Thursday, February 28, 2019


Political Mayhem Thursday: The Cohen Testimony

What a day it was yesterday! Michael Cohen's testimony overshadowed all other news, including his former boss's appearance in Vietnam with Kim Jong Un of North Korea. Here were the highlights (at least the ones that might relate most directly to the ongoing investigations):

1)  Cohen said that Donald Trump continued to work actively on the Trump Tower Moscow project well into 2016, just before his election as President. This matters because it creates a motive to work with Russia. Moreover, it shows a willingness to work with Russia in secret, as shown by the fact that Trump lied about it.

2) Trump reimbursed Cohen for the hush money paid to Stormy Daniels. That may be part of a case that could be, even now, under investigation in the Southern District of New York for illegal aid to a campaign.

3)  Cohen reported that he was there when Roger Stone called and told Trump (over speakerphone!) that Wikileaks was about to release thousands of emails that would be embarrassing to the Clinton campaign. That matters because it shows a link--before the data dump--between Trump and the Wikileaks operation. If Trump claimed that there was no contact with Stone regarding Wikileaks in his sworn statement to Mueller, that would be perjury.

4)  Trump apparently used funds from his charity to buy--through a straw purchaser-- a portrait of himself. (That's gotta be about the most Trump thing that Trump ever did). It's not a big-ticket offense, but it would be improper use of charitable funds.

Of course, there is lots lots more. And in the closed-door sessions there will be much more revealed, I'm sure, and without the showboating and distractions that marked yesterday's circus.

One key question is this: should anyone believe what Cohen says, given that he has already been charged and convicted of lying about these very issues?

It's a good question. And it make corroboration of what Cohen said all the more important. If documents and what others are saying match up with Cohen's account, that will matter. And right now only Mueller's team (and another in SDNY) can see the rest of that puzzle.

Suffice it to say that Cohen's claims will be valuable only insofar as they match what comes in from more credible sources.

My own hunch is that such a match will be found.

Wednesday, February 27, 2019


Talking to Canadians

The Canadian Broadcasting Corp. (CBC) was a big hit in my house growing up-- in Detroit, we got all the Canadian channels, in English and French-- and one of the favorite shows was called "Talking to Americans." The show featured interviews with Americans on important topics like the Canadian parliament building melting (because it was made of ice) or how people felt about the job being done by "Prime Minister Wayne Gretzky."

These days, I often get to talk to Canadians because for some reason the CBC reaches out to me to comment on whatever craziness is going on in DC. Yesterday, I showed up at the bottom of their really good story on the Cohen hearings, which you can read here.

Tuesday, February 26, 2019


Pushing for clemency

Yesterday, a letter that Rachel Barkow and I circulated was sent to the President from an interesting combination of people. You can read the letter here.  Carrie Johnson did a story on it for NPR yesterday morning, too, but I can't find the link.

This project continues, and I have hope that we are making some progress. I'll fill you in as things develop!

Meanwhile, I'm working to reform the somewhat crazy process for clemency that we have here in Minnesota. In short, to get clemency here, you have to personally appear and plead your case (usually without a lawyer) in front of a panel composed of the governor, the attorney general, and the chief justice of the Supreme Court. Jennifer Brooks of the Star-Tribune did a good job describing it here.

With both projects, there are positive signs... it could be a really interesting year.

Monday, February 25, 2019


Odes to Jack Daniels

I asked for haiku about cocktails. A theme quickly developed. See if you can pick up on it:

First we had this from Jon Scheib:

No need to mix it
Kentucky's finest bourbon
It stands alone, neat.

And then this from the Waco Friend:

Black Jack on the rocks,
sipping whiskey I would drink,
till Doc said no more.

And from the Medievalist:

No umbrellas please.
Just a little Jack and ice,
Sweet is just nasty.

Sunday, February 24, 2019


Sunday Reflection: Brothers and Sisters

For my birthday this week, I got a big box in the mail from my brother. I was intrigued by it; it was heavy and rattled a little. I thought it might be some of his famous cookies. I was antsy to open it.

When I did, I found a little collection of things that showed how well he knows me. There was some Sanders' hot fudge, from our childhood (well, not that jar specifically, but the same thing). There was some cherry preserves (I love cherries). There was this thing made of two ingredients: dark chocolate and peanut butter (yes!). There were some beeswax candles that pop a little when you burn them. It was a wonderful box to explore.

Sometimes preachers (even me) will address the congregation as "brothers and sisters," and I think they mean it in the way I just described my brother's gift. It is people who will share with one another from a deep knowledge. At their best churches do that, but the effect is not limited to churches. You find it in all kinds of communities and families, formal and informal.

At some time, we have all received the love of that kind of brother or sister, in ways small and large. It is one of the good things about being human. And it is something I need to think about doing, about being, more often.

Saturday, February 23, 2019


Workers where there is no work + Work where there are no workers

Yesterday IPLawGuy forwarded me a link to an Axios story exploring the problems of the hard-core unemployed in a time of record low unemployment. This jumped out at me:

It surprises me that people don't move for work, but maybe it shouldn't. This piece focuses on low-wage labor, and people in or seeking those jobs often don't have the resources to make a move-- it can be expensive! The transaction costs of just switching apartments can be overwhelming.  And often people would have to move away from support systems that they rely on to make life work: for example, being near a parent who provides free child care during work hours.

Friday, February 22, 2019


Haiku Friday: Cocktails!

I'm not much of a drinker. I don't know how to make drinks, and I'm baffled by the names on a drink menu. Yet, it is kind of fascinating to watch someone make things behind a bar when I am waiting for a table at a restaurant. It's a whole world I don't understand, and those are the ones I find most fascinating.

So let's haiku about that today. About a drink you like, or maybe why you abstain, or what you find baffling. Here, I will go first:

That drink is bright blue!
A hue not found in nature.
Will the drinkers die?

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

Thursday, February 21, 2019


Political Mayhem Thursday: Amy Klobuchar, Prosecutor

Today (my birthday!) I have a piece in the Minneapolis Star Tribune about Amy Klobuchar and her background as a prosecutor, which you can read here (and I hope you will).

I'm going to be watching all of the candidates closely to see what they have to say about criminal law and how we can make it better. The worst thing that could happen is that no one talks about it-- and I really hope that we can avoid that. It's too important to ignore.

My experience, especially lately, has been that conservatives like Mike Lee are much more comfortable talking about the reform of criminal law than many progressives. I'm not sure why that is, but it is an issue that has the potential for real progress in the near term.

Wednesday, February 20, 2019


March Madness is Coming!

This is the time of year when college basketball gets really interesting. Because it is the major sport with (by far) the largest tournaments (men and women's), there are a lot of teams who still have a shot at the big dance.

If you haven't been paying attention, here are the top 25 men's teams (from the AP poll) as of last night:

1. Duke
2. Gonzaga
3. Virginia
4. Kentucky
5. Tennessee
6. Nevada
7. Michigan
8. UNC
9. Houston
10. Michigan State

Ok, can I take a little break for commentary right here? First of all, I find it fascinating that you have 6 big state schools (predictably), but also a commuter school (Houston), a smaller state school (Nevada), and a little private school (Gonzaga) along with a Duke (Duke). It's a better mix than we see in football. And it gets even more interesting in the next batch:

11. Marquette
12. Kansas
13. LSU
14. Texas Tech
15. Purdue
16. Florida State
17. Villanova
18. Louisville
19. Iowa State
20. Virginia Tech
21. Iowa
22. Wisconsin
23. Kansas State
24. Maryland
25. Buffalo

Just outside the 25 top-ranked teams we find Wofford and Yale(!). Weird. And what is missing from this whole group?

The entire Pac-12! The Big 10 has six teams ranked, and the Pac-12, home of legendary programs like UCLA and Arizona, has nobody. That's very odd.

Tuesday, February 19, 2019


The Old Cities

Modern America has created winners and losers. People and places that are educated and fluent in the drivers of the modern economy thrive. Those that are or were dependent on the drivers of the old economy (manufacturing, coal, railroads) are judged to dead or dying.

I am from one of the places adjudged a "loser," (Detroit) and my family comes from the valleys of Pennsylvania that fall into the same category.  The car plants lie empty, and coal has been carved out. A lot of people like me moved away to places like Texas or Minneapolis that are full of life. 

There is a deep sadness to all this. But I am not sure the premises--the winners/losers narratives-- are correct.

Certainly, Detroit is a challenging place to live, given the economic problems, crime, and a terrible reputation. But is it a loser?

My dad certainly doesn't think so-- he pretty much has a whole blog about that. I think he is right, too. Despite the challenges, many true winners emerge; and I think that one reason they do is not in spite of but because of those challenges. It creates a desire and drive to succeed, and allows some people to emerge where social forces would hold them back in fancier places. If you look at the most successful people, there usually is some grittiness to them. And Detroit is all about grittiness.

The interesting thing about Detroit and those Appalachian hills of Pennsylvania is that they still have what was there before the coal was dug out or the auto plants were built. Those valleys are beautiful and verdant. Detroit sits astride a clean, fast river and is the only large city on the northern border. We are so terrible at seeing what will happen next, but then it does and we all nod and say "huh!" Losers are winners and winners are losers if you wait long enough. Going to middle school and then growing up should have at least taught us that.

Monday, February 18, 2019


In the basement

The haiku about basements neatly divided up between horrifying basements and the ones we might actually want to spend some time in. Since my own experience is pretty much with scary basements (I have owned two houses with scary basements, and one that just had a terrifying "crawl space," I'm going to focus on the more positive memories, like this one from IPLawGuy:

Monopoly, Life
Risk, Poker, billiards and more
Games in the basement.

CraigA's was pretty good, too (and thanks for the awesome article about mascots, Craig! The Richmond Spider is really weird):

Old stone walls, home to
Basement hockey and Ping Pong
Family bragging rights (won).

And finally, Silly American seemed to have some good memories, too:

Granny's basement was 
dug out of the ground: dirt walls,
neat shelves, canning jars.

Sunday, February 17, 2019


Sunday Reflection: Crossing the snow

My home is awash in snow now, and it will be here for weeks. It fell and fell, and now there are canyons we drive through, peeking around the corners.

Yesterday I was skiing over the snow next to a lake close to my house. The ski paths have two parts. To the right, there are a pair of grooves. Next to that is a broader area, flattened down into a broad snow road. They accommodate two different kinds of Nordic skiing: to the right (in the grooves) are the "classic" skiers, and to the left are the "skate" skiers.

The styles are very different. I am a "classic" skier, which means that I trudge along in the tracks. Well, "trudging" isn't the right word, exactly, when I am doing it well-- instead, it is step and glide, step and glide, hearing the little whoosh of the snow beneath me.

The skaters are different: more elegant, faster, and rhythmic.  A small group of teens will whip by me, striding in unison, like a little flock of birds taking joy in flight. Their motions seem effortless, and they make only the quiet sounds of a perfect engine.

Sometimes, faith feels like one or the other. Sometimes, it is a joyful part of the rhythm of life, fast and soaring. Then other times (and I am in one of them) it is more like the trudging in the grooves, working up a small incline that is tougher than it looks.

Saturday, February 16, 2019



As you probably know, President Trump declared that there was a "national emergency" at the southern border. His plan is to use that to shift money from other things towards building a wall between Mexico and the United States.

So... what else is an emergency?

Friday, February 15, 2019


Haiku Friday: The basement

The most intriguing room in many houses is the one that is rarely seen: the basement. It is where secrets are hid, oddities are stored, treasures are hidden, and mysteries are buried. I took the picture here in a basement, and it has all the menace and intrigue I have found in nearly every old basement I have ever been in.

In Minneapolis, some people actually fix up their basements and use it as a regular part of the house, which seems odd to me. I would never quite trust that, since it is inevitable (in my experience) that one day water or worse will invade that space and claim it as a part of the underworld once again.

So let's haiku about basements this week: yours, someone else's, or one you have imagined. Here, I will go first:

My Y2K plan
Was a stockpile of good wine
Yes, in the basement.

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

Thursday, February 14, 2019


Political Mayhem Thursday: So, like, does anyone care about the deficit?

Last August, I wrote a piece for the Waco Tribune Herald about the rapidly growing federal deficit. You can read that piece here.  At that time, I warned that the deficit just for that year would be almost one trillion dollars ($1,000,000,000,000), and the next several years would generate debt over one trillion.

And yet, no one seems to care.

Republicans don't care because this has happened during a period where Republicans controlled both houses of Congress and the presidency.

Democrats don't care because... well, they never seem to worry much about deficits. Though (as I pointed out in the earlier piece) in modern times Dems have done a better job of actually controlling deficit growth.

I do understand that deficit spending can be financed by printing money, but eventually the inflationary effects of doing that will catch up with us-- it works when inflation is not a threat, but not so much at other times.

Can someone explain to me why this isn't (or shouldn't be) an issue?

Wednesday, February 13, 2019


Sunday Afternoon

Last Sunday, I was part of the crowd at Boom Island watching Amy Klobuchar announce her candidacy for president. It was the most Minnesota thing ever. Just watch:

Tuesday, February 12, 2019


An impatience with gobbledygook

I like things pretty plain and simple. Like Big Boy here-- you know exactly what he is about (which is low-quality food that makes you fat).

Unfortunately, as an academic I sometimes find myself in a world where people seem to be just making up new words for ideas that have been around for thousands of years. I have almost no patience for it. Yes, there ARE sometimes new ideas and new ways of thinking about things, but that's not what I am talking about-- rather, what rattles my chain is the repackaging of what people have been doing for centuries and acting like it is a discovery.

And within the academic world, this happens way too often, and words start to lose their meaning. Those close to me know that I even have a shorthand catchphrase for this kind of thing: "Human People and Thinking." That's the title of a college class that won't get out of my head. It would be listed in the catalogue this way:

Interdiscip. 264: Human People & Thinking

This one-semester seminar explores the clashing concepts of humans and people, and maps their respective dialectics of thinking. Drawing on Diderot, Collingwood, Joyce, and Holland, students will develop their own theories of humanity/people/thinking rooted in the broad cultural context of the modern language vortex while mindful of the licit  semantics of time. The fulcrum of the semester will be an exploration of Hegelian trangermative unger and the theory of radical disentanglement.  Prerequisite: Interdiscip. 105: Thinking, Feeling, Talking.

Monday, February 11, 2019


Haiku of the moment!

Zounds! You guys did a great job last week. I recommend that you go read them all.

For long form, Jill Scoggins went right after it:

Pence professes to
wife fidelity. How can
he then support Trump?

What goes through a man
who seeks power and glory?
What inner deals made?

How can men profess
loyalty to Trump? He does
not at all adhere

to Christian ideals.
Yet Christians are his support.
I don’t understand.

Pence should admit to 
his hypocrisy now. He
is a Trump toady.

As must supporters
all of Trump. He does not
represent Christians.

Sunday, February 10, 2019


Sunday Reflection: Sacred Spaces

I believe in sacred spaces.

They are rarely churches for me (though sometimes they are). They are, in truth, the places where I hear the still, small voice of God, and I am terrible at anticipating where that will be. But then I find it, and I am grateful and whole.

The photo above shows what has been a sacred space for me. It is the studio overlooking the Eastern Market where my dad works and stores a lot of his art.  It is usually quiet there, even when a Saturday morning crowd is bustling below. There is a calm to it, and that opens up my heart.

The Holy Spirit finds us where we are.

Saturday, February 09, 2019



Given that my vocation, teaching, revolves around public speaking, some people might find it surprising that I get nervous every time I have to speak in public. I'm naturally an introvert, and it cuts against my instincts to stand up in front of a bunch of people and talk about something.

My hunch, though, is that this makes me a better speaker. I think through what I am going to say and go in prepared; an introvert isn't going to go in front of a bunch of people and wing it. And because I feel awkward addressing a crowd, I try to convert that into at least an honest awkwardness, which demands some level of humility and admission of mistakes as I go along. I tend to scratch my head a lot.

Right now I am in a quiet place, writing. That feels more natural to me. Yet I know that it is imperative that I do what isn't so natural, and am glad for the chance to have this job that I love.

Friday, February 08, 2019


Haiku Friday: Trump-related individuals

Love them or hate them, you have to admit that the people who work or have worked in the Trump administration are certainly memorable! No boring bunch of academic geezers, these folks (well, except Alan Dershowitz, who is an academic geezer).

This Chris Christie endorsement was found hanging prominently at "Sal's by Victor" restaurant in a strip mall in Williamsburg, Virginia. Whatever you think of Chris Christie, you have to admit that the guy has probably seen his fair share of restaurants, so I'll always give his bump for a joint some serious consideration.

So let's haiku about that eccentric cast of characters this week. Here, I will go first:

A. Scaramucci
Your ten days were just epic
So Mooch, please come back!

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

Thursday, February 07, 2019


Political Mayhem Thursday: Seriously, Virginia?

Someone once criticized me at Baylor for posting the above photo because it depicted beer. (It also depicts Larry Bates, of course. And in retrospect that may be the most Texas-y photo of me ever). I felt sheepish and took it down.

That little scandal is nothing compared to the very serious impact some photos have had in Virginia lately. In a nutshell, both the Governor and the Attorney General of that state have admitted to wearing blackface in public in the 1980's as students (at Eastern Virginia Medical School and UVA respectively). Meanwhile, the Lt. Governor is embroiled in a sexual assault controversy.

As someone who was a student in Virginia in the 1980's (at William and Mary) I find myself both shocked and not-so-shocked by the blackface images.

When I got there, I was taken aback by the racism of the state, at least among some of my peers. Importantly, this is not to say that the community I left wasn't racist-- Grosse Pointe most certainly was-- but somehow I think I expected college to be different. I found some spaces where there was less of it. Classes, especially those taught by black professors like Dr. Joanne Braxton, were usually such spaces. So, perhaps surprisingly, was my fraternity, which had a significant black membership. That was unusual, and some other fraternities seemed to have express or implicit racial bars. I wouldn't hold out Theta Delt as a den of virtue, but we were relatively free of racism (and "relatively" certainly does not mean completely).

There were other places, though, where the kind of things that emerge in these photos certainly would have been more normal. One would have been Kappa Alpha, the "Old South" fraternity whose members would don Confederate uniforms for certain occasions.

I know that a lot of the people I went to college with view the Northam photo as a harmless prank. I disagree. It was wrong then and it is wrong now, even if you are elected to a high position. The racial harm in our country largely comes from decisions made in quiet corners where secrets are kept, and part of that realm is that things like blackface are seen as funny.

It seems that Virginia might have to start over again with a new slate of leaders.

Wednesday, February 06, 2019



I'm a teacher. When people ask me what I do, that's what I say, and it is true-- everything else that I do is related to my teaching.

But there are days that I feel like I haven't done a great job of it. Students may not realize how conscious we can be of our own performance; when I walk out I know whether it was a good day or not. Some days you nail it, and some days you fall short.

On those days (like yesterday) when I feel like I have failed in some way, I also feel compelled to do better, to circle back and make clearer what I didn't explain well the first time. In time, that makes me a more successful teacher, but the realization can be painful.

It's a great job. And I have a lot more to learn.

Tuesday, February 05, 2019


The quality of light

I'm not an artist. I am, though, the son and grandson and brother of artists, and grew up looking for the beauty around me. Often, that beauty wasn't imbued by shape or color, but by the light. I still am stopped cold sometimes by the light off of snow in January or the haze of August; there are objects there, even people, but in that moment it all is defined for me by something more ephemeral and eternal all at once: the light.

I know the light in different places. In New York, off the red brick of a building. Yes, I have been in that building, had coffee there with fascinating people, but walking past it, what defines it is something else that is not really a part of me. Light is humbling stuff.

The photo above was taken at a farmer's market in Minneapolis last year. It is September light. In this place. That is different than the September light in Los Angeles or New York; it has its own timbre and pitch, as distinctive as the singing voices of a mother and aunt.

It is not a small grace, that beauty. It is enormous, encompassing, and true.

Monday, February 04, 2019


Thanks, Mom!

It's not often my mom offers up a haiku. But she did last week, and it was both good and true:

It was a good year
when the ice rink stayed frozen
until Mark's birthday.

Sunday, February 03, 2019


Sunday Reflection: Faith and Politics

I have a piece in the Waco paper today about one weird conundrum in our politics today: we get so tied up in the horse race aspect of elections and personality elements about candidates (ie, whether or not they are "tough") that too often we devalue actual policy-- the meat and potatoes of what politics is supposed to really be about. You can read the whole thing here.

Part of what seems to be off-limits is this: How a candidate's faith might influence what he or she does in office. It's a tricky subject (and has been since John F. Kennedy ran for president, at least). Broaching the subject is to invite religious bias into the conversation, we fear.

But that fear may stop us from asking important questions, and learning what politicians will do if elected. It even encourages dishonesty, as people running for office often feel compelled to disavow the influence of their faith. Sometimes, I suspect, that disavowal is not true.

And I probably don't want it to be true of the candidates I favor. It seems that the stock answer to the question I pose is to assert that faith will not affect performance of the job if elected. But if that is true... what kind of faith is that? I have trouble respecting someone who claims a faith, and then sidelines it in making the most important professional decisions.

Saturday, February 02, 2019



When I was about 14, I went to see Steve Martin at Pine Knob, just outside of Detroit. It was a great show. One of the things he did was play banjo. He still does:

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