Category Archives: evil

Torture and Gremlins

Despite the title of this post, it’s been a really good week.  I put in many hours of editing on proposals that will yield a couple million dollars for my former employer to carry out torture rehabilitation.  It’s that time of year where I get to read things like this:

(Skip this if you think it will upset you.)

Clients reported beatings with heavy or heated metal rods and guns, and beating while hands and legs are tied to a pole of while hung upside down. Other abuses included threats, humiliation, or other psychological torture; deprivation of food, water, or other necessities; being forced to watch someone else being tortured; forced labor; forced postures, stretching, or hanging; rape or sexual abuse; wounding or maiming, including being shot; sensory stress, such as exposure to extreme temperatures; asphyxiation; burns ; and electrical shock.

I share this because it’s reality all over the world today.  America did lots of these things to suspects in secret detention facilities overseas and at Guantanamo Bay.  It’s sobering.  It makes me feel even more grateful for my cushy life and more determined to continue “being political,” despite my urge to stick my head in the sand.

Then there were the gremlins.  It is weird how things happen all at once.  In the space of five days, the shower in my house stopped working—abruptly, while I was standing in it.  It’s proving difficult to find an electrician to replace the pump.  For decades now, young people have aspired to master’s degrees in International Studies, not apprenticeships in the trades.

I put a new filter in the water purifier and it worked for one day then quit.  I can buy a new apparatus.  But the water is really hard here, so I’ve got to do it soon.

I couldn’t get the printer to work. My laptop is on the ground floor and the printer is two stories up.  I would hit “Print,” then stick my head out the door to the hall to listen if I could hear any action upstairs—being careful not to allow cats to slip past.  I heard nothing, so I ran up the two steep flights of stairs to check.  No joy.  I repeated this five times, shutting down and rebooting, blah, blah, blah.  Now today it worked.

I was suddenly unable to access my work email on my phone, after years of no problems.  I fiddled with it until I was ready to throw it across the room, then left it for a couple days, and now it’s working again.

I had a really great yoga class on Friday.  As I was walking home—in front of the Black Swan pub—my right calf suddenly seized up.  I had to hobble home, about 10 blocks, like a wounded bird.  Was it the yoga?  All the stair climbing?  Who knows.  I spent the next 24 hours wondering how I would get by if I couldn’t walk for the next two months.  Oxford is not a city for sissies. But the next day it was better, and now I keep forgetting it even happened.

So many things do work, so it’s hard to get upset about the gremlins.

Brits keep telling me “It’s not spring!” But to this Minnesotan, it sure feels that way.  There are more and more 50F + days (10C).  There are blooming things everywhere.

And it’s green, green, green.

I try to enjoy the moments, like this cat v. chicken stare down in the back garden.  The cat lost, distracted by me.

At the store, I chuckled over this product name that sound like a villainous Star Trek race.

In the US, this box of Ritz crackers would be a single serving.

I must find one of these for my car.

If I am in the locker room, am I a tart?

I made wild mushroom soup.

And had dinner with an Aussie friend at a Palestinian restaurant.

The highlight of the week was when “my” Polish house cleaner gave me an Avon-like beauty catalog.  It’s her side hustle.

The world-famous couturier Valentin Yudashkin has provided me with so much entertainment I feel compelled to buy something, anything.

Not Welcome

In my last post I wrote about Australia’s Welcome Wall, on which the names of everyone who has ever immigrated to Australia are inscribed.

There’s also a very mean side to Australia’s immigration policies, historical and present.  In the Maritime Museum there was a section about the White Australia program that handed out money to people—white people—from Britain to incentivize them to “settle” and “civilize” Australia.  It was specifically meant to exclude “hoards” of invading Asians, many of whom had been brought in as indentured laborers and then had the nerve to move to cities once their servitude in the outback was complete.

This program only ended in 1973.

Nowadays, Australia, like most countries, has a points-based system for immigration.  If you speak English and are a mining engineer or some other valued professional, you’re in!

If you’re a refugee, you are detained on Pacific islands like Nauru, an island so remote it obviously negates the need to build a wall.

One of my favorite news stories of late is of a Kurdish-Iranian journalist, Behrouz Boochani, who won the top prize at the Victorian Premier’s Literary Awards for his book No Friend but the Mountains: Writing from Manus Prison.  Boochani has been detained on Manus, another Pacific island, since 2013.  He wrote the book on his cell phone and sent it in snippets to a translator via Whatsapp.

I’ve been thinking a lot about immigrants and refugees.  The issues are in the news a lot because of Donald Trump’s push to build a wall between the US and Mexico.  But I’ve also been hearing first-hand stories from immigrants that make me lose sleep at night.  I’ll relate three of them here.

One: A fellow employee and I were eating lunch in the break room at the YMCA.  I said his name—Vicente—and told him my son’s name was Vincent.  He stared at me incredulously and replied, “I’ve been in this country 18 years and no one has ever pronounced my name right.” Vicente told me he lived 45 minutes away from work. He left his apartment at 5:15am to get to his job as a custodian.  He was worried whether his car would start when he went outside after his shift because it was so cold and he thought he needed a new battery but he couldn’t afford it right now.

I asked if he liked his job and working at the Y.  He said yes, that in eight years there he had only had one bad experience.  He had been mopping the floor in the men’s locker room when a member screamed at him, “You got my socks wet!  I paid $60 for these socks—they’re high tech!

What an asshole. Vicente had responded that he was just doing his job.  Sort of to his credit, the man returned later and apologized.

Two: Vince works at a country club and his Mexican coworker, Angel, holds the same position as he does but has been there 10 years, as opposed to Vince’s two.  Vince noticed right away that when managers came in every morning, they greeted him (Vince) enthusiastically and made small talk but ignored Angel. Vince has brought it to the attention of HR several times but nothing has changed.

“The saddest part is,” said Vince, “I don’t think they’re dissing Angel.  I think they literally don’t see him—as a human being—he’s invisible.”

Three: At the Y again, one of my young coworkers showed a video on her phone of her car going up in flames.

“Someone doused it with gasoline, threw the gas can underneath, and set it on fire,” she explained. The fireball soared 25 feet into the air.

“But why!?” my other coworker and I were horrified.

“We don’t know,” she said carefully.  “There was this neighbor who was giving us dirty looks … my husband is white ….”

She is of Vietnamese ancestry. Could that be it—the neighbor wasn’t happy with a mixed-race couple?

“The police were useless.  We’d just had the baby, and we were so scared, so we moved out of our new house and we’re living with Matt’s parents.”

My.  God.

What are people so afraid of?

Explorers, Convicts, and National Sorry Day

Are you familiar with the Morrissey song, “Throwing My Arms Around Paris?” I hear it in my head sometimes when I am throwing myself out into a city—joyfully embracing as much as humanly possible in however much time I have.  The actual song is a downer, obviously—it’s Morrissey after all, the miserablist. But I re-mix it in my head to be uplifting.

I visited the RBG every day for three days.  There’s that much to see and do, and it’s just a lovely, peaceful oasis in the middle of the big city.

On my first day I caught a walking tour.  The morning was fresh from a night rain and the sun had not yet burned the heavy dew off the leaves.

My group included some Canadians, Melbournians, and Germans.  The guide was giving her first tour and said she was nervous.  She was still getting used to holding laminated photos of flowers and referring to them; they were upside down for her.  She was doing her best but kept saying, “I’m not sure about that, I’ll have to check it later.”

She thought this astounding tree was from South Africa.

After 20 minutes I carved off into an inviting-looking dark path through thick trees.  Have I mentioned I was enamored with the trees?  I emerged to see this banyan with knobs drooping downward; they would become buttresses for the growing tree.

What I hadn’t expected to find in a garden were story lines about three important populations in Australia’s history—explorers, Aboriginals, and convicts.

There was a garden named for Daniel Solander, a Swede who sailed with Captain Cook on The Endeavor around the Pacific and collected 17,000 species of plants, 900 of them from Australia.  Most of those were found around Botany Bay, just five miles from where I was standing.

He did this 70 years before Charles Darwin made his famous voyage on The Beagle. Solander didn’t live to read Darwin’s Origin of the Species; he died suddenly of a brain hemorrhage at age 49.

Next I crossed what appeared to be a dinky, unremarkable bridge over a tiny stream.  But no!  It was built over culvert of “high cultural significance” built by convicts in 1816 so the Governor’s wife could cross the stream in her carriage.

I turned around to find about 15 placards about Aboriginal history.  I already knew about the 1967 vote in which white Australians decided to count Aboriginal people in the census for the first time.  I guess it took that long for them to decide that Aboriginals were actual humans.

I didn’t know there had been a Freedom Ride in Australia in 1965, similar to the ones in the US about five years earlier.

I was pleased to see that one of the leaders had a Jewish name—Spigelman.  When I Googled him I learned he had immigrated to Australia from Poland as a three-year old with his parents, who were Holocaust survivors.  His parents are featured in the graphic novel about the Holocaust called Maus, by his American cousin Art Spiegelman.

Spiegelman was born in Sweden after the war.  His five-year-old brother had been poisoned by their aunt, who then poisoned herself, in order to save them from being taken by the Nazis.  It gets worse, believe it or not.

I have Maus sitting on my bookshelf.  If everyone was required to read Maus, and Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five, I wonder if we would ever have another war.

Spigelman went on to become an Australian Supreme Court Justice and patron of many humanitarian and arts causes including the UN High Commissioner for Refugees.

It’s no surprise that Jews are overrepresented in human rights causes.  But why should it take something as horrific as surviving a Holocaust to motivate people?

Lastly, I was moved to tears to learn that Australia has a National Sorry Day, which “gives all Australians an opportunity to express their sorrow” about the stolen generations of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children who were forcibly removed from their families “for their own good.”

Wow, who expected so much sad stuff in a botanical garden?

I hastened toward a more uplifting exhibit, about carnivorous plants.

Don’t Read This Post

Do not read this post or look at the photos if you think you will irreversibly upset by torture techniques.

This is a supplement to my last post, in which I described a museum exhibit about torture.  Interestingly, the museum—the Casa Sephardi in Granada, Spain—offered no spin on the exhibit.  It wasn’t a “human rights” museum, it made no call to action at the end. It also did not make light of torture.  It was just straight-out torture, torture, and more torture, leaving interpretation and follow up to the visitor.

There were creepy masks people were forced to wear to be humiliated (as in women who had allegedly been unfaithful to their husbands).

mask-of-shame pigmask-2

The pig mask was, of course, specifically designed to humiliate Jews, who don’t eat pork.  These masks may look kind of funny (as in humorous), but they weren’t.  As you can read in the paragraph in the first photo, they often also had spikes in strategic places, cut into victims’ necks, and the wearers typically died of starvation.

This confirms another lesson about torture that is relevant today:  Torture is rarely used to get security information from terrorists to prevent attacks.  It’s almost always used to punish people and to intimidate others not to rebel.  It puts a chill on entire communities, who stop speaking out and being politically active. It’s the favorite tool of dictators.

To reinforce my point, here’s a photo of a set of branding irons.  The “crimes” for which people were branded included “slave”, “blasphemer”, and “rogue.”  Really—Rogue?  I can think of a dozen friends of mine who would have been branded by now.  I could have been branded as a blasphemer a hundred times over.

branding

The exhibit proceeded to get worse and worse.

It included the iron maiden (not the rock band), thumb screws, chastity belts (for men and women; with and without spikes), the saw (victim hung upside down and sawed down the middle starting from the crotch), the iron bull (victim forced inside a hollow iron statue of a bull under which a fire was slowly built), the rack—with a without spikes—which pulled the victim’s spine and other joints apart one by one; the cage, in which victims were locked and suspended from a bridge where they were exposed to the elements and starved to death.

I will leave it to your imagination to figure out how the spike was used:

spike

I didn’t take photos of most of it; it was just too horrible to share.

If you have read this post, you are either very brave or a weirdo.  Or you are one of the over 50% of Americans who think that torture is okay.  If, like me, you don’t agree, please go to the Center for Victims of Torture website and sign the Reject Torture declaration.  Thanks, and I promise that the next post will be about Italian food or art or something more uplifting!

Prison as Trauma

Most people never get to go to an event about prison.  I went to two in one week.

The first was a phone-a-thon to ex cons.  It felt like a worthwhile use of my time and I would recommend doing something similar if you are depressed, angry, or frightened about some issue.  Like oh, let’s say … a presidential election.

Two nights later was an event I organized at my workplace, the Center for Victims of Torture (CVT), and co-sponsored by Jewish Community Action.  It sounds complicated, I know.  What does torture in foreign countries have to do with prisons in Minnesota?

A lot, it turns out.

It was a small event, just 18 of us, but to us Jews the number 18 is a mystical one symbolizing “chai,” the Hebrew word for life.

I was a little concerned that the topic might be a tough one for Vince, my son, who had actually experienced some of the things we would discuss.  My childhood friend whose son is in prison came, and I was worried it might add to her worries.

Our first speaker was a CVT psychotherapist who described quite viscerally how trauma happens and what its effects are.  She had us close our eyes and imagine a baby.  Assuming he has a loving parent who holds him and meets his needs, he learns to trust people and look to them for help in times of need.

Trauma happens to almost everyone, eventually.  It could include abuse and neglect in childhood, a serious illness, the death of a loved one, or a car accident.  Normally, we turn to other humans for comfort.

Torture is intentionally perpetrated by one human being against another under “color of law.”  In other words, it’s authorized or at least there’s a “wink and a nod” from some type of government official.

Usually, there is no one to turn to for comfort because you are locked in a cell.  Your torturers may have your family locked up too; in fact one of the most common forms of torture is to force someone to watch or listen to a loved one being tortured.

Much of the abuse that takes place in US prisons every day—assaults, rapes, solitary confinement—would likely be legally ruled as torture if we ever investigated it fully, in my opinion.

Torture destroys trust.  Rebuilding trust is at the core of recovery.

The second speaker was a CVT volunteer who is a practitioner of Rolfing Structural Integration.  I don’t know jack about rolfing, but she does it for our clients for free and it helps them.  She talked about the physical fallout of trauma, which starts in the brain.  When someone feels threatened, the first thing they do is look for other humans for help, as the psychotherapist had said.  If they are being threatened by those other humans, the right side of their brains “light up” and they go into flight or fight mode like an animal.  I think we’ve all heard about that, right?  What I didn’t know is that the left side of the brain shuts down.  That’s the organizing, verbal, and thinking side of the brain.

And so people who have been tortured, for example, cannot put into words what happened.  On the witness stand they come off as not very believable.

One thing I also didn’t know which I found fascinating was that people kept in small spaces actually stop being able to see beyond the parameters of that space.  Someone kept in solitary for a certain length of time, when they get out, cannot see farther than six feet in front of their face.  They regain their vision eventually, but!

Vince was the third speaker.  He and I read excerpts from blog posts he wrote in solitary, where he was kept after being transferred to Moose Lake—because they didn’t have a regular cell ready.  They told him it would be temporary.  How long would you assume “temporary” meant? Six days, as it turned out. He described the cell and his experience in great detail. I felt myself getting outraged again.  We haven’t talked about it, but I wonder if it raised feelings for him too.

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.

pinatakittens

fabbrow

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.

govs-mansion

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.

The Fox and the Hen House

This is the second in a series of posts about a road trip to South Dakota that starts here.

When you think about it, South Dakota makes sense. It’s a very rural state where people have a hard time getting to an ER or clinic. Therefore the largest provider of telemedicine in the world is in South Dakota. We’ll also visit a guy who is the CEO of the country’s largest ethanol producer, and his wife, who have an interest in east Africa.

Then we’ll visit the Helmsley Trust, which is named for the late Leona Helmsley. One of Leona Helmsley’s grandsons lives in South Dakota, and I imagine that’s why the trust is in Sioux Falls. Leona, originally named Lena Rosenthal, was the daughter of Polish Jewish immigrants and became a hotel tycoon in New York City. Sadly she spent time in prison for income tax evasion and was controversial for being demanding. I’m sure she was demanding. You don’t get to be a billionaire by being meek. But when Donald Trump is demanding, no one thinks twice about it.

Leona Helmsley left $12 million to her dog in her will, and the Helmsley Trust, which has around $5.4 billion in assets, was originally mandated to only benefit dogs.

By the time you read this I’ll be back from this exciting trip and will let you know how it went. I don’t expect anyone to write us a big check. Fund raising—or development as it’s called in the US, is a long-term process of relationship building.

Here are a few prison-related updates.

Close to home, Vince got the final word on his punishment for not answering the phone when a probation agent called. He’ll be on lockdown for a total of a month and have an extra month added to his probation. I told a friend about it; she works for the St. Paul City Council and was an admin at the St. Paul Police Department before that so she is no stranger to bureaucracies and the sometimes difficult people who work in them.

“I always figure the guy had a fight with his wife,” was her assessment. “If he hadn’t, or if Vince had a different agent that day,” Vince’d still be on track to finish his probation on time.”

“Are they trying to goad him into doing something that’ll send him back to prison?” I wondered. “He also got two parking tickets that day—one was for parking more than 12 inches from the curb. Do you think they could be in cahoots with the police?”

“No,” she laughed. “They’re not that organized. It’s just random.”

On the prison reform front, the New York Times ran an editorial, “Holding Sentence Reform Hostage.” The pending legislation would “reduce absurdly long mandatory minimum sentences for many nonviolent drug crimes, give judges more control over the terms of punishment and provide inmates with more opportunities to get out early by participating in rehabilitation programs.”

Some Republicans are scaremongering, Willy Horton style. At least that sort of makes sense.

But some Republicans say they won’t approve the bill unless it includes a change in federal law that would make corporations and their executives harder to prosecute for environmental or financial crimes. This has nothing to do with prison reform but is a standard tactic used by politicians to get what they want without having to work hard for it. I know, it’s hard to believe they could be much lazier.

In my opinion, this is evil. I don’t like to call people evil, I really don’t. But making it easier for companies like BP or Goldman Sachs to get off the hook?

In related but also absurd-news category, there’s this item: Former Tyco CEO, Who Served Time in Prison, Appointed Chair of Prisoner-Assistance Nonprofit.

Dennis Kozlowski, who did six years for stealing millions of dollars from his own company, is now in charge of the Fortune Society, a nonprofit that helps former prisoners find jobs, housing, health care, and education.  What a great idea: putting an old, white, rich man–a former thief–in charge of a  nonprofit with $10.8 million in assets.  How nice for him.  What could possibly go wrong?

Dennis K