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https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/thumb/8/8a/William_Wordsworth.jpg/172px-William_Wordsworth.jpg

William Wordsworth

Wordsworth decried “getting and spending,” calling it “a sordid boon” that lays waste to our self and clouds our wonder of the physical world. “We have given our hearts away” he complains in “The World Is Too Much with Us.”

I memorized that poem in college. And I still find more encouragement in that English Romantic’s bleak sonnet than in the dark comedy I saw last weekend that traipses across similar anti-materialism terrain.

As the credits rolled up at the end of Beatriz at Dinner, I didn’t know whether to run or reach for a razor blade. “Critical praise = a depressing movie,” I once declared. Well this riff on healing vs. destroying called Beatriz at Dinner has been heaped with critical praise. Quick, pass the critics their Prozac.

Led by Salma Hayek, Connie Britton and John Lithgow, the cast is admittedly praiseworthy. Even the minor characters are uniformly excellent although I do tire of the trope of the ethically challenged attorney that always predictably pops up in tales of depraved material excess. This time, the lawyer is Alex played by Jay Duplass who finagles a real estate deal for mega-rich property developer Doug Strutt played by the uber-talented Lithgow.

But the good gal vs. bad guys story with Hayek as the Mexican immigrant and empathetic earth mother massage-therapy-healing Beatriz — contradictorily massages the message right out of you. I doubt that’s what the writer or the director intended.

Indeed, I think Beatriz at Dinner is meant as a sociopolitical commentary on class division and healing not hurting. One commentator even sees it as a take on innocuous questions that he calls a “gateway to casual racism.” While that commentator makes some telling points about hypocrisy, false perceptions, and how “wealth and status don’t overpower racial discrimination,” he’s too overwrought for my taste. See “Why Dark Comedy ‘Beatriz at Dinner’ Is So Cathartic for POC Audiences.” [To my insurance defense lawyers, POC here does not mean proof of claim but people of color. Who knew?]

Years ago, I had a guy try to hand me the keys to his Beemer in front of a tony Ritz-Carlton. Had I not been running late to a meeting in the hotel, I might have simply said thanks and left him with his mouth open when instead of parking the sports car like he mistakenly assumed, I’d have peeled rubber down the Coast Highway on a fast spin. And besides, these days who really thinks wealth and status don’t overpower grace and manners? Money still doesn’t buy class.

No spoiler alert necessary here. But I disagree further with the aforementioned commentator who additionally opines that the film indicts “white supremacy.” At the same time, he also asserts that this implausible sapo-de-otro-pozo [frog from the other well] story is “empowering.” It’s empowering alright — but only if by that you mean knowing how your story is going to end.

This weekend, on the other hand, I saw The Big Sick. It’s also a film about cultural differences. It relates the real life courtship of Kumail Nanjiani and his now-wife, Emily Gordon. But by contrast to Beatriz, it’s indeed a comedy. It’s full of pathos, humor, and romance. There’s terrific acting, too, by Kumail Nanjiani, Zoe Kazan and the actress that never disappoints, the inimitable Holly Hunter.

And no lawyers or the profession’s reputation were harmed in the making of this movie. In fact, there are no lawyers in it.

The movie is fun, funny and in point of fact empowering of the spirit. Moreover, unlike Beatriz at Dinner, you feel good walking out of the cineplex.

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Credits: William Wordsworth, public domain, at Wikimedia Commons; Beatriz at Dinner poster, Fair use, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?curid=53897899; Montclair Film by “Amy Gallatin / Montclair Film” at Flickr Creative Commons Attribution; Swallowed in the Sea, by KellyB at Flickr Creative Commons Attribution; The Big Sick, By Source (WP:NFCC#4), Fair use, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?curid=53943370

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https://cdn.morguefile.com/imageData/public/files/l/larryfarr/10/l/13817963898k84q.jpgOver the holidays, I finished reading lawyer and social activist Bryan Stevenson’s extraordinary memoir, Just Mercy. Not only does Stevenson humanize the incarcerated by telling their stories but he goes marrow deep in describing endemic injustices in our criminal justice system.

Perhaps it’s because so many of the lawyers I’ve come to like and admire are criminal defense attorneys that I’ve found myself reading to understand their work. The best of them are lawyers who despite the odds remain willing to represent defendants who New Jersey Supreme Court Justice Barry Albin once wrote are “treated as just another fungible item to be shuffled along on a criminal-justice conveyor belt.”

In reading books like Just Mercy, I follow a thread begun when I first picked up David Cole’s 1999 seminal standard, No Equal Justice: Race and Class in the American Criminal Justice System. I later read John Grisham’s The Innocent Man: Murder and Injustice in a Small Town. Grisham’s nonfiction book left me disgusted and angry. That book was followed by Steven Bogira’s Courtroom 302: A Year Behind the Scenes in an American Criminal Courthouse.

And more recently still tripping the outrage meter, there’s been Radley Balko’s Rise of the Warrior Cop: The Militarization of America’s Police Forces and Michael Cicchini’s Tried and Convicted: How Police, Prosecutors, and Judges Destroy Our Constitutional Rights.

These aren’t books just for lawyers. Every U.S. resident should read them. Forewarned is forearmed. Indeed, Cicchini’s latest, the equally excellent, Convicting Avery: The Bizarre Laws and Broken System behind “Making a Murderer,” to be published in April, will hopefully all but ensure average citizens do all they can to stay far away from the machinery of criminal justice. Too many times, it seems, the sad message for the Average Joe and Jane coming from unequal justice literature is if you don’t have money for a defense — you’re going to get screwed.

https://cdn.morguefile.com/imageData/public/files/c/click/preview/fldr_2008_11_08/file000521358819.jpgAll of which gets me back to Just Mercy and what’s stayed with me since reading it. It was the chapter almost near the end of the book where Stevenson talks about the one night 25 years into his fight against excessive punishment, mass incarceration, and racial and economic injustice, and when at extremely low ebb, he despairs over our “broken system of justice.” He is ready to stop. “I can’t do this anymore,” he writes. “I can just leave. Why am I doing this?”

But through his soul crisis, he comes to a powerful epiphany. Stevenson writes: “My years of struggling against inequality, abusive power, poverty, oppression, and injustice had finally revealed something to me about myself. Being close to suffering, death, executions, and cruel punishments didn’t just illuminate the brokenness of others; in a moment of anguish and heartbreak, it also exposed my own brokenness. You can’t effectively fight abusive power, poverty, inequality, illness, oppression, or injustice and not be broken by it.

“We are all broken by something. We have all hurt someone and have been hurt. We all share the condition of brokenness even if our brokenness is not equivalent.”

https://cdn.morguefile.com/imageData/public/files/o/Oleander/12/l/1418846725d5h3t.jpgAnd then in one of the book’s most arrestingly inspirational passages, Stevenson cites a quote  once heard and attributed to writer Thomas Merton, “We are bodies of broken bones. I guess I’d always known but never fully considered that being broken is what makes us human. We all have our reasons. Sometimes we are fractured by the choices we make; sometimes we’re shattered by things we would never have chosen. But our brokenness is also the source of our common humanity, the basis for our shared search for comfort, meaning, and healing. Our shared vulnerability and imperfection nurtures and sustains our capacity for compassion.

“We have a choice. We can embrace our humaneness, which means embracing our broken natures and the compassion that remains our best hope for healing. Or we can deny our brokenness, forswear compassion, and, as a result, deny our own humanity.”

In his Ted talk below, Bryan Stevenson revisits this and more, including “The opposite of poverty is justice.” For more insights watch the video and read Just Mercy.

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Credits: Morguefile.com, no attribution license.

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On Sunday, the local paper ran a front page story about how $4.6M in charitable contributions was spent. It was only news because of the way some of that money was distributed to the beneficiaries.

In the aftermath of the sixth-largest loss of life for firefighters in U.S. history, millions of dollars in donations came pouring in from around the country. The donations, big and small, were meant for the surviving families of the 19 Granite Mountain Hotshots, an elite group of firefighters who died in a wildfire near Yarnell, Arizona in 2013.

WTF | by ulricaloebAccording to the investigative report by the Arizona Republic’s Robert Anglen, “One of the key organizations responsible for managing those donations now questions how some of the money was used, with hundreds of thousands of dollars spent on sightseeing trips, high-end restaurants and hotels for hotshots’ families.”

My point in mentioning this head-shaking story is not to pick on the surviving families who as Anglen points out, “did nothing wrong in accepting the donations.” Or is it to unnecessarily dwell upon what amounts to a pretty embarrassing and disastrous public relations snafu for the charities and their management. The paper’s investigative story does all of that and then some.

It’s merely to highlight once again one of life’s most sacred and unhappy truths. The easiest money to spend is always somebody else’s.

https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/thumb/2/20/Portrait_of_Milton_Friedman.jpg/385px-Portrait_of_Milton_Friedman.jpg

Milton Friedman

I’ve known this all my life. And it’s one of the principal reasons that organizational, business and government transparency and the lack thereof aggravates and animates me so much. As a matter of fact, it is one of the two key drivers of my quest to reform mandatory bar associations. You don’t get any more high-handed and cavalier in spending somebody else’s compulsory dues money than the tin-eared bureaucrats running our nation’s mandatory bar associations.

The other energizer is of course, reclaiming and protecting the First Amendment freedoms of lawyers, which like the Constitutional rights of all Americans are being eroded everyday.

As for transparency and “on whom money is spent,” Nobel prize-winning economist, the late Milton Friedman said it best some 36-years ago in Free to Choose co-authored with his wife, Rose.

 

Friedman knew that if it’s someone else’s money — there’s no accountability and no real consequences as to how that money is spent.

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Credits: money, at Morguefile, no attribution; “WTF,” by ulricaloeb at Flickr Creative Commons attribution license; Portrait of Milton Friedman by Robert Hannah 89, The Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice via Wikipedia, public domain; chart via Youtube video.

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In some parts of the world, the first day of May is May Day or International Workers Day. But thanks to a proclamation during President Eisenhower’s administration, May 1st in the U.S. is Law Day. It’s meant as the day each year to celebrate the rule of law in society. So quite appropriately comes a timely news story to momentarily ease the otherwise burdened cynical heart.

The salutary tonic is administered through the story of Judge Lou Olivera, a North Carolina District Court jurist, whose extraordinary compassion provides the welcome antidote. This past April 13th, Judge Olivera sentenced former Green Beret Joseph Serna to spend 24 hours in jail for a probation violation. Serna is a retired Army veteran who served almost 20 years. Deployed four times to Afghanistan, he earned three Purple Hearts and was almost killed three times. But since leaving the service, Serna has struggled with post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

To cope, Serna has self-medicated with alcohol. As a consequence, he has run afoul of the law. Having violated his probation with a DUI, he appeared in Judge Olivera’s courtroom last month. Judge Olivera, himself a Gulf War veteran, runs the county’s Veterans Treatment Court.

“I gave Joe a night in jail because he had to be held accountable,” the judge later explained. But concerned that sentencing Serna in isolation for a night would trigger his PTSD, Judge Olivera did something truly remarkable. He decided to spend the night with Serna in the one-man cell. They spent the time talking about their military experiences. Serna said it felt like “a father-son conversation.”

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“May I ask what you’re doing?” asked the thickly accented Germanic voice through the trees.

I’d just parked my car and planned to walk one of our dogs on a recent afternoon. After riding over 3 hours in the back seat, she needed to do what dogs do. We’d alighted in what I once thought was a friendly neighborhood, the kind of welcoming place you might be happy to live in. Indeed, the location is next to one of our favorite local golf courses.

My plastic bag was in one hand and our leashed tail wagger was in the other. She blissfully sniffed the grass next to the public sidewalk while I looked up at the unexpected questioner. Through the branches, I saw he was a tall ruddy-faced senior standing in the yard of the adjoining residence.

“I’m walking my dog,” I answered as though not patently obvious even to the half-sighted. “Why are you asking?” I inquired.

Pachuco | by gabofr

“We have a neighborhood block watch,” he replied sharply. “Well, good for you,” I rejoined now understanding what this was really about.

Not that I wear my sensitivities on my sleeve. Still, I used to wonder — but no longer do — about the point in life when age, appearance or socioeconomic status finally insulates from small-minded prejudice. It never does.

Those sculpted and fired by intolerance see what they want to see. No matter if you dress neatly or drive a nice car. Or are past your middle earlies and are minding your own business on a sunny public walkway with a contented canine. For folks partial to a preferentially homogeneous community, there goes the sidewalk. You can take the Latino out of the ‘barrio’ but you never take the barrio out of the Latino.

Ethnic stereotyping and racial profiling are part of growing up in urban America.

fp031216-02 | by fontplaydotcom

And as a son of Boyle Heights, I was no stranger to it, especially in adolescence and early adulthood. I had my share, including at the hands of L.A.’s ‘finest.’

“May I ask you not to come onto my driveway,” the stranger inhospitably admonished. “Don’t worry, I have no intention,” I answered as he turned and walked away.“And you’re a friendly one,” I added.

Not that he went away. He turned and stood in his open garage and looked on and frowned. Just another bigoted day in the neighborhood.

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Credits: “Pachuco,” by Gabriel Flores Romero at Flickr Creative Commons Attribution; “fp031216-02,” by Dennis Hill at Flickr Creative Commons Attribution.

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“What’s black and tan and looks good on a lawyer?

A Doberman,” was the answer to an unfunny lawyer joke.

Anna

       Anna

But it was no joke for me. Our beloved Doberman, Anna, spent her last day on earth on December 26th. She was just days shy of her 13th birthday. What a sad way to punctuate Christmas.

As for looking good on a lawyer, that she did whenever she leaned on me. She was a beautiful girl. And leaning is what Dobermans do. Called the “Dobie lean,” it’s a breed trait.

Dobermans don’t give kisses to show affection. They lean on you instead. Often misunderstood and unfairly dismissed as ‘scary,’ in truth Dobermans are just as a friend once described, “They’re Golden Retrievers in Doberman skin.”  And Anna was among the gentlest souls — ever. Although watchful, there wasn’t a mean bone in her.

The past few years, Anna ailed from chronic arthritis. We’d managed it for her. But the past two months, it increased in severity. Frailer and ever more unsteady, her quality of life took a nosedive.

When that happens, those of us who bring these treasured creatures into their forever homes must at the end, honor the pact we make at the beginning.

It’s best summed up by “A Dog’s Plea,” author unknown. For years I kept a framed copy on my office wall.

“Treat me kindly, my beloved friend, for no heart in all the world is more grateful for kindness than the loving heart of me.

“Do not break my spirit with a stick, for although I should lick your hand between blows, your patience and understanding will quickly teach me the things you would have me learn.

“Speak to me often, for your voice is the world’s sweetest music, as you must know by the fierce wagging of my tail when your footsteps falls upon my waiting ear.

“Please take me inside when it is cold and wet, for I am a domesticated animal, no longer accustomed to bitter elements. I ask no greater glory than the privilege of sitting at your feet beside the hearth. Keep my pan filled with fresh water, for I cannot tell you when I suffer thirst.

“Feed me clean food that I may stay well, to romp and play and do your bidding, to walk by your side and stand ready, willing and able to protect you with my life, should your life be in danger.

“And, my friend, when I am very old, and I no longer enjoy good health, hearing and sight, do not make heroic efforts to keep me going. I am not having any fun. Please see that my trusting life is taken gently. I shall leave this earth knowing with the last breath I draw that my fate was always safest in your hands.”

On Anna’s death, a nephew said he admired the courage we have to love our dogs because we are willing to endure the pain of their loss. The reality is that losing these cherished family pets gets harder not easier. But you do it because of love as my favorite modern poet, Mary Oliver, wrote of her late dog, Percy:

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I Ask Percy How I Should Live My Life
Mary Oliver

“Love, love, love, says Percy.
And hurry as fast as you can
along the shining beach, or the rubble, or the dust.

“Then, go to sleep.
Give up your body heat, your beating heart.
Then, trust.”

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https://secure.gravatar.com/avatar/d0eb53e35fd7ff80bc2268a515adb7e2

She remains my profile avatar and muse for this blog.

I will miss Anna’s companionable presence and her soft nudges on my left elbow while I worked at my desk. I will miss her soft murmurings as she’d run in place asleep on her side, dreaming of chasing jack rabbits. I will miss her turning upside down four paws up and scratching at the air. I will miss her loud powerful barks at the start of every walk. Like a bygone town crier, she’d announce to the neighborhood “here I am” and all’s right with the world.

Next to persistently asking for never-ending pats on her head and hanging out with those she loved, there wasn’t anything better than a walk.

Years ago on our walks in No. Nevada, she’d remind me of another favorite Mary Oliver poem, “Spring” and especially the lines, “Meanwhile, my dog runs off, noses down packed leaves into damp, mysterious tunnels. He says the smells are rising now stiff and lively;

“. . . My dog returns and barks fiercely, he says each secret body is the richest advisor, deep in the black earth such fuming nuggets of joy!”

I’ll always think of Anna as our own fuming nugget of joy.

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Life is more than conflict. It’s also about love, emotion and devotion.

And as regular readers know, with three rescues in our household, I have a particular soft spot for dogs and their special connections to us.

This touching, heartwarming video, which was forwarded to me just this morning says it as well anything I’ve seen in a while.

 

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(A heartfelt hat tip to Jay for telling me about it).

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