Saturday, September 06, 2014

Power Corrupts

This past week I had two separate encounters with people who held some amount of power, but refused to use that power for an obvious good.  They were different in some ways, but both were maddening in much the same way.

The first involves a nonprofit that helps people obtain housing.  There is an immigrant family with several young children who have qualified for this program.  They've been accepted as a family who the nonprofit wants to help.  They've invested a lot of time and energy in meeting all the requirements.  They are, in every way, exactly the target client of this nonprofit.  But for reasons that aren't worth getting into, the family needs a month and a half delay in the program.  There is, ostensibly, a rule against such delays.  It's not a law, or a regulation, or anything like that.  It's just a guideline someone at the nonprofit came up with once upon a time.  It's also not strictly followed, as I've heard of many cases where it has been set aside.  There is no reason that a nonprofit needs to be bound by an arbitrary rule it has set.  This is especially true when the rule prevents them from providing the type of help their mission aspires to provide.

But for some reason, the executive director of this nonprofit decided her hand are tied by this rule in this particular case, even though the rule prevents helping a family who the nonprofit has already determined they should be helping.  Worse yet, she cited the notion that "making an exception could start a dangerous precedent."  I wanted to puke.  "Precedent" isn't a thing, except in the law, and even there it is frequently set aside when individual facts call for it.   There is no reason a nonprofit needs to worry about precedent when they make - and can change - their own rules.  But more than anything else, there is no reason to cite to a fear of setting precedent when the precedent set would be the right precedent to set.

The second frustrating experience involved an informal meeting where two police officers were present. Without getting into the specifics, the officers were present for the purpose of defending their actions, even though the actual meeting didn't in any way call those actions into question.

The two officers were both very concerned with justifying their position, and although they both had similar concerns, they went about their approach very differently.  One of the officers listened to the responses.  He answered questions asked.  He acknowledged flaws in what he was presenting.  He didn't seem to change his mind at all, but at least he was engaged in a normal, human, fashion.

The other officer, well, not so much.  He literally made faces at things other people were saying.  He refused to listen to answers, or answer questions asked.  He interrupted.  He accused without knowledge.  If this was exemplar of this officer's attitude, I fear encountering him in a law enforcement setting.  Obviously there's been a lot of attention paid to bad and ineffective policing lately, so maybe that's where my mind was during this encounter.  But I think there's a legitimate point to be made here about what is needed in law enforcement: an ability to listen.

If you've watched the video of the man arrested in the St. Paul skyway then you've seen a good example of a failure to listen, and the ultimate effects of that.  Far too often law enforcement take the position that only the subject of the policing needs to listen.  The privilege of authority, I suppose.  Although it is absolutely true that those subjects do need to listen, it is equally true that it runs the other way too - especially so when no crime has been committed.  The skyway case is a perfect example.  The man explained what he was doing there.  Why he was sitting where he was sitting.  He committed no crime.  Had the officers listened, they would have been able to discern that.  But they didn't, and the situation escalated.

I've strayed a bit from the original thread here, so let's bring it all back: My concern at the outset was the use of authority in a way that isn't designed to help people.  In the meeting I had the other day it became immediately obvious that the person blamed for a problem was not the cause of that problem.  She was the victim.  The facts are absolutely clear on that, and not in dispute at all.  No one faulted the officers for initially assessing blame to the victim, the argument was simply "look, that's not where blame should be going, so let's stop heaping more blame on top."  Those in authority though - the officers - didn't even want to entertain that argument.  They didn't want to listen to it.  They just wanted to defend their initial actions, despite the fact that they were clearly not legitimate.  There would be no adverse consequence to the officers, or anyone else, if they were to simply say "looks like this is actually the victim, let's not punish her further."  But the privilege of authority corrupted the very interaction.  The obvious right result was protested by those in authority.

Power corrupts, I suppose, in a broader sense of that word.  You don't need to be actually crooked to have been corrupted.  Corruption also entails the perversion of purpose.  Devotion to arbitrary rules that keep a nonprofit from accomplishing its mission is a perversion of purpose.  Law enforcement that doesn't listen to the community it is supposed to serve is a perversion of purpose.  This is the true corruption, which we need to guard against.

So again, I urge anyone who reads this: if you have power, authority, influence - please, watch for the corrupting effects.  Keep your purpose always before you.

Monday, August 18, 2014

Thoughts On The Policing Of Police

The recent events in Ferguson have captured my attention in fairly dramatic fashion.  There are obviously significant racial issues at play (indeed, through my work I have recently touched on some similar government-race issues, so institutionalized discrimination is hitting a fairly raw nerve right now.).  That's not what this post is about though.  I'd like to focus instead on what I see as a deeper systemic issue, and something I've seen not-enough attention paid to: the self-policing of police.

As the situation has developed I've read several articles regarding the process that will be used to investigate whether the officer involved used excessive force.  The local district attorney - that is, the prosecutor who works hand-in-hand with the police department - will be in charge of the investigation.  He alone decides whether charges will be brought (unless, I suppose, the federal government decides to bring federal civil rights charges).  In the past this district attorney has not found cases of force to be excessive.  Does that mean he can't do his job in this case?  Not necessarily.  But he has an interest in protecting the local police force.  His job depends on them.  His ability to bring charges rests on their shoulders.  His ability to get convictions rests on their credibility.

The local charging attorney isn't alone in this situation.  Indeed, it turns out that, until recently, not a single state required an outside investigation into the use of excessive force.  All such investigations were routinely handled by the very law enforcement organizations that were home to the individuals charged with such allegations.  Recently Wisconsin passed a law requiring outside investigations (and it's worth pointing out here, that I think it was good of Governor Walker to sign this bill).  But apart from this single exception, apparently the norm is for police to police themselves.  Indeed, in Ferguson, until a few years ago, there weren't even individual records kept on whether an officer was accused of excessive force.  And that obviously leads to problems.

I think it is this self-policing of police that lies at the heart of frustrations.  The particulars of an individual case matter fairly little in the light of a broken system.  In the Ferguson case, there are racism issues.  The powers that be in Ferguson are overwhelmingly white, while the community is not.  But that isn't always the case (see the Wisconsin link above), and I think more attention can be paid to the natural inclination of those who are self-policing.

I have a friend on facebook who is a police officer.  Knowing him, I have no doubt that he is a good officer.  (Indeed, most of the police officers I encounter (and I do so fairly frequently in my profession) are fantastic.)  But even he - though he doesn't know the officer involved, or any more specifics than anyone else following the news - has repeatedly chosen to share links that focus on the criminality of the shooting victim, the supposed exonerating evidence of the shooting officer, and articles that can accurately be summed up as "circling the wagons."  That is, my law enforcement friend's inclination is to protect law enforcement.  This is true even though he hasn't done an investigation into the facts of this case.

It is absolutely true that, at this point, no one quite knows the full facts of the case.  Maybe the officer will be exonerated.  Maybe not.  But right now, except for a small handful of witnesses, everyone is pretty much speculating about what happened.  Some people have the natural inclination to blame law enforcement.  Some have the natural inclination to protect law enforcement.  Both of these inclinations are, I suppose, somewhat problematic in the general sense that they are a rush to conclusions when no rush is justified.  But the later of these - the rush to defend law enforcement - is uniquely problematic.  This is because, as the system currently stands, the investigators are among those who have the inclination to defend law enforcement; the investigators want to defend the very individuals and systems they're supposed to be investigating.

There is a sense - and the reality bears it out - that all the police need to do is circle the wagons in order to avoid any consequences.  They and the district attorney hold the power, so if they all work together then things can stay comfortable.  Indeed, I would go so far as to suggest that many judges also fit into this particular system, whereby they tend to unfairly defer to law enforcement.  The system is rigged, and consequences are rare.  Sure, once in a while someone comes along to clean up corruption.  The problem is, we're not looking at corruption in most cases of excessive force; we're just looking at human beings acting as human beings will.  People make mistakes.  People let their emotions get the best of them.  People act out of self preservation.  All three are possibilities in the Ferguson case.  Maybe the officer thought he was being attacked when he wasn't.  Maybe he actually was being attacked.  Maybe he was angry.  We don't need to jump to institutional problems when we've got human actors who can cause problems enough.

So why do we want to jump to blaming the system in Ferguson?  Because it's broken, and we're immediately faced with that brokenness in a case like this.  There is a sense that there will be no justice.  So people don't just protest the shooting of an individual, they protest the system that will not provide a legitimate response.  Legitimacy is impossible because of the system.  Justice isn't just about outcome, it's about process, and the process is broken when the police investigate themselves.

Truth be told, we have no idea what happened, and we'll never actually know with any certainty so long as the investigator has some interest in the outcome.  No matter what outcome they arrive at - even if they decide the officer committed a crime - we will have reason to distrust the decision's accuracy.  The self-preservation interest of the district attorney now cuts both ways, given the attention that's been levied on the case.  The system now prevents us from approaching truth.  We will never have a decision that is perceived to be legitimate; even those who are happy with the outcome will, if they are honest with themselves, carry some doubt.

We know that those in power are largely able to avoid consequences if they circle the wagons.  But there's another way for them to avoid consequences: they can do the right thing.  Those who would rush to defend law enforcement should heed the suggestion of having outside investigators.  If their faith in the nobility of law enforcement is justified, then law enforcement would have nothing to fear from outside investigations.

The current system is broken.  The system has a natural inclination to defend itself against all comers.  Sometimes that will even mean chewing up and spitting out an individual who is part of that system.  So we can have no faith in the legitimacy of an outcome when a system of power is responsible for investigating itself.  Humans are far too flawed for us to trust them to self-police.

Saturday, July 12, 2014

The Finish Line

One month ago my sister passed away.  She was 23.  You don't need to know anything else about her to know that's too short a time.  The way Anna lived her life makes that number even more tragic.

Anna had Cystic Fibrosis.  CF.  Long story short, your lungs don't work if you've got CF, and after 23 years hers gave out.  She spent a month in the hospital, hooked to a machine, fighting for life, waiting for a transplant.  Even then, she had her same spunk.  She made me laugh when we chatted - even though she could pretty much only mouth words.  She asked about my family.  She demanded to hold my child.  She was as "Anna" as she ever had been.  Nothing was going to change who she was.  I know some strong-willed people (mostly all of the women in my family), but I don't think any of them matched Anna.

It wasn't just about being strong-willed though.  Anna had style.  She lived with what I can only describe as verve.  There was a zeal for every thing she was doing.  When she loved something or someone, she loved them to the fullest.  That probably applies to when she hated things too.  She knew how to live in the moment.  You always knew where you stood with Anna.  She had fun.  She had fun.  There's approximately a million photos of Anna, and she is having the best time of her life in every single one of them.  Her life was full of best times.

And yet, there was the CF.  It was a constant battle.  I can honestly say that I fall into the category of people who didn't quite ever realize how tough it was.  I'm generally oblivious, but I chalk a lot of that up to Anna.  She probably tried to hide some of the unpleasantness of CF away from people, but I think the bigger thing was the style she lived with.  A person living with such verve wouldn't seem to be struggling.

2nd Timothy 4 was read at her funeral.  The relevant, familiar, part has never been far from my mind this past month: "I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith."

One of the things that sticks out to me is that the verse doesn't say "I have won the good fight."  Winning and losing are immaterial.  Because "the good fight" isn't about the outcome - the outcome is set at birth - it's about the style you bring to the fight.  "Good form" and all that.  Anna epitomizes that good fight.  She lived with grace and style and verve.  That's the very idea.

There have been tributes aplenty throughout this month, but one of my favorites comes from a mom whose daughter ran cross country with Anna (yes, she ran cross country, despite the whole "inability to breath thing"):

I remember the first race of the year.  It was hot.  It was a tough course.  And here's this tiny girl, lining up with all the rest.  All of the moms were amazed.  We wondered how far she'd make it.  Would it be a half mile?  A mile?  More?  We knew she had CF.  We were all rooting for her.  A half mile came, and she kept running.  A mile, and she kept going.  We saw her coming towards the finish line, and our hearts were in our throats.  She kept going, until she finished the race, and then, for the first time since the start of the race, we all took a breath.

"I have finished the race."



Friday, November 04, 2011


Back when I was doing that writing competition thing I wrote a story called Martyr. The challenge was taken from Machine of Death. Basically, the idea is that the story had to take place in a world where people took a blood test and found out how they would die (but just how, not when, etc.). I then submitted my story to the publishers of the Machine of Death anthology, who were taking submissions. I didn't make the cut (30 or so out of nearly 2000 submissions made it... so, not exactly a surprise). But I finally found out, after a long wait, so now, to celebrate my first writing-related rejection letter (so very, very many other rejection letters), I'm posting the story here. Hope you enjoy!


The man looked more human in the gray morning rain, still and cold. In life he had been more voice than person, an idea standing on the park corner, shouting for all to hear. Davis had passed him every day, once on the way to work, once on the way home.

“Isaiah says ‘The righteous perish, and no one ponders it in his heart!’ Listen to the dead! They speak truths!”

The detective tried to ignore him. Something – the voice, the idea – had made him uncomfortable, scared him even. Some folks got really into the death cards. Others, like the street preacher, tried to fight the inevitable. Folks could think what they wanted. It didn’t matter much to Davis, the cards were never wrong and they made his job easier on the good days.

This wasn’t a good day. The preacher lay dead on the sidewalk, his steel blue eyes reflecting back the sympathy that rushed from the detective. Davis had only ever seen the caricature before. The tattered brown cloak, the wide brimmed black hat, he stood on his little wooden box, reading scriptures, sun or rain. Now, for the first time, Davis saw the man. His face was worn and tired. He hadn’t been scary; he had been frail. Davis reached down, saying a quick prayer as he closed the man’s eyes. It was the only time he ever prayed, standing over a body.


The detective jumped.

“Davis, you S.O.B., I haven’t seen you in a year!” A tall, skinny man with an impossibly large grin walked toward the detective.
“Collison. How you been?” The two shook hands.

“Not bad, not bad, not bad. They didn’t put you on this case, did they? What’d you do, knock up the mayor’s daughter?”

“I hear someone beat me to it. Congrats.”
“Thanks man. We’re baptizing next week, you wanna come?”

“That’s not really my… we’ll see.”

“So seriously, are they putting you on this one?” continued Collison.
“Nah, I’m just on my way in.”

“You hit the crime scene before the office? That’s a sign. Go back to bed.”

“I dunno.” Davis paused, then, tugging slightly on Collison’s elbow with a finger, lowered his tone, “What are you looking at here?”
Collison checked his periphery before responding. “Whoever did it had it planned. And they left a death card.”

“What did it say?”


A few days later, Davis still hadn’t gotten the preacher out of his mind. He seemed so much taller when he’d been shouting those verses. The box. Had to be the box. Still, Davis figured he’d better look into it. He made sure to run into Collison the next morning.

“Been working a finger print from the scene. He had a prayer book from St. Patrick’s Cathedral; prayers for the dead. Eerie, right? The print belongs to a guy named Manthey. William Manthey.”

“Anything on else on the martyr card?”

“That had a print too. Jolene Beck. Deceased.”


“Do you know what the word martyr originally meant?”

“I figured it was someone who died for their faith.”

“Nope. Originally it meant ‘witness.’ Christians took it that next step, said by dying for your beliefs you testified to the truth of your faith.”

“So did the martyr card belong to the preacher?

“Low priority on John Does, so no results yet.”

“Yeah, I get it. Thanks.”


Manthey’s offices weren’t far. They took up most of the 62nd floor, and Davis waited, staring out through the thin fog to the ground below. Manthey stepped out to greet him. He was a large, robust man.

“Mr. Davis?”



“Up so high,” Davis mused, turning his head towards Manthey, “you’re quite removed.”

“Sometimes a little perspective is needed, if you’re going to save mankind.” Manthey paused as Davis moved from the window, “And sometimes you need to reach them more directly. Shall we step into my office?”

The office was crisp, with cherry d├ęcor and a desk befitting a man of Manthey’s stature. They sat in two leather couches, away from the desk.

“What can I do for you detective?”
“We found your print at a crime scene.”


“A street preacher.”

“And you think I did it?”
“No. We’re just looking for an explanation. They found a prayer book from a nearby church. Had your print on it.”
“I go to church from time to time. Sometimes I use the prayer books they have there. I leave them in the church when I go. He must have taken one that I used.”

“Probably. Sorry to bother you. Just checking out a lead.”
“I understand. Let me walk you out.” The two men stood up and shook hands. Back in the lobby the fog outside the windows had grown thicker. Davis couldn’t see to the ground below, but something jogged in his memory.

“Say, what is it you do here? You mentioned saving mankind.”

“Healthcare. Medical devices, mostly.”
“I see. It must pay pretty well.”

“This?” He gestured to the sweeping office space, “No, this is all the product of good fortune. I worked with the inventors of the Death Machine. Ground floor, so to speak. I was just in the right place at the right time.”

“Better lucky than good, huh?”


Davis wondered if it could be a coincidence: one of the Death Machine founders and a man who preached against them? They had to be connected. Manthey must have been protecting his investment by silencing opposition. Hard to pin it on him though.

Davis hailed a cab across town. He was going to check out Ms. Beck’s tombstone, though what she could tell him he really didn’t know. It was one of those old grave yards – for the old families – and still divided by parish. One area was set aside for the Episcopals from St. John’s, one for those from St. Matthew’s, one area for the Methodists, another for the First Presbyterians. There was just one other pair of mourners in the cemetery; St. Matthew’s flock.

Jolene Beck was buried in the Catholic part of the cemetery: St. Patrick’s. Davis’ radar pinged. It was a nice stone, and well kept. “Beloved wife. The Lord’s faithful servant.” Sounded holy. Davis said a prayer. This was a busy week for him and God. The flowers at the stone were no more than a few days old. Davis saw a chapel at the end of the yard, and made his way inside. He flipped through the guest book, almost absent-mindedly. There it was. Three days ago. Jolene Beck had a visitor the day after the murder. William Manthey, husband.


“Davis, you can’t question him again. He’s lawyered up.”

“Collison, he killed the man!”
“You can’t prove it.”
“His print’s on the prayer book. His wife’s print is on the martyr card. He visited the grave the day after the murder. And now you tell me she was a murdered too? It’s no coincidence.”

“You spooked him when you started asking questions. You shouldn’t have been up there. Let me take this. We’ve got some time. He’s still a John Doe, no friends or family pushing us for an arrest.”

“A life’s a life.”

“I know, I know, I know. Now will you let me do my job?”

“Fine. What can you tell me?”
“John Doe’s card came back.”


“Nope. Homicide.”

“Yeah. Don’t worry about this, man. I got it.”


Davis decided to stake out St. Patrick’s anyway. Collison was good at his job, but Davis wanted answers. He didn’t have to wait long. Turned out Manthey visited the church a couple times a week. It was Davis’ lucky day, and he followed Manthey in.

The church was lit distantly, casting shadows across the cavernous room. Directly in front of Davis on the altar shone a crucifix, the only illuminated object in the church, a beacon for believers. Davis genuflected reflexively, his Catholic childhood pouring back over him. From the corner of his eye he saw Manthey duck into a side chapel, and his moment of relapsing faith evaporated as he tracked down his target.

“Tell me what happened.”
“I’ve got an attorney.”

“I’m not here on business.”

“Pleasure then?”

“I just need to know.”

“Are you a man of faith, Detective?”
“There was a time.”

“Walk with me.”

The two men stepped out a side door and into a narrow hallway. As they walked, Manthey continued.

“You realize that none of this is admissible.”
“Don’t worry. No one’s looking out for John Doe anyway.”

“Timothy. His name was Timothy Vinson.”

“Who was he?”
“A friend of Jolene’s. They were in the same bible study. My wife was very devout. I was always lukewarm with religion, but she was a true Catholic. She told me the Death Machine was a bad idea. I fought to convince her otherwise. I never got anywhere. Then one day, Timothy sits her down and asks about what I do. Suddenly, she’s interested.”

The two men turned a corner and continued moving away from the main sanctuary. Manthey kept talking.

“‘How does it work?’ she asks. I tell her we don’t know, it just does. ‘Can it test people who are already dead?’ she wants to know. I tell her it works on everyone, living or dead. ‘What about things that aren’t blood?’ I tell her the only thing it works on is blood. Everything else just comes back negative. On and on she goes with the questions. Finally she asks me if she can test someone. So I say sure and set it up for her. Why not let her test?”

Manthey hooked a swift right. Davis was able to make out a door at the end of the darkened hallway, with a soft glow of light from underneath.

“The problem was, she didn’t test someone,” Manthey continued, putting an emphasis on the last syllable, “At least, not in the traditional sense.”
“Then who did she test?” Davis’ voice had an apprehensive creak to it. They reached the end of the hallway and Manthey put his hand to the heavy oak door, swinging it inward.

“She tested Jesus.”

The men stood in a small sacristy where a priest in white robes huddled over a counter. He looked up and smiled.
“Who’s your friend Will?”

“Detective Davis,” answered Manthey. He stepped over to where the priest was working and snared a small vial. He held it up for Davis to see.

“This is what she tested. The wine. It should have come back negative, but it didn’t. First non-blood sample that ever produced a card. It said crucifixion. You know about transubstantiation? It was Jesus’ blood. I don’t expect you to believe me. I didn’t believe either. But we’ve tested it again and again. And every time we test the wine, every single time, no matter what church it comes from, the machine says ‘crucifixion.’ Faith isn’t so hard to find when the answer is printed on a card. Father will give you the wine. You take it yourself to be tested.”
“You can’t be serious.”
“I am.”

The priest stepped toward the detective, vial in hand. He held it up, and looked Davis unflinchingly in the eye.

“The blood of Christ.”
“We’ll see.”

“The blood of Christ.”

“Amen father. Amen.” Davis stood there, vial in hand, dumbstruck by what he’d heard. Manthey took a few more vials from the priest, and the two men exited the room.

Back in the dark hallway, Manthey picked up the story again.

“After the results, Jolene thought the machine was a tool from God. She wanted to tell the world. She thought it would bring people to Jesus. I wasn’t so sure. She had resisted the machine at first, but now she was the biggest supporter you could find. Until she got her own death card.” Manthey paused. There was an emotion in his voice that had been absent through much of his narration.

“What did the card say?” pushed Davis, already knowing the answer.

“It said martyr.”

“So what happened? How did she die?”

“Timothy. He killed her. He killed her.” Tears welled in Manthey’s eyes. “When she got her card back, she was afraid. She didn’t want to die a martyr. That word means different things to different people. Jolene thought it meant she would suffer, and she was afraid.” Manthey pulled a handkerchief from the breast pocket of his suit and wiped away a tear.

“What did Timothy say about it?” asked Davis.

“He said a martyr was someone who brought others to Christ through their death. He wanted her to die. For the church. So he forced the issue.”

By this point the two of them had reached the outer doors. They pushed their way through and stood in the church yard, beneath the bell tower.

“The problem was, he didn’t kill her for her faith. They believed the same things. When he killed her it meant she wasn’t a martyr. But the machine is never wrong. So I blackmailed him. Maybe Timothy was right about what it meant to be a martyr. Maybe it meant bringing others to Christ. Her death had to lead to conversion, in order for the card to be right. That’s why he was on the sidewalk. He was finishing her mission.”
“So why kill him?”
“I didn’t.”

“Then who did?”

Manthey nodded back towards the sacristy.

“But why?”

“It wasn’t working. People thought he was a lunatic. Three years standing out there and not a single soul stopped to talk to him. There were no conversions. Jolene wasn’t a martyr. The card was wrong. And if Jolene’s card was wrong…”

Davis finished the thought, “Then so was Jesus’ card.”

It all made sense. The priest wanted to keep the faith.

“I can’t explain it,” said Manthey, “The machine has never been wrong. I have to believe something divine is happening. I’ve got faith; I just don’t know what to believe.”

“The wine really says crucifixion?”

“Every time.”


A few weeks later, when the case was pushed to the bottom of Collison’s desk and Davis had willed himself to let the preacher go, the results arrived, almost unexpectedly, in the mail. There they were, plain as day. One card – the wine – said “Crucifixion.” The other card - his blood – read “Martyr.” Davis sat for a moment, stunned not by the words on the cards, but by his lack of surprise. Then, grabbing his coat, he headed for the door.

“Hey Davis!” called his friend, “Where you going?”
“I’m going to church. You want to come?”

“Church in the middle of the day? Didn’t think you were a man of faith.”

Davis laughed, “What can I say? I believe.”
“Amen.” Collison smiled his impossible grin. “Let me get my coat.”

Saturday, October 15, 2011


Last weekend the starter on my car broke down. My dad drove the 2 hours down, part in hand, and fixed the car for me in the Walgreen's parking lot. I have the greatest family. I am so glad that we moved back to Minnesota, to be nearer to them. I honestly don't know what we'd do without them. That's especially true now.

When she was born, my daughter had a small bump on her backside that looked kind of funny. It was a concerning spot, since it was right on the lower part of her spine. The doctors decided to do an ultrasound there in the hospital, and had to consult with an expert from a different hospital on the images. I felt so powerless as we waited for the results. After a few hours, the diagnosis came back as Tethered Cord Syndrome.

Fortunately, it sounds much worse than it is. Long story short, her spinal cord, which is supposed to be unattached at the base, is connected to a fatty growth. As she grows, this would stretch the nerves, causing problems with the legs, feet, bowels and bladder (and subsequently the kidneys). There's no indication of any damage now - quite the contrary, she's very strong - but as she develops this would get more and more severe, and any damage that occurs is likely irreversible. Which makes it really good news that we caught this when we did, because there's a surgery that can correct the problem.

It's a strange thing, feeling blessed that your newborn daughter needs a spinal surgery. But that's kind of how I feel. It could have been so much worse - tethered spinal cords usually show up with other problems, such as spina bifida, club feet, or other developmental problems, so having a diagnosis of just TCS is pretty lucky. And there's a surgery to fix the problem, soon, so that she'll never have to develop any of the complications that can occur as she grows. And we've recently become acutely aware of how big a battle some other kids have, which has really put this all in perspective.

Of course, surgery won't be easy. Heck, having the MRI and speaking with the surgeon was tough. We had to find someone to watch our son, we had to take time from work, and drive up to the cities, and sleep on the hospital floor (well, we didn't all have to do that...), and go through that whole nervous, helpless process of waiting to hear your child's diagnosis and the treatment plan.

But we've got family. And that makes it all easier. I can't imagine going through this if we were still in DC.

In December our little girl will have her surgery. I feel like I should have something profound to say about this topic - but the truth be told, in some ways it's just another thing. It's kind of like changing her diaper or cleaning up her spit up. Yeah, it's bigger than those things, but it doesn't change who she is or the way I feel about her, it's just another thing that needs to be taken care of. Whether she has Tethered Cord Syndrome or not, the way I see her doesn't change. Either way, she's my daughter. And either way, I love her. And either way, if she ever needs me to spend my Sunday driving several hours so that I can fix her car, I'll be glad to do it.

Wednesday, October 05, 2011

Phickle Thoughts

I'm really interested in this Occupy Wall Street movement. The demographic perspective, in particular, interests me because we're looking at a phenomena that is largely young people, much like the protests that have been happening around the world in the past year. In those countries the young have been protesting largely because they have been marginalized by the way society has developed over the past decades.

I think this proves true here in the U.S. too. Basically, we've got a generation of people who have spent their entire lives in relative middle-class comfort. They've probably destroyed the environment to do so, they've run up a tremendous amount of national debt, and now they're all counting on getting a full amount of social security. Obviously we can't blame any member of the previous generations, nor should we. But, generally speaking, the people in charge have been falling pretty strongly on the "withdrawal" side of the ledger for quite some time (so basically, the WWII generation? They gave plenty. It's the folks after them.).

I also would suggest that the marginalization of the young is a fault attributable to the previous generations. Generally speaking, they were able to avoid a lot of the loss in real wages that has happened in the country over the past 30 years, essentially because they were already in positions that enabled them to keep getting modest (cost of living) raises to maintain their level of wealth. Meanwhile, people who entered the work force in those 30 years kept making relatively less and less. Now, especially with the stock market crash and a significant loss in pensions and retirement funds, people aren't exactly rushing off into the sunset. That means they're blocking positions such that younger people can't move up the corporate ladder.

In short, previous generations have run up our debt, decreased our pay, poisoned our environment, shattered our economy, expect us to pay for their retirement, and are preventing us from reaching positions where we could start to fix the problems.

At least, that's what I think these Occupy Wall Street protests are about.
So I have a daughter now... We're big fans of her. It's been two weeks and I'm pretty sure she's already got me wrapped around her finger. I really hope she doesn't want a car for her 16th birthday.

We didn't know what gender the baby would be, but I think I was expecting it to be a boy. Hearing it was a girl really surprised me. I'm not entirely sure what to do with a girl, which is probably strange, because I had so many sisters. But I'm really glad we've got a girl; despite what some of my siblings thought, I always pictured myself as having a daughter.

Life is pretty good.
I made my first campaign contribution recently. I thought that was kind of noteworthy.

I'm also considering getting involved with a campaign or two. It's important enough to me that I think I want to do it. Also, I recently watched The West Wing, so I'm kind of riding on that high still...
Speaking of politics, I've long wondered whether this blog might be a liability to any future political career. I'm inclined to think not - most of what I've written in the past is stuff I've very much left in the past, and I've moved significantly on a lot of positions. I'm also convinced that future generations will be well aware that what you wrote on a blog in your 20's is a lot different than your deeply held political beliefs.

All that said, I'm not in my 20's anymore. And it's probably about time for me to pack up this site. I've had a lot of fun, but given that I'm not posting any more, and that I've reach a more settled point of my life, where I'm not just throwing out thoughts and seeing what develops, it's probably time to move on. I don't know when my last post will be, but it's probably coming soon.
A new webcomic to check out: Fun Factory

It's kind of PG-13 rated, but it's funny. I highly recommend the current storyline (which started on Oct. 3rd). It's good so far.

Every generation thinks it's the last
Every generation thinks it's the end of the world

Wednesday, September 07, 2011

God The Father

Soon, I'll be a dad for the second time. I've been a father for two years now, and I find myself returning with great frequency to the image of God as father. Being a father changes the way you see God, and the way you see God's love.

But it doesn't change everyone the same way.


I recently took a road trip with a group of friends from college. The timing of the trip was a little tricky. Because our second child is due here any day, we wanted to go as early as possible. But one of the guys, Brendan, had recently had a kid, and, as any parent knows, you don't want to leave shortly after having a baby. So basically we wanted to go as late as possible. Like I said, the planning was tricky. Eventually we were able to find a time that worked, and I'm immensely glad we did. It was an amazing trip, though a little overfull with long overnight drives.

One of those night drives had Brendan and I taking over duties as driver and navigator, and, as might be expected, our conversation turned to fatherhood. It was invigorating to talk to the new dad. It was a great reminder of what it was like to have a newborn at home, discovering the world along with your child, marveling at each basic function: "Look at him grab my finger!" "Wow, he's able to hold up his head!" "Ooh! That's a good poop!"

As we were talking, Brendan mentioned that he too had revisited the concept of God as Father, which he suddenly found had a lot more meaning. Both of us had thought it to be a fairly routine image of God, when we came to it from the perspective of the child. We knew fathers loved their children, we just didn't understand how unconditionally - and how spontaneous - that love could truly be. But switching over to the father perspective gave us new insights. Fatherly love is special. It isn't prompted by any action or motivated by a cause. It just pours out. Fatherly love for a child occurs because the child occurs. It turns out that God as father isn't a routine image after all. It's profound.

I think a lot of truths about God's love are caught up in this revelation. God loves us unconditionally. God loves us spontaneously. God doesn't love us because we do something, He loves us because we exist. There's some depth here. Only after becoming a dad did I really start to uncover that depth.


Uncovering the depth of fatherly love doesn't necessitate becoming closer to God. Another friend of mine, Tim, seems to have had a very different experience. Tim was a fairly devout Christian, regularly attending churches, studying Scripture and other religious texts, decorating his office with reminders of his faith - the whole kit and caboodle. Tim was the kind of man who, despite a general skepticism in all other matters, trusted God. He trusted God's choices and he trusted God's plan.

And then he became a father. Tim, as I said, isn't the kind of person who trusts the world. He's acutely aware of the bad things that can happen to people, the bad choices people can make, and the ways that those choices can derail a life - or worse. He feared - as all fathers do - that something bad might happen to his son. Thus, Tim found himself confronting the classic theological Problem of Evil. How can God be good and loving if he allows bad things to happen? Tim's question was even more refined. In our conversations he said that he was willing to set aside natural disasters and other such elements; his question was how can God be good if he allows people to do bad things? That is, how can God be good if he gives us free will?

Tim came to think that protecting those we love from harm is more important than letting them choose to make a bad or dangerous decision. God chose free will. Tim chose protection. It was a philosophical disagreement with God. That disagreement has led to some considerable changes in Tim's life. He's very much the same person - and as a practicing Buddhist, still a person of faith - but he has rejected God on philosophical grounds. He no longer is willing to trust God's choice.


Becoming a father had a significant religious effect in our lives. For Brendan and myself it prompted a deeper understanding of God's love. For Tim, that same love led to a profound disagreement with The Almighty. But despite the different outcomes, I think the roots are buried in the same ground.

Brendan and I came to a deeper understanding with God because we fundamentally agreed with his choice. But that doesn't mean we don't feel the tension presented by the problem of evil. If anything bad ever happened to our children, we would both exist in a world beyond grief. Now that I am a father I certainly feel the evil in the world more intensely then I did before, and specifically I worry for my son's sake. I get what Tim feels.

Likewise, Tim felt that same new depth of love that Brendan and I experienced. Tim's love for his son - which parallels God's love for us - prompted a different conclusion than the one God chose, but he's still a person of faith who actively seeks to make the world a more peaceful and stable place, wherein people - including his son - can safely seek out their own choices. He disagrees with God, but that doesn't mean he doesn't see the merit on the other side.

I think that's what this post boils down to: being a father enables a depth of understanding that doesn't exist before that experience. I have a truer connection to God's love, now that I am a dad. At the same time, I have a deeper appreciation for the seriousness of the problem of evil. There's a tension there that being a dad allows me to access in a unique way.

Yes, on an academic level anyone can assess the problem of evil and the merits of God's choice to allow freewill. But becoming a parent enables a more intimate window into the mind of God. I understand God's love in a way I never did before. I understand the threat of evil in a way I never did before. And, in a way I never did before, I understand how profound God's resolution of that tension is. Like Tim, I don't know that I would make the same choice that God did. But, unlike Tim, I'm willing to trust God, and I'm glad he was strong enough to give us free will.

Soon the stream of people gets wider
Then it becomes a river