Monday, August 17, 2015

Something I wrote for a Hit Record assignment

(this was written as a Weekly Writing Challenge (Week #44) on The story had to contain the following three elements: Tinder profile; barbershop; jug of milk.)

The Assignment

You never forget the first thing you did to make money. Gordon applied the polish to his boot with a rag, and worked it into the leather. Forty nine years, he thought. I've been shining shoes for forty nine years.

He was in the eighth grade when he took the job in the barber shop. 10 minutes of instruction from Buddy, the lead barber, and then he was on his own. He took home four dollars and fifty cents that first day: nine shines and no tips. That was good money for a 13 year old kid in 1966. The most important thing he learned wasn't about shoe polish; it was “never tell a customer this is your first day on the job.”

Buddy told him, “If I was to tell a customer this was my first day cutting hair, he'd get up out of the chair and walk away.” Gordon hadn't thought of it like that then; he was just making conversation. Later, much later, he learned the harder lesson, that the customer doesn't want to hear your conversation. If they want any conversation at all, they want it to be theirs, but mostly, they don't want to talk to the shoe-shine boy.

Putting the rag away, he got out his brush, and began the slow, soft process of buffing up a shine. The spot on his left boot where he engaged the shift lever with his toe resisted as always, and as always, he gave it a few extra stroke to heat the polish and let it soak into the leather.

Forty nine years of shining shoes. He'd only gotten paid for doing it for a few months, until his report card showed two Fs and his mother made him quit. It didn't help his grades at all; he'd made three Fs the next time, passing only science. If he had been talking to anybody, and if anybody had been asking the right questions or even listening, they would have found out that shining shoes was about the only thing he looked forward to. He was getting his ass beaten, or at least threatened damn near every day, on the bus, and in the halls, and on the field where the students went after lunch. There was no place safe at school, except in the classrooms, and the dive in his grades even took that sense of security away. He was just tired of being lectured. He'd found out that if he turned in his work, the teacher would lecture him about how messy it was, but if he just didn't hand it in, she didn't notice. He knew it was going to cost him later on, but that was later. He just wanted to be left alone; he'd given up on things being pleasant.

Both of his boots gleamed softly, and the heels and soles were in good shape. He tugged them on, and pulled up on his socks so he didn't have a blister-forming crease develop. Riding a motorcycle was rough on footwear. It was rougher on feet and ankles, which was why he always wore boots to ride. Boots were also a good place to carry small items you didn't want in your pockets, like his wallet, which he slid into his left boot, and his Airweight S&W .38 into his right. It wasn't the perfect location if he needed to bring it into play, but it was the best solution he had until the cold weather came and he could  wear his leathers.

The weather was forecast to be clear, so the extra attention he'd paid to get polish into the seams of his boots probably wasn't going to be needed for water resistance. There had been plenty of times  he'd had that need, though, and he always tried to do those things that gave him that little extra edge. He didn't always need it; cream rose to the top, and Gordon knew that in the scheme of things, his particular skill set made him the cream of the crop. You had to have luck, too, and it was amazing how often the people who worked hard to get the extra edge also got the extra luck.

Keys, handkerchief, helmet, gloves, glasses, knife. He slipped the Spyderco folder into his right back pants pocket, where another man would carry a wallet, and where its' clip kept it flat and unobtrusive. If he were accosted, he could act as if he were reaching back to get his wallet, and have the blade out in the blink of an eye; he knew he could, because he had practiced the move until there was no wasted motion, and nothing to tip off a mugger. Standing in front of the mirror, with his helmet in his left hand, he mimed reaching slowly back, slowly so  as not to alarm an attacker, slowly until he had his hand on the case of his blade. Seeming to fumble, he dropped the helmet, and faster than his own eye could follow, he had the Spyderco out, positioned to slice a piece of skin and muscle off an attacker's forearm. It was a good tactic; he knew, because his trainer had beaten him with it every time they practiced together. Hank had been in his eighties when he died, but he was still the best man with a blade Gordon knew, or had even heard about. Yeah, if the cream rises to the top, and it did, Hank had been at the top for sixty-odd years. He'd never have Hank's speed when he was in his prime, but the element of surprise was his friend. And so was luck. Anything to get the edge.

Hank had a story – Hank always had a story – about a woman who applied for medical school.  At that level of competition, with something like twenty applicants for every opening, it was ALL cream. The  people without the brains and the drive never made it to the interview, and it was a matter for the committee to send home most of the candidates, even though they were qualified.  Hank knew this one woman who was applying for admission to medical school, had the grades, background, and test scores that she needed, but she knew her interview had just been okay, nothing to put her at the top. So, for her, it all came down to the last question they asked her, which was “Have you got any hobbies or special interests?”

And she did. She could balance pencils on her nose; not horizontally, but vertically. And she showed them: she wiped the end of her nose, to remove any slippery cosmetics or oil, put the pencil eraser on her nose, held it upright for a moment with her hand, and then let go. She put on a two minute demonstration, sitting, standing, walking around the room, and not once did she drop the pencil, and by the time she was finished, the committee applauded her. She had showed them, using a pencil, that she had the concentration and poise, even in a high consequence environment, to carry out a difficult task, and the committee agreed that those were qualities that were desirable in a physician.

Cream rises to the top. Gordon knew that to be a literal truth. When he'd been in his thirties, he'd lived in the country, and befriended a Mennonite dairy farmer. Every couple of weeks, he'd bring the farmer a gallon jar, and he'd fill it with the REAL stuff, fresh from the processor that killed the bacteria. At first, the cream was mixed in with the milk, but after he left the jar in the refrigerator for a while, it would start to float to the top and separate. Gordon would ladle out about a half-pint of the pure cream, and put it in a smaller jar with a lid that sealed tightly. And then: he'd shake it. Not fast, or even particularly forcefully, but back and forth, back and forth. And then there would form a little white lump of pure, sweet butter, and what was left was skim milk. Gordon could almost taste it, spread on a piece of home-made bread, hot from the oven.

He fastened his helmet, patted down his pockets again to make sure he had everything; took a final look around the apartment. Lights out, out the door, lock it. Down the stairs, out into the parking lot. Climb on the bike. Settle into the seat, tap his sunglasses to settle them firmly on his nose. Pull on the riding gloves, key in, switch on, crank the bike.

He allowed his thoughts to drain out of him, like used oil from a crankcase. Nothing exists, except for this ride. No thoughts about what waits at the end; it's not the time for that. He gradually took inventory  of his body: a pleasant tightness in his neck, the air whipping around the windscreen and providing all the cooling he would need. Vibrations in his fingers and seat and feet. The tightness around his right ankle, where his snub-nose revolver rested, five rounds of Winchester PDX1, 130 grains each of jacketed hollow points. Each one would expand upon entering the human body, and produce a hole bigger than a half-inch across.

You can do this, he thought. You are prepared. You are powerful. You are lucky. He took deep, calming breaths, determined to see this through.

He was at his destination, a single family dwelling on a cul-de-sac. The two car garage was empty. He had a few moments, then. A quick glance at his mirrors told him there were no other cars on the street. He quickly pulled his motorcycle into the garage, parking it so it would not be visible from the street, backing it in so he could ride straight out.

A car was coming. This was it. His heart was racing, and he felt sweat form in the palms of his still-gloved hands. He took a deep, calming breath, and then another. Calm, Gordon, he thought. You can do this.

The car pulled into the driveway, and climbed the slight incline to make the turn into the garage. The driver, a young woman, stopped short as she saw him standing there. She opened the door, and exited the car, a questioning look on her face.

Gordon spoke for the first time.

“Can you help me?  I need to put my profile on Tinder, and I don't know how to do it.”

She laughed. “Sure, big brother, I'll be glad to. Help me get these groceries inside and put away and we'll have you fixed up in a flash.”

“Thanks, Karen. I'm sorry to bother you.”

“No problemo! That's what families are for!”

Saturday, August 15, 2015

No, I am still not a college student

I wanted to ride my motorcycle to campus so I could register for classes as a senior citizen. It took me a half-day to get the bike in running order, but I got that done. I wanted to make a statement: old, but still truckin' along. And I made it there, in time for late registration.
However, I did NOT get registered for classes as a geriatric student at Kennesaw State University for the fall semester. There were two obstacles left for me to overcome, and I only was able to accomplish one of them.
That particular obstacle was a stupid, stupid, stupid obstacle. (The first time I wrote that sentence, I only used two 'stupids,' but added a third upon re-write. That's the very, very nice thing about using a monitor and keyboard to write; those of you who go back to the age of long hand writing and typewriters will appreciate that.) It was in place due to a ruling by the Board of Regents that students had to demonstrate 'Lawful Presence.'
That sounds easy enough. I was born & raised in Georgia, blah blah blah.
Nope. Not even close. And therein lies a story. It's not a very interesting story, unless you like hearing about things that are a little bizarre and frustrating. A number of things had to occur, in order for the not-very-interesting story to emerge, and here they are.
The FIRST thing that happened, back in 1975:  I get a free driver's license because I am an honorably discharged veteran. It's a nice little benefit from the State of Georgia. Didn't expect it, but it was nice. The benefit was made nicer, when I was issued a license (by mail!) which didn't expire until my 65th birthday, which is in 2018. Didn't expect it, but it was nice.
Here's the important bit, for the purposes of the story (and it's really NOT that good of a story. Honest.): the license was issued to me with a date of 1/16/2007.

Got that? Because I am a veteran, I get a free license, and in 2007, they extend it until I'm 65.

Here's the SECOND  thing that happened: in May, I turned 62. Now, way back in 1980 or thereabouts, the University System of Georgia said that if you were a Georgia resident, 62 years of age or older at the time of registration, you could go to college for free, with some minor exceptions for things like lab fees. I was working at Georgia State University at the time that went through, as well as working on my M.Ed.  Despite temptation, I did not defer my education for 30+ years to take advantage of this bonanza, but I was aware the program was in place. So, being aware of it, I've really been looking forward to doing it, especially since I was forced to retire due to being bughouse nuts from  insomnia and other side-effects of the meds I was on for a chronic pain condition. Retirement was in September of 2007, so I've been waiting on this program for eight years. On my birthday, I applied to Kennesaw State University, just to take classes, not to get another degree.
The 62+ program is not very well known, and I had some erm, amusing interactions with admissions people who wanted my high school transcript, and later wanted all of my college transcripts, not just the transcript showing my degrees. Fortunately, I was able to get all that fixed with a contact made to persons higher up on the food chain. And, o beauteous day, o joyful morn, on July 7, I was admitted to KSU.

Because I am 62 years old, I am eligible to attend college for free!

But there's this thing they are worried about in Georgia. It's called 'lawful presence,' and I don't know why it's a problem. I don't know if they are afraid terrorists are going un-noticed, or if migrant farm workers are attending college when they are supposed to be pickin' the dam' cotton. Regardless of the original problem, though, there has definitely been a crack-down, and in 2010, the Board of Regents demanded that all applicants and new students provide proof that they are lawfully present in the great state of Georgia. This is NOT for tuition purposes, mind you; that's a different process. This entails providing certain documentation, which can include a bunch of other stuff, but in my case, the appropriate and easiest way is through a driver's license, issued after 2008.

I need to provide a driver's license issued after 2008. But because I am a veteran, my driver's license was issued BEFORE 2008. So, I may not register for classes.    

Well, do I have any other picture ID? No problem, I thought. My latest concealed carry permit was issued in 2014, which is after 2008.

WRONG. That doesn't prove I'm  lawfully present. 

How about my Veteran's Administration Health card, also issued after 2008?


Evidently, we must be criminally indiscriminate in handing out weapons carry permits, and enrolling people in veterans health care program.
At this point, I'm inclined to take myself home. And that's what I would have done, too, had it not been for the fact that I have seven years experience in college administration. I KNEW that there was someone on that campus, perhaps even in that office, who could look at what I had, and give me permission to register.

And that's what happened. After a relatively short period in which numerous clerical people scampered to and fro, and in which I did nothing mean and never raised my voice, I was able to speak with a kind, problem-solving person who had the authority to do so, and she solved my problem, and I was cleared for registration. That was obstacle one.

Alas. It was now rather late in the day, and I needed a waiver from the Learning Support office in order to take the remedial algebra class I needed. (That's obstacle two.)
Rabbit trail in this not-very-interesting story, which is almost at an end, no kidding:

Why am I, at age 62, with no career or degree goals, attempting to take math? 

Well, I have a family history of senile dementia. Whether or not it's Alzheimer's is a moot point; certainly I'm beyond the age of early onset, and so far experience relatively little trouble with my cognitive skills. HOWEVER, the handwriting is on the wall, as far as I'm concerned. Unless my future is very different from my fore-bearers, I'm going to start forgetting things in the next ten years. So, what's the best way to stop that from happening? Exercise the brain cells. And the best way, I THINK, to do that, is by working complex puzzles.  And that's what math is.
Now, I did NOT particularly shine in anything in high school, and certainly not in math, but I did make a 710 on the math part of the SAT, and have had comparable scores on the three GRE 's I've taken over the years. I just haven't DONE any math (except statistics) since 1977, and I wasn't really paying attention then. I DID pay attention to statistics, since it was a useful tool I could use to, erm, do something I'm sure, but I remember none of the calculus classes I took. I DO remember how to take the difference between two squares, but that's about it. So, I want math, and I need remedial math.
And actually, math is the language of the universe.

So that's why I'm taking math at my age and station in life. And here ends the rabbit trail, and then the final, no kidding, end of this not-very-interesting story.
After I left the admissions office, I rode my motorcycle over to the main campus. Motorcycle parking is free, and is located by the main gate. So, I had to walk to where I thought the Learning Support office was located. Turns out it wasn't there, but it was next door, so that wasn't too bad. However, it was 5:00 by the time I got to where I needed to be, and so I didn't get a chance to get a needed waiver from them. So, I walked back to my bike, and rode home, in rush hour traffic.
And collapsed.
My body hurt so bad, I felt as if I had been beaten. I have not walked any further than the end of the driveway in forever. I was so out of shape, that the relatively short trek across the campus (in August heat) just stomped me in the ground.
So: I postpone.
Here's what I have yet to do:
First (and I've already done this) I wrote a thank you to the nice person who helped me establish Lawful Residence.
Second, I've got to start hitting to pool at the gym, and do enough laps to get in condition.
Third, I've got to re-activate my application for the Winter Semester, and
FINALLY I need to establish some allies on campus. I need to talk to the people administering the Learning Studies program IN ADVANCE so that I can get a waiver without having to explain what I want three times to three clerical-level people. I need to talk to people in the other departments, as time goes on, so that they will let me in their classes as well. I have to register during late registration; that's a program requirement. So, wait lists may well be in my future. That's what allies are for.
And thus endeth the not-very-interesting story. Don't forget to tip the waitress.

Friday, August 7, 2015

The Death Penalty & Life Without Parole

This isn't a book review; it really is about the death penalty and the sentence of 'life without the possibility of parole' (LWOP). I'm writing this, KNOWING that some of my dearest friends are going to think I've betrayed them, and some people I despise are going to think I've joined their camp on other issues as well. Sorry about that, y'all; I'm just not solidly in any political camp. When I was a very young (and stupid and ignorant) man, I proclaimed myself to be a liberal; as I grew older, I became more conservative; in the past ten years or so, I find I'm often inclined to the libertarian perspective.
For those who want to look at some of the foundation for my decision, I'll provide some links, but I'm not going to stick references everywhere in the text, unless I cite a particularly significant point. Almost all of those are going to come in one section of this post, and if you are hooked, will provide you with further reading.

So: let me get to the conclusion right up front, and then explain it.

1. I am no longer in favor of the death penalty, and
2. I am not in favor of sentencing someone to life without the possibility of parole (LWOP).

This is not a position I take in reaction to something personal:
1.  No one I know personally is a victim of a crime calling for the death penalty, and
2. No one I know is the victim of a crime calling for LWOP. Furthermore,
3. No one I know personally is the recipient of either of those two sentences.
I developed this position free of the kind of emotional onslaught that doubtlessly fills those who have been impacted by crime. That does not mean my position is free of emotional bias, just that it's not primarily based on emotion. My thinking processes, both rational and irrational, (and I'll define that in a minute), both lead me to this conclusion.


Let me get to the irrational thinking first: (This is, I believe, a position that comes from my libertarian side. I'm labelling it 'irrational thinking' because I realize my thinking is affected by anger. That doesn't mean it's wrong, but I probably wouldn't have gotten here if I hadn't gotten mad first.)
I no longer have enough trust in the state to grant it the power to impose the death penalty against someone convicted of criminal behavior. I lost that trust when I realized that sometimes innocent people are convicted of a capital offense, and that sometimes a guilty person is given an undeserved death penalty. Both of these are failures of some aspect of the state-imposed system. To be specific, I believe that sometimes cops lie, that prosecutors sometimes are more interested in a conviction than justice, that sometimes juries can be wrong, and that sometimes judges are incompetent. I definitely do NOT believe that's the case MOST of the time. But, sometimes the wrong thing happens because someone has bad motives, and sometimes the wrong thing happens by accident. When a death sentence is carried out, the wrong thing can't get fixed. That's important enough to repeat : when a innocent person is put to death, the state cannot reverse the wrong done.

And now for the rational thinking.  (This comes from my conservative side, and is based on facts and reasoning. )
The death penalty is too expensive, in both time and money. This where I have to provide a supporting link. Death penalty trials take longer, and appeals take forever, it seems, and every bit of that is on the taxpayers' dime. Consider trial costs: in every case where the death penalty is sought, special rules apply to evidence and legal procedures, and those rules result in a longer, more expensive trial than a trial involving a life sentence.  A 2014 study in Kansas shows that the taxpayer paid average defense and court costs in excess of of $467,000 for death penalty trials, compared to an average of  $120,000 for life sentence cases.
The costs of appeals for a death penalty case vs a life sentence case are more difficult to determine. However, an Idaho report states that public defenders billed an average of 7,918 hours for death penalty cases, compared to 179 hours per client with life sentences.
An additional cost borne by the taxpayer is the cost of death row housing vs housing in the general population. Figures vary, but it's clear that it costs more to house death row convicts. A California report  says it costs (in 2008) $90,000 more per year to house death row inmates; the Kansas report cited earlier says (in 2014) the additional taxpayer burden is more in the neighborhood of $25,000 per year.
If the death penalty were off the table, costs for trials, appeals, and housing would all decrease immediately and precipitously, and that's money which could be used much more effectively elsewhere.
Another cost of the death penalty, which can't be measured.  Every death penalty case has a victim, and victims have families. While the trials and appeals are going on, the families do not have resolution; they are, in effect, hostages of the criminal justice system. Some victims state that they can only receive closure by the execution of the condemned. So how are we doing with that? Since 1965, the execution rate of condemned criminals has never reached 3%, and since 1994 the average time between conviction and execution has never been less than 10 years. You may have a different opinion on this matter than I do, but this system is not providing closure to family members.

So, there you have it.  That's my stance against the death penalty, based on my libertarian and conservative beliefs. There's not a bit of whiney, liberal, sissy, value-of-human-life garbage anywhere.
To get that, you have to turn to my much shorter analysis, which is nothing BUT value-of-human-life garbage :


I need to make this point first: there are some people who I cannot imagine EVER deserving release from prison. These are people who I think must be locked up because of the damage they have already done to our society, as well the potential for damage should they be released. I'm not arguing that some people should not be in prison forever; I'm arguing against the sentence itself. The decision to parole an individual  needs to be made by parole boards; those are composed of experienced corrections and enforcement officers, and others with significant relevant experience. A state legislature is NOT the appropriate place to determine parole status for an individual, but that's what LWOP means.

Note: when I set about to write this post, I had two reasons for opposing LWOP. However, as a result of the research I have done, I have dumped the second reason, and totally re-written the first. Here's what's left:

For the prisoner, a sentence of LWOP removes hope, the most significant agent for change. They have no expectation that their life will ever change in a meaningful way, no matter what they do. There are small, but significant. privileges that prisoners can earn by good behavior, and generally, lifers earn and keep those privileges. However, after years and decades go by with no prospect of ever going free, motivation to preserve a healthy attitude disintegrates. For some, a spiritual transformation takes place, and they develop a new purpose in working with other prisoners. This transformation is described by Victor Frankl, based on his experience as a Holocaust survivor, in 'Man's Search for Meaning,' and is central to Christianity as well as other spiritual disciplines. I cannot, in good conscience, deny to those who have had such a robust reconfiguration of their very lives, even a hope of release. That, in a nutshell, is the sum of my opposition to LWOP.

I mentioned I started with two reasons, and abandoned the second. The second reason I had for opposing LWOP was that it endangered prison officials, who would have to work with inmates already given the maximum sanction, who could resist the prison system with impunity. This turns out not to be the case. In fact, studies show that inmates with a death sentence and inmates with LWOP have both have much lower incidences of infractions than parole-eligible inmates, those with much shorter sentences. I thus discarded 'threats to staff' as a reason to oppose LWOP.

As I said earlier, I believe there are some prisoners who should NEVER be allowed to prey on civilization again. For them, a sentence of life is just that: life. Their cases will still come up for review, and the parole board continues to deny parole, every time. State Parole Boards only view appeals for parole after a minimum sentence is completed (15 years, for example, in a sentence of 15 years to life), and then only 10-15 % of the cases are approved. Parole boards are composed of former corrections and enforcement officials, and of elected officials with an extensive background in corrections law and administration. That's where the expertise lies, and that's where the decisions should be made about who is eligible for parole, not in the legislature.

As I review what I've written, I see I haven't done the topic justice. My thinking is clearer than my writing, but my thinking mixes both the emotional and the factual reasoning into one thread, and that just doesn't transfer on to the page. Part of me wants to sift every word, and make this perfect. However, I've been struggling with this for at least a week now, and the topic is oppressive. I find myself dreaming that I'm a lifer, and frankly, that's beyond the the contribution I wish to make to my craft. It's eaten at me in a way no other blog post has, and maybe that's just the cost of doing business. However, unlike the lifer, I have other business to do, and so I close this out, in the hope I may have persuaded some.