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Friday, July 24, 2009

"A wondrous toy"

In a couple of weeks, Greg will be moving from Portland to New York. He found an apartment to share with two others on East 4th between Avenues C & D, on the border of the East Village. It is a couple of blocks from the lower East Side, which was his grandmother’s first home.

I was raised with stories about life on the streets that Greg will soon become familiar with: Eldridge, Orchard, Delancey, Rivington, Houston (pronounced “House-ton” in those parts) and The Bowery. Tin Pan Alley songwriters of my mother’s age wrote scores of pop tunes about the neighborhood, songs about “Second Hand Rose from 2nd Avenue”, and “It’s very fancy / On old Delancey Street you know” ... And tell me what street / Compares with Mott Street in July / Pushcarts gently rolling by”.

In the almost 100 years since my mother’s infancy, the tenements have changed hands and tunes many times, the street smells changing from garlic and paprika to chili peppers and cilantro. I’ve heard that a sort of gentrification has beun to alter the mood again, though it retains its diversity and all that goes with it, good and bad.

Unlike urban sprawls like L.A. which consist of miles of suburban areas linked by freeways, New York City neighborhoods are measured in square blocks, not square miles. They are often pockets of perhaps a block or two square. Walk around the corner from tenements and pushcarts and you may find a street or avenue with awnings and doormen, Mercedes at curbside, poodles on leashes.

If he walks west and south on Houston, he’ll find himself in SoHo, among the lofts that rapidly evolved from warehouses, to artists’ studios to high priced homes.

When Greg walks a few blocks further north and west, he will pass the house where my brother had an apartment in the early 1960's, a 5th floor walkup on E. 11th Street near 3rd Avenue. He later lived in one of those houses with a doorman, East 9th and Broadway, round the corner from the West Village.

Greenwich Village may be the most famous neighborhood in American pop culture. Washington Square, The Mews, Bleeker Street, and MacDougal, where Bob Dylan first sang for quarters in the Café Wha? [Chronicles, Volume 1, Bob Dylan, p. 9.] where he writes that he waited to meet Dave Van Ronk. “Once on a cold winter day near Thompson and 3rd, in a flurry of light snow when the feeble sun was filtering through the haze, I saw him walking toward me in a frosty silence.” [Id., p16.]

In those days, The Beats still thrived. Their self-proclaimed poets along with the new aspirants to pop celebrity, the Folkies, occupied the cafés and clubs during the days, giving way to the hip young comics, who brought in paying customers: Woody Allen, Richard Pryor, Lenny Bruce, Joan Rivers.

The Minnesota kid Dylan describes noting that Café Bizarre was housed in a building that once served as Aaron Burr’s stable. I hope Greg will explore as Dylan did.

“New York City was cold, muffled and mysterious, the capital of the world. On 7th Avenue I passed the building where Walt Whitman had lived and worked. I paused momentarily imagining him printing away and singing the true song of his soul. I had stood outside of Poe’s house on 3rd Street, too, and had done the same thing, staring mournfully up at the windows. The city was like some uncarved block without any name or shape and it showed no favoritism. Everything was always new, always changing... [¶] The whole city was dangling in front of my nose. I had a vivid idea of where everything was. The future was nothing to worry about. It was awfully close.” [Id., p.103-104.]

So right, Greg.

Monday, July 20, 2009

The Costs of Losing

I am approaching the end of my professional life. My chosen field demands traits that diminish as one passes one’s prime: energy, concentration, optimism. Even in one’s prime, it is hard. You lose more than you win and it takes effort and patience to endure the losses. Now, I accept the rare wins with more relief than exultation; I find the losses are still bitter and depressing. I anticipate the probability of losses with dread.

I see a lesson in a sporting event which was televised this weekend. Tom Watson, at the ancient age of 59, lost golf’s British Open by one stroke, missing a ten foot putt on the 72nd hole. The grueling four day event in the chill Scottish coastal winds produced the kind of drama that scripted shows strive for. It was what reality shows so pitifully contrive to create.

Watson had been one of the best in his prime, which ended twenty years ago. Yet, here he was, leading the best of the current best under the harshest pressure an athlete performer can face. Tiger Woods failed. One by one, all the other top - far younger - competitors fell. Watson, who won the event five times, the last one in 1983, substituted his vast experience for his diminishing physical skills to place himself in a position to win.

It wasn’t a storybook ending; he lost, yielded to the pressure when standing over that final putt which he and the whole world knew would change the history of his profession and his place in it.

There are many parallels between sports and life as I’ve experienced it. The first is that there is satisfaction in preparing, doing the hard work needed to excel. The second is that experience counts; every failure teaches something. And the third - and most imporant - is that no matter how much you try, you are probably going to fail more often than you succeed. In the big picture, this probably true about anything worth pursuing. It is the effort that counts.

The fourth lesson is that it is always going to hurt to lose. Watson said it well in his press conference: "Losing eats at my guts ... but it isn’t a funeral."

Wednesday, July 08, 2009

Conservatives and the Death Penalty

I've written many posts about the death penalty, but this one may be the most important. In one of my first entries, I announced that I considered myself to be a Conservative when it comes to criminal justice and to the death penalty in particular. This statement was based on my understanding of conservatism.

I wrote: "The true Conservative is skeptical of governmental power over the individual and seeks to restrain its use. The most power a government wields, short of the ability to wage war, is the police power to incarcerate and execute individuals. I fight for the rights of the individual against the power of the government. That makes me a conservative."

Now I have found confirmation of that view from an unexpected source. The Death Penalty Information Center recently reprinted an op-ed piece written by Richard Viguerie, who is described as "one of the architects of" the Conservative movement. Viguerie has been credited as one of the most important activists on The Christian Right, having organized massive fund raising efforts for conservative causes and candidates from religious conservatives. His efforts resulted in the swing to the right for the past twenty years.

Although that trend has resulted in re-invigoration of support for capital punishment over that time, Viguerie has now decided to speak out AGAINST the death penalty. His reasons, as revealed in his op-ed piece, originally published in the Christian conservative Sojourners Magazine, are spot on.

When Governments Kill
A conservative argues for abolishing the death penalty.
by Richard A. Viguerie.

... I’m a Catholic. Because of my Christian faith, and because I am a follower of Jesus Christ, I oppose the death penalty. I’m a conservative as well, and because my political philosophy recognizes that government is too often used by humans for the wrong ends, I find it quite logical to oppose capital punishment.

I have been criticized by some conservatives for my opposition to the death penalty. On the other hand, some conservatives have told me they question capital punishment or even oppose it, but believe that the conservative "position" is to support it. Fortunately for me, even if someone were to question my conservative bona fides (I’ve never been called not conservative enough, trust me), I wouldn’t care.

The fact is, I don’t understand why more conservatives don’t oppose the death penalty. It is, after all, a system set up under laws established by politicians (too many of whom lack principles); enforced by prosecutors (many of whom want to become politicians—perhaps a character flaw?—and who prefer wins over justice); and adjudicated by judges (too many of whom administer personal preference rather than the law).

Conservatives have every reason to believe the death penalty system is no different from any politicized, costly, inefficient, bureaucratic, government-run operation, which we conservatives know are rife with injustice. But here the end result is the end of someone’s life. In other words, it’s a government system that kills people.

Those of us who oppose abortion believe that it is perhaps the greatest immorality to take an innocent life. While the death penalty is supposed to take the life of the guilty, we know that is not always the case. It should have shocked the consciences of conservatives when various government prosecutors withheld exculpatory, or opposed allowing DNA-tested, evidence in death row cases. To conservatives, that should be deemed as immoral as abortion.

The death penalty system is flawed and untrustworthy because human institutions always are. But even when guilt is certain, there are many downsides to the death penalty system. I’ve heard enough about the pain and suffering of families of victims caused by the long, drawn-out, and even intrusive legal process. Perhaps, then, it’s time for America to re-examine the death penalty system, whether it works, and whom it hurts.

On how society would ever get to the point of abolishing the death penalty, if it were to do that, I have my conservative views. It must be done in a way consistent with our constitutional system. That means it cannot be imposed by the courts or by the federal government (except for federal cases). In my opinion, the Constitution does not grant the federal government the authority to ban the death penalty in the states. That must be left to the people’s representatives in their respective states, which also means that judges must not take it upon themselves.

This is why I am joining my friend Jim Wallis in a coalition of liberals and conservatives calling for a national moratorium and conversation about the death penalty, so people can study, learn, think, pray if they wish, about whether or how the various state death-penalty systems should be changed. I hope you’ll join us."

(R. Viguerie, "When Governments Kill," Sojourners Magazine, July 2009). See New Voices and Religion.