More Guns Do Not Make Us Safer – posted 1/25/2015

January 25, 2015 Leave a comment

In the debate that recently allowed concealed carry in the New Hampshire House, there was one quote that grabbed my attention.

“The only way to stop a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun.”

The Republican legislator who made that statement appeared to encapsulate the majority view. In this view, guns prevent violence and the more guns, the better. Safety would be all legislators, armed.

But I guess it is not just legislators. From all appearances, gun proponents think the world would be a safer place if everybody was armed, everywhere. This must be the dream of gun manufacturers. In this dream, if you do not have a gun, you are a sitting duck.

The crazy thing is we are not living in some 19th century Wild West. You would think civil society is a war zone like Syria. Why would legislators be expecting a shootout in the New Hampshire House in 2015? Are legislators that scared and insecure that they need a gun in their possession at all times?

Apparently they are.

We live in a culture of fear-mongering. There are many fears to catalogue. There is fear of terrorism, foreign and domestic. Then there are mass shootings at colleges, schools, movie theaters, religious sites, and malls. There are serial killers, drug lords, gangs, and just common criminals. The list is long.

We have a 24/7 media spin cycle that thrives on sensationalism. Shootings, especially mass shootings, grab large audiences so they are featured by many cable outlets. Politics are secondary. Whether it is Fox News or MSNBC, they all cover it for the ratings.

I would submit that fear-mongering has damaged our collective lives. All the sensationalist coverage has led us to expect Charlie Hebdo-type episodes. Even in sleepy, backroads New Hampshire, we are not immune. The local history of no such carnage does not seem to reassure.

I think this is sad because the New Hampshire reality is so much more about neighbors helping neighbors as we move through our daily lives. That has certainly been my experience living in Wilmot for the last 25 years. We actually depend on each other to get through.

All the fear from TV promotes paranoia, wariness of others, and a more Hobbesian view of the world. I am afraid there is something of a crossover where mass media infects real life expectations. Some people respond by stockpiling weapons, turning their homes into bunkers, and expecting the worst as an imminent event.

So now seems like a good time to address the view that more guns make us safer. That view is both false and dangerous. Whatever security all the guns have brought is outweighed by so many needless and senseless deaths they have caused. Gun proponents have a blind spot about the harm.

The United States is awash in guns. It now has by far the largest number of privately owned firearms in the developed world. I have seen the number estimated at between 200 to 300 million guns.

Every year there are more than 30,000 firearm deaths in the United States. That works out to over 85 a day. And that does not even get to the many hundreds of daily nonfatal injuries. While the United States is not more violent than other high income, industrialized nations, it has far more gun-related killings than any other developed country.

How can we not see this is a public health emergency? Just as we dealt with tuberculosis, tobacco, and auto safety, we need to see gun violence as equivalent to an epidemic. The lethality of guns so often has death as an end result.

David Hemenway, a professor of health policy at Harvard and the author of Private Guns Public Health has persuasively argued a harm reduction strategy. He says that scientific evidence shows a substantial number of murders, suicides, and unintentional firearm fatalities can be prevented with reasonable gun policies. Public health is not about banning guns – it is about creating policies that prevent violence and injuries.

Unfortunately, the gun lobby has been successful in framing the debate as only a matter of the right to own and bear arms. They have tried to narrow options: either citizens have the right to keep their guns or not. Other concerns are extraneous. That is a disservice because the public health approach asks how we reduce gun violence accepting that the millions of guns are already out there.

Just browsing the news over the last couple weeks, there was the Idaho story about the two year old who accidentally shot and killed his mother, a nuclear scientist, in Walmart. The mother kept a loaded handgun in her purse. When she was not paying attention, her two year old reached in and grabbed the gun with tragic results.

Then there was the nine year old in Arizona who accidentally shot and killed her instructor at a gun range. The child was firing an Uzi submachine gun while the instructor stood by her side. She was apparently unable to control the gun’s recoil.

I mention these stories simply because they are typical. Stories like this seem to get reported everyday. Reaction seems to be utterly muted.

Human beings make an infinite number of mistakes. It is not because they are good or bad. Legislators who fantasize self-defense gun use are kidding themselves. They have watched too many cop shows on TV. They are more likely to shoot themselves or each other than any criminal or terrorist. What might go wrong usually does go wrong.

Professor Hemenway says that one of his goals is to help create a society in which it is harder to make fatal blunders. He says that fairly small tweaks in design and engineering could save countless lives. I would also mention that suicides make up a huge percentage of gun fatalities. They are typically impulsive acts made easier by ready access to firearms. It is wrong-headed to assume all these deaths are inevitable.

To those who say more guns will make us safer, I say we have already tried that and the results are too apparent. We need to figure other ways to cut the death toll. It is not pro-gun or anti-gun to say that.

Categories: Uncategorized

Roe at 42: An Unapologetically Pro-Abortion Rights View – posted 1/18/2015

January 18, 2015 4 comments

January 22 marks the 42nd anniversary of the Roe v Wade decision. It has to be one of the most controversial opinions ever released by the U.S. Supreme Court. As someone who is unapologetically pro-choice, I wanted to offer a few comments on the occasion.

I think the Court basically got it right on Roe. Justice Harry Blackmun, the author of Roe, did what a good judge should do. He carefully weighed the competing interests. While many quibble about the grounds he used to decide the case, the Court ruled abortion was legal until viability which was defined as 24 weeks.

Most importantly, Roe established abortion as a decision protected by a right to personal privacy. The decision prevented states from subjecting women and their doctors to criminal sanctions in the first trimester. While restrictions on abortion could be imposed later, states could not ever jeopardize a woman’s life or health.

Justice Blackmun saw the case as necessary for the emancipation of women in America. He knew because he had lived through the era of coathanger and back alley abortions.

While there has always been opposition to abortion rights especially from fundamentalist Christians and the hierarchy of the Catholic Church, in the last four years, the anti-abortion movement has stepped it up. Their chip away strategy has been effective.

The strategy is multi-pronged. Try and ban abortion after 20 weeks; lengthen waiting periods; force clinics to close by admitting privileges law and burdensome regulations; attack Planned Parenthood and contraception;use religious exemptions to fight insurance coverage; and use ballot initiatives to try and add personhood amendments to state constitutions.

According to the Guttmacher Institute, in the last four years, states have enacted 231 abortion restrictions. Contrary to the spirit of Roe, in parts of the country, especially the South, it has become increasingly difficult to find an abortion provider. In this connection, the names Dr. Barnet Slepian and Dr. George Tiller come to mind. The murder campaign against abortion providers by extreme elements of the pro-life movement would, at the least, cause pause for doctors who might consider performing abortions.

I probably come at this issue from a different angle than many. Before I became a judge, I spent my professional life representing poor people in civil matters as a legal aid attorney. For 25 years, I represented, among others, unemployed workers, disability claimants, debtors facing bankruptcy, domestic violence victims and tenants facing eviction. These experiences educated me about the extent of poverty. I wish I could say we are doing better than we are. I think our efforts to lessen poverty have been dismally inadequate. We have been going backwards for a long time now.

In this context, I find all the concern about the unborn as phony sanctimony. We don’t even care about the born. It is hard to take seriously any concern for the unborn when, as a society, we treat those that make it into this world in such a trashy way. Take a good look around. There is no shortage of homelessness, hunger, lack of access to health care, child abuse and child neglect. The traumas visited upon millions of born children in America are daily and significant.

We have tons of people who are falling through our shredded safety net who are living on almost nothing, maybe food stamps. Unfortunately, they are invisible. Invariably, the same politicians who cry crocodile tears about the unborn are the first to cut needed social programs.

In my opinion, the person with the clearest view of these matters was not a lawyer or a judge. It was the late comedian, George Carlin. To quote Carlin:

“Boy, these conservatives are really something aren’t they? They’re all in favor of the unborn. They will do anything for the unborn. But once you’re born, you’re on your own. Pro-life conservatives are obsessed with the fetus from conception to nine months. After that, they don’t want to know about you. They don’t want to hear from you. No nothing. No neonatal care, no daycare, no Head Start, no school lunch, no food stamps, no welfare, no nothing. If your’re preborn, you’re fine; if you’re preschool, you’re f—ed”.

Only a black sense of humor can appreciate the irony of so much concern for xygotes and early fetuses. And yet, many anti-abortion advocates see an equivalence between fully grown adults and the potential life of a tiny clump of cells.

This is no exaggeration. Consider the Alabama law which forces pregnant teens seeking an abortion to first receive parental consent. If the teen cannot get parental consent, the teen is put on trial and the state appoints counsel to defend the unborn fetus. Alabama has no statewide public defender program. So there fetuses get counsel but adults who need constitutionally guaranteed legal representation do not.

I am hardly alone in submitting that only the women facing the abortion decision should make that choice. No one else, not the spouse or boyfriend, not the state, not the anti-abortion advocate, has to live with the decision. It is the woman’s life and it is the height of presumption for others to force their values on the prospective mother. They do not live her life.

I also did want to say: enough with the stupid attacks on Planned Parenthood. Anti-women health legislators in many states, including New Hampshire, have tried to eliminate funding for family planning. This jihad needs to stop. Planned Parenthood has provided absolutely critical health services which have reduced unintended pregnancy and teen pregnancy. So much of the work of Planned Parenthood is focused on things like cancer screening, breast exams, birth control and sex education, stuff that is unrelated to abortion. Yet that seems to be lost.

Sometimes it seems like the anti-abortion movement is motivated by an asexual 1950’s world view that wants to turn back the clock to a time before birth control and candid sex education. I find it shocking that such an anti-modern, religious-based perspective can gain so much ground in a pluralist and secular democracy.

To my pro-choice brothers and sisters out there and to the many who seem to take rights for granted, I say “wake up”. The anti-abortion movement is nothing if not persistent. Rights that are here today could be gone tomorrow.

Exposing All The Harm: Football Players and Head Damage – posted 1/1/2015 and published in the Concord Monitor on 1/9/2015

January 1, 2015 6 comments

This article appeared in the Concord Monitor on January 9, 2015 under the title “The Offseason”.

I think there is plenty of room to disagree about the most compelling football or football-related story of 2014. Locally some might pick the New England Patriots’ surprising run which may lead to a Super Bowl appearance. As I recall, part of the fan base was ready to unload the quarterback and the coach early in the season.

Then there was the Washington Redskins’ name controversy which threatened to reach critical mass. In November, thousands of Native Americans in Minnesota protested the racist name saying, “We don’t want to be your mascot.”

I also would mention the Ray Rice and Adrian Peterson stories. They unintentionally shed light on some typically hidden realities.

The saddest story was the suicide of Ohio State football player, Kosta Karageorge.The police found Karageorge’s body, along with a handgun, in a dumpster. They ruled Karageorge died of a self-inflicted gunshot wound.

Karageorge’s mother told police her son had sustained several concussions and he suffered from “confusion spells”. Shortly before he died Karageorge sent his mother the following text message: “I am sorry if I am an embarrassment but these concussions have my head all fucked up.”

The concussion/brain injury story must remain at the top of the football story list. The NFL itself announced this fall that it expects a third of retired players to develop long-term cognitive problems. That could be Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, Lou Gehrig’s Disease, or dementia.

Just to spell it out a bit more, the NFL’s own actuarials show that players who live to age 50-59 develop Alzheimer’s and dementia at a rate 14 to 23 times higher than the general population of the same age group. For the age group 60-64, the rate is 35 times higher.

NFL players can expect to die 20 years earlier than the average American male. Research from Harvard initiated by the NFL Players’ Association concluded that the average life expectancy for NFL players is in the mid to late 50’s.

The health consequences of football is a still unravelling mystery although pieces of the puzzle have become clear. The American people need the whole picture, unvarnished. It is a matter of public health. The issues touch players and their families from Pop Warner to high school to college to the pros.

The ongoing federal court lawsuit filed by thousands of retired players against the NFL is a treasure trove of revealing information. Many of the affidavits and declarations filed in this case show the terrible physical and psychological harm experienced by former players. The suffering and tragedies recounted are overwhelming.

Robert Stern Ph.D., a foremost expert and very experienced clinical neuropsychologist with a specialty in the evaluation and diagnosis of neurodegenerative diseases, has studied the mid-to-late life changes in the cognitive, mood, and behavior of former pro football players. In his lawsuit Declaration, Dr. Stern writes that the head impacts do not simply reduce to cognitive impairment like dementia. He stated:

“…it is my scientific opinion that many former NFL players have significant changes in mood and behavior (e.g. depression, hopelessness, impulsivity, explosiveness, rage, aggression), resulting, in part, from their repetitive head impacts in the NFL, that have, in turn, led to significant financial, personal, and medical changes, including but not limited to: the inability to maintain employment, homelessness, social isolation, domestic abuse, divorce, substance abuse, excessive gambling, poor financial decision-making and death from accidental drug overdose or suicide.”

While there are many very sad stories to choose from, I will mention two. Kevin Turner played in the NFL for 8 years as a fullback with the Patriots and the Eagles. He is now 45. In 2010, he received the diagnosis of ALS or Lou Gehrig’s Disease. This was 11 years after he stopped playing football. Turner is a named plaintiff in the players’ lawsuit against the NFL.

Turner now gets oxygen through a port in his neck and he obtains nutrition through a tube to his stomach. He spends most days in bed. He has gone from his playing weight of 250 pounds down to 150. His mind remains sound but he has lost control of everything above his waist. After a bout with severe dehydration and pneumonia, which led to respiratory failure, he went on a ventilator.

He earned about $8 million during his playing career but he had to file bankruptcy in 2009. He has 3 kids and he is still fighting hard for his family.

Dale Meinhart was a former Pro Bowler who played middle linebacker for the St. Louis Cardinals from 1958 to 1968. He was known as a ferocious tackler. At age 48, he started experiencing symptoms of chronic traumatic encephalopathy. He could no longer fulfill job duties. He became nonverbal, aggressive, and he suffered memory lapses. He refused to see a doctor. He was angry and he spent days in a chair at home or driving aimlessly.

When Dale finally visited a family physician, he was prescribed tranquillizers. In 1986, his family initiated court proceedings to have him committed in order to seek adequate medical care. Doctors diagnosed Alzheimer’s Disease.

Meinhart had 2 children, ages 10 and 15, at the time. The family was surviving on his wife’s $20,000 a year teacher’s salary. Meinhart’s wife contacted the NFL and explained Dale’s situation. She asked if any other retired NFL players were experiencing similar dementia and personality issues. The NFL staff gave her a firm “No” for an answer.

Also, the NFL advised Mrs. Meinhart that Dale could not receive disability benefits because she could not prove his dementia was caused by playing football. One can only wonder how many former players’ families made similar calls and received the same response.

After Meinhart spent time at an Oklahoma State Mental Hospital, the family found a nursing home with a locked Alzheimer’s wing. Meinhart spent the next 17 years there until he died in 2004. There was no good place to put a cognitively impaired 6’2″ 250 pound physically active male who was unable to care for himself and who would unwittingly walk off if not restrained.

Stories like Turner and Meinhart are all too common but awareness about the number of players affected and the scope of the harm is dim. The NFL has tried for a generation to obscure, mislead and deny the truth about concussions and brain injury. Contrary to appearances and the league’s public relations efforts, the NFL is still fighting as hard as possible in the lawsuit to deny the scope of relief to many players who have been devastated by their injuries or who have died.

I do think we need to ask: is this acceptable? Should we as a society accept the harm as an unfortunate but inescapable part of the game? I will offer a tentative answer. No.

When a person is 20, it is a rare person who will dwell on how they expect to function at age 50 or 60. As you age, the question takes on more substance.

I do want to say I love football as much as anyone. I remember going to my first Philadelphia Eagles’ game when I was 6 years old. My dad and I had Eagles’ season’s tickets at Franklin Field for a number of years and we saw the Eagles beat the Packers for the NFL Championship in 1960. I played 105 pound and 120 pound football as well as playing in countless pickup touch football games. I have been a lifelong fan.

However, I still think the whole truth should come out. We are far from that happening. There are no shortage of good questions still outstanding about the effects of hits to the head.

Guns in the New Hampshire State House, Round Two – posted 12/21/2014 and published in the Concord Monitor on 12/26/2014

December 21, 2014 2 comments

This piece appeared in the Concord Monitor on December 26, 2014 under the title “Gun Crazy”.

On December 19, the Concord Monitor reported that a House Committee voted to allow legislators to carry concealed weapons on the House Floor. It looks very likely concealed carry will pass when the legislative session opens in January 2015.

The gun vote is a replay of 2010 when the Republican-controlled House voted to allow concealed carry in the House Chamber, cloakroom anteroom, and adjacent areas including the visitors’ gallery.

Concealed carry stayed in effect until the Democrats regained control of the House in the 2012 election. On the first day of the session in 2013, the House banned concealed carry.

With all due respect to our legislators, concealed carry in the State House is a very bad idea. The majority seems to confuse that idea with doing something. Being a legislator should not be about macho showboating and posturing about packing heat. How about focusing on doing something for constituents?

I do not think the dark side of legislators bringing guns to committee or session meetings has been adequately explained. Whatever gun proponents subjectively think, the presence of guns is objectively threatening. Armed legislators may feel they are proudly standing up for their Second Amendment rights but their guns, in this context, are intimidating. They have a bullying effect on those not carrying.

Some of my feelings about the bullying effect of guns comes from past life experience as an advocate for victims of domestic violence. In the world of abusers, there are some creepy ones who always have guns or knives on their person. It is a power and control thing. The abuser uses the weapons as a fear factor to intimidate the victim into submission. The weapons seem to have the effect of making the abuser feel more powerful relative to the victim. Guns and knives keep the victim in line. There is an unspoken message: obey or face the consequences which are typically physical and emotional abuse.

Whether intended or not, I do think legislators packing has the same bullying effect.There is a subconscious, my way-or-the-highway message.

The Legislature should be a place for calm deliberation. Legislators bring vastly differing policy agendas. It is no surprise that many legislators feel passionately about the rightness of their ideas. We know passions can run high during legislative debate.

I would argue that the presence of guns in this context is a net negative. Legislators should be equal and no one should have a leg up because of intimidation. The proponents are oblivious to the effect of their gun possession. Maybe they like the power of wielding weapons but they overlook the bully part.

Guns do carry an implied threat and menace. The House is not a shooting range. Neither is it the OK Corral. Guns do not contribute to an atmosphere of reasoned debate.

The proponents of concealed carry in the Legislature have argued guns are necessary for self-protection there. They have fantasized active shooter scenarios with armed legislators saving the day. They seem to be expecting a Wild West shoot-out.

I would point out that in the over 200 year history of the New Hampshire Legislature, there has never been a shooting incident. In the 40 year period prior to 2010, the House had rules banning deadly weapons in the State House. As noted, there were no incidents in this lengthy time period which spanned countless committee and session meetings.

While anything is possible, the legislators arguing the need for armed self-protection are, based on the evidence, paranoid. One can only speculate on the psychological reasons for the paranoia. Is it baseless suspicion, persecutory delusions or feelings of sexual inadequacy which produce these feelings about the need to be armed? Maybe the legislators have simply watched too many violent TV shows and they have conflated TV with real life.

As someone who has spent plenty of time in the area around the State House, it also needs to be reiterated that the area is not scary. The dark alleys of Concord are not very dark. Anyone who tries to paint the area as some kind of danger zone is out to lunch. That is a bad joke.

The presence of guns in the Legislature is much more likely to lead to an accidental shooting than anything else. Witness the 2012 accident when a state representative dropped his gun on the floor at the start of a meeting of the House Criminal Justice Committee. Fortunately, the gun did not discharge. That story made national news.The representative said he had given blood that morning and the blood donation made him loopy. That representative routinely wore two guns in shoulder holsters to legislative meetings.

So I guess I would ask: how about assault rifles and machine guns in the House? If the proponents believe there are no limits on the Second Amendment, do they want legislators to have the right to carry those weapons too?

It is a misconstruction of the Second Amendment to see it as an unlimited right not connected with any responsibility or civic duty. Nothing in the Second Amendment prevents reasonable regulation of that right. There is no legal problem with Legislatures banning deadly weapons in State Houses. In fact, very few state legislatures allow it.

I want to make it clear I too support the Second Amendment along with reasonable regulation. I accept that the US Supreme Court has made clear the individual right to carry arms and use them in self-defense. The right is also outlined in the New Hampshire Constitution. That said, as I make clear in this piece, I think a state can do some things in the interest of public safety.

We sensibly keep armed litigants out of courtrooms. The General Court is really no different than a courtroom. Legislators need a safe place to argue and disagree.

If legislators feel insecure or fearful, aren’t metal detectors at more restricted entrances a better way to go? We could have that. In addition we could beef up our state police presence at the State House. I expect our state troopers would be far more expert at handling any incident than legislators.

I would predict that bringing guns back to the State House will end in embarrassment for New Hampshire. I am not sure how exactly but we will likely end up as fodder for the Daily Show and a punch line for jokes.

Remembering My Mom Four Years After Her Death – posted 12/14/2014

December 14, 2014 10 comments

I was in Alaska in 2010 when my brother Rob called to tell me that Mom was back in the hospital and things did not look good. I never saw her again.

It is now four years since her death. Levine’s, the funeral place just north of Philadelphia, sent me a little blue postcard reminder saying Mom’s yahrzeit is to be observed on December 26.

Not being religious and being unlikely to go to synagogue on December 26, I wanted to do something else to remember my mom. Writing about her is my way of honoring and remembering.

In the world of memories, I think about my mom’s passion for food. It was certainly a joy for her to prepare food for her family and friends.

My mom used to make special food she knew I liked when I went back to visit at the old apartment in Wynnewood Pa. She would also bring food when she came to New Hampshire to visit. She would make roast beef and apricot noodle kugel. For dessert, she would make yummy crumb cake. She did not deviate too often although she did try some different crumb cake recipes.

It is funny to think about but when I was a kid this gourmet chef made me bologna and cheese sandwiches for lunch at school all the time. I had that all through elementary school and I teased her about it in later years. I used to joke with her that I was only 5 foot 6 inches tall because she smoked during her pregnancy with me and then she fed me bologna sandwiches. I think she got tired of that joke.

That was before health food consciousness. Mom would also pack little Tastykake pies. For those unfamiliar with Tastykake (it is a Pennsylvania thing), they made a variety of desserts. My favorite was cherry pie but I could also go with lemon, blueberry or peach. I think I developed my original love of crumb cake from Koffee Kake Juniors.

Mom knew what I liked and she always made sure I had it. Now that seems like love.

Mom actually did that for everybody in the family, I think. I do remember meal times with Dad. Dad also liked Tastykake. He was partisan to Chocolate Peanut Butter Kandy Kakes and Butterscotch Krimpets. He famously would ask for “a mouthful” which was usually a lot more than a mouthful. He liked to have something sweet with coffee after dinner or Sunday lox and bagel brunch.

I am not doing justice to my mom’s serious cooking expertise. She had fantastic capability both as a cook and as someone who cared about food presentation. Mom was very artistic and her food often looked like something from Gourmet Magazine. That was not an accident since she was a subscriber.

In later years, she was something of a follower of celebrity chefs on TV. She liked Barefoot Contessa and Michael Chiarello but her absolute favorite was Mario Batali. We used to laugh about my infatuation with Giada. My mom was not a big Giada fan.

Mom seriously thought about marketing her struedel. Her struedel was a unique creation with coconut and currants and a puff pastry dough. She used a pastry marble slab that weighed like 50 pounds. Those who have tasted it know I am not exaggerating when I say it was out-of-this-world good. Mom had her own closely held family recipe which she was not willing to share. She had practiced and perfected this recipe for decades.

The struedel was very labor-intensive. I think the only two people who obtained the recipe were my niece Molly and my wife Debra. Both watched my mom make the struedel many times.

The struedel could never fly as a business proposition both because it took so much labor to make it right and because the cost you would need to charge would be too high. My mom did consult with business types about the project. They too raved about the product but it was not financially viable.

My mom returned to making it for family – not such a bad outcome for family members and close friends. The struedel was certainly not her only specialty. Her fruit salad known as “nana fruit” was a labor of love. She went to a nearby produce market and she would get seasonal fruit. There is fruit salad and fruit salad and as with anything, there are gradations of quality. Mom’s fruit salad was superior.

There are many things she made that were easy to take for granted but were really superlative because she was a pro. In this category I would mention her matzo ball soup. Her matzo balls were very light.

I remember very critical discussions about the relative merits of different matzo ball soup efforts by family members. My grandmother, Molly Keiser, was the gold standard. No one else could touch that level. Here I should note that Molly Keiser, my Nana Keiser, was a superb cook herself. She had a powerful teaching influence by example.

I remember my mom’s excellent latkes and she could make good gefilte fish from scratch. That was an accomplishment.

One other breakfast thing I wanted to mention was dippy eggs. For those who have never had the experience, you soft boil eggs and dip strips of buttered toast into the egg yolk. For my boys, Josh and Eric, Mom always got “little boxes”. That is cold cereal but those guys loved their little boxes.

My wife Debra reminded me of how often my mom would take care packages of her food to relatives who were sick. She did this repeatedly for my Aunt Ellie, my Aunt Arline and my Aunt Jane. She also often went to visit all of those I mentioned plus my Uncle Mort at a time they needed the company. Mom was a Florence Nightingale.

For my mom, food was a way to bring people together. At that she excelled. Young or old, people would come together when my mom cooked. She made food a communal experience. Some people have the unique capacity of being a glue to hold family together. My mom had that and no one can replace her.

I do want to thank my wife Debra for jogging my memory in preparing this piece and helping with her own recollections.

Noam Chomsky: An Appreciation – posted 12/6/2014 and published in the Concord Monitor on 12/12/2014

December 7, 2014 Leave a comment

This piece appeared in the Concord Monitor on 12/12/2014 under the title “Truth to Power”. Jon

For Americans of the 1960’s generation, I can think of no intellectual who has been as important or influential as Noam Chomsky. For nearly 50 years, Chomsky has written voluminously on a wide array of political topics. I think it is fair to say he is either loved or hated.

I wanted to write an appreciation of the man and his political work. Although he may be the most famous intellectual in the world, here in America he is not exactly a household name. Chomsky generally gets the silent treatment from American mass media. His books are ignored and he is rarely given any air time.

We do not banish our writers to Siberia. Even blacklisting which arguably has happened to Chomsky is not necessary. The volume of media creates a new, more benign form of intellectual banishment. Serious works are swallowed and disappeared in a flood of infotainment. Inattention can also lead to obscurity even for someone as globally famous as Chomsky.

In his wonderful essay, “A Writer’s Credo”, Edward Abbey wrote:”…the moral duty of the free writer is to begin his work at home: to be a critic of his own community, his own country, his own government, his own culture.” That is Noam Chomsky. He has challenged and educated many people to see America differently.

Even more impressive, Chomsky has been an unrelenting activist. For years during the Vietnam War, I can personally attest to the fact Chomsky was a fixture at anti-war demonstrations in Boston, since I was often there and watched his speeches. He has sided with oppressed people internationally. That is part of what sets Chomsky apart from the majority of intellectuals who Abbey has described as “passive non-resisters to things as they are”.

I find Chomsky’s political writing and advocacy in opposition to the Vietnam War has been his greatest achievement. Context matters and Chomsky started opposing the war at a time it was overwhelmingly supported. It is hard to recreate that more narrow-minded time. I am old enough to remember it.

There really was no Left in the United States. Political conformity reigned. Whether you were a Democrat or a Republican, the spectrum of acceptable opinion was not broad. The civil rights movement was waking up the country to racism but American foreign policy was not critically discussed. The nation still suffered a Joe McCarthy hangover.

Most commentators, whether liberal or conservative, went along with the Vietnam War. The domino theory held sway.

I mention this history because it reflects on Chomsky’s bravery. He, along with some others, broke from the pack. He vociferously critiqued conventional wisdom about the war at a time that was exceedingly rare. He articulated a coherent and sophisticated anti-war perspective. No one could consider this a career move as far as pecuniary gain was concerned.

For his role, Chomsky will always be a hero to me. I particularly would mention Chomsky’s books, “American Power and the New Mandarins” and also “At War With Asia”, a collection of essays he wrote many of which had previously appeared in the New York Review of Books. These works hit with the force of a lightning bolt. Chomsky demolished apologists, supporters and justifiers of the war.

At the time, proponents of the war started from the premise that the war-makers had good intentions. As the war unravelled in its awfulness, they then evolved to thinking the war was a too costly mistake. The war ended being seen as the least bad of all bad alternatives. It had to be fought to stop a communist takeover.

Chomsky showed the systemic reasons for the war, the economic and political reasons. He placed the war in historical perspective and argued it was a continuation of our history of racism that began in the war against the Native Americans. He was careful to place blame and responsibility on the war’s powerful architects. Early on he recognized that our foot soldiers were also victims of the war.

In his book “At War With Asia”. Chomsky made the case for a complete and unilateral immediate withdrawal of all American troops and materiel from Vietnam. I am not sure if that case was ever argued more passionately and persuasively.

From the perch of 2014, the power of Chomsky’s critique is even clearer. He correctly saw the Vietnam War was essentially a savage American assault on a largely helpless rural population. The volume of violence unleashed by the American war machine was off the charts. Much effort went into mystifying the American public in an effort to sell the war. That effort still continues.

Fortunately, we now have meticulously researched works like Nick Turse’s book “Kill Anything That Moves”, a book that looks back on the Vietnam War. Turse documents the staggering loss of life, especially civilian casualties. Turse argues that the My Lai massacre was no one-of-a-kind event. Rather it reflected war crimes that were widespread and attributable to American command policies.

I do believe history will vindicate Chomsky on Vietnam. While public awareness about that war is woeful, more people recognize the war was both immoral and fundamentally wrong. Maybe someday Americans will honor critical thinkers like Chomsky who did not delude themselves into believing propaganda and lies.

I think in a more rational world there would be a national Noam Chomsky Day to celebrate the importance of critical thinking. Being modest, I expect Chomsky would hate that idea. Still, I do not think it is a crazy idea. I like the idea of honoring our most courageous truth-tellers who have been motivated by a simple love of justice.

In writing this piece, it was not my intent to defend every position Chomsky has taken over the years. He can do that quite well himself, I expect. I do think it is sad that he does not get the recognition here that he receives in the rest of the world. That says something not so good about us.

Music Review: “Down Where The Spirit Meets The Bone” by Lucinda Williams – posted 11/28/2014

November 28, 2014 Leave a comment

I probably should lead off by making it clear that I am a huge Lucinda Williams fan. I do not own every album but I do own “Car Wheels on a Gravel Road”, “West”, “Blessed” and her double album that was originally released in 1988 that was titled “Lucinda Williams”.

When I saw she had released a new double album, I did not hesitate. “Down Where The Spirit Meets The Bone” is another fine album. Lucinda wrote almost all the songs.

I will not say I love every song but there are enough great ones. Disc one is especially strong. Lucinda is a poet of the dark side. I think she writes and sings eloquently about dysfunctionality, broken relationships, and people who screw up. She clearly has had her share of down moments yet nothing has defeated her. Her lyrics are passionate, politically informed and humane.

How many country rock stars (if that is what she is) would have a song titled “Compassion” that was based on a poem their dad wrote? I do not think too many.

I love “Stand Right By Each Other”, a statement song about the need to fight to keep a relationship together in the face of big difficulties. Really the advice is good and the song totally rocks. There is an adult quality about the weightiness of relationships and how much is at stake in breaking up. There is wisdom there coming from lived experience.

I also wanted to give special mention to a number of the other songs on Disc One. I especially like “Foolishness”. Lucinda has no use for fear mongers, people promoting pie-in-the-sky or liars. She dishes on them and I do see the song as an expression of her politics. Her song “Protection” is similar in that the lyrics engage the same fight. The cool thing is the liveliness of the music. The songs move. There is nothing boring or wasted.

“Burning Bridges” is a song about self-destructive behavior. It asks why the self-destructive person is doing the bad behavior and why he keeps doing it. Why does he want to burn bridges when it is so clearly not the way to go and he is only hurting himself. The question is pertinent and common. Like the other songs I mentioned, Lucinda gives the song great energy and drive. The genius in the music is her ability to be topical, accessible, and so lively.

I did not think Disc Two was quite as good as Disc One although there are some great songs on Disc Two. My personal favorite is “Walk On”, a very catchy number. It is not so much the lyrics as the music. I have listened to it a lot. The song will grab you. I also like “When I Look At the World”. It captures the duality of life with awful sadness co-existing with life in all its glory. The song is reminiscent of W.H. Auden’s famous poem Musee des Beaux Arts. That poem took off on Brueghel”s Icarus painting where people apathetically go on with their lives, ignoring the suffering around them. “When I Look at the World” contrasts the extremes in life.

Lucinda writes:

“…I’ve been filled with regret
I’ve made a mess of things, I’ve been a total wreck
I’ve been disrespected and had my patience tried

But then I look at the world and all its glory
I look at the world and it’s a different story
Each time I look at the world.”

Patty Loveless has said of Lucinda: “She writes from the heart of real life. You can hear lives being played out in her lyrics, and the stories capture the way it really is.” Those words are true.

I will take the liberty of ending with some lyrics Lucinda wrote from a different album. I just like it. The song is “Something About What Happens When We Talk”.

“If I had my way I’d be in your town
I might not stay but at least I would’ve been around
‘Cause there’s something about what happens
when we talk

Does it make sense, does it matter anyway
Is it coincidence or was it meant to be

‘Cause there’s something about what happens
when we talk

Conversation with you was like a drug
It wasn’t your face so much as it was your words

‘Cause there’s something about what happens
when we talk
Something about what happens when we talk

I can’t stick around, I’m going back South
But all I regret now is I never kissed your mouth

“Cause there’s something about what happens
when we talk
Something about what happens when we talk

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