I apologize for missing my First Friday deadline – the first week of classes has me playing catch up, but here we go! Better late than never.
So, I have watched with interest as the controversy around Colin Kaepernick has unfolded. For those who have not heard, the NFL quarterback has decided to sit during the playing of the national anthem, thereby exercising his right to peacefully protest. He is doing this to continue to call attention to the reality that people of color are subjected to injustice on a daily basis. Because of his protest, he has been called a traitor, his jersey has been burned, and people have called him a hypocrite because he happens to make money as a football player.
A couple of things come to mind here:
1. “The Star Spangled Banner” is the national anthem, and I come from a proud military family. When I hear the anthem, I stop. I face the flag. I legitimately contemplate the sacrifice of our military – tears come to my eyes. That’s just who I am. I feel respect and pride. It is my first amendment right to feel that way. Okay.
2. But, I live near Baltimore. I attend games at Camden Yards. Fans yell “O” when we get to the part of the verse that goes, “Oh, say does that Star Spangled Banner yet wave….” – some fans yelled “O” during the Olympic medal ceremony when Michael Phelps was on the podium during the Rio Olympics last month. He laughed. Both shouting “O” and laughing during the anthem could be considered disrespectful, no? I missed the outrage on that, but I did see that Gabby Douglas got hammered for not putting her hand over her heart when she was on the podium. Hmm….
3. Did you know that Francis Scott Key’s song has multiple verses? We only sing the first one. In the third verse we find these troubling lines: “No refuge could save the hireling and slave / From the terror of flight or the gloom of the grave” Well.
I could go on, but I think the main point is emphasized by US Soccer star Megan Rapinoe, a gay woman, who has also decided to silently and peacefully protest by kneeling during the anthem. The point, and it is an important one, is this: as great as this country is, and as much as we embrace the belief that we are all created equal and deserve equal rights and equal protections, the reality is that this equality is not reality – it is an ideal. For minorities, including immigrants, people of color, and LGBTQ citizens of this country, life is different. If you have never experienced inequality, I am happy for you. I know personally that my wife and I sometimes hesitate before holding hands or showing affection in public – even though Maryland is one of the more progressive states in America. There is always the nagging fear that someone will take exception to our existence and act aggressively about it. We had to wait a few years after we were sure we wanted to be married to legally be allowed to get married in our home state while somewhere in Alabama, Arkansas, Alaska, Connecticut, and many other states, sixteen-year old heterosexuals were allowed to exchange vows with full support of the American government.
The First Amendment guarantees freedom of speech and freedom of expression. That is exactly what the patriots of the Boston Tea Party demonstrated when they dumped the tea in the harbor to show their displeasure over taxes. It’s what empowered Martin Luther King Jr. to lead the marches against the unequal treatment of African-Americans in the mid-twentieth century. Freedom of expression allowed Vietnam War protestors to speak out in the 60’s. It’s the same freedom of expression that allows the Westboro Baptist Church to show up at military funerals and voice their opinions. It’s the freedom to say that you disagree. No matter your politics, it’s the freedom that we all have.
To quote Aaron Sorkin (via the film The American President), “America isn’t easy. America is advanced citizenship. You’ve got to want it bad. ‘Cause it’s gonna put up a fight. It’s gonna say, ‘You want free speech? Let’s see you acknowledge a man whose words make your blood boil, who’s standing center stage and advocating at the top of his lungs for that which you would spend a lifetime opposing at the top of yours. You want to claim this land as the land of the free? Then the symbol of your country cannot just be a flag [or an anthem for that matter], the symbol also has to be one of its citizens exercising his right to burn that flag [or sit during that anthem] in protest.’ Now show me that, defend that, celebrate that in your classrooms. Then you can stand up and sing about the land of the free.”
In my ethics class this week, we used this issue as an icebreaker. What I am happy with is how thoughtfully my students considered this question. They have, at a young age, embraced a nuanced view of the world and the reality that we can reasonably disagree without casting each other in the roles of patriot or traitor. As someone who believes that the purpose of education is to produce compassionate, independent-minded, informed, and empathetic citizens, this gives me a lot of hope.
Free speech does not just mean that we only celebrate or protect those who agree with us. Free speech is bigger than you or me or our opinions. If you think Kaepernick and Rapinoe are wrong for exercising their right to peacefully demonstrate freedom of expression, you have totally missed the point. It does not disrespect the military. It does not disrespect America. When I stand for the anthem, I celebrate the very freedom that allows them to sit or kneel in protest. That is what freedom really means. You can disagree, but your disagreement does not make them wrong. Let Freedom Ring.
One of the most important skills we teach students in college is the ability to exercise critical thinking. To be good, honest, productive citizens of the world, critical thinking is absolutely essential – it helps us understand when and how and why to accept or reject an argument and how to form our own ideas and values. This skill is especially important as we are becoming adults in the world and figuring out not just how to make it in life, but what things we will live for and work for – how to put ourselves into a positive position in the world. Critical thinking is defined as “the intellectually disciplined process of actively and skillfully conceptualizing, applying, analyzing, synthesizing, and/or evaluating information gathered from, or generated by, observation, experience, reflection, reasoning, or communication, as a guide to belief and action. In its exemplary form, it is based on universal intellectual values that transcend subject matter divisions: clarity, accuracy, precision, consistency, relevance, sound evidence, good reasons, depth, breadth, and fairness.”
When it comes to supporting a political candidate, many of us fail this critical thinking test. Some of us look for a candidate who supports a single issue that we care about or we find one who we think is the lesser of two evils. Historically, Americans have tended to vote optimistically – for candidates who represent hope and forward thinking like Ronald Reagan or Barack Obama, two of the most popular presidents of the last half-century. Voters in the American electorate say they like to see positive change and cling to those core American ideas like “freedom and justice for all,” or “the American Dream,” or “We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal.” These are inclusive, aspirational ideals. Given that, Donald Trump is a candidate that mystifies many political observers because he is not inclusive or aspirational or optimistic; even his campaign slogan, “Make American Great Again” has dark undertones to it as people ask themselves the valid question: When was America “great”? What are we trying to go back to? (See this clip from The Daily Show for some hilarious satire on this question.) Candidate Trump seems comfortable alienating entire demographics of American voters. He relentlessly uses pejorative language to take shots at people who disagree with him or that he feels have been “mean” to him. He even denigrated the parents of a fallen American hero because they challenged him on his statements about Muslims. (The Khan family are proud American Muslims, immigrants whose son, an Army Captain, bravely died in service to this nation.) Part of his appeal, supporters say, is that he’s not a politician – he just says what he thinks when he thinks it – no filter. In a recent study from the Pew Research Center, support for an experienced candidate is stronger among Democrats and Independents than Republicans. He’s not experienced, he clearly lacks foreign policy knowledge, he does not understand the global economy, and he has dangerous warlord-like ideas about how to strike at ISIS (go after their families – their wives and children…wait – that was Macbeth, right?). This lack of experience, a perceived strength among Republicans, is not winning over the general electorate. And yet, despite some losses in the polls this week, there is a solid block of about 30% of the country who are determined to vote for Trump no matter what, even as prominent Republicans, longtime members of the party he represents in this election, are denouncing his candidacy and in some cases, even vowing to vote Democratic in November. Recently, elected officials such as Rep. Keith Ellison have asked the question that Mitt Romney and others have been asking for quite some time: what will it take for you to re-think your support of Donald Trump? Or is Trump right that he could shoot a man on 5th Avenue and not lose any votes? It ceases to be a Republican or Democrat question – it’s a moral question about what temperament and moral character we require in a president.
In an article titled “Why Facts Don’t Matter to Trump’s Supporters,”Washington Post reporter David Ignatius points out the unsettling dynamic that, even when confronted with the worst of Trump, those who want to vote for him will not be swayed. They are not thinking critically about the choice. They know that Trump makes things up – like his claim that he watched thousands of Muslims celebrating the fall of the Twin Towers or that he saw a video of cash being delivered to Iran or an attack ad against his rival that contains a blatant lie – and even when confronted with the evidence of these wild, false claims, Trump supporters are not moved. Ignatius says, “the reason is that people tend to accept arguments that confirm their views and discount facts that challenge what they believe” – something known in psychology as “confirmation bias.” We believe what we want to believe. For those who don’t actively attempt to think critically, the way we think about things stems from our past beliefs – and facts only make it worse, make us dig in our heels even in the face of logic and reason.
So what do we do? Well, as the saying goes, the first step is to admit there is a problem. I truly believe that voters want to make a good, conscientious choice at the ballot box. Confirmation bias is an unconscious activity. We are not aware that we are making bad judgments – until we are. But there also has to be a willingness to fix the problem. Accepting alternative views is hard – even on a small scale, it is hard for us to do. Most of us don’t like to admit we are wrong, that our thinking is flawed, or that someone else might have a better idea. Our egos and emotions prevent us from thinking clearly. But if we can put that aside, then perhaps we could begin to address the problem.
And it is important to address the problem. The stakes are very high in this election. It is not unreasonable to say that by voting for a party and its candidate, you are endorsing the statements, ideas, and values of that candidate. You are declaring that you support them, expressing allegiance to them. And that says as much about you as it does the candidate or the party. The term of this commitment is potentially 4 years.
I am not going to say that you should vote for one candidate over the other. You are not wrong to note that I seriously question the virtue of voting for Donald Trump, but by default, that does not mean that I think you should vote for Hillary Clinton. I think you should critically think about it. There are actually 4 parties and 4 candidates to choose from this election year (Democratic, Green, Libertarian, Republican). A critical thinker must consider every bit of it: the candidate, the party, and the platform. And then you have to make that decision, a deeply personal and important decision. The etymology of the word vote reveals that it stems from the word vow – a vow is a wish, a promise, one of the most sacred things we do. A vote is one of the most sincere acts we perform in life – or at least it should be. What I will say is that it does matter when and how and why you accept the arguments of a candidate and that you come to that acceptance with eyes fully open, understanding what led to that decision and how you may rationally justify it. No candidate is perfect, of course, but it is imperative to think critically – to come to a decision out of an exercise of reason to arrive at a place of value. Choose wisely.
“When you come to a fork in the road, take it.” – Yogi Berra
Have you ever come to a fork in the road? Have you wondered if they would lead you to the same place? How do you know which one to take?
Alice Walker has this story called “Everyday Use.” It’s a fantastic story that I teach almost every semester. It’s a story about a mom and her two girls, told from the perspective of the mother. The two daughters are as different as they can be. One is called Maggie, and she is not terribly sophisticated, and maybe she has passed up some opportunities to get herself farther ahead in life. But she did that so she could stay with her mom. Maggie is a good person, genuine. The other is named Dee – actually she has changed her name to Wangero. The change is symbolic of her new, better life. She left home, went to college. She has become her own person.
So there’s an interesting thing that always happens when my students and I talk about this story. No one really likes Dee. They think she has appropriated her culture for selfish reasons, they think she is out of touch with what matters, they think she should appreciate her “old” life more than she seems to. They think Maggie is “nice” because she stayed with her mother. They think Maggie has missed out on a lot, but her choices somehow seem easier to live with. These are all true observations. Here’s the interesting part: they like Maggie, but they don’t want to be her. They’d rather be Dee.
This story means something to me because sometimes I feel like the outlier in my family. I moved out on my own after high school. I stayed behind in Maryland when my family moved on to Pennsylvania so I could start my own life, be independent. I wanted to be “more” – always have. I have remained in Maryland as my family has come full circle and returned to Tennessee. I put myself through college. I think differently. I do feel like I have chosen a different kind of life. Not a better life, but a different life.
There are things about my southern heritage that I really miss, and I acutely feel like I am not part of them at times. There is a line in Walker’s story where Dee wants these quilts that are family heirlooms – she wants to display them as art, which in its own way is a way to honor them, but not quite the right way maybe. After some argument about them, the mother says that Maggie can make more – she knows how to quilt. The implicit statement is that Maggie is part of the culture and Dee is not. I think about this a lot lately. The fork looms – what will make the difference? This is the difficult choice so often in life. Both options seem to have their advantages, but is there real difference in choosing one path over the other? Are we destined to be who we will be no matter what? Would Dee be a “better” person if she had stayed close, learned to quilt?
I have always wondered about this. It has been looming larger lately as I contemplate what the next phase of my life will be. I have accomplished many personal and professional goals, so naturally I am thinking about what is next. In this mindset, I recalled a poem I wrote in 1999 when I was a sophomore at the University of Baltimore. Just a month after I wrote it, my great-grandmother died, and I read it as part of her eulogy at her funeral. It was a way to honor her memory and what she meant to our family. Just this year, the Blackbird Poetry Festival ran with the theme of “Histories and HerStories,” and I decided to revise it to read it at the festival, this time thinking of all my grandmothers and how there is this legacy that maybe… the thought is hard to finish. It may be true that you can never go home again. Or maybe it’s not. I don’t know. Grandmothers seem to be the key to memory somehow, they are the stuff the tapestry is woven from. Maybe it’s that we all revolve around them – they are the center of the universe for big occasions, like Christmas morning. Or maybe it’s the food – the smell, the taste, the good feeling. At any rate, here is the poem, and of course it has to do with food.
“For Your Grandma”
On her pale, wrinkled hands, each line a dozen stories
Of days spent combing the hair of her grandchildren,
Pulling out splinters, washing out scratches, and wiping away tears.
Rough, scaly hands riddled with scars of picking, pickling, and canning,
Purple fingers, purple hands, stained from beating the beets,
The evidence of a life spent reaping the fruit needed for living, every day.
I watched her sometimes while she cooked.
Her fingers, long probing rods, kneaded the bread,
And her flour-covered hands tossed, slapped, and shaped sticky globs
That were thrown onto the biscuit pan
And shoved with purpose into the hot oven.
In a strange, wordless language, she smacked the helpless
Dough into perfect submission.
If you are from The South, you’d better be able to make biscuits.
They should be made of lard and flour, laced with butter, milk, and salt.
They must rise, golden and perfect.
They better not be made with Bisquick.
Otherwise, you might as well live in Maryland.
In my grandmother’s house, biscuits were a form of currency,
Good as money, the bread of life.
The oven timer was a siren call to the breakfast table,
A starting gun for the day, a blessing, a prayer.
I am a long way from that Tennessee kitchen, and
I hope she does not hear this: but I cannot remember
How to make biscuits the way she did.
I do remember her hands.
Wherever she is now,
I want her to see: my mother, my sister, me:
We have risen, we are golden, we are delicious.
And because you can’t talk about biscuits without really wanting one, here is a recipe for biscuits like my Grandma Odum used to make – they really are the best. The key is the lard:
2 1/4 cups of all-purpose flour
1 tspn salt
1/3 tspn baking soda
5 tbspns of lard
2 tspns of baking powder
1 cup of buttermilk
1/4 cup or so of melted salted butter
Mix dry ingredients and sift into mixing bowl, then cut in lard until the mixture resembles a coarse meal.
Stir in buttermilk until it is incorporated with the flour mixture. The dough will be kind of wet and very sticky.
Flour your hands and turn the dough out onto a lightly floured surface. Roll the dough in the flour just enough to make it workable – you don’t want it to stick to your hands too much, but don’t work in too much extra flour either or the biscuits will be heavy and taste of raw flour.
For each biscuit, pinch off a piece of dough about the size of a large egg or a small lemon and pat out in the un-greased pan with your hands. You don’t want it to be really flat, just pat it down a bit so it’s relatively biscuit-shaped and about 1 inch high.
Bake at 475 degrees for 10 to 12 minutes until the tops are golden brown. Keep your eye on them while they’re in the oven so they don’t burn.
Brush tops of biscuits with melted butter. Enjoy the awesome.
Last year, a podcast called Serial gripped the nation. It was the story of a Baltimore-area high school honors student named Adnan Syed who was convicted in 1999 for the murder of his ex-girlfriend Hae Min Lee. This story has the stuff of great mystery: romance, possible love-triangle, shady characters, murder, and a cover-up – all told beautifully by Serial’s host, Sarah Koenig. If you have never listed to season one of the Serial podcast, you should. And also this post will mean nothing to you unless you have. But if you did, you likely had all of the same questions I did at the end. Like many other listeners, I could not let the story go once the podcast was over – there was just too much that didn’t seem right, too many unknowns.
Serial spawned several other podcasts, most notably Undisclosed and Truth & Justice (formerly known as Serial Dynasty). These podcasts picked up the story where Serial left it. The Undisclosed team consists of three lawyers: Susan Simpson, Colin Miller, and Rabia Chaudry, a lifelong friend of Adnan Syed who has made it her personal mission to seek a new trial in this case. The lawyers have meticulously gone through testimony, tapes, files, and the timeline of events to give a more complete picture of the Hae Min Lee murder case. Truth and Justice is a podcast created by Bob Ruff, a former fire chief and investigator. Initially, Ruff’s podcast was a forum for fan theories, but he soon put his investigative skills to work in pulling on different threads of the case to see where they went. Some of the revelations have been surprising. It would likely take you weeks to binge-listen to all of the first seasons of Undisclosed and Truth and Justice, but it’s well worth it.
There were several puzzles that Serial left us with, but I’m going to focus on what I think are the 5 big ones. Over the past year and a half since season one of Serial wrapped, much more information has been revealed, and thanks to Undisclosed, Truth and Justice, and Adnan’s post-conviction appeal hearing, we know much, much more. There is no easy or quick way to summarize it all, but here is a pass at some of the key points. Once again, if you are familiar with the case and the podcast, this will make a lot more sense to you.
Number 1: The Nisha Call & Leakin Park Pings
There are two things that Sarah Koenig really could not reconcile at the end of the first season of Serial. One was why there is a call to a girl named Nisha on Adnan’s call record for 3:32pm on January 13, 1999 that lasted 2 minutes and 22 seconds. According to Adnan, he was at track at that time and Jay still had his cell phone. Jay says that Adnan had already killed Hae, been picked up by Jay, and that they were riding around in the car together at this time. Jay did not know Nisha and would have no reason to call her. According to Jay, he and Adnan both talked to Nisha during the call.
So this looks bad for Adnan, but it is entirely possible that the Nisha call was a butt-dial that was never answered. Nisha testified that she did not have voicemail, so the call would have continued to ring if she was not available to pick it up. She also did not recall talking to Adnan and Jay during the day, but she did remember talking to both Jay and Adnan once on a call that came in the evening when Jay was at work. It’s easy to date the call Nisha remembers because Jay was at work at an adult video store, a detail Nisha remembers about the call – a job he did not have in January of 1999. But back to the 3:32 call on January 13th – because of the duration of the call, if it did ring for over 2 minutes, it is entirely plausible that AT&T billed Adnan for the call – the Undisclosed team was able to learn that similar AT&T subscriber contracts
from that time show that AT&T had a policy of billing subscribers for calls over a minute whether they were answered or not.
The Serial team also could not explain the Leakin Park Pings. According to Jay, he and Adnan buried the body in Leakin Park sometime after 7pm on January 13th. There are two incoming calls to Adnan’s phone – one at 7:09pm and the other at 7:16pm – that “ping” a cell phone tower near Leakin Park, suggesting that, if nothing else, the cellphone is located nearby.
There’s only one problem with this line of thinking: when the prosecutors requested Adnan’s phone records from AT&T, the phone company provided those records along with a fax cover sheet that clearly stated that incoming calls are not reliable location indicators. In other words, in 1999 AT&T itself declared that incoming calls could not reliably indicate location. For example, in Adnan’s recent appeal hearing, Adnan’s attorney Justin Brown pointed to 2 calls on the log: 1 pinged a tower in DuPont Circle in Washington DC, and the other pinged a tower in Baltimore less than a half an hour later. Anyone who lives in this area will tell you that the laws of physics don’t even allow you to get out of DuPont Circle in 30 minutes, let alone get to Baltimore. This is the perfect illustration of unreliable. There are complicated reasons for this that are explained in detail by Susan Simpson in episode 8 of Undisclosed. The reason the defense never brought this up at trial was that Adnan’s attorney, Christina Gutierrez, never received that information from the prosecutor even though the prosecutor, Kevin Urick, received it from AT&T. The failure to disclose this information is what is called a “Brady Violation” – it means that the prosecution withheld exculpatory evidence from the defense. That alone should have been enough to grant Adnan a new trial. In fact, the prosecution’s cellphone expert witness, Abraham Waranowitz, was not shown the cover sheet either before he testified for the state. He now says that if he had known that, he would not have testified as he did. So, yeah, that was kind of an important detail. So these 2 things that stumped the Serial team, the Nisha Call and the Leakin Park Pings, are not really rock-solid evidence. They are shockingly explainable given the information we have now.
Number 2: Where Was Hae Going That Day?
The popular narrative for Hae’s day is that she needed to rush out of school to pick up her cousin and then had to go to a wrestling match – she was the team manager. But Undisclosed was able to look through school records to show that there was no wrestling match that day – which means that many people who were interviewed about where Hae was headed that day were remembering the wrong day. In fact, Hae was supposed to work that evening at LensCrafters in Owings Mills, and then she was supposed to have a date with her new boyfriend, Don. She never made it to pick up her cousin, or to work, or to her date.
One person has a clear memory of talking to Hae at the end of the day: a friend of hers named Debbie. Debbie was interviewed by police and said that Hae told her she was in a hurry to leave school on January 13th, 1999 because she was going to see Don. Because several other witnesses mentioned the wrestling match, Debbie’s recollection seemed like the outlier, but given that the wrestling match everyone else remembers was not on that day, it is more likely the truth. If that is the truth, it’s an important detail to examine.
Number 3: Jay’s Stories
Jay Wilds is perhaps the biggest enigma in this case. Given all of the new evidence, it is more than likely that he knew nothing at all about what happened to Hae but rather made up a story to please the police. Why would someone do that? Many rumors have abounded – such as the one where Jay was jealous of Adnan’s friendship with his girlfriend, Stephanie. The two were close and in the magnate program together at Woodlawn High School. One is that Jay was afraid of the police because he was dealing pot and didn’t want to get locked up for that. Jay himself has cited this as the reason he decided to talk to the police.
Two other ideas have emerged from the work of the Undisclosed team and Bob Ruff at Truth and Justice. The first is that Jay did it for money. In Episode 10 of Undisclosed, we learn that Metro Crime Stoppers paid about $3K to an informant in this case. Per the rules for paying out these rewards, the informant can only get the money if the information leads to arrest and conviction. There is only one witness for the prosecution that gave that kind of information: Jay. And, the police would have to authorize the payment. The second idea is that the police threatened Jay – told him that he would be charged in this crime and that they would seek the death penalty against him. So to get off the hook, Jay agreed to help them tap-tap-tap together a narrative against Adnan – that is who the police really wanted to charge anyway.
One thing is for certain – years after this and the multiple versions of events that Jay related to the police in interviews and at trial, Jay’s story continues to change. In an interview Jay gave to The Intercept in December of 2014, he told yet another version of the story. Where Jay is concerned, there is no truth.
Number 4: Asia McClain
We have all wondered why Asia never testified in Adnan’s trial. She claims to have seen him in the library at the same time the state says he was strangling Hae in the parking lot of Best Buy. Why didn’t Gutierrez call Asia to the stand? There are 2 possible explanations for this. The first is that the Undisclosed team discovered that Asia’s name was misprinted in Gutierrez’s records as Aisha, not Asia, in a critical place that included notes about the alibi. Aisha is a real person – Hae’s best friend. Gutierrez may well have dismissed it based on this. The second is that Gutierrez just forgot to follow up on it. She seemed to have a lot going on at the time, and as we now know, her health was really deteriorating, and she was not able to perform her job at a high level. Things got missed.
The prosecution also said that Asia recanted her affidavit, but this is not true. When Asia testified at Adnan’s appeal hearing in February, she maintained the same version of events that she told in 1999. She also testified that the prosecutor, Kevin Urick, misrepresented their conversation and even discouraged her from testifying in the first appeal, saying that they had overwhelming evidence against Adnan. Asia’s testimony would force the state to come up with a totally new timeline for the murder – one they probably could not put together successfully or coherently given the giant holes in Jay’s stories. From an evidence standpoint, it’s the whole ballgame.
Number 5: Don
If you had a date with your girlfriend or boyfriend and she/he failed to show up, would you call her/him? Would you want to know why you were stood up? Apparently, Hae’s boyfried Don was not concerned when A) his girlfriend didn’t show up for her shift at the place where they both worked, B) stood him up for a date, and C) seemed to disappear altogether with no phone call, no email, no anything.
In addition, Bob Ruff was able to learn that Don falsified his timesheet and created a (false) alibi immediately when Hae disappeared – even thought he reportedly told police that he thought she must have run off to California. Why would he need a false alibi then? Don’s mother, the general manager of LensCrafters, doctored a time sheet to attempt to place him at work the day Hae vanished. That’s not shady at all. For some reason, the police never aggressively investigated Don or his alibi, even when they could not locate/talk to him until 1am the day/evening of her abduction. This does not mean that Don killed Hae, but Don was never subjected to the level of scrutiny or investigation that Adnan was, and he really should have been. But once the police decided to pursue Adnan as a suspect, they let go of every other thread in the case. They stopped pulling.
These facts give us a more complete picture than we had when Serial ended. Adnan was given a chance to appeal in a post-conviction hearing in February of this year. The case is currently in the hands of Judge Welch, who previously ruled against Adnan in an earlier appeal. But the evidence appears overwhelming: Adnan should get a chance at a new trial.
Why is this story so compelling? I’ve wondered that. I don’t even really like crime shows. Maybe it’s because I’m from the Baltimore area, so to me, the places in the story are not abstract – I used to drive past the infamous Best Buy all the time when I worked in that area. Maybe it’s because I work with honors students and I can’t imagine any of them in this scenario. But I think it’s also because, as someone who teaches and studies Ethics, I am troubled by the idea that the police might seek convictions and not truth. We also see this in the popular Netflix documentary Making a Murderer. (That’s a whole other topic for another time.) One of the pillars of our social contract is that our police and prosecutors should seek justice, not simply seek to win cases. The truth matters – the truth is what compelled Asia to come forward after all this time. What troubles me about Adnan’s case is that, if it could happen to him, it could happen to anyone. It could happen to you. Like Adnan, you might never see it coming.
April is National Poetry Month, and whatever else that means, it means that we should pay attention to poetry. At Howard Community College, that means it’s time for the annual Blackbird Poetry Festival. Blackbird was inspired by a visit to the Dodge Poetry Festival in 2008. I saw Billy Collins, Mark Doty, Lucille Clifton, Sharon Olds, and many other wonderful poets. In 2010, I saw Michael Cirelli, and the next year, we had Michael at Blackbird. His poem, “Troubador,” is still one of my favorite poems to teach or talk about with students.
The name of the Blackbird festival comes from the Wallace Stevens poem, “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird.” This poem was an inscrutable poem that I first read as a junior in college, and I had a professor who liked to start every class with us reciting this poem in different ways. Over time, I began to see it as a celebration of the many ways that poetry helps us see the extraordinary in the ordinary. So it was natural that this humble festival would take the name of that poem. Although, over time and due largely to a wonderful partnership with HoCoPoLitSo, the Blackbird festival has welcomed not just Cirelli, but also amazing poets like Martin Espada, Taylor Mali, Rives, Kim Addonizio, and even Billy Collins.
The real goal of the festival, for me, has always been to give students a different experience with poetry. Most students only experience poetry on the page in an academic setting. My first real experience with reading poetry was in 9th grade. My teacher at my private, religious high school allowed us to read some of the Romantic poets – mostly Blake and Wordsworth. One of our major assignments of the semester was to memorize and recite a poem to the rest of the class. I chose “I wandered lonely as a cloud” by William Wordsworth. I still remember the entire poem even now. But I didn’t really understand the poem until years later when I walked by a row of daffodils with my dog, Oberon. It was only when I took the poem off the page that it started to mean anything to me.
I teach poetry now, and I normally start teaching poetry with 2 poems from Billy Collins: “Introduction to Poetry” and “The Lanyard” because both of the poems make the principal arguments I hope to advance in teaching poetry to my students. 1: The meaning of poetry is not fixed and is entirely dependent on how the reader experiences it – so I don’t want them to get too caught up in the “real” meaning or the technical aspects of it. Some of the least inspiring poetry teachers I have had beat me over the head with rhyme and meter definitions – as if those things would unlock the wonder and mystery of poetry. 2: Images are everything in poetry because they are full of possibility – see William Carlos Williams and Emily Dickinson for more on this. Reading poetry should be an exercise in active interpretation, and images allow us to engage in that.
I love the scene in Dead Poets Society when Mr. Keating (Robin Williams) has the students turn to the section called “Understanding Poetry” in their textbooks. In leading them through the ridiculous assessment of the technical and historical wonders of poems, Keating’s larger point is that understanding poetry is synonymous with experiencing poetry. When the class is over, I don’t know that many students will recall the technical parameters of a villanelle, but I hope they do remember what it means to rage against the dying of the light – whatever that might mean to them. I want them to remember that poetry can be “a place for the genuine.” In recent years, poetry has been declared all but dead in the cultural conversation – an archaic art form that might as well be hieroglyphics, but I would argue against that. Poetry is all around us in our song lyrics, in movies, in political protest, in festivals, and yes, even in academia. For one month, we get to remind ourselves of it.
“I beheld the wretch — the miserable monster whom I had created. He held up the curtain of the bed; and his eyes, if eyes they may be called, were fixed on me. His jaws opened, and he muttered some inarticulate sounds, while a grin wrinkled his cheeks.” – Mary Shelley
Today’s Republican party has created what you might call the abominable candidate, Donald Trump. In the tradition of Mary Shelley’s novel, Frankenstein, this primary frontrunner is a conglomerate of the worst possible parts of a person – racism, xenophobia, willful ignorance, entitlement, and bravado all wrapped up in one very ugly bully.
As horrible as Trump is, he is the fitting harvest of all the acrid seeds sown by the most cynical and opportunistic people in the GOP in the last 50 years or so. Trump was sown by Pat Buchanan, Richard Nixon, Lee Atwater, and Ronald Reagan in their not-so-subtle race baiting that was so genteelly nicknamed the “Southern Strategy.” This strategy helped gradually convert the south to a Republican stronghold, primarily by appealing to deeply held prejudices among voters there through the use of coded language. If you think that strategy is dead, then ask yourself why Trump had such a hard time rejecting the support of David Duke and the Ku Klux Klan in the days leading up to Super Tuesday when several southern states were about to vote.
Trump was sown by the Tea Party whose incendiary rhetoric has led to moments like the one where Congressman Joe Wilson, with a stunning lack of decorum, yelled “Liar!” at the President during his State of the Union address. From the Republicans in Congress, President Obama has faced blatant racism throughout his tenure. They questioned his legitimacy because of his foreign-sounding name and the fact that he was born in Hawaii. Yet somehow the party faithful can pretend not to know (or care) that one of the Republicans running now to succeed Obama, Ted Cruz, was actually not born in America, but in Canada. Where are those “birthers” now? The behavior of these GOP leaders emboldens the members of the base. Lack of courtesy, lack of respect, lack of decency abounds. The loudest mouth wins. Enter Trump.
“For they have sown the wind, and they shall reap the whirlwind” – Hosea 8:7
Trump was sown by the years and years of lip service the GOP gave to the concerns of religious voters. In his article “Jesus is not a Republican” from The Chronicle of Higher Education (June 2006), Randall Balmer makes the case that Republican politicians have repeatedly disavowed fundamental teachings of Jesus such as helping the poor, the use of torture, and the value of life all while courting religious voters. The religious political machine has focused more on punishing those who are down on their luck, ridiculing and humiliating them, calling them “moochers” and freeloaders. The machine has stood by while wars are prosecuted for false reasons and stood behind an administration that believes waterboarding is an ethical interrogation strategy. Trump has called for a return to the use of torture, even as he has said, “beyond waterboarding,” which is horrible to imagine. That’s not a position consistent with valuing life, and Trump has backpedaled on that position somewhat, but he has also said that we should target the families of our enemies – their wives and children. That’s something straight out of Macbeth, not the New Testament. We can’t pretend that these are Judaeo Christian values – they just aren’t. But this is the man who would lead the Republican party.
“When falsehood can look so like the truth, who can assure themselves of certain happiness?” – Mary Shelley
The chickens are coming home to roost. The poor of the country, especially those in the south, are tired of Republican politicians taking their money and their votes and failing to deliver on any of their promises. The religious right are sick and tired of seeing their social issues used as a political football. Every four years, like Charlie Brown, they run out onto the pitch where Lucy waits, only to end up flat on their backs. Good Grief! Maybe not this year. You can’t blame voters for feeling that enough is enough and looking for an alternative, an outsider, a non-politician.
“Learn from me, if not by my precepts, at least by my example” – Mary Shelley
So where does this leave moderate Republican voters? There are many of them who are people of good will who believe in things like small government at the federal level and a greater role for local governments and who have specific ideas about fiscal policy that don’t include destroying the middle class. There are many moderate Republican voters who do not hate Mexicans and Muslims and who do believe in the American Dream that so many immigrants come here to find. But this is not their Republican Party – for some time it has been slipping away. For years they have turned a blind eye while the party grew more and more extreme. If Mitt Romney’s desperate speech doesn’t tell the truth of it, then I don’t know what else does. It’s all hitting the fan now. Fox News viewers can hardly stomach it anymore. The former nominee basically begged voters to go out and vote for anyone but Trump, betting on, hoping for a brokered convention where the delegates can rally together and choose someone more palatable. In doing so, the party will basically slap the face of their own voters, saying, in effect, thanks for voting – that’s cute, but we’ve got this from here. As I wrote a few months ago, this is a crossroads for the GOP as we know it. Will they be defined by their new standard-bearer, Trump? Or will they have the courage to watch the thing they gave their lives to, broken, and find a way to build it new? In a surreal moment at the end of the Republican debate in Detroit, after spending 2 hours slamming Trump and declaring him unfit and unqualified to be president, we watched as these same men, Cruz, Rubio, and Kasich, all pledged to rally behind and support the eventual Republican nominee, even if that is Trump. If that is true, they have no one to blame but themselves.
In college, one of the things I was most excited about was all of the great books I was going to read. Even between semesters, I sought out reading recommendations from my favorite professors – I wanted to make sure I didn’t miss anything. Over summer break, I averaged 2 books a week – a habit that, until I went back to school for my doctorate, I was able to maintain long after graduation.
Today, I read an article about the books that most frequently appear on college syllabi, and it got me to thinking about the best books I’ve ever read. If I were ever to design my own course in reading “Great Books,” these are the 7 works I would have on my 15-week syllabus, with explanations. Note: I fully admit that some great books are not on this list, and I’ll also admit a serious Western Lit bias, but this is an impossible project; however it also a fun one to think about. So, in 15 weeks, this is what we would read:
1. The Great Gatsby
I have great affection for Fitzgerald’s most popular book. I love the era it is set in, and I do believe that it is the quintessential narrative of the aspiration, excess, and fallacy of “The American Dream.” An alternative to this on the same theme: Death of a Salesman.
No other novel honestly spooked me as much as Toni Morrison’s Beloved. It is a haunting story of slavery and the impossible, regrettable moral choices the protagonist faces. Shivers. Also in this lane: a contemporary novel called The Known World.
3. Things Fall Apart
Chinua Achebe’s novel is a postcolonial masterpiece. It was one of the first books I ever really read about another culture, and it was fascinating to consider the alternative view of Christianity in the world. In this same vein, also a good bet: The Poisonwood Bible.
Of course there is Shakespeare on this list! My favorite play to watch may be A Midsummer Night’s Dream, but my favorite play to read and sit with is definitely Hamlet. I love this play because, even though I have read it dozens of times, I always find something new it in. I have never read another play like it. Its depths resound. Sorry – can’t find anything really comparable – except maybe Macbeth.
5. The Things They Carried
Of all the books and stories about war, this one is the one I always come back to. Tim O’Brien is an amazing storyteller. I remember the first time I ever read “On the Rainy River.” I was sitting on a beach in Jamaica, and was a real gut-punch. If you like this one, you’ll also love Dispatches – a non-fiction story about a reporter in Vietnam.
I probably like Animal Farm better, but 1984 is just scary. It’s scary because it’s so true. I think even George Orwell would be surprised at how right he was about the world to come. When I first read the book, I kind of laughed at the idea of “Big Brother.” Not so funny now. Huxley’s Brave New World is also frighteningly on the nose.
7. Last but not least, Frankenstein
Mary Shelley’s gothic novel raises all of the questions we are still asking about the limits of human knowledge and achievement along with the ethical responsibilities we bear when we push those boundaries. The Island of Dr. Moreau by H.G. Wells provokes these questions as well.
So what do you think? If you were assigning “Great Books,” what would be on the list?
Of course, this is the time of year when everyone makes resolutions to make changes in their lives. Most of the time, these changes fall along the lines of losing weight, saving money, getting fit, quitting smoking, etc. However, as we well know, most of us do not keep those resolutions – why not? Maybe we think changes are impossible. Maybe we just aren’t ready for change. I know it’s a cliche, but the only constant in life is change – so I want to think more about how to embrace it.
Dr. Art Markman, professor of Psychology at the University of Texas at Austin, says we don’t keep our resolutions because many of us who make resolutions fail to make a realistic plan to achieve our goals. Perhaps we believe too much in the magical power of January 1st, as if putting up a new calendar on the wall wipes the slate totally clean.
Prepare before New Year’s Eve. Oops – too late for us on that one because the new year is already here. But perhaps the point is to make a decision to start something and not worry about what the calendar says. As the saying goes, “You don’t have to be great to start, but you have to start to be great.”
The only way to really change is to change our habits. Our lives are governed by routine. If you want to jumpstart your career, you can’t just binge on Netflix every day – you have to change some behaviors. You won’t get healthy by ordering pizza every week – you’re going to have to shop and cook.
Focus first on positive goals rather than negative goals – a positive goal is something you want to do whereas a negative goal is something you want to stop. This is perhaps my favorite bit of Dr. Markman’s advice. It is much easier to gain some momentum toward things you want to do – such as taking more walks. I love the idea of creating some success that will give me confidence in tackling some of the more difficult behaviors to change.
Be specific about your plans. This is also important. It’s why we have schedules and calendars. If you want to read more, choose a night that is the night you plan to read and schedule it. This is how something becomes a routine.
Change your environment to accommodate new habits. The idea is to make it easy to do desirable things and hard to do undesirable things. So if your goal is to eat better, don’t buy junk snacks for the house – instead buy, say, apples and carrots. That way, when you want a snack, the desirable behavior will be easy.
Finally, Dr. Markman advises that you should not be too hard on yourself. Change is difficult for everyone, so odds are even if you plan well you won’t end up keeping all of those resolutions. But maybe you achieve one or two of them. It’s best to celebrate the ways in which we are successful rather than beat ourselves up for the times we fall short.
The fact is, whether we resolve it or not, change is going to come in some form to all of us in the coming year. Some of it will be good and some won’t be. In looking back over the past year, there were some definite high points and some definite low points, but life is definitely not the same as it was one year ago today. I was not always ready for change to happen, but we can’t always control things in our lives – change happens whether we like it or not. All we can control is how we react. And when circumstances do change in ways we don’t like, we have the power to decide what we are willing to accept and what we won’t stand for.
I normally don’t really make New Year’s Resolutions because I think they are destined to fail, but this year I do have some changes I’d like to make. I’d like to return to health. This time last year I was training for a half-marathon and running up to six miles at a time. After the half-marathon
in March, I backed off running to give myself some recovery time, and then I had a freak encounter with a stair that left me with a torn meniscus in my knee. I have not been able to exercise for months and I don’t feel terribly healthy. So I’d like to be able to exercise again. I never thought I’d miss running, but I really do. I don’t think I’ll ever run a half-marathon again, but I would love to do some more 5ks this year, and I’ve always wanted to do the Warrior Dash. If I can keep recovering from the knee injury, I would love to do that this year. I think the Maryland Warrior Dash is in May. That’s a specific goal I can challenge myself with. To get there, I have to focus on things other than running for the immediate future so I can start to regain some strength. Nothing is going to happen overnight, but I have to have some specific plans in order for anything to happen at all.
The other change I want to make this year is to be open to change. A lot of us have had that feeling in life of being in a rut or staying in a pattern because it’s easy or comfortable. I don’t want to do that this year. I want to be more Zen about what has been and let go of regrets and things that disappoint me. This year, I want to be open to the possibility of new things, even if the new things seem scary. Everything changes eventually: jobs, people, locations, dreams. As Hamlet said, “the readiness is all.” This year, I want to be ready.
Hey! Is it the First Friday already?? Okay, so off the top of my head, this is what I’m thinking about. Today, I saw a movie called Krampus. It’s a Christmas-themed light horror movie in the spirit of Gremlins that also invokes the familial horror of a film like Christmas Vacation. The movie opens with the dulcet tones of Andy Williams singing “It’s the most wonderful time of the year…” while a dumbshow plays of people trampling each other for Black Friday sales: a terrified store employee falls helplessly to the ground, shoppers slug each other in their efforts to obtain a discounted toaster, and store security guards taser a couple of middle aged yuppies with a look of wild excitement in their eyes. This is what signals the start of the holidays now: frenzy. And yet, that’s not how it has always been. I don’t think there’s a “War on Christmas” or anything, and I have no problem with plain red cups at Starbucks, but I do feel a shift in the way Christmas feels.
Christmas has become a bit of a paradox. On one hand, I get excited about the season – I look forward to the idea of it. On the other hand, I get inexplicably vexed by seeing Christmas trees and decorations in stores before I have even handed out my Halloween candy. Perhaps the presence of all these decorations so early in the year just reminds me how different the experience of Adult Christmas is from Kid Christmas.
Kid Christmas was awesome. I can’t remember anything bad about it. I know that’s just how memory works – we amplify the things that are good and diminish the things that are not – but I really did always think of Christmas as being kind of magical. It wasn’t just because of Santa – I mean, that’s part of it, sure, but it was also the time that our families all were together. On Christmas Eve, we went to my mom’s parents’ house. My grandfather played Santa and passed out gifts to everyone. We all waited while the gifts were opened and we “Ooohed and Aaahed” over everything that everybody got. Then we went to our aunt and uncle’s house for Christmas Eve dinner and there were more presents, but mostly it was the chance to see each other all at once and love on each other in a way that we never really did any other day of the year.
Christmas Day was even better. We went to my dad’s parents’ house, and Grandma Odum made amazing food for us: biscuits, gravy, ham, potatoes, cookies, and pies. We spent hours eating and laughing. We got to see
cousins that we hardly ever saw. The house was so warm and happy on those Christmas mornings, and my aunts got us the most awesomely bad gifts, but I loved it. The worst: a purple sweatshirt with a hand-knitted orange cat on it. One of the best gifts though: the year my grandparents bought all of us, even cousins, bicycles. My uncle Frank taught me to ride it in the street that day. That was the real gift – not really the bike but that time with my uncle, even the part where I crashed in the ditch.
Adult Christmas just doesn’t reach the same emotional highs. It’s not bad or anything, but there are so many things that escaped my notice as a kid. My wife and I were stringing the lights on the Christmas tree the other day and talking about how much real work goes into creating that ethereal magic. When we were kids, we just showed up and ate the food and appreciated the lights – we never really thought about the fact that someone (mostly grandmothers) put a lot of effort into creating that experience for the whole family. And dealing with family can be trying – there was nothing more exciting about Kid Christmas than the people we shared it with. But Adult Christmas comes with a lot of strained relationships that the best adults are able to smooth over. Tongues are bitten and cheeks get turned for the greater peace of the holiday.
Something that you also don’t realize as a kid is that Adult Christmas comes with a certain amount of financial anxiety – big feasts cost money and so do presents and gift wrap and lights and things. A whole lot of investment that goes into creating the experience of a single day. There is a payoff, but not on the level of what used to be. It’s stressful to find the perfect gifts for everyone every year. And most disappointing of all, the feeling of the holiday fades really fast.
I am haunted by the Ghost of Christmas Past – not in a Scrooge kind of way but in the way that nostalgia messes with all of us and makes us hope that Christmas will be more than it really is: a day. It’s a day that, if I am lucky, I will get to spend with some people that I really love. It’s not really a great movie, but the point of Krampus is that if we don’t cherish the things like family and tradition that are the real treasures of Christmas, then it can become little more than a horror that we have to endure. Krampus is the shadow of Christmas that looms over us, threatening to destroy any real joy we have for the season. But the better we can remember and embrace the Kid Christmas mindset, the better chance we have to love the season and all that goes with it. So that is what I want to be more mindful of this year.
I wish you all a Merry Kid Christmas. See you in the new year!
“No cookie nibbled by a French novelist could send one into the past more suddenly—”
– from “The Lanyard” by Billy Collins
The other day I was working on my laptop while a popular singing competition played in the background when I heard the first few plaintive piano notes of the song “Walking in Memphis” and I suddenly started seeing a memory play in the movie theater of my mind of a time I was stranded with a bunch of my friends in a Myrtle Beach hotel twenty years ago, January of 1995. We had gone to Myrtle Beach for a business conference, and the morning we were set to leave, we got the news that I-95 was shut down through most of northern Virginia by a massive snowstorm. There was nothing to do but stay a few more days and wait it out. There was an entire floor of the beachfront hotel, the “Captain’s Quarters,” that was given over to entertainment: a bowling alley, a pool table, several arcade games, and a jukebox. I remember playing that song on the jukebox several times while we were there. I know I have not thought of this in at least a decade, but now here it is, just as if it happened yesterday. It’s strange how we can be pulled so immediately into the past by music.
Actually, the more I think about it, it is not strange at all. Music and memory are powerfully related. I used to give my creative writing students an assignment that starts with the line “The first time I heard [insert song title here], I was…” They were always great stories because the memories were so clear – students could recount things with startling detail and emotion.
I associate certain days with certain songs. I remember being in the living room of our house in Soddy Daisy, Tennessee on a pile of blankets with my brother and sister and hearing the spooky song “In the Air Tonight” on the radio. I was eight, and it was the night my father died. There are so many things about that day that have faded from memory, but not this thing. Even now, when I hear the song, it’s as if I slide down a rabbit hole right into the middle of that room.
I also remember in the months after my father’s death lying on the floor of our new house back in my mom’s hometown of Athens, Tennessee and playing the song “Don’t Stop Believing” by Journey over and over again. I would crawl out of my bed at night when I was sad or scared and could not sleep and go huddle right in front of my mom’s living room stereo. The first night I did it, I just pushed play on the tape deck and the sound came out at me like a warm blanket, wrapped me up, and hushed me to sleep. After that first night, whenever I found myself too traumatized to sleep, I crawled to the stereo in search of that peaceful lullaby. Play. Rewind. Play. Rewind. Until sleep came over me. Years later, when I was in high school, I had a friend who was learning to play it, and I could not get enough of listening to her play those first few measures. Even today the song elicits a physical reaction – a deep breath and warm tingle that runs up the spine.
Music has been shown to help elderly people with memory recall. This is important to on a personal level because my grandmother suffered from alzheimer’s and dementia, a disease with a genetic predisposition. Perhaps I will face that too someday, but even if I am lucky enough to avoid it, I know that it is a fact of getting older that our memories become less distinct over time, and there are some things that I definitely want to remember, good and bad. I want to remember working on a paper once about Virginia Woolf sitting in McKeldin Library at the University of Maryland with my little portable CD player and finding that for some reason, I felt most inspired when listening to “Sylvia Plath” by Ryan Adams. I want to remember my sister, when we lived on Andrews Air Force Base, sitting in the backyard with her junior high friends dangling their painted toes in a baby pool while George Michael’s “I Want Your Sex” blared through the speakers of her pink boom box as they sang along in the worst possible tableau you could imagine for preteen girls.
I have so many memories of my brother that are connected to music, such as the songs by Quiet Riot and Twisted Sister that he used to play in his room, the Tesla tape that he used to play every morning as we drove to high school in our red Nissan Sentra (we were beyond cool), and the black Metallica t-shirt he was buried in. It was his favorite. But there are two that are the most powerful. One is from when we were kids living in Florida. He was probably around thirteen years old, and I walked into his room unannounced – something you should never, ever do to a teenaged boy by the way – and he was jumping around on his bed wearing shorts and these white tube socks singing, “I’ve seen fire and I’ve seen rain…” by James Taylor. It was funny then, and he was kind of embarrassed, but now it feels different. Those white socks, for some reason, get me every time. The way they were flopping off the ends of his feet, too big for him. It kind of breaks my heart.
But the one that really breaks my heart is from the day after he died. I just had to get out of the house for a little while, get away from all of the sadness, but that really wasn’t possible to do. So I drove to the restaurant where he used to work and I just sat there in my car. This song “One” by U2 came on. Then the tears really came.
When I am old I still want to remember the things that have broken my heart along with the moments that have filled it. I want to always remember “Lovely Tonight” by Joshua Radin but as performed by my friend Will at my wedding. We stood at the top of the stairs and I gave my soon-to-be wife’s hand a squeeze before I walked down the aisle with this song drawing us to the altar, drawing us into happily ever after in front of all of our family and friends.
We are so lucky to live in this time where our life’s playlist is so easy to access, catalogue, and replay. Our music tells our history in a way that words cannot quite reach, and for that I am grateful. Sweet as any madeleine shortbread, these songs comfort and fortify me and summon up the remembrance of things past. As long as I can hear these songs, I am always in touch with who I am, who I’ve been, and who I want to be.