Sunday, March 25, 2012

Not safe, not sorry

I was looking down, worried that my son would trip on the descending escalator. He's never had even a hint of trouble, but it doesn't stop me from holding my breath every time we approach the splintering stairs.

It's a momentary worry.

My husband shot me a narrow-eyed look and tilted his head in the direction of forward. I took the hint and followed his withering gaze.

“I'd rather have a gun in my hand than a cop on the phone” read the broad back of the man in front of us.

Heavy sigh.

I wondered if he'd read the news stories about Trayvon Martin, the unarmed Florida teen gunned down in a gated community by a volunteer of the Neighborhood Watch. I supposed he'd hadn't.

The shooting happened weeks ago, and only now it seemed the nation was waking up to the tragedy.

Perhaps the news wouldn't matter to Mister Gun-in-Hand. His definition of justice I'd wager is entirely different than mine. In his eyes, I'd reckon, criminals have too many rights.

I'd have to admit in this case I'm in agreement.

The shooter, George Zimmerman, by news accounts, was a student of criminal justice and an obsessive volunteer on the Neighborhood Watch. In the last year he'd called authorities 46 times to report suspicious incidents. He wanted to be a cop.

After he called 911 on Feb. 26 to report a suspicious black teen wearing a hoodie, police saw no reason to dispute his version of the events that lead up to Martin's shooting death that evening.

Zimmerman wasn't charged.

Experts listening to the 911 tapes pointed out a hallmark sign that Zimmerman may have been intoxicated – slurred speech – was apparent to them, but police hadn't tested his blood alcohol level, something that is routine in all homicides.

According to ABC News, police even corrected a witness who said she'd heard the teen yell for help. Police told her it was Zimmerman who yelled. That's what he told them.

They took Zimmerman at his word that he had no criminal history, though it turned out he was charged with battery against an officer and resisting arrest in 2005. That charge was later expunged, allowing him to legally possesses a weapon.

Even when these and other discrepancies came to light, the shooter wasn't arrested.

While pressure mounted to charge Zimmerman and let a court decide what happened based on evidence, Federal investigators warned that the laws of Florida could likely protect the shooter. The law in question allows citizens to protect themselves with deadly force anywhere they happen to be.

Known as Castle Doctrines for residences and Stand Your Ground laws outside of one's home, it means those who feel threatened are legally allowed to protect themselves from any force with deadly force. They don't have to retreat.

But are they allowed to pursue?

Should average citizens who suspect criminal intent -- who actually look for it -- be allowed to stalk, corner, confront and then shoot those individuals they distrust?

What if they're wrong? What if they had a grudge?

No one will ever really know. Not unless thousands of people, from all corners of the country, stand up and demand it.

Shoot first, don't bother sorting it out later.

Justifiable homicide without justification. Not safe, not sorry.

The more I think about it the less I'm sure the crime itself was as racially motivated as the laws that allowed it to play out the way it did. Laws that just perpetuate the deplorable divide.

I think about how this ride will end just as the escalator reaches the ground floor.

The stairs before us straighten and slide under the floor. My son looks at me with his devilish smile and hops off at the last moment.

“I'm Safe!” he hollers.

But I can't help thinking we're still not on solid ground.

The man in front of us had already dismounted, his message of vigilantism disappearing into a crowd.

How can there be safety looking down the barrel of a gun? Even one on a t-shirt.

Sunday, March 18, 2012

Practicing for the apocalypse

“Just one more chapter,” she pleaded as I shut the book with a snap. But it was late. And the story was a little frightening ... to me.

True stories of our pioneer days always make me a little antsy.

Can you imagine having to survive the harsh winter without electricity or all-night supermarkets? To grow your own food? Build your own house? Make your own clothes? Butcher your own meat?

Whenever tales of human perseverance trickle into my consciousness I can't help but transport myself into the storyline, and stand stock still in its glow, my eyes fixed like a deer in the headlights.

Should the economy implode and we were to start from scratch … I would surely perish. Page after page tells me this truth is self evident.

Laura Ingalls Wilder's “Little House in the Big Woods” might as well have been Cormac MacCarthy's “The Road.”

Most people see herbs on the windowsills, small kitchen gardens and backyard chickens as pleasant little hobbies from a bygone era. A link to simpler times. Something to connect us to the natural world.

But … if you've ever considered how you'd survive should the modern conveniences you've come to know and love suddenly vanished off the face of the Earth and thought: “maybe I should start a small garden,” you'd be thinking like me.

Only trouble is … I can't even consistently grow weeds.

This troubling lack of ability is not lost on my children, who are vocal in their concern about my potential to take a wrong turn on a country drive and the natural implication that the threat of starvation would loom large.

Without boxes and microwaves and simple directions we would surely expire. Man can not live by the crumbs in the crevices of the upholstery alone.

Which is why I've harbored the notion that our true salvation was in my choice of mates: I married a very capable man whose natural tendencies put him squarely in the classification known as hoarder.

If we can't grow a tomato, he could probably barter for one. There must be someone who grows eggplant who needs a rusty tool from the 1950s or salvaged building materials.

We just have to have faith.

Of course when you put it that way, the idea that you maybe should try and correct past mistakes seems at least worth a bit of the old college try.

After all … how hard can it be to, say, make bread?

I may not have a bread machine, but I have a Kitchen-Aid and enough flour to make homemade clay for a small army of primary school sculptors. Five ingredients is all a person needs, right? Flour, water, sugar, salt and yeast.
Oh. … Yeast.

That living organism that comes dry to the pack.

Warm water is all it takes to revive it.

Except when I'm at the mixing bowl.

“I don't understand … your dough didn't rise? Did you proof the yeast?”

Proof? As in let sit for a few minutes to double in size? Yes, I did that. The only thing I proved in the process was that I can kill yeast with the best of them. Too cold? Too hot? Brick loaves.

“It's really not as hard as all that,” they all said. And truth be told, they were right. Pretending I was going to use the water for a toddler bath time was helpful. Sticking my elbow in the measuring cup proved a little awkward at first, but effective.

Following directions didn't even seem all that cumbersome -- bread gets more naps than my kids: Knead, rest, knead, rest, shape, rest bake.

And when that first loaf came out of the oven, crusty and golden brown, I saw a future I barely thought possible and one that I quickly tried to harness.

Before it even had a chance to cool, I sent the kids to the neighbors' bearing steaming baguettes and crusty loaves.

By week's end, the investment had paid off in a dozen cookies, a hot casserole of eggplant Parmesan and the strength to finish reading “Little House” without feeling alone in the big woods.

Sunday, March 11, 2012

Replacement parts

I think we've met.

We've definitely seen each other's children.

Walking up and down the narrow corridor, mine holds his chin and looks concerned. Toy selection is never an easy task for a child, even when permission has been granted in advance of the mission.

It takes time.

It also takes a combination of talent, strategy and foresight that eludes most adults. There's an infinite number of calculations that must be made -- such as the sum of all cool, moving parts divided by the number of removable attachments, which all might be reduced to shrapnel by the invasion of sharp puppy teeth -- and the window overlooking plaything math is closing.

In a few moments his mother (that's me) will create a spectacle by turning into a toddler.

Oh, yes, of this I am guilty.

He will stroll the aisle, stopping from time to time to look at various boxes and make a few comments to himself before retracing his steps. Stroll. Study. Stroll. Each pass is punctuated by indecision.

In a few minutes he'll zero in on LEGO brand building bricks and will narrow his search to a few shelves. The process isn't over by a long shot, but invariably as he's squinting his eyes at the inventory I will be standing by the shopping cart, slowly going boneless.

“Have you made up your mind?” I ask, sounding sweet and motherly at first. Aware that we are not alone. Then slowly everything around you melts away until it's just you and an cavalcade of toys threatening your grip sanity.

He will maintain silence. He's in the zone. I will become more frantic. I am on the edge.

Will it be the 156-piece ninja fan-wing plane or the 98-piece Superheros set? He knows the size limits if not the price prohibits.

“Have you made up your mind? We have to get going now.”

He's still silent and focused as I ask the same question for the 156th, time, hoping for a different answer. I'm losing composure.

I imagine myself to be any man who has ever accompanied me to a women's clothing store. I feel a never-before-felt compassion remembering their hang-dog looks or their bull-in-china-shop discomfort.

I empathize with the desire to sneak away or to just lay on the ground and pout.

“Please just pick one. I. Want. To. Go. Hoooooooooooooome. I'm soooooooo tiiiiired.”

By the time he committed to one of the boxes he's been juggling, he'll have to mop me up off the floor, where I will have melted into a sticky puddle from all the pleading and begging for mercy on my poor, tired soul.

You've felt this way, too. I know because our eyes have met midfield, just as our kids were charting the zone of battle. I saw the lines of frustration cross your face and your eyes glaze over. It was like looking in a mirror.

I can't help but think of you going home to build a beautifully intricate spy plane with the help of an indecisive shopper, a wordless instruction manual and, perhaps, even a dog that eats LEGOs.

That's when I realized we're destined to see each other again, probably even here, looking for replacement parts.

Sunday, March 04, 2012


The letter came in the mail addressed to “The Parents of The Champ.”

He's turning five this year, and as such he will be required to attend a school of our choosing.

Unless. … The district decides it can no longer afford to offer kindergarten.

Of course the missive didn't put it quite that way. The form letter, sealed in an overstuffed envelope with a glittery smiley-faced sticker, was on top of a ream of festively-colored papers explaining exactly what acrobatics we'd have to perform in order to get him registered.

But it was the wording in the first paragraph … “As it stands currently, we offer a full-day Kindergarten …” that got my attention.

“As it stands currently,” is actually code for “But when you put your adorable son on the bus at 8 a.m. in September, expect to see him return for the day at lunch-time.”

But it seemed worse.

I read in the newspaper that the district had put the nuclear option – getting rid of Kindergarten completely – on the table for a potential savings of $600,000.

“That's the scare tactic,” my husband said, in his most authoritatively hopeful voice.

“Of course. It has to be,” I thought to myself. Much the same way the panel discussed going to half-day kindergarten and a one-bell system of busing during last year's board meetings. Few supported that kind of crazy talk.

Closing two elementary schools and laying off dozens of teachers seemed harsh enough.

Cutting core programs? Putting kindergarteners on the bus with high schoolers? What is the world coming to? Last year when these ideas were floated it seemed as nutty as telling parents that if they lived within three miles of the school their kids would not qualify for transportation.

Oh, wait. They mentioned that, too.

I suppose they're betting they can cut phys. ed. if the kids walk three miles (or fewer) to school, in the snow, up hill both ways.

“So you're saying NEXT year they'll do away with kindergarten, move to lecture-hall style classes and have kids walking home along the main truck route … without sidewalks? Or … maybe we can get rid of school and have children learn from home by punching random words into Google.”

He didn't laugh. Neither did I.

With so many tech companies clammoring for contracts it's only a matter of time.

It's so easy to say how different things are now as opposed to when we were children.

But sometimes I wonder if it's fair to wag our fingers at parents … or teachers … and blame them entirely for “The Kids Today.”

Society is shaped by the politicians, too. Politicians who are saying the idea that all people should have the opportunity to go to college is nothing more than snobbery.


They are waging wars without taxes. They are giving corporations personhood. They are gutting protections so people can build vast empires on bubbles.

Why aren't we looking at them and rubbing their noses in their policy-making messes?

When New York City released its internal rankings of 18,000 public school teachers based on their students' test scores, the response seemed appropriately if not surprisingly subdued.

In an age when we follow such things as follower numbers, how many people Liked us and Klout scores, it should come as no surprise that we are metric centric.

But Test scores will never be able to tell the whole story. A test is merely a tool … one of many that should go into to the instructive process.

It certainly seems that What's Wrong With The American Educational System will not be fixed by vilifying teachers, denigrating parents and the expectation that awareness of data will solve the problems we have in educating the next generation.

It won't be fixed by weakening teachers' unions or breaking them all together. It won't be fixed by cutting funds and increasing class sizes. It certainly won't be fixed by slashing early education programs because we refuse to raise taxes.

There was a time when this country valued education. We valued it so much that we made it a requirement.

And now with tax caps and austerity budgets, larger class sizes, massive cuts to early education and specialized programing … we are taking away the very things that we know contribute to educational success.

In fact, by denigrating education we are taking away the very thing that has proven to breed success.

But that's where we're going.

And it will be up hill … both ways.