What I Read in 2015

For the last several years, around the new year, I have written a little piece naming and describing each book I read over the year.  In the past, I’ve just written this on Facebook but this year I’m starting a new procedure.  I desperately need to generate more content for this blog and so this will be the new home of my annual reading list.  Another change for this year:  I’ve included the nonfiction I’ve read as well as the novels.

I’ve kept track of when I finished each book.  Sadly, I finished the first book of 2015 in mid April.  I’ve been having some trouble maintaining interest in the book I’m reading at any given time.  Consequently, a lot of the titles are rereads because I already know that I’m capable of reading to the end.  I have high hopes for 2016 — in matters like this, it only makes sense to be an optimist.

The first book I finished was Confessions From Left Field:  A Baseball Pilgrimage by Raymond Mungo.  I first read this soon after it came out (1983) and I must have had it from the library because I couldn’t find it on my shelves.  I decided to order one for my friend Charlie because he’s a baseball devotee and because he was leaving to watch and write about pre-season baseball in Arizona.  Confessions begins with Raymond Mungo traveling to Arizona to watch and write about the Cactus League spring training activity.

Raymond Mungo has written several books on a variety of topics.  Regardless of the subject matter, his books are primarily about himself.  In Confessions, he writes about his childhood love of the game and of a variety of baseball related adventures.  He travels about the country — and to Japan! — seeing baseball games and relating his generally interesting life.

Tibetan Peach Pie:  A True Account of an Imaginative Life by Tom Robbins came next.  If you’ve ever been delighted reading Tom Robbins’ novels, you’ll enjoy this book.  At the beginning of this memoir, Robbins cautions that memoirs strive to be true but often deviate from the actual history.  Instead, he says, Tibetan Peach Pie is a rendering of the stories he’s told the women in his life which is close enough.  This book was a fun read and I have no qualms about recommending it to anyone — even if you’ve not read his novels.

I like to think that if Raymond Chandler was writing today his books would be very much like James Crumley’s.  Bordersnakes  is standard Crumley fare — full of violence, alcohol, drugs and sex.  Somehow, Crumley easily drags the reader through complicated complications and delivers an appropriate ending.  As in every Crumley book I’ve read, there’s also serious description of how some people live their lives — lives that are much different than my own and, I would bet, yours.  Bordersnakes is not for the squeamish but it’s a very good, well written novel.

While I was in mystery mode, I picked up Frequent Flyer by Kinky Friedman for a reread.  While not nearly as dark as James Crumley, Kinky Friedman writes a good mystery populated with characters from the strange side of life.  Kinky plays himself in his novels and often references his music career (his recordings are worth checking out as well). Frequent Flyer begins with Kinky returning from a friend’s funeral puzzled.  Puzzled because the man in the box was not the friend he remembered.  Who was that in the coffin and what became of John Morgan — the friend he was supposed to be mourning?  It’s an entertaining read and a good story.

Next, I read Villa Incognito — a Tom Robbins novel that I picked up a while ago but hadn’t got around to reading.  The story centers around several military men who went missing while serving in Viet Nam.  In order to stay missing, they establish a residence in the South East Asian highlands.  For several reasons, decades later, the ruse and the residence begin to fall apart.  It’s a good read and Robbins’ deft writing keeps you interested while telling an improbable tale.

Richard Powers is one of my favorite novelists.  I had started Plowing the Dark several times but, for some reason, I never finished it until I tried again in 2015.  The main character is a woman, an artist, who has become disillusioned with the artist life.  She moves to Washington State when an old friend contacts her and convinces her to work developing virtual reality environments for a large tech company.  Interwoven with her story and backstory, there’s an account of a man who is kidnapped in a middle eastern country where he was teaching English.  His heartbreaking story informs the main plot because the artist begins to realize that her work in virtual reality environments will likely be used for military purposes.  It’s a very good novel but it takes an emotional toll as well.

Next, I reread Desolation Angels by Jack Kerouac.  In my twenties, I think I read most of Kerouac’s novels and loved them.  All these cool guys doing zany things and bopping around the country.  Reading it now in middle age, I found myself thinking “what a bunch of jerks” as I read.  Still, even if the wild, peripatetic life has lost some of its luster, Kerouac’s story telling is entertaining and often poignant.

Housekeeping by Marilynne Robinson is the story of an orphan whose peculiar aunt arrives to be her (and her sister’s) guardian after her grandmother dies (the girls’ mother had died several years before).  The aunt is strange and alarming to the other families in the small town who begin to conspire to take the girls away from her and into proper homes.  As I read this book, I became more and more certain that I had seen a movie based on the novel a few years ago.  I remembered that Christine Lahti played the aunt. Sure enough, I determined that, in fact, a movie starring Christine Lahti was made in 1987 based on the novel.  I remembered liking the movie and the novel (as is often the case) was even better.

I had read Katherine Neville’s novel The Eight some years ago.  I found it enjoyable but not particularly good.  Nonetheless, I picked up her novel A Calculated Risk a few years ago in a used book store and got around to reading it in August.  It’s the story of a female banker who’s used to being pretty independent even though she often gets swatted down by the ‘old boys’ in the bank where she works.  She meets up with a reclusive technology guy (famous among geeks!) and plans a con (of sorts) to prove to her bank that its security practices are lacking.  This is a much better novel than The Eight in a number of ways. Still, when (spoiler alert!) she finally goes to bed with the reclusive technology guy I couldn’t help but think it should have won one of those “worst written sex scene” awards.

A Death in Tuscany by Michele Guittari is a police procedural with a Mediterranean locale. The body of a young girl is found outside of a small Italian mountain town.  The cause of death was a heroin overdose and there were signs of sexual abuse.  The detective becomes somewhat obsessed with the case refusing to consider it just another drug overdose.  As these sorts of novels go, there are a number of subplots that in unpredictable ways relate back the the death of the young girl.  This isn’t a great novel but it’s worthwhile.

The Owl Killers by Karen Maitland takes place in dark ages England.  Christianity as spread over most of Europe but old pagan beliefs remain.  The Owl Killers are a secret society in the village where the novel takes place.  They discipline and control the populace in violent and persuasive ways.  The village priest, fighting his own demons, is hard pressed to gain traction in what is a superstitious (though nominally Christian) village.  In the midst of this, some women from the continent establish a beguine outside of the village.  These are Christian women who, though not nuns, live communally and self sufficiently and dedicate themselves to charity.  This is a very worthwhile novel.

Christopher Moore is a fantastic humorous novelist.  I think that I’ve read everything he’s written (even the vampire novels) and loved them all.  In particular, his novel Lamb:  The Gospel According to Biff, Christ’s Childhood Pal is a magnificent novel.  If you haven’t read it, stop reading this post and find a copy and get busy.  It is truly a lovely book.  This year, I read Sacre Bleu:  A Comedy D’Art.  The story centers around some parisian artists (including well known ones) and their loves and lives as they paint.  There is also the mysterious Color Man who sells paints — in particular, the shade of blue that the Vatican has mandated to be the color of the Virgin Mary.  As with all of Moore’s novels, it’s a lot of fun — and you learn quite a bit about art and painting along the way.

I bought the curious novel The Jamais Vu Papers by Wim Coleman and Pat Perrin perhaps 20 years ago.  I’ve read the beginning several times but never finished because it seems more of a curiousity than a novel.  Last year, I read it in full and enjoyed it.  It is not particularly well written but it’s a very odd book that raises questions about the real and what we can know.  The main story is about a psychiatrist who is treating a celebrity woman (whose name is kept secret for privacy purposes) who has persistent deja vu. Everything that happens to her is no surprise because she already knows what will happen (even though it’s not happened before).  After several frustrating sessions in which he comes to believe her illness, a package arrives with an experimental drug sent by a well know psychiatrist.  This drug, the sender claims, is the chemical equivalent of a metaphor (told ya it was weird).  The patient takes the drug and immediately disappears.  The rest of the novel concerns the psychiatrist’s search for his missing patient and the strange things that happen to him as he searches.

The Master and Margarita is another one of those books that, if you haven’t read it, you must find a copy immediately and read it.  It was written in the 1930s in the Soviet Union by Mikhail Bulgakov but wasn’t published until the mid 1960s.  It is the story of literary men in Moscow and their adventures and tribulations when the devil and his entourage come for a visit.  This is one of the greatest novels ever.  Seriously, go read it.

Some years ago, I bought a book I’d never heard of called A Handbook for Visitors From Outer Space by Kathryn Kramer.  I really liked it and began searching for anything else she had written.  In this case, “some years ago”) refers to a time before Google. Unfortunately, Kathryn Kramer shares a name with a prolific romance writer.  This made it difficult to determine what else the author might have written.  Back then, there were a lot of channels on something called Usenet (a sort of collection of forums on every topic under the sun and then some).  One such channel was alt.20thCentury.Fiction which I read regularly.  I decided to post a query about A Handbook For Visitors From Outer Space and its author.  A few days passed but then I got a reply.  From Richard Powers (one of my favorite novelists).  He told me that Kathryn Kramer taught at Bennington College in Vermont and that she had, in fact published other novels.  Email wasn’t commonplace back then.  Mostly, only academics and government agencies used it.  I sent an email to an address I found for Kathryn Kramer with the subject line “Fan Mail”.  She replied quickly and thanked me for my appreciation saying something like “I was wondering if anyone had ever read that book.”  I picked up her two other novels over the next few years.

I read Rattlesnake Farming perhaps 20 years ago, maybe more.  I reread it last year.  It’s the story of a woman who suffers a trauma that leaves her (psychologically) speechless for ten years.  The story bumps around in various time frames including her life as a young girl, her teenage years and the contemporary situation as she deals with her family during a Christmas visit.  It’s an odd novel that’s wonderful in many ways.  I’ve never met anyone who has read this book so let me know if you do so we can talk about it.  It’s gorgeously written and well worth your time.

Next was The Anthologist by Nicholson Baker.  Baker’s approach to novels is to basically chronicle every thought a person has in minute detail.  It’s stream of consciousness done in a different way than other novels.  For example, his first novel, The Mezzanine takes place as the protagonist rides up one floor on an escalator relating what he’s thinking as he rides.  All of this minutiae is immediately recognizable by the reader.  The Anthologist tells the story of a moderately successful poet who has a contract to put together an anthology of poems.  He’s made all of the choices but is having difficulty writing the introduction.  It doesn’t help that his girlfriend has moved out and he’s sad and lonely.  It’s a lovely, quick read and, if you’re familiar with Nicholson Baker, you’ll know just what you’re going to get.

Finally, another reread.  Old Boys by Charles McCarry is the story of a disgraced ex spy who teams up with other retired agents to try to find his missing cousin Paul Christopher, also an ex spy.  You could describe the novel by saying it’s a description of what can happen when well trained, retired spies have the money and the contacts around the world to pull off rather amazing stunts.  You could describe it that way but it would be a disservice.  McCarry is nearly as good as John LeCarre and this novel (and there’s a whole series of Paul Christopher novels) is a good read and a good story.

I have started a novel by Barbara Kingsolver whom I’ve never read before.  It’s called Prodigal Summer and I’m enjoying it.  I’m not quite finished with it, though, so it’ll have to wait until next year.



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Rosa Parks

Sixty years ago today, Rosa Parks was arrested for refusing to give her seat on a bus to make room for a white passenger.  Montgomery, Alabama had a law that basically gave white people premium seating on the buses.  There was a “Whites Only” section at the front of the bus in which black passengers were prohibited.  The “Whites Only” section generally comprised the 1st four rows of seats but the bus drivers were able to expand that sections as the (white) ridership required.  Parks sat in the “colored” section after paying her fare but, when the bus driver expanded the “Whites Only” section to include the row that Parks was in, she refused to move to another seat further to the rear of the bus.

I learned about Rosa Parks in elementary school in the mid 1960s in Towson, Maryland.  At the time, racism was not considered to be a positive trait; at the same time, racism was evident everywhere.  In my working class, all white, neighborhood, if a black man or boy walked down the street, a few fathers would likely confront him to ask what he was doing there and perhaps to escort him out of the neighborhood.  There were virtually no black people in my school.  The first time I had the experience of meeting a lot of black people was playing Little League baseball.  Oddly, I don’t remember any incidents of coaches or players complaining about the presence of black boys on the teams.  So, while racism was formally decried, it informed a lot of what was daily life.

When I learned about Rosa Parks, the story had a sort of romantic feel about it.  Parks was returning home after a day working as a seamstress.  She was tired, we were told, and just was too pooped to get up and move.  She wasn’t trying to cause any trouble, she was just tired.  Since even 1960s white kids could understand the implicit unfairness of having seats on public transportation reserved for white riders, Parks was imbued with a bit of heroism in the telling of the tale.  Everyone could see the unfairness and everyone could understand being tired.

It wasn’t until decades later that I learned that Parks (42 years old at the time of the incident) wasn’t particularly tired.  She was tired of giving in.  Although the folk history of Rosa Parks sparking the Montgomery Bus Boycott didn’t include this detail, Parks was, in fact, an activist — a member of the NAACP and other groups agitating for civil rights.  So, why was the story distorted  when relayed to school children?

Looking back to my childhood, I think that the (mostly white) people who comprised my world were generally supportive of civil rights (at least publicly).  I think that most people understood that discriminatory laws were a bad thing and that it was good that those laws were gone or going away.  At the same time, they saw the black people marching and protesting and engaging in (god forbid!) civil disobedience as ‘trouble makers’.  They generally believed that things were gradually getting better for black people but that these activists were trouble; not only trouble, but (really!) setting back the cause.

So, there’s something insidious about the mythical Rosa Parks being cast as a heroic figure in the civil rights movement.  It’s sort of amazing that just 10 years after her arrest, her story was relayed in a positive light by elementary school teachers to their students.  At the same time, the fact that she was a civil rights activist prior to her act of resistance on that day had to be expunged from the story.  She had to be a simple woman, tired after working all day who merely refused to give up her seat.  It would not have been palatable to present a hero who was one of those trouble makers.  She was just a person like you and I trying to get home after work.

I’ve been thinking about this today because it’s the anniversary of Parks’ disobedience but I’m often seeing how much racism still exists and, worse, how much racism is practiced by people thoroughly unaware of the issue.  It’s built in to our society and we actually have to be vigilant and point it out when it’s evident.  Rosa Parks was a courageous woman, even though a ‘trouble maker’, who did what was necessary to push back against the outrageous demeaning she was subjected to.


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The Midas Touch – Late Capitalism

One day, some of King Midas’ men brought him a satyr they had captured in one of the king’s fields.  Midas recognized Silenus, the god Dionysus’ favorite satyr and ordered him set free.  Dionysus so appreciated Midas’ gesture that he offered to grant any wish the king might have.  Midas wished that everything he touched would turn to gold.

Dionysus frowned and asked Midas if he was sure that that was what he wanted.  Midas agreed that it was and so the wish was granted.  Midas, wanting to verify that his wish had been granted, laid his hand upon a bowl of fruit.  The fruit turned to gold.  He touched on thing and another and became giddy at the proliferation of gold objects in the room.

He grabbed his daughter by the hand to show her what he had done and what he could do. He was horrified to see a gold statue where his daughter had been.  He soon came to realize why Dionysus had hesitated in the granting of this wish.  He hungered and thirsted and whatever he tried to consume, of course, became unswallowable gold.

In early 21st century America, a nation that has embraced “free trade” economics for decades and whose devotion to that mythology has increased greatly over the last 30 or more years, a phenomenon similar to the Midas Touch has come to pass.  We have become a nation loathe to tax the wealthy because we believe that the wealthy are the “job creators” and that investments in private enterprise are superior to taxation.  Moreover, we must allow free enterprise to do what the market wishes and not thwart businesses’ desires with regulations.  Doing so could interfere with the “job creation” processes and harm our economy.

It may seem like I’m attacking the rich.  I’m not really.  The rich (I mean the really rich — if you’re thinking of the people who live in big houses in the nicest neighborhood you know, that’s not who I’m talking about), have perspectives and interests that influence their desires and their ideas of good policy.  The problem isn’t per se that they have so much money, it’s that the money is tantamount to political power.  Although no gods are around, they have gained the power to turn anything they touch into gold.  Our political system has evolved into an oligarchic charade in which 95% of the people are marginalized and their wishes and desires ignored.  The 1% can donate huge (to us) sums of money to candidates who will effect their wishes as policy.  Those huge donations have no effect on their day to day lives, they exist solely as lines in a ledger book.

In 2002, New York City was in perilous economic straits.  It’s deficit for that fiscal year was estimated at about $5 billion.  Michael Bloomberg, the city’s mayor at the time and a very wealthy man, could have written a check to cover the deficit and still control a $30 billion fortune.  I’m not attacking Michael Bloomberg or saying that he should have written such a check.  Undoubtedly, said check would have been a temporary solution and the fiscal problems, with causes unaddressed, would have returned.  Rather think about this:  one man, had the resources to cover the debts of one of the largest cities in the world and still remain one of the richest men in the world.  It would have been a significant chunk of the wealth he had accumulated but he still would have been fantastically wealthy!

Marx predicted that, in late stage capitalism, capital would begin devouring its own institutions in order to sate its requirement for growth and profits when the economy slowed to the extent that it wasn’t generating sufficient new wealth.  We can see evidence of this in the various investment inventions and derivatives that, seemingly, produce no objective goods, but generate profits.  If our current economic management persists we will see more and more cannibalism like this.  Corporate profits are soaring, job and wage growth are stagnant or falling and the great majority of us have little disposable income.  Without the economic engine of a prosperous middle class, capital looks elsewhere for its sustenance.  And it’s unsustainable.

We can’t expect the rich to come quickly to Midas’ realization that his power was unexpectedly crippling and harmful — to himself as well as to those around him.  Midas’ story, being a moral parable, comes with unmistakable signs of what has gone wrong and Midas’ awareness is inevitable and quick.  And power is intoxicating — one only willingly cedes it if it is causing harm.  And remember, for the most part, the rich are acting, as we all do, in their own interests, without malice and without gluttonous greed.

Nick Hannauer has realized that there’s a problem.  He is worth about $1 billion – a fortune he made in the late 20th century dot com boom.  In a Ted Talk, he points out that he’s not a job creator, that none of the vastly wealthy people can be a job creator.  He knows that consumer spending drives the economy.  He notes that his wealth allows him to purchase pretty much anything he wants.  This is true of all of the wealthy.  But even if every wealthy person went out and purchased everything he or she wanted, it would still not be enough to drive the US economy.  Policies that squeeze the vast majority of the people economically, even though they further enrich the wealthy, eventually create a world in which the rich cannot eat or drink.  Of course, long before that happens, as Hannauer says, the rich will look out of their mansions and see huge crowds with torches and pitchforks.

In our current oligarchic situation, it will be difficult — perhaps impossible — to reverse the ridiculous level of wealth inequality (a term, it seems to me, designed to sound absurd, as though the goal was for everyone to have equal wealth).  But it has to happen.  And the rich won’t realize that their power, their wealth, is causing the problem even when they begin to notice that there is a problem.  Only government can ameliorate the situation and government will be powerless to do so until the wealthy lose their grip on the reins of power.

Midas appealed to Dionysus to reverse the power to turn everything he touched to gold. The god instructed him to wash his hands in the Pactolus River and the power would leave him.  Before the rich go looking for such a river, a great deal of harm will occur.


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Charity and Capitalism

Back when I used to answer the telephone and occasionally had to suffer calls exhorting me to purchase something or donate money to some cause, there was one call that prompted a bit of thought.  The caller was soliciting money to create a fund for the widows and families of fallen police officers and fire fighters.  Certainly, this seems like a good cause.  But, I wondered immediately:  is it?

Assuming that the situation was as dire as the person soliciting funds described — widows and families destitute and needing to sell their late bread earner’s medal to fend off starvation — it immediately occurred to me:  why is it this way?

In the abstract, I think we can all agree that public servants whose jobs put them in peril should have the benefit of sufficient life insurance or a special pension so that, should disaster occur, their survivors are not wanting for food or shelter.  In more practical, immediate terms, comes the question:  “How are you going to pay for that?”  In a culture where taxes are anathema, even essential services are run on tight budgets with analysts ever on the lookout for a way to cut costs.

Yet even those of us who’d grumble about increased taxes are likely to feel at least a little compulsion to contribute to a fund to protect the families of policemen and fire fighters if they die in the line of duty.  I felt that compulsion when I got that call.  I also wondered, contrarily, whether the existence of such a fund, sustained by contributions (and sapped to some extent by overhead), prevents the governments that employ police and firemen from doing the right thing and providing a benefit for the families of the fallen.

I was reminded of this as I read this article this morning.  It’s called “Against Charity” and its thesis is that making charitable contributions sustains the adverse effects of capitalism. Since capital insists on the commodification of everything — including necessities like water, food, shelter — the deprivation that occurs is an inevitable result of capitalist logic.  Moreover, capital sets the terms for the cost of pulling a child back from starvation or funding a desalination plant so some village can have water again.

On the one hand, if we can ease suffering we should surely do so.  On the other hand, what if our efforts to ease that suffering obscure the causes of the suffering and so sustain the conditions that make the suffering inevitable?  It’s very easy to consider abstract suffering — homeless people we don’t know on street corners, poverty and starvation in countries around the globe — and then adopt a “that’s just the way it is” attitude.  After all, there’s little most of us can do individually to make things better.

Charity makes us feel better and so enforces this sort of hopeless complacency that we use to blunt the sight of the suffering in the world.

In fact, capitalism has managed, to an extent, to commodify acts of giving themselves.  Slavoj Žižek has written about coffee shops that tout “fair trade coffee” giving the indication that the coffee they serve has been procured in less exploitative ways than other coffees.  Consequently, we don’t mind paying an extra dollar or so for this cup of comfort because it has been produced in a nicer way than other cups.  Charity and profit — merged. Capitalist logic.

It’s a complicated issue.  If we see no way to replace capitalism with an economic political system that operates more equitably for us all, shouldn’t we at least assuage the suffering that is capitalism’s inevitable result (capitalism serves capital, not people)?  Even if such kindness perpetuates the problem.



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As Privilege Erodes, Bigotry Flourishes

Because I am often critical of President Obama when I write, whether here or elsewhere, I sometimes get friend requests from right wing people on Facebook.  In general, I ignore those requests (although, now that I’m trying to write more and to promote what I write on social media, I’ve become much more open to friend requests).  In one case, however, the friend request came from someone in Ocean City, MD, where I lived a few decades ago.  I thought that, although I didn’t recognize the name or the face, marriage and time may have made those factors illegible to me.  So, I accepted.

It turns out that she was a friend of a friend so she occasionally saw the sorts of things I write on Facebook.  She soon unfriended me.  There’s a curious quirk around how “friending” works in Facebook:  I still see what she writes and posts although, presumably, my stuff never shows up on her newsfeed.  I haven’t bothered to unfriend her because I find the sort of right wing news and opinion she shares to be mildly interesting and somewhat amusing.

As an aside, while we were still ‘friends’, I had a few interactions with her.  Often, I tried to point out that many of the incidents involving Obama that were producing froth on the right, hadn’t happened.  I provided links to Snopes.com as evidence.  Her response:  “It’s my understanding that George Soros owns Snopes.”  My unspoken response, “if that’s so, why doesn’t he spend some money on the damned thing; the interface has 1992 written all over it!”  Anyway, you can see how pervasively the “echo chamber” blots out contradiction of the outrage machine.

Recently, I read a Facebook post from her in which she recounted the story of how she had applied for a driver’s license in a new state (she had moved from Ocean City some time ago).  Although she was armed with what seemed like an overkill of paperwork, she failed to secure the license because her documentation was insufficient.  I’m sympathetic, because, as we are all aware, bureaucracy can be maddening, turning necessary and seemingly routine transactions into trials designed by Kafka.

She then opined that the hispanic men in line behind her probably would have no problem getting whatever they wanted at the agency.  She wondered if she would have been more successful if she’d been wearing a burka and flashing a green card.  Sigh.

She then noted that, based on information she got during the visit, she was able to go online and secure the documentation she needed for about $50.  So, presumably, a subsequent visit would result in issuance of a driver’s license even if she left her burka behind.  She wondered why this additional documentation was necessary since it was so easy, anyone could do it.  Interestingly, she is someone who complains bitterly about taxes (she is, after all, a tea party type).  The fact that she was being taxed $50 in order to execute a simple but necessary transaction was lost on her.  Rather, she focused on the notion that if she was a foreigner, whether legal or illegal, she would have been treated better.

As time goes on, life becomes more complicated.  In the not very distant past, if you were a white citizen of the US, while you expected visits to the DMV or other state agencies to be annoying and time consuming, you also expected to accomplish what you’d set out to do. For a number of reasons, now, this is not necessarily the case.  One of my assumptions is that, in the past, if something about your request was not routine, you could explain, be believed (assuming whiteness and citizenship), and the bureaucrat was empowered to make the transaction happen.  Now anomalies seemingly need to be handled by a special agent who is invariably at lunch or out of the office until next week; individuals on the front line can only routinely process what is routine.

Of course, my assumption above is merely speculation, based on my observation of business and life over 5 decades and more.  Her speculation, that immigrants would be treated better than she is based on xenophobia and the right wing news trope that immigrants are the cause of every ill in the country.  There is no reason, except her frustration that the transaction was not to be accomplished in a single visit, for her to assume that foreigners would fare better; that her white citizenship worked against her when she tried to conduct necessary business within the government bureaucracy.

Life gets more complicated.  Clerks on the front lines of government agencies, and department stores, and wherever, typically cannot do anything but process a routine transaction.  If the requests deviate from routine, a manager or supervisor is required, which itself demands more time, more annoyance, more frustration.  There are any number of forces that shape modern bureaucracy and they may not be all bad.  But frustration is frustration and we all have to deal with it.

Privilege has been ubiquitous for white men like me — so much so, that until it began eroding, it was invisible.  While it’s annoying to notice that privilege is eroding, it’s best to understand this as a result of increased recognition of the rights of all of us.  Privilege goes away because it was always inappropriate and now is beginning to be understood that way.

One of my observations of the ideology of the right is that, “if everyone was like us, things would be fine, but there’s always those ‘others'”.  When life is frustrating it’s because, directly or indirectly, of the ‘others’.  Bigotry’s seeds are always there and too many people are all too willing to fertilize and cultivate them.

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Guilty . . . But Acquitted

I live in Baltimore City.  As all residents of Baltimore understand, I am summoned to jury duty at least yearly (it’s supposed to be yearly but I’m not the only one who believes the summons comes more frequently than it ought).  Moreover, living in a city that calls about 800 potential jurors every day, more often than not, I need to show up at the courthouse with a book or two to wait around all day.

Last Tuesday, for the first time, after perhaps a dozen voir dires over the years, I was impaneled on a jury.  There was a time when I thought I would like to serve on a jury if I could reasonably bear the time off from work (I’ve always worked for organizations that could and would pay me for time spent in jury service but deadlines don’t change just because you’re in court).  I’ve been unemployed for a few years now and time is not really an issue.  On the other hand, I’ve come to the opinion that our justice system is far from fair, that sentences are grossly long and that, overall, the system is in great need of reform.  To make things more stressful, the charges were serious:  3 counts of 1st degree attempted murder, 3 counts of 2nd degree attempted murder, various assault charges, and firearm charges including possession of a firearm by a prohibited person.  I decided that ridiculously long prison terms were something I could do little about and that I would try to serve in a fair and honest capacity despite my objections to the system itself (there was also not much I could do about it).

The basic facts of the case seem to be these:  in the spring of last year, in a south Baltimore neighborhood, two men argued in an alley.  Apparently, one pulled out a gun and started shooting hitting the other man in the hip and hand and also wounding two women that were also in the alley.  The two women ran and took refuge in an auto repair garage; the man ran into his house from the alley.

The State called three eyewitnesses.  One was one of the female victims.  She is a former “I’m in a program, now” heroin addict.  On the day of the crime, while at the hospital, she picked the shooter out of a photo array.  In order to assure her appearance in court, the prosecutor had her arrested the previous night and she spent the night in jail before being brought to court.  She was in her mid forties or so and weighed perhaps 85 lbs.  She was disheveled and twitching and thoroughly pissed that she’d spent the night in jail.  In court, she recounted the story and identified the defendant as the man who shot her.

The defense attorney tried to impugn her credibility by pointing to her drug addiction, the fact that one of the other victims was known to be a drug dealer and in a truly disgusting side note opined that her injury was entirely “predictable” because of her involvement in the drug trade.  At the hospital, she was found to have a small bag of heroin (about $10 worth).  The defense attorney surmised that since she was not arrested for possession (the heroin was confiscated and logged as evidence) she perhaps cut a deal with police to identify the man the police wanted to arrest.  The attorney also pointed to the fact that she’d been arrested to ensure her appearance in court as a strike against her credibility.  I know that it’s the defense attorney’s job to undermine testimony for the prosecution but I found his approach disgusting and rather patronizing.

The two other eyewitnesses lived in a house in the neighborhood.  Their bedroom window faces the alley.  Hearing gunshots rather close, they went to the window to look out and see what was going on.  They both identified the defendant as the gunman and each picked the defendant’s picture from a photo array at the police station on the day of the incident.  Their house is an old Baltimore row house with a backyard that is perhaps 7 feet deep and a fence separating it from the alley.  From their upstairs window, the gunman was about 15 feet from them.  They both testified that he had a gun in his hand and was yelling “You’ll get it, motherfucker” at a man running into a house on the other side of the alley.

The defense attorney’s tactic was to underscore the differences between the statements they made to police on the day of the crime and their testimony in court (some 14 months later).  In their statements at the time, they both said they saw 2 men running into the house — one being a person they knew to live there.  In their testimony, each remembered only one man running into the house (the one they knew lived there).  These discrepancies didn’t bother me too much — the identity — existence? — of the mystery man is intriguing but not particularly germane.  Over 14 months, particularly if one has told the story numerous times (I assume they had, I would’ve), it’s not surprising to have some details change in memory.  I put more weight in the statements they made on the same day, and that they identified the defendant in a photo array on the same day, than their testimony more than a year later.

So, three eyewitnesses put the defendant at the scene of the crime with a gun in his hand and one actually saw him shoot her.  The other female victim couldn’t be located and the male victim, the one seen running into his house, was polite but refused to cooperate with police in any way.

Other witnesses included a ballistics expert from the Baltimore Police Department.  He testified that the shell casings found in the alley were all fired from the same gun.  One of the detectives assigned to the case (the lead detective was unavailable having resigned from the police department and moved to Massachusetts to attend school).  He recounted his involvement at the scene and, at the prosecutor’s urging, described the methods by which the photo arrays are prepared and presented to witnesses.  The one female witness, because she was shown the photos in the hospital, was shown a photo array using a “shuffle” method.  Six photos are put in front of her face down.  They ask her to rearrange the pictures without looking at them so that they are in a more or less random order when she looks at them.

The other two witnesses, because they were shown the photo arrays at the police station, were shown photos prepared in a “double blind” method.  The detectives prepare the array and give them to a person not associated with the investigation to present them to the witnesses.  In this way, the person presenting the array is unaware which picture(s) represent suspects and so, can’t possibly lead the witness to pick a particular suspect.

The defense attorney lightly cross examined the police witnesses and then both prosecution and defense rested.  The defense called not one witness of their own.

After closing arguments, we jurors repaired to the jury room to deliberate.  It was obvious to me that some of the charges were absurd.  As one might imagine, first degree attempted murder requires premeditation.  The only attempt the prosecutor made to secure that charge was to point out during closing arguments that while premeditation is required it was sufficient if that premeditation was momentary.  My assumption is that the 1st degree attempted murder charges were logged in hopes of persuading the defendant to make a plea agreement.

It was late in the day when we got to the jury room and I already knew that we’d have to come back for a 6th day of service the next day.  But I said, “Can we at least agree that they’ve put the defendant at the scene of the crime with a gun in his hand?”  Because, if we couldn’t agree on that there was no need to even consider the other charges.  I was dismayed when 2 of the jurors could not agree on that.  It was depressing as hell.  We had taken an informal poll on just that question.  Ten of us agreed that the evidence put the defendant at the scene with a gun in his hand.  Two did not.

Their reasoning?  The police could have done this and they could have done that.  That, of course, is always true.  The police always “could have” done anything.  However, there was no evidence presented that the police “did” do something.  It was depressing as hell because I could see no other outcome but a hung jury.  I was wondering how long the judge — a woman who’d impressed me with her friendly yet formal handling of the courtroom — would make us ‘deliberate’ before giving up.

The next morning, we reconvened.  In hopes that things had changed during a night’s reflection, the foreperson asked for another poll on the fundamental question.  Still the same:  ten believed the defendant was present and in possession of a gun, two were not convinced.  The two found the heroin addict victim to be totally unreliable and, while they believed the other two witnesses were telling the truth, they weren’t sure that the police didn’t commit some malfeasance in their handling of the witnesses and the evidence.

Some of us began looking at the documents about the photo arrays and the identifications therein.  One the first page of each of the “double blind” photo array documents, there is a script that the presenter reads before handing the array to the witness.  Among other things, the presenter says that “I am not associated with this investigation in any way except that I am showing you these photographs.”  The presenter’s name, badge number and signature are on the document as well.

One of us recognized the presenter’s name and we found that she was present at the crime scene that morning according to the crime scene log.  To me, that certainly associates her with the investigation!  We asked the judge for clarification:  “Could ‘not associated with this investigation in any way’ be interpreted to mean ‘not assigned to the case’ or some other explanation that would permit her to be present at the crime scene?”  Unfortunately, no clarification could be given.

In addition, the presenter and the witnesses signed the photo array documents between 2 pm and 2:30 pm.  The crime scene log had the officer who was the presenter of the photo arrays present at the crime scene until 3:15 pm.  There were quite a few people in the crime scene log who left at 3:15 pm.  My assumption is that the person entrusted with the log didn’t note each coming and going but, rather, signed out everyone still on the list when he or she left the scene.  But who knows?  The evidence is what it is.

We took another poll.  Now that we’d identified problems with how the photo arrays were administered — particularly given that the prosecution and detectives went into a lot of detail about how the photo arrays were presented and why — there were 10 of us that agreed that the prosecution had not proven that the defendant was at the scene and in possession of a gun.  I think that we were all convinced that the defendant was the gunman but that the evidence was tainted.  Two jurors would still vote to convict; 10 (including me) would vote to acquit.  Eventually, those two agreed to acquit and we went back upstairs to read the verdict:  Not Guilty on all  counts.

It was a thoroughly unsatisfying and discouraging experience.  I can’t help but worry about the witnesses who lived in the neighborhood.  Their names and their address were broadcast frequently during the trial.  I can only hope that, having been acquitted, the defendant will have no animus towards those witnesses.  Still . . .

There’s a saying among Baltimore lawyers to the effect that “you can’t convict anyone in a court in Baltimore.”  This is usually interpreted to mean that juries in Baltimore are intransigent and uncooperative.  I have a new perspective on this now:  perhaps people aren’t convicted in Baltimore courtrooms because the police consistently foul up the case.



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The Ugly Underside of the Supreme Court’s Gay Marriage Decision

When I was a kid, growing up in the sixties, “fag” was about the worst thing one could be called.  Of course, it had nothing to do with sexual orientation; it was merely a demeaning epithet slung in anger.  Long after the word “nigger” was banished from our vocabulary, “fag” was bandied about easily.  Even nice, seemingly enlightened people would occasionally mince and lisp mocking homosexuals.

Twenty years ago, a 1996 poll found that just 27% of the population supported gay marriage (the question could not have been asked by a serious pollster in the 60s or 70s).  A poll done this week, coincident with the Supreme Court’s decision in Obergefell  that legalized same sex marriage in the US, found that 60% of respondents supported gay marriage.  That’s a really amazing change in social attitudes over just two decades.

I’m not really interested in trying to determine how such a change came about (although I’d be interested to read about it), so I’m going to speculate.  Looking over the nearly six decades that comprise my life, the change in attitudes is completely remarkable.  Gay people have transitioned from outcast perverts to respectable citizens in my lifetime.

The only thing that I can think of that explains the attitude shift is this:  some brave individuals “came out” before it was very safe to do so.  Then, other gay people felt more able to be public about their sexuality.  With each wave of coming out, it became easier and easier to admit the fact of homosexuality.  Meanwhile, more and more people realized that they knew gay people and accepted that.  This made it easier still for gay people to decide to “come out.”  Lather, rinse, repeat.

When I was a kid, no one knew any gay people — and, if someone did, it was a major secret.  There were obviously gay entertainers like Liberace and Paul Lynde but the media made no effort to divulge the secret.  I’m nearly 60 years old; I have a number of out, gay friends.  The gradual opening of the closet eventually caused the door to swing open with a bang.  No one can pretend they don’t know anyone who’s gay.

Another recent poll found that people who self identify as gay or lesbian comprise 1.6% of the population.  As we celebrate the Supreme Court decision that ameliorated the injustice perpetrated on homosexuals, we should also reflect on this:  for most of my life, well over five million gay and lesbian people in the US were 2nd class citizens with attenuated civil rights.  That’s a sad thing to think about — even as we stand pleased with the ruling that ended this sort of institutional bigotry in the US.

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Comparing Apples and Orange Sherbert

This morning, I read a comment on social media that made me want to scream.  The gist of the comment:  Baltimore and Ferguson, MO could learn a lesson by looking at the restraint of the citizens of Charleston, SC in the wake of the murder of nine African American people in their church.  No protests and no riots.  Such well behaved people!

Within the last year, in Ferguson, MO and Baltimore, MD, protests were mounted in response to the killing of young, black men by law enforcement officers.  In Baltimore, although protests were generally peaceful, there was an ugly afternoon and evening of rioting and looting.  In Charleston, of course, a young racist sat through a bible study session at an African American church before standing up and announcing that black people “rape our women” and are “taking over our country.”  He then used a handgun to murder nine African American people.

Dylann Roof, the young racist, was promptly arrested and jailed.

Imagine a situation in which, despite the testimony of survivors of the tragedy, Dylann Roof is acquitted of all charges in a court of law.  Or, worse, imagine that charges are dropped and he is released before any trial takes place.  Would the citizens of Charleston not protest?  If they didn’t, would their restraint be admirable?

Individual violence, while deplorable and tragic, is an unfortunate fact of life in our armed and violent society.  Haters are going to hate; killers are going to kill.  There is no obvious solution — at least not with respect to actions the state might take.  On the other hand, when the power of the state is used to protect those killers and haters, there is a moral obligation to protest the injustice.  In addition, protests of this kind have a purpose: the state is put on notice that the injustice will not be tolerated.

I suspect that Dylann Roof will be tried on nine counts of murder, found guilty, and sentenced to a long incarceration in prison.  Justice will be done and the people will have no reason to be outraged.  Certainly, we should all be outraged that this sort of thing happens but the response of the state will have been appropriate.

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Harriet Tubman, The Face of Money

Yesterday’s Baltimore Sun What Maryland Thinks online poll question:

Should Harriet Tubman replace Andrew Jackson on the $20 bill?

Yes 22%
No 76%
Not Sure 2%

(115 votes)

As is often the case, the poll question is a fluffy non-issue that really doesn’t lend itself to analysis. You would think that, since Harriet Tubman was a Maryland native, there’d be some significant support for ascending her to be the face on the $20 bill. Since there were more than 3 No votes for every Yes vote, there is something else at play.

It would be easy to suggest that racism is a factor — it certainly is. However, I don’t think that racism is the major factor influencing the voting. Rather, it’s primarily resistance to change. Why change the $20 bill? I suspect that many of the participants in the poll know that Andrew Jackson (currently the face of the $20 bill) was a president; at the same time, I think they’d be hard pressed to pin him down in an historical context or to name a single accomplishment of that administration. Assuming I’m right, there’s no admiration for Jackson driving resistance.

I think it’s simply a matter of not wanting things to change. Boring, but there you have it.

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Voting Rights for Felons

While I was writing my “What I Think Maryland Thinks” feature — in which I attempted to predict the outcome of the Baltimore Sun’s What Maryland Thinks online poll — I noticed some logistical issues. For example, each post had two topics — the outcome of the previous day’s prediction and the prediction for the following day. My thought was to break these into two posts, one for each prediction.

This week, real life got in the way and I wound up skipping two days of polls. Now, my plan is to just comment on the topic at hand each day.

Yesterday’s question in the What Maryland Thinks poll:

Should Gov. Larry Hogan sign a bill granting full voting rights to felons out on parole?

Yes 23%
No 73%
Not Sure 4%

Predictably (heh), participants in the online poll overwhelmingly want to deny felons voting rights. This is profoundly undemocratic. Convicted felons in Maryland must currently wait until they have completed parole and/or probation before being re-enfranchised. A bill is on Gov. Hogan’s desk awaiting his signature that would restore the right to vote immediately after release from prison.

I am sure that many of the people who voted no in the poll would just as soon have felons lose the right to vote permanently following conviction. This seems sensible to them since felons have chosen to live outside of decent society and therefore have forfeited the right to shape that society. These are people for whom the justice system is fair and, really, too mindful of the rights of the accused. They assume that convictions are valid and that the felon is responsible for what has happened. And, probably, they are generally correct.

I have a rather radical take on this topic. I would have convicted felons be able to vote while imprisoned. The United States has the highest incarceration rate — by far — in the world (707 inmates per 100,000 residents). In this era of mass incarceration, it is easy to see how disenfranchisement could be used to squash the voting power of segments of the population that don’t vote correctly (according to the political class). There are already a variety of attempts to put obstacles between voters and the ballot box in places where those voters are likely to vote for the wrong candidates. Prison disenfranchisement is a more long term strategy but I don’t think it’s outlandish to think that it would never be employed.

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