Kaep was Right. He’s Still Right.

This is the state of our country: According to CNN, there are as many National Guard members activated in the U.S. right now as there are active duty troops in Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan.

Maybe, just maybe, Colin Kaepernick had something to say that the country should have been willing to hear. Maybe, just maybe, if he hadn’t been run out of town we wouldn’t be where we are now.

Denial, goes the old saying, is a river in Egypt. Except that it isn’t a river at all. It’s the road that runs straight to hell, and we’re awfully far down that road. Maybe, just maybe, it’s time to turn around.

Death by Chocolate Chip

Among my wife’s many redeeming qualities is a splendiferous singing voice. (She’s an alto.) Our local university has availed itself of her talent by inviting her to serenade audiences in its campus-community chorus. As a result, I have spent many an evening at the Mondavi listening to performances of music that I occasionally liked and regarding which I more often gave thanks that I never belonged to a religion that made me sit through such stuff. Regardless, I am an attentive and dutiful husband; what interests her interests me. Thus, when her director asked her to host a social gathering for the chorus in our home, I readily agreed and negotiated a suitable amount of time during which I was required to socialize and after which I could hide in our bedroom with my iPad and earbuds.

In preparation for the event, Linda baked cookies for one hundred people, give or take. Chocolate chip and peanut butter. Into the freezer they went, once she had extracted a promise from me not to conduct my usual raiding forays. (Although this should not need to be said, I do not steal cookies. Some escape, and others are liberated. This is not theft.) Then a relative of the director took ill, and the event was postponed. Then a pandemic swept the country, the chorus went on leave until the fall, and gatherings of any sort were verboten.

I said to Linda, “When this thing is rescheduled in the fall, are you really going to want to serve cookies that have been in the freezer for months?” She allowed as how she’ll probably want to start fresh.

I am midway through the fourth tin. This is a dangerous endeavor in a nation bereft of toilet paper. It’s a race against time, really. Will the stores restock before I finish two more tins? After two more tins, will I be able to hold my hands steady enough to operate a motor vehicle and drive to the store? Is the sugar rush worth the jitters and double vision? Okay, that last one’s easy.

These are tough times. Tough times call for tough measures. Tough measures and warm, gooey, chocolatey joy. Tell me I’m wrong. Actually, don’t bother; after the next tin the words will just slide off the page in front of my quivering, spasming eyeballs anyway.

An American in London

Here is the statement I’d like to see issued by Harry and Meghan, the Duke and Duchess of Sussex:

“We would like to thank the people of Great Britain for your support during this difficult time. That said, guess what? We’re not animals in your fucking petting zoo. In fact, you people have things completely backwards. If a fucking mail carrier can marry whomever he wants but a duke cannot, what the hell is the point of being a duke? It’s supposed to be better to be royal than to be common, remember? It’s supposed to confer a certain privilege.

“Oh wait, you’re gonna tell us how good we have it because we’re rich? Then you’re going to turn around and tell us we’d better behave the way you’d like or you’ll cut off our support? You’re our subjects, not the other way ‘round. You might want to remember that.

“So here’s the four-one-one: We’re going to do whatever the hell we want, and you’re going to suck it up and deal. If Grandma objects, maybe we’ll go raise an army in France and take the crown, like they used to do in the good old days. If you commoners object, you can raise your own army and we’ll give it a go. Because this is how monarchy works, people. Someone wins and someone gets their head chopped off, and the people with heads make the rules. Peace out.

“Sincerely,

“The Duke and Duchess of Sussex

“P.S.: God save the fucking Queen.”

Somewhere in my Youth or Childhood . . .

. . . I must have done something good.

Days like today are the best days. Linda’s apple streusel pies are made, and the pumpkin chiffon pies are in progress. She’s made most of the appetizers, including my favorite, peppers Provençal. Yesterday, I prepped the bourbon sweet potatoes (purple!), and our friend Amy prepped the roasted root vegetables with hot honey butter and lime. Today we’ll get to work on the turkey with bacon-cider gravy, cranberry-walnut relish, and other dishes. Between family and friends, we’ll have everything from curried butternut squash soup to sautéed spinach and pancetta to maple cheesecake with vanilla whipped cream and tart apple compote.

My younger son spent an hour or so out in the yard with the leaf blower. “The good thing about having people over at five o’clock,” says Linda, “is that it’s dark already. They won’t see what a mess the yard is.” That my son would fly across the country for this holiday and cheerfully help with yard work is progress of a sort we would not have expected a few years ago. We won’t have as much of my side of the family as usual this year, but between friends and Linda’s relatives we’re still seating nineteen for dinner. And get this: everyone genuinely likes everyone else.

Last night, with our work done for the day, we kicked back and tested various methods of spiking eggnog.

I’ve known lean years and hard times. Sleepless nights and agonizing choices are old companions of mine. But if that’s what it took to get to these days, then it was all worth it. I have family, friends, love, and affection in abundance now. I treasure the people in my life, though sometimes I wonder what they’re doing here and why they stick around. It isn’t all butterflies and Fudgesicles, but it’s close.

My father says that if you have luck, you don’t need brains or talent. I don’t know if what I have now is luck or something else, and I don’t care. It’s more than enough for me.

Home of the Brave

We toured Fort McHenry today. You know Fort McHenry as the fort bombarded by the British during the War of 1812. It’s where Francis Scott Key was inspired to write the Star Spangled Banner. Later, it was used as a training ground and prison for Confederate soldiers and sympathizers during the Civil War.

To say the exhibits at this National Historic Monument and Shrine are problematic is an understatement. In one building, for example, is an exhibit entitled: “Lincoln: Statesman or Despot?” It discusses the fact that President Lincoln suspended the writ of habeas corpus early in the war and imposed military rule in Maryland in order to quash secessionist activity. The writ was later restored. Lincoln did what he did because the nation’s capital would have been indefensible had Maryland seceded.

Historians consistently rate Lincoln as the greatest President in the history of this country. We should remember and teach his legacy objectively, including the extra-constitutional measure of suspension of the writ. But it is lunatic to suggest that he was a despot. It is unbalanced. It is not scholarship. It is not history.

There’s more. The exhibits at Fort McHenry lionize Key and the Star Spangled Banner. That’s understandable. But most people don’t know that the poem/song has four verses, of which we only sing one. The third verse addresses the British attempt to sow disorder and win the war by offering to free American slaves who abandoned their masters and fought for Britain. Some slaves accepted the offer. In the third verse Key looked forward with glee to murdering them after the war:

  • No refuge could save the hireling and slave
  • From the terror of flight or the gloom of the grave,
  • And the star-spangled banner in triumph doth wave
  • O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave.
  • Nice.

    The exhibits at Fort McHenry gloss over this grotesquerie, noting only that the words were inspired by Key’s anger at the British invasion. The meaning of the words is completely ignored, while in other places exhibits strain to give the impression that the few free blacks who fought for the U.S. somehow proved that the armed forces were integrated and inclusive.

    I suppose you could say that the unbalanced nature of this exhibit is explained by its location in Maryland and a consequent desire to appease the local population. But that only begs the question of why we, as a nation, are still trying to appease white supremacists who describe their racism as “southern culture” and “heritage.” For too long, we have taught that the Civil War was caused by political disagreements between people who were otherwise good, loyal, honorable, and decent Americans. This is patently untrue. The war was a contest between good and evil, between freedom and slavery, between the idea that liberty and bondage were incompatible and the idea that African-Americans were, in the words of Chief Justice Roger Taney, “of an inferior order and altogether unfit to associate with the white race, either in social or political relations, and so far inferior that they had no rights which the white man was bound to respect.”

    Our weak-kneed attempt to be “fair” to the Confederate cause has brought us to where we are today: a place where a national monument questions the legitimacy of our greatest President. A place where a President can describe white supremacists as “fine people” and shrug off violence between them and counter-protestors by saying there were “good people on both sides.” Imagine if we taught that Hitler and the Nazis were good Germans who had legitimate grievances after World War I; they just took those grievances too far or expressed them poorly. We don’t teach that. We teach that Naziism was, and is, pure evil. We teach that no legitimate grievance or economic dislocation could have justified it. When we teach about World War II, we call good and evil by their true names. We do not hesitate.

    The descendants of those who fought for slavery and racism should be ashamed of the actions of their ancestors. They should not still be waving Confederate flags. They do so only because the rest of us have shied away from compelling them to face the reckoning that Germans were not spared after their descent into barbarity. This is cowardice. It is moral relativism at its worst. It needs to stop.

    Relentless Forward Progress

    Somewhere around mile twenty four, I saw someone in an orange vest behind me. My legs were cramping and my feet were blistered. Thank God, I thought, The race sweeper. I’m the last one out here. He’ll pull me off the course and end this sufferfest.

    It was just another runner in an orange vest. Shit. I had to keep moving.

    I’m nobody’s idea of an athlete. Slow, uncoordinated, nearsighted, with poor balance and prone to weight gain, I was always the last kid picked for any team in school. I was something of a Renaissance man, which is to say I sucked at every sport. Now I’m getting old, and my never-very-good best days are behind me.

    But I can run, because any able-bodied person can run, so that’s what I do. Not fast, and not gracefully, because I’m built like an undersized linebacker. But I run.

    I don’t love it. I’m perfectly happy on the couch with a plate of warm chocolate-chip cookies. Besides, running puts me in the company of people who are younger, faster, more athletically accomplished, and more beautiful than I. It twangs and strums the strings of my insecurities. But it’s necessary for health and fitness, so I run.

    It has its benefits. It’s a pretty satisfying feeling when you defy others’ expectations to do things no one thought you could do. It’s something else entirely when you do things you didn’t believe you could do. Suddenly, the light goes on. That voice in your head that says, “I can’t?” It’s just a wuss who doesn’t want to try. You won’t listen to it next time. You know now that the voice lies. You will do all the hard things, and you won’t make excuses, and you won’t listen to your own doubts and fears, because they were bullshit last time and they’re bullshit this time. If you choose to walk away from a challenge—well, that’s a choice, and you’ll own it. There is no such thing as “I can’t.”

    At mile twenty seven, I knew I’d make it to the aid station at mile twenty nine.

    Sometimes I ask the important people in my life to do hard things, because sometimes life requires the doing of hard things. Beyond that, I want them to know that their own voices that say “I can’t” are just as wrong as mine. How can I make that ask if I’m not willing to push myself to accomplish things I think are beyond me? I will not be that guy who asks of other people what he will not risk himself. I will not be that man who seeks to control a woman to compensate for feelings of disempowerment that the world foists upon him. There’s a lot of that in today’s world, and it isn’t my way.

    At the aid station at mile twenty nine, it became unthinkable to drop out less than two miles from the finish. I’d get there if I had to crawl.

    I will do the difficult things in life that I don’t want to do. I will do them even if they hurt. I will not quit despite wanting nothing more than for someone to give me permission to quit. I will lead by example, not by diktat. The people to whom I mean something will say, “If Jeff can do what he does, I guess I have no excuses.”

    The barbecue at the finish line warmed my insides and restored some brain function. I looked at the finisher’s medal in my hand. Is this mine? Did I really do this?

    Life gives you plenty of opportunities to sit out a challenge. But the true adventure begins at the edge of the known world; that is, just beyond what you believe to be the limit of your capabilities. Somewhere past that point are things you’ve never seen and can’t imagine. Someone has to bring back reports of what’s out there. Why not me? Why not you?

    Justice Denied

    Boy, I don’t know. Fourteen days for Felicity Huffman. I just don’t know.

    Let’s be clear about what happened here: Huffman didn’t just cheat the system to get her daughter into a university for which she was not qualified. In so doing, Huffman took that university spot from another student—perhaps one who studied hard and earned his/her grades. Perhaps the student who didn’t get into U.S.C. because of Huffman’s fraud overcame adverse economic or family circumstances to put him- or herself in a position to succeed. That student’s opportunity now is gone forever. (S)he doesn’t now get to go to U.S.C. just because Huffman got caught.

    A parent who is rich enough to pay tens of thousands of dollars to cheat the system is wealthy enough to provide her child with every educational advantage. Huffman had the resources to send her daughter to the best schools, provide private tutoring if needed, and ensure that her daughter didn’t have to work while in school. I can only marvel at the arrogance and sense of entitlement it must take to believe that none of this is enough; that is, that one is so deserving of elite status that lawbreaking is justified if the privileges of wealth are not sufficient to deliver it.

    In a time of growing inequality, this sentence only reinforces the widely-held belief that we have a two-tiered system of justice: one for the rich, and another for the rest of us. That belief is deeply corrosive to our faith in government and society. It doesn’t matter that Huffman isn’t an habitual criminal or a congenitally bad actor. What she did strikes at the heart of our conception of America as a meritocracy. For that, she deserved at least several months of quiet time in very close quarters to reflect on her misdeeds.

    The Girl Scouts are Better Than the Rest of Us

    A friend of mine brought to my attention today a story from 2015 about a $100,000 donation made to the Girl Scouts of Western Washington that the Scouts returned because the donor specified that the money was not to be used to support transgender girls. The Scouts ran an Indiegogo fundraising campaign to fill the hole in their budget left by the return of the donation, and quickly raised over twice that amount–over $250,000.

    There are multiple ways to look at this story. You can applaud the courage of the Girl Scouts in returning a donation that had strings attached. You can take heart from the fact that they recouped the money—and then some—via donations from people who support their stand. These are good and valid reactions to what transpired here.

    But in today’s world, what stays with me is the fact that someone was willing to spend $100,000 to ensure discrimination against a persecuted minority. Someone wants discrimination to not just be a matter of individual choice, but to be enshrined as policy in our social institutions. Someone thinks that denigrating trans people isn’t just acceptable, it’s important work—important enough to pay handsomely for.

    Whoever offered this donation probably considers themselves faithful adherents to a religion that emphasizes generosity, charity, and service to their community. The only way to square their actions with these beliefs is to believe that trans people are not people at all, and therefore do not deserve generosity, or charity, or service.

    I was raised as conventionally as can be. I grew up in a nuclear family and lived in a tract house in a suburb. My childhood was white stucco and Spanish tile as far as the eye can see. I probably don’t know trans issues from transistors. But I know right from wrong. And the people who conditioned their donation to the Girl Scouts upon the latter’s willingness to discriminate are as far from right as they can be.

    Guns and Democracy

    This is a post that first appeared in my Tumblr blog, and on Facebook. I’m reposting it here in hopes of reaching a wider audience–and because, sadly, its relevance has not diminished.

    Did you know that Canadians who wish to possess or acquire firearms must have a valid possession-acquisition, or possession-only, license? It’s true. What’s more, to be eligible for a license, all applicants must successfully complete the Canadian Firearms Safety Course for a non-restricted license, and the Canadian Restricted Firearms Safety Course for a restricted license; the non-restricted class is a prerequisite to the restricted license. Each province/territory’s chief firearms officer publishes information on the locations and availability of these courses.

    Licenses are typically valid for five years and must be renewed prior to expiration. Once licensed, an individual can apply for a firearm transfer, and an authorization to transport for restricted firearms. People may hunt with firearms in Canada only with non-restricted firearms, and this requires an additional “Hunting with Firearms” course.

    For the most part, high-capacity magazines are illegal. There are further laws detailing how private firearms must be stored and transported. Certain kinds of ammunition are illegal. Devices that make semiautomatic weapons fully automatic are illegal.

    Having effectively disarmed its citizenry, Canada has become a totalitarian dictatorship that does not respect the freedom of its citizens to express their opinions or peacefully change their leadership. Oh wait, that’s not true. What I meant to say is that Canada is a vibrant democracy that successfully integrates immigrants into its society at a per capita rate three times that of the United States, has two official languages, wrestles with a separatist movement in Quebec entirely peacefully, and experiences almost no mass shootings. There was one “mass” shooting in 2017; it claimed six lives. There was one in 2016; four people died. Going back several more years yields similar statistics. (Fun fact: the worst mass killing in Canadian history was the Lachine Massacre, in which 72 people died—in 1689. It was an anti-immigrant riot of a sort, which is to say the Mohawk attacked a French settlement. Another example of the danger of nativist politics, I suppose.)

    Australia is a similar cautionary tale in the matter of gun control. There, a person who possesses or uses a firearm must have a firearm license. License holders must demonstrate a “genuine reason”—which does not include self-defense—for holding a firearm license and must not be a “prohibited person” (such as anyone having a mental illness that makes ownership of a firearm a hazard). All firearms in must be registered. Safety courses are mandatory for gun owners. Storage requirements and inspections are imposed. Certain types of semiautomatic weapons and other devices are banned entirely. Sales of guns and ammunition are restricted.

    Australia’s current gun control regime is largely traceable to mass shootings between 1984 and 1996. The most notorious of these was the Port Arthur Massacre in 1996, in which a gunman armed with two semiautomatic rifles killed 35 people. Public opinion was galvanized. Because the Australian constitution does not give the federal government the power to regulate guns, gun control was accomplished by the enactment of national agreements brokered by the federal government and implemented and enforced by the states. Importation of guns is regulated by the federal government.

    As a result of these measures, the most recent relevant report of the Australian Institute of Criminology states that the “number of victims of firearm-perpetrated homicide (i.e. murder and manslaughter) has declined by half between 1989–90 and 2009–10 from 24 to 12 percent.” On the other hand, the difficulty of obtaining firearms made it easy for the Chinese Army, and its fifth-column collaborators of armed wallabies, to overthrow the Australian government last year. Oh wait, that didn’t happen. What I meant to say is that Australia is a fully functioning, multi-party, federal republic. Freedom of assembly and association is respected, the judiciary is independent, and workers have the right to organize and bargain collectively.

    Do I really need to go on? Guns are tightly controlled in England, France, Germany, and almost every other western democracy. Somehow, freedom survives.

    We all know that gun violence in the United States is off the charts compared to its democratic allies. Here, 27 people die from gun violence for every day of the year. If you adjusted the populations of Canada and Australia, the examples cited above, to make them equivalent to the United States, their rates would still be fewer than 5 deaths for every day of the year. The Paris terrorist attacks in November 2015 killed 130 people, which is nearly as many as die from gun homicides in all of France in a typical year. But even if France had a mass shooting as deadly as the Paris attacks every month, its annual rate of gun homicide death would be lower than that in the United States.

    Nevertheless, gun advocates claim that the seemingly endless appetite of Americans for firearms is all that stands between us and the loss of our liberties to a tyrannical government. The problem is that to reach that conclusion, you have to ignore all of the available evidence. The experience of every other democracy shows that being armed to the teeth against the supposed predation of your neighbor is not a pre-requisite to freedom. (In fact, the opposite is more likely true. I don’t know about you, but I’d feel freer to speak and live as I please if I didn’t think that my neighbor’s disapproval might result in my death.) Although . . .

    . . . I suppose you could distinguish the United States from other democracies. If you believe that Americans are less attached to their liberties than, say, Belgians, or that the roots of American democracy are shallower than those in, say, Italy, or that American political institutions are weaker than those in, say, Luxembourg, or that Americans are more likely to become attached to authoritarian leaders than, say, Germans, then you can plausibly make the case that Americans need to be armed against the possibility of tyranny because their democracy is more fragile than that of other countries.

    Do you believe that?