My Life In Motion:

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This is how I feel every time I call Amazon customer service, or frankly, any time I have to to deal with almost any technology:

(For the record, I would be the monk seated on the right…)

The Death Penalty- As I Understand It

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As AM radio drifts in and out of my consciousness today I can’t help hearing snippets of conversations about whether or not the Boston Marathon Bomber should get the Death Penalty. I guess the parents of the youngest victim have requested that he not get the Death Sentence, for fear that he will spend endless years appealing it and they will have to spend endless years in limbo going to court case after court case hearing his attorneys explain why he should get his sentence overturned.

From what I have seen and read, this fear is not unfounded. And at the risk of raising the ire of those who think they know more about this than I do, and at the risk of raising the ire of those who may truly actually know more about this than I do, I am going to tell you what I think about the Death Penalty.

I think the Death Penalty can be a great deterrent if it is administered swiftly, fairly, justly, and with certainty. The problem is that none of the four criteria are ever met, nor do I believe they are almost ever possible to meet.

In order for the Death Penalty to have a deterrent effect, it must come soon enough after the crime that a criminal will know it is a logical consequence of his actions. It will have to come speedily enough that he has time for his case to be fully heard, yet not much longer after that. But since THE IMPRESSION WE HAVE (although this is statistically not true…) is that mistake after mistake happens during a trial, we have to leave time for the Appeals process to play out. In truth, however, if heaven forbid the accused is your loved one, or the case is your case, even one mistake during trial is too many. So until we can tighten up our Judicial System and clean up our house (see next point), swift justice just won’t happen.

In order for the Death Penalty to have a deterrent effect, it must be seen as a fairly earned punishment for crime. As long as the perception is perpetuated- and it is perpetuated because it actually happens- that poor defendants and minorities are disproportionately sentenced to death, it can’t deter crime in any real way because committing crime will always be seen as a game of playing the odds instead of a A=B equation. Whites and wealthy or well-connected defendants will assume they can skate away from charges, and everyone else will assume it’s a coin toss anyway. If there is no fairness, there is no respect for the law, so it’s hard to convince people to abide by a system that consistently plays them false.

In order for the Death Penalty to have a deterrent effect, it must be seen as just. That means that the punishment must fit the crime. That means that there needs to be some sort of uniformity in how Death is distributed. It’s a bit of a hard sell to say that in one state a person should die just because they were already a felon when they committed murder, but in another a person must commit the most heinous crime against a child before the State would ever even dream of invoking this most serious of punishments. Either the Death Penalty is drastic and dramatic, and it is reserved for the most awful crimes, or every life taken deserves to be avenged by a life taken, but whatever the standard is, life is Arkansas can’t be more or less valuable than life in Texas, or the Death Penalty is not just.

And in order for the Death Penalty to have a deterrent effect, it absolutely must come with 100% certainty. A criminal must know that if he commits murder, he will die. He can appeal errors in his case, but then it’s game over. There is no 28 years on Death Row, there is no 60 Minutes interview set three years from now, there is no ‘what if technology changes in a decade and we find out we got the wrong guy?‘ That’s an insanely disturbing question, and I don’t know how to answer it, but if we are going to have the Death Penalty- which I believe has many benefits for society- then we are going to have to swallow some bitter pills along with it. Just like in war, sometimes things happen that you would rather not have happen. Not talking about them doesn’t magically wish them away, and not admitting to them doesn’t make them less objectionable. Not saying that sometimes long after a conviction, that conviction is overturned would be me being a liar- or me hiding the facts to make my own case sound better. So, sorry, I am in favor of the idea of the Death Penalty, but there are things about it that make me super uneasy and that’s the ugly truth.

I think warehousing prisoners for a gazillion years is stupid and wasteful. I think Death Row is a sick joke. I think the problem with the Death Penalty is not the idea of it, but the ways we implement it. Does that make me evil? You may think so. I think it just makes me open to discussing an idea.

Maybe you will agree.

Traitor Joe’s

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After returning from a trip out of town with the family where I pretty much stayed in bed for the majority of the time, I decided to venture out to Trader Joe’s on my home turf of Seattle.

Big Mistake.

I forgot- or perhaps deliberately misremembered- what it’s like to insinuate myself into Trader Joe’s in the Seattle area. It’s just all around awful :(

In Detroit, Trader Joe’s is a place where you can go if you want to get healthy food at reasonable prices. You can buy organic ingredients, and find interesting and exotic fare and pretend you are a yuppy, but do it on a ghetto budget. You will be smiled at and embraced by like-minded people who are proud of you for trying to make moves in the right direction, who will give you the benefit of the doubt that you probably want to buy the organic cage-free non-GMO vegetarian humanitarian-raised individually nurtured and coddled eggs, even though you are buying the cheaper more regular eggs… They treat you like you are in on the right side of whatever it is you should be on the right side of and it feels good to be there. People chat and hang out and share recipes and just generally vibe with each other in a cool positive way. It’s got all the nice aspects of a cafe, but for folks who also want great prices on produce and delicious dairy products.

Not so in Seattle.

In Seattle the agony starts in the parking lot. You maneuver into the tiny little place which is designed to let you know that you really shouldn’t be driving there unless you are in a Smart Car or perhaps a go-cart- or better yet, a bicycle. You feel like you have violated the moral code before you ever step foot in the store, and when you walk in, heaven help you if you have more than one child with you. Two children will earn you the harshest of glares, and more than that may cause actual physical violence to break out. Unlike the employees in every other Trader Joe’s everywhere, the workers here act like you have interrupted them in the middle of a colonoscopy and they are none too pleased about it. No matter what they are doing they seem ticked off that you are seeing them do it and irritated that you are in their store. You kind of want to stealthily buy whatever you need and then get out of there as quickly as possible before someone gets an attitude with you that you are taking too many of their yogurts or touching too many of their vitamins…

I’m trying hard to get back to doing the right thing food-wise. That means I really want to buy organic when it’s possible, and buy non-GMO whenever I can. But if Trader Joe’s is going to be such a nightmare it’s going to be a real struggle to walk this path. I have definitely drifted to the easy junky stuff here, but in truth when you live in a place like Seattle where it is so easy to make good buying choices, I really shouldn’t let myself get so sloppy. So, I guess I will see how hard I’m willing to work to do what I believe in. But it would be nice if Trader Joe’s would meet me halfway…

How Homeopathy Is Helping Me Even Though I Don’t Believe In It

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Last year I met with a woman from our community who does homeopathy. At that time she took a complete health history from me, and asked me tons of questions about many aspects of my life to determine what would be the best homeopathic remedy for me. Although I didn’t really believe homeopathy would work (for me or in general), I figured that it definitely wouldn’t harm me in any way, and this way at least I could say I tried it. So I agreed to do the whole shebang (no coffee and no mint, both of which can antidote the remedy), and I suspended my disbelief to see if maybe it could help me in spite of myself.

I tried it 100% and it 100% didn’t help.

After about six or seven months I stopped taking the remedy, even though the woman who I initially consulted with told me that since I had been sick for so long it could take a long time before I saw any improvement. But to not see any change at all just seemed to me like a waste of time; coming from the paradigm of Western medicine where if you take a pill it either works or it doesn’t, I will admit that it’s hard for me to do something for the long hall if I don’t see any overt signs of progress. I could theoretically be experiencing colossal internal changes, but if I don’t see any manifestations of that change I just have trouble sticking with stuff. It may be childish or it may make me very show-me-the-money, but either way, that’s the reality, so I stopped.

A few weeks ago that same woman asked if we could talk again about homeopathy. I was very honest with her about why I stopped last time, and she wondered if, since so much time had passed, perhaps I needed a new remedy. This time, interestingly enough, I was experiencing a perplexing symptom which made me actually want to try homeopathy. This new symptom was about six weeks old, was unlike anything I had experienced before, and was unrelated to any change in medication. I was troubled enough by it that I had resolved that if it continued to get worse I was going to call my neurologist to check for a brain tumor, so it seemed pretty fortuitous that this woman wanted to try homeopathy. If it worked great; if it didn’t work, I could always go for an MRI. Just like before, my feeling was that it certainly couldn’t hurt.

She did the work-up and thought maybe I did need a different remedy, but wanted to talk to her teacher to double-check a few things. What came back was that I needed the original remedy, but in a different potency. So, I will tell you that once again, I believed 100% that it would not work, but at least I could say I tried it.

And within 24 hours I will tell you that I was proven 100% wrong.

The symptom that I had been struggling with for over six weeks shifted so suddenly and so unexpectedly that I was shocked and surprised. I wondered if maybe it was a coincidence or perhaps just a temporary respite. But 48 hours later I was still doing better and it was as if a fog had lifted and a glacier had moved in my life. I still wasn’t totally prepared to commit to the premise that homeopathy was responsible for the changes I was seeing, but it was mighty suspicious timing for it to have been anything else. And no other explanation really made any sense.

If I take a pain pill or an antibiotic, I don’t need to believe in it for it to work. I always put homeopathy in the category of voodoo medicine, where the strength of your belief will determine the strength of your healing experience. If you are super suggestable, you can fall prey to things like mind-reading tricks and gypsy hexes, but if you are scientific, you would never succumb to a “medicine” that has been diluted a gazillion times into a sugar pill (for those of you who don’t know, this is exactly what a homeopathic remedy is- I’m not making fun…). Well, guess what? The homeopathy is working on me, even though I don’t believe at all…

I could chalk it up to ‘You learn something new every day…

Or maybe you have a better explanation???

Parts Is Parts

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I have heard on the radio repeatedly over the last few news cycles how wonderful Angelina Jolie is because she has just had an elective total hysterectomy because she is at a heightened risk for certain women’s cancers.

I don’t know this because I star-gaze, or because I follow the lives of movie actresses, but because during every hour’s news reports the broadcast includes a breathy gushy report about how brave and heroic Jolie is for getting most of her lady parts removed as biohazardous to her own body.

I must right now state a disclaimer: I am only aware that Jolie has a relative (her mother?) who I think I remember as having breast cancer. I don’t know if there is a link between breast cancer and other types of women’s cancers, but I also think I remember a few years back that Jolie- equally heroically in the eyes of the media- had her breasts removed so she wouldn’t get that type of cancer either… I also must say here and now that once you eliminate that risk, I have no idea if you are clear or not. But since that isn’t the topic of this post, I will plunge ahead…

What I find notable is that in the year 2015 the best treatment for a risk of woman’s cancers is to carve up one’s body and throw away your parts. I don’t imagine Lance Armstrong’s sons one day removing their testicles and everyone shouting, “Wow guys- great job! That was so awesome of you because now you won’t get testicular cancer!What a super smart thing to do!” And if they wanted to be extra careful and took out their prostates and maybe their colons and rectums- because, hey- it’s all in that general area, and you can never be too careful when you’re talking about cancer, for goodness sake… Can you even fathom that conversation taking place- much less among journalists? I hardly think so.

I am not a person who sees misogyny or paternalism lurking behind every comment. But I find it interesting that society seems very willing to accept that for women’s cancers it is perfectly reasonable to carve up your body and rip out your insides- but for men’s cancers such a thing is completely preposterous. I could talk about how medications are routinely developed for men, or how women with the same exact medical complaints as men are frequently diagnosed as having a psychological issue whereas the men are treated medically. However, this post is not meant to be an inclusive list of every way the medical establishment is skewed against women.

This is only about how Angelina Jolie has been held up as a false hero for doing something that may be based on a false understanding of her own risk factors or may be evidence of a medical model that is so archaic that people a hundred years from now will look at us and wonder how we could have been so barbaric. How can a society that is so advanced in some ways still treats women with a family history of cancer with what is the modern-day equivalent of blood-letting? And why do we think it is praise-worthy that Jolie chose to undergo this assault on her person?

Does this piggyback onto my last post? Is this a case of ‘Look how much she was willing to sacrifice herself? She must be a great woman!’

I really can’t tell. All I do know is that in 2015 this seems very Alice Falls Through The Looking Glass to me…

The 8th Deadly Sin: Women Judging Other Women

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On Friday night a family of 7 children burned up in a fire in their house in Brooklyn.

http://www.nytimes.com/2015/03/22/nyregion/7-children-die-in-brooklyn-fire.html?_r=0

The father of the children was out of town at the time.

The mother and one of the older children survived the fire and are in critical condition in local hospitals.

When I first heard this story on the radio (having much less detail about it than I now know after reading the story I linked to above), I knew only that 7 children had died and the mother was alive because she jumped out of an upstairs window. This was my first thought:

“What kind of a mother saves her own life and lets her children die?”

Yes, that is a sick thought.

Yes, I am ashamed that I had that thought.

It’s not like I sat down and concentrated and came up with a coherent analysis of the situation and this was my conclusion. This was the first uncensored thought that came unbidden into my head. I was angry at the mother for letting her children burn up while she made it to safety, and I was equally angry at myself later on for jumping to any decisions when I knew nothing about anything.

This was my first assessment of the scene in my mind:

The house is on fire. Children are screaming from every corner, “Mommy help us! It’s so dark! There is fire everywhere! Mommy help!” And Mommy is furiously trying to make it to her own window, which she yanks up and jumps out of, into the fresh air below…

Then I woke up a bit, and re-assessed. This was my more charitable assessment:

The house is on fire. The children are asleep. They are breathing in smoke and some of them go unconscious without even waking up. The mother wakes up choking and her first instinct is to crawl to a window to open it. She doesn’t have time to think through what is going on, as she opens the window to let air in. As the flames leap around her, her survival instincts take over and hurl her outside, before she even rationally considers that her babies are still in the house. By then it is too late to go back inside, and she is overwrought…

Why I am posting about this, and why I am talking about a topic which is so awful?

First I want to ask a different question. Why do we think it is normal to expect women to martyr themselves for their children, and more globally, for those around them? This is an extreme case where I took it very far mentally when I wondered and judged, “What kind of mother would let her kids die…”, but we see permutations of this all the time that we don’t see in corresponding sectors. I don’t hear people ask what kind of doctor would let his patient die of heart disease, or what kind of sergeant would let his soldiers die or even what kind of a man would let his kids die. But here I was thinking it made perfect sense to expect a woman to immolate herself- how noble she would have been had she burned to death saving her children!- becasue a mother has to be self-sacrificing until the end. And maybe even past that.

But it’s not only in motherhood that we expect women to sacrifice. We wonder why women who choose not to have kids are so selfish. I don’t know of men who choose to remain childless being asked versions of, “How could you do that? Don’t you feel so unfulfilled? Aren’t you afraid you will regret it later?” Translation: ‘How could you be so selfish as to keep your life only for yourself?’ These women could be surgeons, professors, inventors, or other major contributors to society, but unless they are in some way involved in sacrificing themselves for the good of others, i.e. being a nun, being Mother Theresa (in fact, a nun), doing excessive non-profit work (because if you are highly paid it is not self-sacrificing enough so it doesn’t count), or being other sorts of caregivers/caretakers, they will be somewhat scorned. And to scorn, we must first judge.

It’s noteworthy that in the Brooklyn story I gave only passing thought to where the father even was. In my own family I know for sure that *h would absolutely be actively saving kids should an emergency ever arise. But I also know that I would hold myself most responsible for whatever the outcome would be. I guess that’s the double-edged sword of womanhood…

I watched a TED-talk a while back (you would think they give me kick-backs for promoting them, but they don’t) where a woman started out by saying she was watching her one year-old niece look in a mirror. She was smiling at herself and kissing the mirror and this woman wondered as she watched- at what point do we stop thinking it’s okay to love ourselves? She spoke about body image, and how it’s such a problem for today’s women and girls, and the showed a youtube video of an adolescent girl who put up a short clip to ask people if they thought she was pretty. Apparently this is common nowadays (when I told this to my kids, all except the youngest had heard of it, and the oldest few had even seen such clips), and angsty teens can post videos asking for “impartial” people in cyberspace to validate them. Some of you can guess where this is going, I’m sure- but some people posted kind things. The rest, though, posted horrid HORRID things, like U R ugly. Kill yourself. You should die U R so hideous. And this is where today’s kids are trying to get feedback on how they look and what kind of people they are.

But the fact that we are raising a generation of people who are so shaky that they would do something like that- post videos online, when cyber-bullying is at an all-time high and kids have even committed suicide because of what has been said to them and about them online- that is profoundly sad. The solution isn’t more fluffy feel-good everybody-gets-a-medal nonsense, either. The fake self-esteem shoveled around in schools today clearly isn’t working, as evidenced by the fact that more kids are depressed and medicated (or self-medicating) than ever before in history.

I think one of the first steps is in noticing our own beliefs and holding them up to the light of day. When we are afraid to look honestly at what we think and why, then we don’t change our minds, we just keep more secrets. Sometimes that can take us to very uncomfortable places, like when I realized that I really did expect a mother to die for her children. I had to ask myself if I could justify the premise that once a woman becomes a mother, her life is worth less than that of her children. And if, even if I might make that choice for myself, if that is the correct standard to apply to other people (because sometimes our personal standards can and should be applied to others, but sometimes not at all…).

Many times I will have a visceral reaction to something I see or hear, and often that initial reaction IS the correct one. But I think I can be a better version of myself if I keep myself in check by always holding up what I think to principles of honesty and integrity.

For now I will simply wish comfort to the Sassoon family, their extended family, their neighbors, and their community. May they only know sweetness in all their days ahead.

Doin’ Life

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Every so often I check the database of inmates in Michigan prisons to confirm that some of my friends are still where I last left them. Is that an odd thing to read?

From my early teens into my 20s many of the people I knew were either in and out of jail or prison, or were sent away for lengthy sentences. It was kind of just a fact of life, and although for some of these people it upset me a lot to not have them around, for some of them I knew that the rest of society was a lot better off with them behind bars. It is a strange quirk of my schema of the world that I am simultaneously a law-and-order right winger and also someone who since the age of 7 wanted to be a criminal defense lawyer and still agrees in theory with certain principles of the ACLU. I stand behind the police and the military, but believe that many criminals get a raw deal in the justice system. It’s a narrow bridge I walk, but like with most issues, I make my decisions on a case-by-case basis.

In any case, over the years I have felt a certain sense of peace that although I lost touch with these particular people, at least I knew where they are. I guess it’s like putting your grandma’s wedding dress in a box in the attic, or keeping your great-aunt’s crystal goblets in storage somewhere. You have no intention of using those items, but you are happy that they exist in the world and you could theoretically access them if you wanted to. That’s a kind of cruddy way to boil it down when I’m talking about human beings, but it’s the ugly truth of how I felt, so I’m saying it like it is.

But as of 2014 five of my nearest and dearest have been discharged from the system. Two of them had been sentenced in the 80’s for murder and were serving life sentences. It’s not like these are people you can look up on Facebook (which I don’t have in any case). Even if guys in that sort of crowd did things like go on Facebook (uh, let’s call that one doubtful…), these people went into prison when there was no such thing as widespread internet. Cell phones were giant bricks that you only saw on TV shows of rich people (I imagine this was the case; I didn’t watch such TV shows, but I think I remember it from an Eddie Murphy movie…). I knew literally two people in the 80’s who owned their own computers (one of whom was my father, a computer science nerd with degrees in both math and physics. He worked for IBM. Get my drift on that one???). In school we had a “computing” class where we learned typing, but on a computer keyboard instead of a typewriter, and practiced for weeks and weeks to write the following program:

10 print “Julie”
20 goto 10

To be fair, we also figured out how to add color to the above program, and to add spaces so when it printed our names across the computer screen it would make columns or angles. We wrote our names with our friends’ names, our names with the names of boys we liked, bad words, etc etc etc. And this was endlessly entertaining to us, because computers were so new and exciting. So the odds of a guy who went into prison in the 80’s jumping into technology as a first order of business are pretty slim. More likely he is running the streets somewhere trying to figure out how to trade in his Fila gym shoes and his sweet Adidas track suit for whatever styling folks are sporting in 2015 and trying to be simultaneously enough of an OG (original gangster) to get street cred while not looking like such an OG that he seems like an old fogie.

Also, these guys don’t keep addresses. They stay in their grannies’ basements and on the couches of friends and in the beds of random baby mammas. So once they are not in The System, they tend to vaporize. They don’t get found unless they want to be found or they want to find you. Clearly these are not men who will be hopping on planes to visit me in Washington, nor will they be taking buses cross-country to show up and say hey for no special reason.

What I never would have anticipated, though, was that it actually upset me that they are out and about. I am happy for them in the way that one gets happy for a friend when something nice happens. Those who are too institutional-minded to live outside of the prison walls will go back in, but maybe a few of them will have a second (or fifth or seventh or twentieth…) chance. But I feel kind of unglued. It’s like a part of my own past has been erased and a part of my own story has ceased to exist. I know this is irrational (a quality I abhor)and yet I feel how I feel.

I suppose it’s also hypocritical of me to think it’s perfectly fine for my life to go on as per normal but expect their lives to remain frozen in time. I certainly don’t have this expectation of my friends who haven’t been locked up; they have husbands or wives and children and/or pets, and I’ve never had a problem taking that all in stride. But somewhere along the line my prison pals have ceased to be real to me and started to be cardboard cutouts of themselves.

It’s not like when other people do this. I know how that tape rolls. Insert criminal script, press play: Inmate shuffling along in jumpsuit, exercising in yard, seated in court, usually sporting tattoos (preferably gang-affiliated, if you have a very good imagination). But these were multi-faceted human beings to me. I laughed with them at movies and cried with them when relatives died and ate with them and walked the streets with them when we were mutually too broke to do anything else. We had long talks about police injustice before it was en vogue and debated what the best things were to study and why certain people were the way they were and who were the most likely people in our crowd to get killed first (we turned out to be wrong on all of our guesses). We were puzzled and frustrated and angsty and angry, just like the good suburban teenagers were- it’s just that the content of our angst was a bit different from theirs. And when I woke up and went to school they woke up and went to steal cars and rob people. Yet I loved those guys.

By the time I was in 10th grade I had seen more ugliness than I wanted to, which made me feel very sophisticated and very sick about the state of the world. I realized I could do more to help my friends by getting good grades than by running the streets with them, and by my senior year I knew how to do legal research. By college I was writing appellate briefs for a criminal defense attorney, and was still hopeful that with the right people in their corner most criminals could be reformed. Also by then, several of my friends were doing life sentences for murder, several of my friends had been murdered, and my first real boyfriend had been in jail more times than I had been on the honor roll (that was a lot).

By the time I moved to Israel I lost track of who had broken my heart more- my friends or the justice system that kept them locked up instead of helping them. As an adult, I am still conflicted about the best ways to keep society safe from criminals while still being civilized about the treatment of those same people. I not only don’t claim to have all the answers, I don’t even claim to know the right questions to ask. All I know for sure is that I plan to continue to stay curious.

I think that will be my life sentence…

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