Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Stupid Or Stubborn?

Attempting to quote John Adams, Ronald Reagan once asserted that, "Facts are stupid things." What John Adams actually said was, "Facts are stubborn things." Stupid or stubborn, facts remain just that: facts. Interesting that both men were expressing their opinions about facts, but such is the slippery nature of public speaking. Such is the nature of semantics. What do the facts mean? Who decides?
We have all sat and watched science be debated as it pertains to global warming. Scientific fact, in this world we live in, is open for discussion. How many parts per million are healthy for humans and other living things to breathe? We don't all agree, but isn't that what facts are all about? Should we argue about details, or should we use those facts as a basis to form agreements?
Argue, of course.
There is such a fine line between right and wrong, after all. I spend a lot of time on the playground at school telling kids that hitting other people is bad. On a great many occasions, I have been told by five to eleven year olds that their parents have told them that if someone hits them, they should hit back, so hitting people turns out to be okay, with an asterisk. That isn't the reason Ray Rice gave. He said that hitting people is wrong, but since the NFL couldn't decide on how they wanted to handle the fact that hitting people is wrong, it turns out that maybe hitting people isn't so bad after all. Unless you happen to be Adrian Peterson, in which case it's still a bad thing, bad enough that you can't play football and hit people if you hit people. It's kind of a situational thing.
What is not as situational anymore is the use of bullhooks on elephants in Oakland. Starting in 2017. Okay. It's a little situational, but the fact remains that the Oakland City Council passed this ban by a vote of five to two, with one abstaining. Cruelty to animals is something that most people will agree is wrong, but using a standard of "would you use a bullhook on your own child" may not be a fact-enhanced discussion. I expect that the use of bullhooks on protesters in the streets of Oakland would also be banned. The use of rubber bullets, however, remains on the table. The result of the bullhook ban has been felt immediately, as the circus will no longer be coming to our town.
Meanwhile, Dick "Dick" Cheney continues to assert his vision of the facts surrounding torture: “We were very careful to stop short of tortureThe Senate has seen fit to label their report torture.  But we worked hard to stay short of that definition." And that's a fact. A big, stupid, fact.

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

The Strongest Force

At the end of "The Living," a play written by Anthony Clarvoe about the ravages of the Plague in 1665 London, a speech is made summing up the tragedy by referencing the work of Sir Isaac Newton: "What Newton found: the world would fly to pieces, but for a great force, a power in every single body in the world, which pulls it ceaselessly toward every other body." Gravity. I listened to this speech, given by a high school actor in a production that featured the backstage talents of my son and his friends. They were battling gravity at every turn: keeping sets and props from falling, rolling and lifting, pushing and pulling and making the most of the laws Mister Newton suggested. That was how I was viewing it, from the outside. Inside, I was full of other thoughts.
Gravity is a very strong force, but maybe not as strong as that of life. Or death. Then again, gravity is the thing that drags us down. It brings bodies back to earth. Like the plague. Like time. It's a physics problem, really. Time is a factor in those operations. Eventually, everything comes to rest back on the ground. Or under it. These thoughts were fueled by the memorial service I was going to the next morning. A memorial for a fallen father, who would not see his teenage daughter graduate from high school this spring. Mortality and gravity. Partners in crime. It was gravity that put my own father in the ground: plane crash. Sudden deceleration trauma. When all was said and done, we sprinkled his ashes, though Newton might not be able to fully describe the way they drifted on the breeze. My father, it seems had already done his part for gravity. 
I wondered how I might eventually find my own way back to earth. Riding my bike on city streets. Bending over to pick up those tiny bits of loose change. I strenuously avoid flying in small planes, preferring not to give the natural law of irony any help. I came back to the auditorium after those few moments of reverie, having never left my seat. This wasn't Newtonian physics, this was more like Einstein. Yet, there I was, stuck in my seat, slow to get up because of the gravity of the situation. 

Monday, December 15, 2014

Beware The Figgy Pudding

It's that time of yer again, with candy canes and silver lanes aglow. This is the time of year that drove Ebenezer Scrooge absolutely batty: Holiday Party Time. Whether you are Christian, Muslim or Jew, Hindu, Satanist or Pastafarian, there will be a gathering at your place of work in the next week or so. Maybe that blessed moment has already come and gone for you. The powers that be may have decided that in order to maximize what limited productivity there might be in the rank and file before the file cabinets are closed and the lunch room gets converted into a Karaoke palace, schedule that preemptive fest that has all the Egg and not so much Nog. These last few weeks of the calendar year are a time for reflection, tying up loose ends, and trying not to do or say something in front of your co-workers that will be remembered long enough to show up on somebody's Facebook page.
Aside from that particular ignominious fate, you might also try to avoid a trip to the emergency room. Most of us are clever enough to avoid the more frightening moments at these holiday revels, but navigating the buffet may be the trickiest part. Pot lucks are a good thing, since you can generally count on those meatballs that you brought being both edible and non-threatening. Jello? This could be a riskier proposition. Better to stick with those freshly opened relish trays and little buckets of Ranch Dressing. Unless they've been sitting out under the lights for the past four hours while everyone looks for a place to put their coats. Or maybe it's best if you have the whole thing catered so you don't have to worry about that.
Or maybe not.
Last Wednesday, dozens of people attending an office holiday party in central Florida fell violently ill from apparent food poisoning. Food samples were being tested to determine the cause of the outbreak at a catered event, when guests began complaining of illness within two hours of the party's start. Emergency responders evaluated two hundred people, treating fifty-five at the scene and sending twenty-five to hospitals. Other guests drove themselves to emergency rooms, and the U.S. Department of Homeland Security was called as a precaution. Last time I checked, bringing tainted salmon mousse wasn't a treasonable offense, but these are interesting times in which we live. Perhaps we're all better off skipping the appetizers and going straight to the bar. Happy Holidays!

Sunday, December 14, 2014

Not-So-Perfect Storm

I waited for the water to rise. I listened for the wind. I battened down the hatches and brought the livestock in from the north forty. This was Stormageddon, after all. A gully-washer of epic proportions. Eventually, we all assumed, George Clooney and Mark Wahlberg would be called upon to depict the true heroes of this disaster: TV reporters sent out into the mess to get video of the rain that was coming down across the Bay Area.
I was safe inside my home, looking out on the streets of Oakland, strewn with debris, not as a result of the storm but rather because of the fifth straight night of protests. The wind and the rain had more of a cleansing effect. It was a relief. So was the day off work. I have worked for the Oakland Unified School District for more than seventeen years, and have never once experienced a "snow day." I went to school on September 11, 2001. I rode my bike, just like most every other day since I started. I rode my bike on dark and cold and windy mornings for all those years, until this one. The powers that be in the administrative offices downtown took their cue from the National Weather Service and a number of other adjacent districts and decided to close the schools in anticipation of what was anticipated to be the worst storm in nearly a decade. Since I have been employed by the district for nearly two decades, I couldn't find it in me to get that worked up about it. Before the recent drought, we have all endured a number of days of steady rain and though street flooding and a number of umbrellas have been wrecked as a result, but since kids have been making it to classes before, during and after earthquakes, fires and yes, even rainstorms, who would have guessed that a week before Christmas break we would all get an extra day off?
I would not have guessed that. I grew up in Colorado, and spent a couple of hours after the initial announcement of the closure announcement crabbing like the old man that I am about how when I was a boy we used to walk to school through drifts of snow in minus twenty degree temperatures and still go outside for recess. That was the excruciating part: getting all bundled up in boots, hats, mittens and scarves in just about the time it takes to go outside and hear the bell, just to turn around and go back inside to hang it all up again in the cloak room. I do remember a few extreme cases when school was called on account of blizzards in those days. My brothers and I would crowd around the radio, listening to the listings of school districts that were closed, cursing all those who came before us until the cheer went up because at last we were told that Boulder Valley schools would be closed as well. Which meant that we ran to our boots, hats, mittens and scarves to get dressed to go outside to play in the snow.
And that was essentially what I did on the morning that Oakland schools were closed: I watched a little of the forecast on TV, caught up on a few episodes of "Parks and Recreation" with my wife, who complained bitterly that the rain was so loud that we had to turn the television up. When that was done, I put on my running shoes and my rain jacket and went outside. I got wet. I want to thank my bosses for that opportunity.

Saturday, December 13, 2014

Wouldn't It Be Nice

Indictments are formal charges of a serious crime. They are charges, not verdicts. The idea behind them is they raise a question of guilt. They are not admissions of guilt. They are questions. From there, prosecutors and defense attorneys set about collecting evidence and witnesses intended to support or diminish the claims made in that question. A grand jury's job is not to determine guilt or innocence. A grand jury's job is to conduct official proceedings to investigate potential criminal conduct and to determine whether criminal charges should be brought. It is only after those charges are filed that the trial begins. We are led to understand that indicting a police officer is a very difficult task. There are those who disagree. Even here in the very troubled corner of the country, Alameda County, It took a good deal of public pressure and some compromises, but Johannes Mehserle was arrested and eventually convicted of shooting and killing an unarmed man, Oscar Grant. Was justice served? At the time, the guilty verdict for involuntary manslaughter felt like someone was getting away with murder. In hindsight, it seems like a comparatively functional use of the justice system. What has changed in five years? Are we more aware of the problem? Are we working toward some sort of systemic change?
Maybe this will help: This past Wednesday, a top U.N. Special investigator said that senior U.S. officials who authorized and carried out torture as part of former President George W. Bush's national security policy must be prosecuted. Ben Emmerson, the U.N.'s special rapporteur on counterterrorism and human rights, said in addition that all CIA and other U.S. officials who used waterboarding and other torture techniques must be prosecuted. So there it is: an indictment. Will George W. Bush and Dick "Dick" Cheney ever see the inside of a courtroom? It seems at this point unlikely, but it's like that old joke about what you would call the Bush administration being handcuffed and hauled off to jail? A good start.

Friday, December 12, 2014

Stop Sign

For several nights in a row, the streets and highways around town have been crowded with angry people. Some of them threw bottles. Some of them broke windows. Some of them set fires. Most of them did not. This didn't make it any easier for my son to comprehend. He is more than old enough to understand why there are riots in the Bay Area. He was born in Oakland, or more to the point, just over the hill in Berkeley. Berkeley: where protesters shut down Interstate 80 for more than an hour on Monday night, part of a trend that has become a prevalent tactic among those voicing their frustration about current events in Missouri, Cleveland, and New York. And it is making my son more than a little frustrated.
He drives now. He drives in the evenings on the highways around Oakland, because of his work with the theater department at his high school, he has had to take several detours and found his way home much later than he had anticipated with a different perspective than some of his contemporaries about the relative freedom of assembly. It's not free to him. He's buying the gas. He's sitting in the traffic backup. He's waiting for things to go back to normal. Whatever that is.
All of us are, but in the discussions that followed his run-in with stop and go traffic, he found himself questioning the motivations of those blocking his way. As his parents tried to remind him of the importance of making those voices of the disenfranchised heard, as well as the long and storied tradition of civil disobedience across this great land of ours, and especially right here on his home turf. Impeding transit is pretty small change coming on the fiftieth anniversary of the Free Speech Movement. Those were different times, when heads were cracked and tear gas was used indiscriminately. Come to think of it, maybe things haven't changed all that much.
You might think that there would be some clever way to make a statement or to have your voice heard above the din. Do you have to break windows? Do you have to burn things? Do you have to stop traffic?
I told my son, "Yes." For more than fifty years, America has needed to have its rafters shaken and its bells rung. This is how change occurs. It is most decidedly not pretty and it is not convenient, but it takes a very complex mix of wrongs to make a right. Just like when you're trying to get home and you can't turn right because the road is blocked. You might have to take some side streets and a couple extra lefts, but it will eventually turn out to be a right. At least that's what we hope.

Thursday, December 11, 2014

Playing Telephone

I know that I have received good news via the telephone. I have, on a number of occasions, won tickets to concerts as well as the home version of Jeopardy by knowing how to operate this telecommunications device. That and a rudimentary knowledge of pop culture that has also held me in good stead lo these many years. I have connected with old friends and talked at length with family about matters every bit as trivial as the winner of the first Grammy award, but the connections made have been vital. I periodically enjoy my chats with strangers, having taken the time to participate in a number of public opinion surveys and the occasional wrong number. Telephones can be cool.
They can also be harbingers of doom. A great abundance of the bad news that has come my way over the course of my life has come over the telephone line. The death of a loved one is the bottom line in this category. It is a rare thing to be present at the moment of someone's passing, and therefore the phone becomes the tool of choice when it comes time to spread the news. It is more personal by yards compared to an e-mail. But any conversation that begins with the phrase, "Are you sitting down?" paves the way for a less than pleasant interaction. This is the introduction to a conversation that you probably don't really want to have. It has been my sad duty now on a few different occasions to be the one initiating those conversations. "Hello, I just called to say that the rest of your day and perhaps the rest of your life will be altered by what you are about to hear." Telemarketers would like you to believe that the drape cleaning service they are about to offer you is just that, but these are the phone calls that come from the people you already know. I am also the very bad son who chose to relay the message to my father that his father had passed away in Salina, Kansas by shouting up the stairs, "Hey Dad, Ira kicked the bucket."
In what little defense I might add to this callous, teenaged response, I can only say that I had only seen my grandfather one time, and all the rest of my life was spent hearing stories about how much distance there was between my father and him. No excuse, really, and I learned from every time that moment came up in discussion with my father. I completely deserved someone calling to tell me that my father had "kicked the bucket." Instead, I was the beneficiary along with the rest of my family of a very compassionate and caring call from the hospital that told me he was gone. But it was a phone call.
My wife got one of those calls the other day. The treasurer of the PTSA with whom she had worked tirelessly over the past two years had died in his sleep. As president of the PTSA, it was then her job to be the voice at the other end of the line when she let the rest of the school community know. It was sad. It was tragic. It was a series of very uncomfortable phone calls. She performed admirably. At no time did any part of the "bucket" phrase get kicked around. Calm, measured and respectful. I was proud of her. If good news travels fast, it could be that sad news is more clumsy and more deliberate. I hope whoever has to make the calls for me is as patient and kind.