Tsouris, Tikkun Olam, Teshuvah

Another week, another shooting of an unarmed black man by police.  Three, actually: in Columbus, Ohio; Tulsa, Oklahoma; and Charlotte, North Carolina.  The kid shot in Columbus was carrying a BB gun; you can understand why that could put a cop on edge.  The cop who shot the man in Tulsa has been charged with manslaughter.  That seems just, except it’s a female cop.   She may be guilty, but I think some of the officers involved in previous shootings (all men) were as well, and most were never charged.   Is a woman seen as easier to prosecute?  No one can agree whether the guy in Charlotte was carrying a gun or a book.  A book.  I think even I could tell a book from a gun.  It’ll be interesting to watch these investigations unfold.

It is emerging that no one who should be collecting statistics on police shootings has been doing so.  The best source seems to be the Washington Post.  Its running list illustrates something similar to the situation I’ve written about in our prisons.

Of the 1,500 people killed by police between January 2015 and July 11 of this year, 49% have been white while 25% were black.  Whites comprise 62% of the US population and blacks are 13%.  Does that mean blacks commit more crime, or that they are singled out and treated differently by police?  That’s impossible to know unless all the white people who have committed crimes and gotten away with them step up and admit it.

There were also two terrorist incidents this week.  You probably heard about the man who planted four bombs in New York and New Jersey.  The police managed to take him alive, even though he actually had a gun and was firing at them.  Hmm.  Ahmad Rahami was born in Afghanistan, came to the US when he was seven, and was apparently radicalized after visiting Afghanistan.

In St. Cloud, Minnesota, where my son Vince was incarcerated for six months, a man attacked nine people with a knife. Dahir Aden was a Somali born in Kenya and also came to the US when he was seven.  He was apparently radicalized by online ISIS propaganda.

People were injured but no one died in either episode except Aden.  To paraphrase a blog post Vince wrote about the St. Cloud attack, we needn’t live in fear of terrorist attacks, because these guys are incompetent.  The ones who should live in fear are African American men.

So much tsouris in the world.  That’s Yiddish for suffering.

As I’ve written before, Vince and I have been getting involved in Jewish Community Action’s campaign to reform the criminal justice system, including mass incarceration.  On Monday night we’ll attend a phone bank event where we’ll call ex offenders to make sure they know they may be eligible to vote and to tell them how to register if they are eligible.  Vince may not be able to vote, but he can help others to do so.

Next Thursday, we will speak at a JCA event hosted at my workplace, the Center for Victims of Torture.  A CVT psychotherapist will talk about the psychological effects of imprisonment.  A CVT volunteer physical therapist will speak about the physical effects, and Vince will talk about the fallout on relationships.  If you are local, please join us for either or both or other events.

So much tsouris.   I feel my share of despair and helplessness, but doing something helps.  I’ve been estranged from organized Judaism since Vince’s troubles began, when our rabbis were less than supportive.  Lately, I’ve felt pulled back toward the community by my involvement in JCA.  That’s because the essence of Judaism is tikkun olam, or healing the world.  Doing something to right injustice, even if progress is slow.

Last week I took a big step and went to my old synagogue because I heard there was a new prayer book that acknowledges doubters and atheists.  I went to a study session with one of the (new) rabbis was a dead ringer for my aunt.  I don’t believe in signs, but this did make me feel like I was literally returning to the family.


I go through three stages of planning a big trip.

First, a caveat: I am keenly aware of how fortunate I am to have any of the following “problems”—first-world problems, as they say.

First I pore over maps, getting more and more excited but less and less focused.  “If I go all the way to Thailand, I might as well go to Laos and Cambodia and Vietnam, right?  And Burma!  That’s not touristy yet. Japan wouldn’t be that far away.  It’s only a few thousand miles more.  Then there’s Australia; I’ve always wanted to go there, and New Zealand is so close ….”

At this point I am looking at a $20,000, three-month vacation.  But it’s fun to dream.

The second stage is getting real and picking something.  In the current case, my friend Lynn suggested meeting in Spain and traveling around the sunny south.  I said yes.  Since I have been stockpiling my vacation time, I thought I’d go early—to Rome, then Malta, then on to Spain.

I spent a couple weeks reading guidebooks and researching plane fares and hotel rooms. I had to wait for some big expenses, like a new refrigerator, to work their way through my finances like a capybara in a boa constrictor. Finally, the day came when I had the spare dosh to buy my ticket.  The fares had gone up by $300.  I tried all the tricks, like waiting until Tuesday at 3pm Eastern time, and burning the effigy of a 747 under the full moon, but in the end the budget boa had to swallow another very large expense.

But on to stage three: Nailing down the small flights, hotel reservations, and tickets to popular sites.

I must say, RyanAir makes Delta look like a paragon of transparency. RyanAir came up as the cheapest flight from Rome to Malta, and really it was so cheap I wondered how they can stay in business.  That becomes clear when you actually book the ticket.  Would you like to bring a bag?  That’ll be €18 for a carry-on sized bag and €35 for an actual suitcase.  You know, those things tourists take on planes?

How about a seat upgrade for more leg room?  Only €15.  No thanks, but there’s an unavoidable €8 charge just to choose a seat—any seat.  Being an obstinate person, and since the flight is only a couple hours, I chose not to choose a seat.  I will probably regret it.  I will probably get a middle seat between a snorer and a crying baby.

Thank goodness I don’t have an infant of my own, because the infant fee is €20.  I’m not kidding.  Then there are fees for musical instruments, golf clubs, bikes, and therapeutic oxygen (€50), which you need after running the gauntlet of the RyanAir website.

Finally, I went to check out.  There was a €2 fee for paying.  RyanAir really puts the ire in Ireland.  This charge for using a credit or debit card makes me want to fly to Ireland, march into RyanAir’s HQ, and try to pay for my ticket in cash.  They would probably charge me €3 for that.

Next, I went to book my carefully-researched hotels in Rome and Malta.  Yes, they were both fully booked for the times I wanted.  I will therefore be staying in a convent in Rome and at a hostel in Malta. That’s okay.  It’s an adventure, right?

The convent beds have those super-cheap bed spreads that appear to be made out of plastic that you see in Latin America and third-rate motels in the US.  Ick.  This tells me that the sheets will also be threadbare—if they are even made of thread.  Maybe I can fit a nice cotton sheet into my suitcase, and leave it behind when I fly to Malta so I don’t have to pay a fee for the extra 2 ounces of weight.

Well.  The convent is dirt cheap.

Next, booking tickets to the Hal Soflieni Hypogeum, the 2,500 B.C. catacombs the 2016 Malta guidebook raves about and which is kind of my Holy Grail on this trip.

Noooooo!  It is “Closed for Renovation until 2017.”

Justice, Sweet and Sour

Summer is over, and so is my break from blogging.  In my last post, I listed all the things I was going to do with my extra time: sit outside in the morning with my coffee and listen to the birds, plan a fall trip, and figure out how to publish the first year of the blog as an e-book.  Oh—and write a novel.

I sat outside with my coffee once.  I am planning a fall trip to Italy, Malta, and Spain.  I didn’t write a novel, but Vince and I have started working with an editor on the e-book.

Mostly, I’ve tried to live in the moment.  Summer is so brief.  There were fun moments.  At a family weekend at a cabin, someone brought a Donald Trump piñata (Made in Mexico, appropriately).  I fostered a litter of seven kittens which drew visits from friends and family.  Vince and I went to the State Fair where, at the FabBrow booth, he insisted he wanted a uni-brow.  The makeup artists got back at him by making him look like a community theater actor.



I spent a lot of time outdoors.  There were hikes and bike rides, and one day a friend and I spend hours making jewelry down at the river. Other times I packed a book and a beverage and biked to some quiet spot at a lake or the river.

The big local news this summer was of the killing of Philando Castille by a cop.  Castille was black.  The cop, Jeronimo Yanez, was Latino.  Castille was pulled over for a broken taillight.  He had a gun in his glove compartment, and believed that the proper procedure when interacting with a cop was to inform: “I’ve got a gun, and I’ve got a permit to carry it.”

I suppose Yanez didn’t hear anything after Castille said “I’ve got a gun.” Blam!  Shot point blank five times and left to bleed to death.  Castille’s girlfriend live streamed his last moments on Facebook.  I have not watched that video, but hundreds of thousands of people have.

I live within walking distance of the Governor’s mansion in St. Paul, where the inevitable protests took place. Traffic was blocked off by the police for a month and I was kept awake a couple nights by helicopter noise.  The protestors blocked off the nearby interstate and either police were patrolling with helicopters or it was news media copters, but they were loud.  Not that I’m comparing my minor inconvenience to the Castille’s family’s loss.


This week marked one year since Vince was released from prison.  He is doing so well.  He just started a new job in catering, and he’s excited.  In a month he will go off intensive supervised release, which means he’ll be able to stay out past 10:30 or go to Wisconsin to visit cousins.  Best of all, he won’t have ISR agents showing up day and night asking him for urine samples.

Another event prompted me to write this post.

In 1989, an 11-year-old boy named Jacob Wetterling was abducted by a stranger at gun point in a small town in Minnesota. He was never found.

Vince was the same age as Jacob.  Vince became a Bar Mitzvah, got his first job, moved out, turned 20, had a serious girlfriend, had serious drug and alcohol problems, went to jail, got clean, relapsed, turned 30, moved to Lanesboro, went to prison, got out, and has two years of sobriety.  In a few months he’ll be 38.

This week, a man confessed to abducting, sexually assaulting, and executing Jacob Wetterling by shooting him in the head, then burying him—and returning a year later to move the remains.  Lying handcuffed in the last moments of his life, Jacob asked the man, “What did I do wrong?”

Vince was sentenced to over four years in prison for drug possession.  Because the statute of limitations has expired, Jacob’s killer will get 20 years on a child porn charge.  He’ll be a cho-mo—the most loathed prisoner among prisoners.  According to Vince, they are also considered a “protected class,” by officials, perhaps to prevent prison vigilantes from meting out real justice.

As the Wheel Turns

Sunday was Father’s Day in the U.S.  Vince texted me at 8:00 am and asked if he could stop by.  He had already invited me for brunch, in recognition that I was/am both a mother and father to him.  But when he showed up he had a Roku stick for my T.V., and even better, he set it up for me!

And so I was able to watch the new season of Orange is the New Black on my T.V.  How ironic, that a year ago he was in prison, and now I am watching a show about prison thanks to him.  This coming weekend he will mark two years of sobriety with a barbecue.

So people can be redeemed and restored to sanity.  No situation is ever hopeless.  Never lose hope, even when it’s all you’ve got.

I’m going to take a break from blogging for a while.  I’ve been posting 700 words every other day since September 2014.  The first year, half of the posts were written by Vince, although I did spend a fair amount of time typing and actually posting them.

Now I devote every Saturday and Sunday morning to writing, and each post takes about an hour and a half from blank page to Pending Publication.

Writing, editing, finding photos, researching things like the State of Missouri’s motto—I get into the zone, aka, in the now, and that’s great.

But it’s summer!  I’d really like to sit out on my deck with a cup of coffee, read the (real) newspaper, and listen to the birds.

And since I am terrible at just sitting and doing “nothing,” here’s my to-do list of projects I’ve got queued up.  I’d like to publish the first year of this blog—the posts focused on Vince’s and my prison experience—as an e-book.  That feels like it could be a contribution to reform of mass incarceration, or at least a good read.  That’ll take some time.  If anyone out there has any advice for me, I’m all ears.

Then, and this may sound grandiose, but I’d like to try my hand at writing a novel.  The big, sprawling, character-packed type like Dickens or Tolstoy.  Not that I’m comparing myself to them or would even expect to get published.  I don’t have a master’s in Creative Writing from Yale, I’ve never been to the Iowa Writer’s Workshop, I don’t live on the east coast and I don’t have any connections in the publishing world.

But I think it would be fun.  About a year and a half ago, my uncle died.  He was a retired English professor and I carted home some bags of classic novels and have been ploughing through them.  They’re like crossword puzzles composed of intersecting people and events.  These are the old style books that people would collect and display proudly on their living room bookshelf.  They are “lavishly illustrated” and have beautiful leather bindings that are, sadly, disintegrating.

So I’ll just publish and e-book and write a novel this summer.  Ha ha!  Then there’s travel.  I’ve been stockpiling my paid time off, and I could take as much as five weeks off at the end of the year.  It also looks like I’ll be going to east Africa for work.  So where could I go from, say—Ethiopia?  India?  South Africa?  Japan, Myanmar, Australia…so many choices!  Trips take a lot of planning, so I need time for that too.

I don’t know how long my break from blogging will be, but the next post may be a report from afar.  Have a wonderful summer, or winter, depending on which hemisphere you’re in.

On Our Last Leg

This is the last post in a series of 32 posts about a road trip to New Orleans that starts here.

Why are there so many anti-Abortion billboards in Minnesota?  I don’t know.  On this road trip we passed through nine states, including Minnesota.  Some states had a sprinkling of anti-abortion billboards, but mainly they had billboards for adult superstores.

adults Lions den truckers x

“Southern X Posure.”  Get it?  Do you get it?  I love the euphemism “Gentlemen’s Club.” Really, no actual gentleman would step foot in one, right?  But seeing these every couple of miles makes you wonder if there are any gentlemen left.

Why was it okay to advertise porn in Tennessee, one of the most conservative states, while in Minnesota—one of the most liberal states, we were bombarded with anti-abortion billboards?  Maybe the social conservatives who live here feel outnumbered, and therefore that they must fight harder than if they lived in Tennessee.

The route from Albert Lea, Minnesota to the Minneapolis/St. Paul airport wasn’t very interesting, just a straight shot up Interstate 35.  We passed more towns with old world names, like Geneva, Manchester, Kilkenny, and Dundas.  There was the sadly-named Hope, Minnesota.  Had the founders, in their denim overalls, chin beards, and gingham frocks, engaged in some magical thinking?  “If we name our settlement Hope, surely the Good Lord will cause us to flourish!”

Here is Hope’s claim to fame: “Hope had a depot on the Chicago, Rock Island and Pacific Railroad.  A post office called Hope has been in operation since 1916.”  Hope is an unincorporated township, which means the U.S. Census doesn’t bother listing its population, so I can’t tell you whether it is tiny, miniscule, or sub-atomic.

We crossed the Minnesota River as we approached the airport. The Minnesota originates in Big Stone Lake, near the South Dakota border, and flows east until it merges into the Mississippi. I let Lynn believe we were crossing the Mississippi one more time—after gazing out over it in Memphis, New Orleans, and Hannibal.

In 11 days, we had driven 2,660 miles (4,280 kilometers).  If we had followed the Mississippi, we would have driven 4,640 miles because it meanders.  Some day I would like to take a meandering road trip.

Don’t get me wrong, we saw a lot and had a great time.  We saw cranberry fields and went to a Native American pow wow in Wisconsin.  In Chicago, we saw the world’s largest Tiffany glass dome and one of the iconic painting, American Gothic.  We were moved to tears in the American Civil Rights Museum in Memphis.  We spent five days in New Orleans with friends, heard lots of music, and ate lots of Cajun and creole food.  Lynn and I spent six days in a Mini Cooper and were still speaking to each other.  We had the chance to try pickled pigs lips.  Instead, we ate at a Cracker Barrel.

We did go off piste a few times, but it would be great to take a road trip with no time limits.

Instead, I dropped Lynn off at the airport at 7:00pm to catch her 9:00pm flight, and drove home.

It was good to be home but it also felt weird.  I had bought this condo so my son would have a supportive place to live when he was released from prison.  I had told myself that I was buying a condo because it made financial sense, and maybe it did, but underlying the decision was my desire to give him a fighting chance of making it once he was released.  (My apartment landlord wouldn’t have allowed him to live with me.)

And Vince was making it.  He had a job, he was sober, and after seven months he had moved out to his own place—the day before Lynn arrived.  So now I stood in the doorway of the empty bedroom.  I felt a little sentimental, but I was mainly happy for Vince and for me that we both had our own space.

The next day I went back to work and got down to writing proposals to fund torture rehabilitation—and banking more paid time off for the next holiday.

Endless Iowa

This is the latest post in a series about a road trip to New Orleans that starts here.

There was no time to visit any of the Mark Twain historic sites, so Lynn and I rolled out of Hannibal and headed north.  Even though Minnesota borders Iowa to the north, and Vince lived in southern Minnesota for years, I had never crossed the state line into Iowa.  All I had ever heard about it was that it was flat and full of corn fields and pigs.  That you could actually smell pigs on a breezy day.  That did not appeal to my sense of adventure.

But there was no other way to get from Missouri to Minnesota, so I lost my Iowa virginity.  How bad could it be?  I prefer landscapes of woods and water, but fields must have their own beauty.

Here is what I imagined:

Here is what we saw for five hours:


It was early spring and everything was still brown. And flat, flat, flat.

Desra had given me some very good advice.  “Iowa has half the population of Missouri, so there aren’t as many towns. If you think you’re going to need gas, don’t wait until your tank is almost empty.”  She was right.  In the hundred miles between Cedar Rapids and Waterloo, the two largest cities we passed, there was only one exit of note, to a place aptly called Center Point Travel Plaza.  The other exits led off into corn fields.

I’m sure Iowa is beautiful in the spring, when the bright green corn shoots up from the black earth.  I’m sure there are many fine people in Iowa, and it’s a great place to raise kids. That’s what people say when a place is boring, “It’s a great place to raise kids.”

It’s not like I live in some mega city like New York or Shanghai or London.  Most people outside of the U.S. have never heard of Minnesota.  Most people on the coasts sneer at the Midwest, which includes Minnesota and Iowa. We are derisively referred to as “fly over country.”  But I’m never bored in Minnesota.  I think I would kill myself if I had to live in Center Point, Iowa.

Why do people think places like Iowa are good places to raise children?  Because they’re safe, probably.  But children are also able to create their own adventures wherever they are.  In fact, the less there is to do, the more inventive they become. Winters are long on the prairie.  They force people to create entertainments and art out whatever is at hand, like fabric scraps and seeds:

State fair bama Bachmann Vices of the first lady

I’m afraid kids raised with screens won’t have the patience to create great works of art like these.

And so we crossed Iowa, and I began to feel like I was in a trance because there was nothing to look at and no variation of the landscape. There weren’t even any billboards, probably because there wasn’t enough traffic to entice advertisers. I could see how people dozed off and ended up in a corn field.

We stopped to get gas and bought snacks to tide us over instead of having a meal.  I got my standard road trip meal—teriyaki beef jerky and a Diet Pepsi.  I whined about how boring Iowa was the whole way, to help me stay awake.  Lynn must have found that pretty boring.

We killed an hour talking about some sort of test she uses to assess what roles people play in work meetings.  Obviously no one fits neatly into one role every time.  There are the obvious ones like the Leader, the Compromiser, the Ideas Person; and the unhelpful roles like the Avoider and the Clown. I consider myself a leader with ideas, and I think others are stupid if they don’t immediately see the brilliance of my ideas.  Hmmm…that may actually make me a Show Off or an Autocrat.

Finally we crossed the border into Minnesota.  I had imagined it would be dramatically different—Minnesota would be gently rolling wooded hills dotted with sky blue lakes.

But no, for at least an hour it was the same as Iowa, with the addition of anti-abortion billboards.

antiabortion 2 antiabortion 4 antiabortion 1 antiabortion 3

Wayside Waylay

This is the latest post in a series about a road trip to New Orleans that starts here.

Our last day, and it would be a long one.  Eight and a half hours of driving, not counting stops.  Lynn’s flight left at 9pm, and we had been hearing how long the lines at the airports were. It seemed like a good idea to not push our luck by dawdling along the way.

I did want to stop in Hannibal, Missouri, which my mom and her husband had described as quaint and which was the boyhood home of Mark Twain.  But that was at least two hours out of St. Louis and we hadn’t eaten breakfast.  I stopped at a wayside rest to get some advice on where to eat.

If you’ve never done a road trip in the U.S., wayside rests are located about every 100 miles and have their own freeway exits.  They vary from just a gravel parking lot with a pit latrine to a gleaming air conditioned building with vending machines.  But there are no museums or gift shops or restaurants.  I like them because you can get in and out in five minutes without getting distracted. Usually.

This one in Missouri was the rare wayside rest with an information desk.  The woman was very friendly and a font of information.  Well, more like a slow-motion geyser.  She spoke with a slow southern drawl.  “Ya’ll could drive along the river, it’s very picturesque.”  She handed me a map of the Scenic River Road.  We didn’t have time, sadly, for the scenic route.  She highly recommended we take some extra time and go to a small town whose name I can’t remember.  She handed me five maps and brochures.  Looking at the map now, which town was it?  It couldn’t have been Mexico, Paris, or Florida—I would have remembered those.

“It’s a historic town with an absolutely darling downtown and a famous restaurant that serves throwed rolls.”  She handed me another brochure and tried to explain what throwed rolls were but I couldn’t get the concept.  “It’s only 20 minutes off the interstate.  Ya’ll can get cheese grits, and buttered corn bread, and….”  Mmmmmm.

People think that providing lots of choices is a good thing, but after 11 days on the road I was done making decisions, even about where to eat.

“We’re kind of in a hurry, I’m afraid, so it’ll have to be somewhere right off the highway.”

She handed me more maps and brochures for restaurants and scenic attractions. She must get mostly retired people who had all the time in the world.  Lynn had abandoned me.  “I’d better check on my friend,” I lied.  “She gets upset if I keep her waiting.”

The info lady looked disappointed.  “Just a few more suggestions,” she pleaded.  More brochures, more maps.  It must get lonely working in a highway wayside rest.

“My friend has to catch a flight to London,” I said, backing away as if the flight was imminent.

Meanwhile, I kept getting texts from Air B&B and the Quality Inn urging me to “Write a review of your stay!”

“Do your own marketing,” I muttered.  I am definitely happier when I get breakfast.

Lynn insisted she wasn’t hungry, so rather than look like a whining hungry weakling, I drove straight through to Hannibal.

This is a postcard depicting Hannibal:

Postcard Hannibal

This is what Hannibal really looked like:

boarded up houses

Dilapidated houses, block after block after block.  Was this a result of the Great Recession, or a longer term decline?  There was no signage directing visitors to a historic district, but by just following the streets downhill, I eventually hit the river front, where a couple natives out for a walk pointed the way.

The downtown was quaint.  It consisted of about four blocks of antique stores, a boarded up theater, a couple restaurants, and half a dozen Mark Twain historic sites.

Quaint Hannibal

We settled in at Becky Thatcher’s Diner, and the food was fantastic.  Really fantastic, not just because I was starving.  Lynn had corned beef hash for the first time and I had a huge omelet with potatoes.  Neither of us talked much, unless you count “Mmmm” as a word.