost their voice and influence, and some exacerbate the problem.
Our teachers have been marginalized and devalued.
Popular culture is not much help; it is often rooted in violence.

In all of the time I have been alive, this is the period I can remember with the largest vacuum in real leadership.

Can we hope that this will change?

Saturday, October 27, 2018



There are a lot of interesting races going on, but the Florida governor's contest has to be one of the most fascinating:

Friday, October 26, 2018


Haiku Friday: Secret Talent

Everyone I know seems to have a secret talent of some kind. For example, people don't know this, but IPLawGuy makes homeopathic medicines in a shed behind his house, and my dad used to tan leather in the basement (at least I think that is what he was doing).  So let's haiku about our secret talents this week!

Here, I will go first:

People don't know this
But I'm a pretty good shot
Not a skill I use.

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

Thursday, October 25, 2018


PMT: Pipe bombs and politics

Pipe bombs are hard to make, even though the idea is simple. (For those of you who are wondering how I know anything about pipe bombs, I went to a week of training on arsons and explosives when I was a prosecutor). The challenge is that to have a pipe bomb be truly explosive, you need to create excellent containment-- that is, it needs to be a strong shell with no weak points to produce a maximum explosion.

It's tough to do that-- the hard part is creating and securing end caps that will provide as much resistance to the explosion as the pipe itself. Lacking that, the force just escapes through the end of the pipe, and you have a silly-looking rocket squirting around for bit.  The "Unabomber," Ted Kaczynski, had a Ph.D. in math from Michigan and taught at UC-Berkeley, and still struggled to get end-caps right.

So that's the formula, and the challenge: To make a good pipe-bomb, you have to create a contained space where an explosion can occur.

Yesterday, pipe bombs were sent to the following people:

-- Hillary Clinton
-- Barack Obama
-- Rep. Maxine Waters
-- CNN (addressed to CNN commentator John Brennan
-- George Soros
-- Eric Holder

The targeting was as clear and evil as that of James Hodgkinson, who shot at Republican lawmakers during a softball practice in June of 2017, wounding Rep. Steve Scalise and three others.

What's wrong with our politics, our values, our discourse, our morals?

It does seem as if we have created contained spaces, primed for explosions. Those who seek to escape party orthodoxy are stigmatized and insulted; the end-caps must be maintained. 

None of the bombs delivered this week appear to have gone off; they were failures, in a sense. But bombers usually get better the more practice they have, until they attain the destruction they desire. And then, when the method is perfected, is when the real danger arises.

Wednesday, October 24, 2018


The Last Time the Dodgers Faced the Sox in the World Series...

The New York Times had a fascinating piece yesterday about the last time that the Red Sox and the Dodgers met in the World Series: 1916.

What was different?

Well, the Dodgers played in Brooklyn then, of course (and the name made more sense, as streetcar dodgers). Though they apparently couldn't quite decide on a name, and switched off between Dodgers, Robins, and the "Superbas" (which I kind of like, since it is almost "Superbad" and derives from the too-rarely used word "superb." Babe Ruth was pitching for the Sox. 

IPLawGuy was actually in attendance at that particular game 5, in Boston, and remembers that it was a lopsided game. "Why yes!" he told me, tamping out his pipe into my unfinished salad, "the Superbas folded like a well-used linen napkin. I think I still have the scorecard here someplace...." At that point he went down into his basement, and we haven't seen him since.

Tuesday, October 23, 2018


The danger of holding a lifeline

A few years ago, Dr. Joanne Braxton gave me the book "A Lesson Before Dying," by Ernest Gaines. The book captivated me, and I couldn't put it down.

As I have mentioned here before, one line in the book struck me hard. A young black man is being led to the execution chamber, circa 1948:

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."

At the time I read it, I felt hit by the odd plea to someone wholly unable to help-- and I felt too much like that helpless person called out to. Of course, I'm no Joe Louis.

But is Kim Kardashian the Joe Louis of our time? I know that she is inundated with pleas for help right now, and that many people in prison are convinced that she holds the keys, based on her success with Alice Johnson (who is between us in the picture above). And, I suspect that she is feeling some of the same emotions that I do-- that sense of being overwhelmed in the face of great need and a flood of mail. I'll defend her against any critic who claims she should not be joining this fight, just as I defend the work of my other allies who come from a remarkably broad stratum of our society. Our coalition has something to offend everyone. That's our strength.

This past Sunday, the Star-Tribune columnist Jennifer Brooks wrote a great piece about the work of my clinic (you can read it here). I really appreciate the article, but it is hard for me to read-- I know it sets out an expectation that is hard to meet right now (and, pretty much, always). We are a society that too often prefers finality and forgetting, even when changeable, redeemable human lives are at stake. Once you glimpse the wrong in that, it is hard to look away. But like many worthwhile things, what you are looking  at beneath that compelling image is a hard, uphill path.

I know what that has been like for me. What will it be like for Kim Kardashian?

Monday, October 22, 2018


Pie time

Go back and read the excellent pie haiku! The medievalist and Christine both wrote great haiku, but they wrote about pies that I don't like-- at least not yet. Maybe through poetry, I will broaden my view of pie-etry? 


Not that kind of pie, Gavin!:

Three point one four two
Unlike normal foody pie
You never run out.

But the Silly American thinks the way that I do:

I'd eat pumpkin pie
for breakfast, lunch, dinner: whipped 
cream, plain . . . smooth comfort.

Sunday, October 21, 2018


Sunday Reflection: A better story

Sometimes there is a reflection out there better than what I can offer, and today is one of those days. So check out this today's New York Times Magazine's memoir from Reginald Dwayne Betts, where he describes his journey from inmate to poet an lawyer. It is well worth your time. You can read it here.

Saturday, October 20, 2018


Freedom is sweet

Ronald Blount served over 20 years of a life sentence for a non-violent narcotics offense. He was one of the clients of my clinic at St. Thomas, and for about a year, he called me every Friday. At first, it seemed like he was calling to check in on his case, but it soon became clear that he had a broader purpose: to check in on me, to encourage me, to give me hope in the project. There were some hard times, and his Friday calls helped me get through it working on his case and many others.

This week, I visited him at home. I met his family, caught up, and talked about food for a while. It was... perfect.

Not all moments are equal. This one was a rare joy.

Friday, October 19, 2018


Haiku Friday: Pie

I like pie. Once I made a pie, and I ate the whole thing myself. I was up alllll night.

Let's haiku about pie this week! Here, I will go first:

Pumpkin pie, my friend
I do love you very much
Please don't you leave me.

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

Thursday, October 18, 2018


PMT: Canada legalizes pot

Yesterday, Canada became the first major economy to legalize recreational marijuana across the country. As the New York Times reports, Canadians can now legally possess up to 30 grams of marijuana for personal use or sharing with others.  

By contrast, US policy at the federal level still lists marijuana as a schedule I narcotic-- higher than cocaine, which is in schedule II.  Some states, of course, have legalized marijuana to various degrees, but the federal law seems entrenched; it somehow remained in Schedule I through the entire Obama administration, which seemed to generally have a pretty good BS detector but also a big dose of timidity.

If the Canadian experiment is successful, it could go a long way towards changing attitudes in the US. But... we'll see.

Wednesday, October 17, 2018


"Only his first rape"

I'm used to some staggering sentences coming out of Waco. Usually, they are staggeringly long, and given to black and Latino defendants who are involved in drug or sex assault cases.

This one is different-- a white college fraternity president from Baylor was charged with four counts of sexual assault. He was given a staggeringly sweet plea deal: A $400 fine and three years of what the Waco Tribune Herald called "deferred probation" (and I assume to be deferred adjudication, where the defendant serves probation and then the case is dismissed upon successful completion).

Here is what the Waco Trib had to say, quoting the victim of the alleged crime and then discussing the actions of prosecutor Hillary LaBorde:

“This guy violently raped me multiple times, choked me and when I blacked out, he dumped me face down on the ground and left me to die,” the woman’s email states. “When I woke up aspirating on my own vomit, my friends immediately took me to the hospital and we reported it to the Waco police, Baylor police and Title IX office.”
She said in a statement from the family Saturday that she did everything authorities tell sexual assault victims to do. Yet she and her family feel slighted by the efforts of the DA’s office, she said....
According to the statement, LaBorde told the woman and her family about a sexual assault case LaBorde lost involving college students. But the family and their attorney, Feazell, said the facts are “completely different.”
“Hilary told us she does not think a jury in Waco is ready to convict someone if this was only his first rape,” the statement reads.

Tuesday, October 16, 2018


My Time at Sears

With the announcement that Sears is in bankruptcy and apparently in a death spiral, many of us are becoming weirdly nostalgic. For some, the memories are longer than mine-- for example, they may have grown up in a home that was literally ordered from the Sears catalogue, a thick volume that sustained much of middle America for generations. 

My own Sears memory is incredibly specific, but very real.

When I entered 7th grade, I discovered that instead of going to the middle school that was nearby (Parcells), I was, through some quirk of districting, destined for a school that was about five or six miles away (Brownell). Razorite Christine lived on my block, and on the same side of the street, but I think her parents lobbied for an exception and she got to go to the closer school.

Not me. And I didn't ask for a switch; it seemed like it would be kind of an adventure to go to that school far away. And I was right! There were no school busses in the Grosse Pointe School System, so I had to get a ride, ride my bike, or take a city bus. On the days that I either biked it or took the bus, I often carved out a little time to explore the neighborhood near the middle school.

It was fascinating, too! Within just a few blocks I found Grosse Pointe's only fast food joint (Burger Chef), a tiny independent pharmacy that seemed to have some funny business going on, a bustling florist, a store that baffled me called "The Groove Shop," a sleazy bar, a post office with a raft of employees smoking out back, and... Sears.  I got kicked out of most of the other places (understandably-- I clearly had no business in the "Groove Shop"), but found I could wander around Sears to my heart's content.

And I found two things I loved there. One was the stereo section, where employees were often trying out the equipment with the latest offering from Bob Seger or the J. Geils Band. The other was Pong.

Pong was, pretty much, the first video game. It was shockingly basic: you moved a perky-jerky line of light on a black-and-white screen as a dot of light bounced around, protecting your "goal." There were a few versions of the game-- tennis, soccer-- but that really just changed the size of the scoring area. It was sold at Sears as a giant console unit with a screen and controllers, and they usually had it turned on so you could check it out.

I loved Pong.

Soon after I discovered Pong, I brought my buddy Brian up to play it with me. We were both in awe at this technology. Fortunately, even then, Sears was so poorly and inattentively staffed that no one shooed us away. Careful to budget enough light as the sun crept down over Detroit in the dank winter, we blooped away, feeling like we were getting a stolen taste of the future. All around us, the city was falling apart, bit by bit. People sometimes imagine that Detroit collapsed all at once under the weight of endemic racism, systemic disrepair, and economic disruption, but that's not true-- it faded one life at a time, when no one was looking. I wasn't looking, either. I was playing Pong.

And then, not long after Pong was discovered by this inveterate explorer from the far-away land of Grosse Pointe Shores, I graduated from middle school.

Then Pong was gone. Then that Sears store. And now, I suppose, Sears as a thing in American society. Pong is survived by 500,000 grandchildren and great-grandchildren, a group that includes every video game that entrances every middle school student in the entire friggin' world. And me.

[Note to readers: Often after I post one of these nostalgic remembrances, I get a note from my Mom and Dad along the lines of "Oh- that's what you were doing!" In my own memory, I like to think I told them all this stuff, but the evidence is to the contrary. Sorry, Mom! Sorry, Dad!]

Monday, October 15, 2018


On and in books

Wow! Good work, writers.

The Medievalist stuck wisely to the classics:

Catcher in the Rye,
A broken grieving soul is
Crying out for help.

So did Gavin:

Some books speak to you. 
For me, it’s Catch 22. 
Over and over.

CTL had a truth:

Voices, footsteps, life; 
In a good book you can hear
A story unfold. 

And I loved what Anonymous wrote:

Lila, third reading
Marilynne Robinson’s prose
Charms enchants me still

Despite sad ending
Elegance of the Hedgehog
Deserves a reread.

Sunday, October 14, 2018


Sunday Reflection: Patriarchy, Racism, Identity, and Collaboration

Over the past decade, nearly all of my work has been in collaboration. I have had some remarkable collaborators, too: Rich Sullivan, Rachel Barkow, Jeanne Bishop, Mark Bennett, Hank Shea, and Eric Luna, among others. 

Two of the most important of these collaborators have been Dr. Joanne Braxton and Nkechi Taifa. Professor Braxton, as I have described here recently, has been a profound influence on me, and today we work on a variety of social issues through the Braxton Institute (she is the President and I am the Vice-President). Ms. Taifa and I have worked together for years to advocate for a broader and fairer use of executive clemency.  I have had the good fortune to see them both in the past month, which has made it a pretty good month.

Here's the thing, though: they are fierce opponents of patriarchy and white supremacy, and I am, of course, a white male. Some people have wondered how that works. The answer is "very well," but I realize some might want me to flesh that out a little.

Yes, I am a man. Yes, I have been advantaged by patriarchy my whole life. I have also benefited (in ways realized and unrealized) from being white in America. So why would Dr. Braxton and Ms. Taifa work with me?

I think the first and most important answer is this: because they are good and generous people, who have a moral breadth that does not link deep moral belief with personal vindictiveness. And how rare is that these days? 

Second, perhaps they see that I am educable. I am willing to see what they describe: that we inhabit a world that systemically, cruelly, and continually harms women and people of color, and often endangers their bodies and very existence. I did not grow up with a full understanding of that; part of the insidious nature of racism and patriarchy is that they hold those who are advantaged by racism and patriarchy so far away from the costs of those evils that the most advantaged can imagine that those costs do not exist. I am seeing, gradually, slowly, but certainly. And I do so only because these two and others continue to lead me out of the cave of deceptions that Plato described.

If I see the reality of racism and patriarchy, that does not mean I hate myself, and I don't. I am fully capable of fighting both while acknowledging who I am and where I am from.  I am what I am. But I am also changing and growing, and that is all to the good.

How lucky am I?

Saturday, October 13, 2018


About Kanye West

"I'm trying to right my wrongs
But it's funny, those wrongs
Helped me write this song."

So, yeah, we are living in this weird time where a black rapper is a Republican hero and country singer is championing Democrats. But, most people agree, Kanye West's rant at the White House this week was pretty epic:

Look-- I personally have given a rant at the White House, so I have a little experience with this. And the interesting thing is that some of what Kanye said-- such as the part about the murder rate in Chicago going down of late-- is both true and important to say in the time and place that he said it. Other stuff he said, of course, was just kooky and sometimes dangerously wrong.

One point I hear people coming back to is his apparent condemnation of the 13th Amendment, which got rid of slavery in the US. Sure, that sounds bad. I think, though, that Kanye is just doing a really bad job of making a more subtle point. Here is the 13th Amendment:

Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction. 

Congress shall have power to enforce this article by appropriate legislation.

I think that Kanye was talking about the clause which allows for slavery or involuntary servitude "except as punishment for a crime," given the context of his other condemnation of over-incarceration. 

Friday, October 12, 2018


Haiku Friday: Great books

I'm a reader. One thing that comes with that status is that every once in a while, you read something that totally pulls you in, and when you are done you miss the characters in the book-- they are gone and you feel their sudden absence. I just finished a book like that this week, and I am now in that period of mourning.

Let's haiku about great books this week, the ones that make you want to get home a little early so you can dig in. Here, I will go first:

When I was done, I
Set the book down, content. Yet,
I miss its wonder.

Now it is your turn! Just use the 5/7/5 syllable count, and feel free to call out the name of that great book!

Thursday, October 11, 2018


PMT: The "Unexplained Wealth Order"

I was fascinated by this story over at the BBC, regarding a woman named Zamira Hajiyevah. She's an Azerbaijani living in London, and the wife of a former state banker in Azerbaijan. It seems she... well, she spends a lot of money. A LOT. Like, $16,000,000 at Harrod's over the course of a decade.

Apparently, the whole thing is kind of fishy, and now the British are (for the first time), using something called an "Unexplained Wealth Order," which the BBC explained this way:

A UWO is a new power which has been designed to target suspected corrupt foreign officials who have potentially laundered stolen money through the UK.
Investigators from the National Crime Agency believe there are billions of pounds of dirty money invested in British property - but it is almost impossible to charge the owners with a crime or seize the assets because of a lack of evidence.
The new Unexplained Wealth Orders are an attempt to force the owners to disclose their wealth.
If a suspected corrupt foreign official, or their family, cannot show a legitimate source for their riches, then the National Crime Agency can apply to the High Court to seize the property.

Is this a good idea? It seems to me like it could be a great way to go after corruption and illegal gains from drug networks and the like, but would no doubt run up against privacy concerns. Could it work in the United States?

Wednesday, October 10, 2018


So, IPLawGuy, I read a book!

My friend IPLawGuy often lords over me all the books he is reading. "Oh," he says, arching an eyebrow while judging me, "you haven't read the Ruth Scurr biography of Maximilien Robespierre yet? Because it was excellent." At which point I mutter something under my breath while he refills his pipe with loamy tobacco. It's one reason I don't let him drive when we are on a trip.

Anyways, he's wrong. I do read books, and I have written and published three more than he has. I just read one, in fact that I really liked. It's one of those books that has certain images and themes that you just can't get out of your head.

The plot was strikingly simplistic: A mother and daughter engage in a tense battle of wills over the daughter's behavior. The mother, in turns gentle and aggressive in her urgings, implores the daughter to turn away from some of her more destructive behaviors and towards a pattern of healthy self-care. The daughter, full of the vigor of youth, will have none of it-- this is her time to live, to run, to dance. She knows that she is of a moment, a creature defined by her instincts and sensate pleasures. 

Beneath the plot is a delicate subtext: that it is in fact the daughter who controls the dialogue. What the mother wants is not something she can force on her offspring; the young one must want it herself. It is the fate of any parent, I suppose; you can no more force a child into a given action than you can push a string. And there is something even deeper, too, of course. The craving for independence in the daughter is not just resistance but in an important way is the embodiment of growth and fulfillment. The slow drama of growing up, like a glacier calving from the land into the ocean, demands that the child must leave to become truly whole. Dahl's work is subtle and elegant in shading the pain in the mother as she comes to realize this truth.

I found the story compelling, and sat in one place for the two hours it took to finish this relatively short book. It does end well. Kitty does take a nap. And then I did, too.

Tuesday, October 09, 2018


To the Movies

Sometimes, movies can be an escape for me. Except when I pick the wrong movie for that purpose.

Which I did last weekend, when I went to see "White Boy Rick," a movie that turned out to hit on all of the following themes that are somewhat personal:

-- The decay of Detroit
-- The illogic of mandatory minimum sentences
-- All that can go wrong when government agents say "trust me."
-- The clothes people (I) wore in the 1980's

Next time, maybe I'll go see "Cars 4" or something...

Monday, October 08, 2018


Comfort food haikus...

A good crop last week! I do have to say that we have very different ideas about comfort food. For example, I do not share Silly American's taste on this:

Must have lamb curry--
spices beckon from inside
favorite soup spot.

where I stay an hour.
Walking later, catch a whiff
of pungent sweater.

I get it, though, I do! And my own likes go more along the lines of Susan Stabile's:

A hearty beef stew
warm, crusty bread on the side,
and perhaps some wine.

And Jill Scoggins made me hungry:

Hubby Dave's homemade
veggie soup: Thick broth. Full of
veggies. Full of love.

And then we have the southern contingent, who haven't gotten to fall yet. The Medievalist is still sipping iced tea, and Christine is eating picnic food!:

Crispy and crunchy
fingers, greasy; lick the crumbs
Publix Fried Chicken.

Sunday, October 07, 2018


Sunday Reflection: Just visiting

Matthew 25:45-46 has Jesus saying this, as part of a longer parable: "They also will answer, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or needing clothes or sick or in prison, and did not help you?’ He will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.’"

I'm not very good at following this clear directive. I rarely feed the hungry, or clothe those in need, or help a stranger, or heal the sick. I could do more.

Sometimes, though, I do visit those in prison. I have to steel myself for it, each time, because it plunges me into the darkness of what much of my work is really about. I get letters all the time from people in prison, who want me to help them. They include all kinds of things: pictures, essays, court papers, transcripts, carefully hand-written letters that tell their story in painstaking detail. And I have come to know many people who were in prison, and have come out to do good and great things. I hear a lot about prison.

When I get there, I am always struck by the dehumanizing desolation of these places. The one pictured above--Sandstone Federal Correctional Institution in Minnesota--is actually one of the more appealing facilities. Our prisons, predictably, are low-bid utilitarian shells, striving for nothing more than the containment of people. It's as if you took all the worst elements of a 1970's-era suburban middle school and used that as the theme for your architectural project.

It doesn't have to be that way, of course. My mentor at Yale Law, Prof. Daniel Freed, co-taught a class with the architect Phillip Johnson. One law student and one architecture student formed teams that were tasked with designing prisons that were cheap but innovative. I would love to see the designs they created.

The process of getting into prison is pretty much a series of waiting rooms. First there is the spare outer lobby, where your forms are checked. Then you go through metal detectors to an inner lobby and wait. Then you are taken to a checkpoint. Then you walk to the room where you will meet with a person who desperately wants to be heard. Then you wait in that room. Sometimes it is a bare cell. Other times it is an empty visiting room, often with a corner featuring a few toys and poorly-drawn murals of Knock-Off Elmo.  

It is the walk that is the most interesting part. I try to see everything I can: people in the yard, a classroom, the guns on the wall in the control booth, the hard plastic chairs beneath a television, the worn path in the dirt. It is a haiku; there is so little to see sometimes that each thing pops out with significance. 

And then I meet the prisoner. Sometimes a client, sometimes not. Sometimes just someone who wrote me a letter. But always, always, always, they are the most interesting person I see that day. I listen, mostly. I tell a story. I give some advice, or explain something.

And then I walk back, through that haiku of a place.

The dirt is worn here.
A path towards that tall gate;
Ten thousand footprints.

There is this moment I experience each time, too, when I get back to my car. It's this moment of profound sadness. How could I not bear that with me? It's not a sadness that comes and goes. It fades slowly, with a half-life, lingering as I force myself to merge back into the world I inhabit, where a path in the dirt does not deserve a look.  

I suppose it is good and human, that sadness. It means I am alive. It means that in some small and inadequate way, I am glimpsing what it means to follow Christ if only for a moment. That path, it seems, does not lead to glory and riches. But He never promised that, did he?

Saturday, October 06, 2018


October, 1987

It was my second month of law school.

By that point, I had convinced myself that I somehow belonged at Yale Law, mixing with people who seemed more sophisticated and worldly that me, a guy who had entered the law by serving summons and complaints in Detroit. I had made friends and found my voice in class. It was a fascinating group of people-- it still is.

The school was in an uproar. President Ronald Reagan had nominated Robert Bork, a man who had spent 16 years teaching at Yale Law, to the Supreme Court. He had left a deep imprint at the school, where his students included Bill Clinton, Hillary Clinton, Jerry Brown, John Bolton, Anita Hill, and Robert Reich.

Bork himself had grown up among privilege. He graduated from the exclusive Hotchkiss School in Connecticut, then went on to the University of Chicago for both college and law school. As an academic, he was one of the early proponents of "originalism," which holds that a judge should interpret the Constitution by looking at its original intent rather than any re-interpretation within a modern context.

Part of his hardship as a nominee came from his legacy as a scholar; he had written extensively in critique of the line of cases that announced a right to privacy for such things as contraception, and had also been critical of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

People were worked up about the nomination and some (including Ted Kennedy) were unfair. At school, the debate was intense both in the classrooms and on "The Wall," a free-speech zone on the first floor that hosted whatever screed the students chose to attache to the wall with tape.

And then the Senate voted, 58-42, against confirming Bork. Reagan reacted quickly by nominating Anthony Kennedy, who was confirmed without dissent.

Looking back, one striking thing about the Bork fight was that Bork himself did not seem very political. Rather he was a theory guy-- conservative theory, yes, but largely unattached to party machinations. His one seemingly political move was an epic disaster. That was his role in Richard Nixon's "Saturday Night Massacre" where Nixon fired people at the DOJ (both the Attorney General and the Deputy Attorney General) until he came to an Acting AG, Bork, who was willing to fire Archibald Cox, the special prosecutor who was investigating Watergate.

Bork was hurt by the Senate's rejection. He quit his seat on the DC Circuit and decamped to George Mason Law School, where he taught for years.

I saw him once, getting a big soda at the WaWa in New Haven by the law school. This was after that crushing vote; I don't know what he was doing back at Yale. He got his drink, I got my hot dog. I held the door for him as we left, and each walked out into the night.

Friday, October 05, 2018


Haiku Friday: Comfort Food

Here in Minneapolis, the chill is in the air. It was 37 the other evening as I walked outside, and when I looked up at the sky I could see my breath. Suddenly, the leaves have begun to change color and the frost appears.

I love that moment.

Part of "cozy season" is making sure that you have the right sweater and the right food. So let's haiku about that this week-- you can pick, sweater or food.  Here, I will go first:

My Mom made warm bread
The smell filled the whole house
With after-school bliss.

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

Thursday, October 04, 2018


PMT: The Trump Inheritance

So, Don Lemon quoted the Razor last night on CNN.

But, let's set all that mess aside for the moment. The non-Kavanaugh news for this week revolves around the New York Times's report that Donald Trump actually received over $413,000,000 from his father before and after his father's death. Moreover, the transfer of that money to him may have involved illegal tax dodges.

The implications of this, to some, strike at a central part of the Trump persona: that he is a self-made man, a business virtuoso who became very wealthy through "the art of the deal."

Will this matter? Should it?

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