nothing to lose

I’m watching the ongoing crisis from relative safety but I’m getting more concerned as time goes by. It appears that the unemployment supplements are ending at about the same time as the moratorium on evictions for non-payment of rent or mortgage. 

My concern is that this will dramatically increase the number of people living in desperation. This little piece doesn’t address the question of unemployment supplements and eviction moratoriums as to whether they are a good thing or a bad thing. I do have an opinion on that, but I’m concerned about something entirely different. The prospect of large numbers of people losing their income and their home at the same time is full of danger.

I have worked with people who lived in a state of desperation as their normal day-to-day existence, and who, when pushed, often reacted in extreme ways, including violently. A common theme (certainly not the only thing driving the reaction, but a significant one) was the perception that they had nothing to lose. Once they took one step along the path of lashing out, subsequent steps were partly fueled by “the hell with it, I’m screwed anyway” frame of mind. People with that mindset were extremely difficult to deal with; threats or demonstrations of power were often met with “bring it on!” and appeals to logic about the increasing depth of the hole they were digging themselves into often fell on deaf ears. “I know how you feel” was worse than useless because it was obvious to all involved that that was not true. I lacked any comparable life experience and so could not relate in any significant way. There was no single approach that always worked to manage the situation; reading the ever-changing signals and revising on the fly was the only thing that sometimes worked, and that had no guarantee of success. 

When I think about the past (Chicago and Watts and Philadelphia and Rodney King and Ferguson and so many others) in this context, it scares me in regard to what is happening right now. I was usually dealing with one person at a time. A dozen, or a hundred, or five hundred, is a completely different scenario, since group behavior is fueled in part by the existence of the group. There is no easy solution here, since we are dealing with both systemic problems and an immediate crisis.

The crisis is an opportunity to effect systemic change instead of just dealing with the immediate, obvious problems, but the fact that both have to be dealt with simultaneously makes the opportunity both exciting and scary as hell. We should all try to keep our wits about us as this unfolds; there will be calls for extreme actions on both sides of the equation. I know from experience that if one side is behaving in an extreme manner and the other side begins to do the same, the situation is very likely headed in a dangerous direction.

Take care, y’all.

The Stubby Shillelagh

Here’s a little snippet of a tune that I’m sharing largely because I like the name.

a reading of “this is where we stand”

I added a new podcast episode today. This is an essay I wrote for Karen Krogh’s excellent book, “Love is the Spirit: the journey of a courageous and resilient community,” a photographic study of the shooting at Tennessee Valley Unitarian Universalist Church in 2008 and the year following that tragedy. I thought it would be appropriate to read it since the anniversary is here in just a few days. You can access the podcast here.

Do the math

After finishing the patio area in our backyard there was an open area inside the arc of crepe myrtles that my wife said would be the perfect place for a picnic table. After much discussion we decided on a modification of a design we found on the net, shortening the length from eight feet to seven and making it eight 2×4’s wide instead of seven. The only place I could buy cedar lumber was at the other end of Knox County, a mildly inconvenient trip made more so by the pandemic. I bought two extra of both 2×4’s and 2×6’s, which turned out to be a good thing.

The site where we found the “plans” for the table and benches was long on narrative and short on specifics, like how long to cut the boards and what angle to cut the legs to let them rest firmly on the ground. I assume the plans were intended to be a starting point for the builder to use, allowing the creativity to flow.

At one time I was pretty good at math (although high school graduation was half a century ago), so when the directions said to decide how tall we wanted the table to be and then just use the Pythagorean theorem to calculate the length of each leg board, I was not intimidated. As it turned out, I should have been.

Calculating the length of the diagonal boards that make the legs of the table (and benches) involved allowing for the thickness of the table, factoring in the width of the boards, deciding if the leg should extend past the edge of the table, and determining the angle needed for each cut. At one time or another I made each of these calculations incorrectly, which is one reason buying a couple of extra boards was a good idea. 

At least once (okay, twice) I was thinking about what great fuel all these cedar boards would make for our fire pit, but I managed to work through most of the issues and complete the project. If viewed from a distance, it looks pretty good, but a close inspection would leave any decent woodworkers either shaking their head or trying not to laugh out loud.

The fact that I had algebra and trigonometry a long time ago helped, but not a lot. Even though I could find formulas and calculators on the internet, I still had to apply them correctly.  There is a way to think about math; it’s pure logic and very unforgiving. One incorrect number results in a mistake that can snowball through the entire project. I should have remembered what I told my students on numerous occasions, that whatever you’re working on, you can save time, materials, and frustration if you just learn how to do the math.

Halfway to 136

My thanks to everyone who reached out on my birthday. I’m grateful for my connections to all of you; as one who is now halfway to 136 I am increasingly aware of the importance of relationships (even for an introvert).

If I were to be granted a birthday wish, it would be that as we move through this crisis we take the opportunity to leave behind at least a few of those old destructive practices that we were either benefiting from, just sort of putting up with, or trying to ignore, and respond to what Abraham Lincoln called the better angels of our nature. Every crisis offers several possible paths to resolution, some reactive and some transformative, and this is one of those crises that can substantially alter our entire outlook. It’s up to us, both as individuals and as a larger community, to choose where we take ourselves. 

I also considered wishing for world peace and an end to hunger, but then I thought, you know, one thing at a time.

an unexpected mix

We got the DNA analysis of our new puppy, a shelter dog, earlier today. When we picked up Frankie, she was listed as a shepherd mix; the litter was found abandoned under a shed on a farm in Grainger County, so there was no real knowledge of either parent. 

Statistics are funny; they can be read in a variety of ways. Frankie could be seen as mostly in the guard dog category, followed in descending order of percentage by Asian, wild canids, sporting, and herding. She could also be seen as mainly a Boxer/Lab mix, with other breeds making up the rest. Or a Boxer/wolf mix; she is almost one-fifth wolf. There’s a small percentage of Pembroke Welsh Corgi, the dog of English royalty. Breeds from Canada, Alaska, and Siberia make up about a quarter of her genetic panel. In all there are ten breeds listed:

Boxer 30%

Wolf 18%

Labrador Retreiver 13%

Canadian Eskimo Dog 11%

Alaskan Malamute   9%

French Bulldog   4%

Siberian Husky   3%

Pembroke Welsh Corgi   2%

Coyote   1%

We were given a family tree with the disclaimer that this is what Frankie’s family “may have looked like.” The tree stopped at great-grandparents, by which time some of the mixes had separated out into distinct breeds and some had not.

What we know so far is that she appears to be both intelligent and strong-willed. It’s been a while since we’ve had a dog and decades since we’ve had a puppy in the house. Wish us luck.

About Those Police . . .

A former colleague of mine received a phone call late one afternoon from a police officer. At the time she was the principal of a school for special needs children, and the officer had just taken a young teen, one of her students, into custody for destructive behavior — property damage, if I remember correctly. The teen was in the back of the patrol car, rocking back and forth and making animalistic noises. When the officer described what was happening, she immediately said, “You need to get him a soft drink right now. Give it to him as soon as you can.”

The policeman said, “Oh, you mean a distractor.”

Phillip (not his real name) was at the beginning of a psychotic episode. My colleague knew that a soft drink could interrupt the progression and allow him to regain control of himself. The fact that the officer understood and accepted her instructions made a potentially serious situation much less so. His use of the term “distractor” let her know that her student was in good hands, that he understood what she was telling him to do and why.

Not everyone would have seen things that clearly. They might have characterized the soft drink as a reward for misbehavior and refused to get one for the child. That officer had either the training or the life experience that gave him the ability to think beyond the usual role of police and shift into mental health crisis intervention on the fly. Philip was fortunate to have encountered a policeman who was both able and willing to do what needed to be done, even if it was unusual. Accusation and punishment could come later; other issues were more important in that moment.

Former CIA Director and Defense Secretary Robert Gates, in a recent interview, said (I’m paraphrasing here) that from his perspective the United States had, during the last quarter century or so, de-emphasized or eliminated most of the tools of international relations while  expanding the military, leaving us with very little flexibility in dealing with the various issues that arise in the international forum. I was struck by how closely that parallels our experience on the domestic front. I was in the mental health field at the beginning of deinstitutionalization back in the early ‘80s, and saw many who had been cared for in institutions turned out into the street with the vague plan of serving them with community based intervention. The ongoing lack of community resources meant that the job of serving this population was left to the police, since many of them had little or no survival skills once outside the institutions but still had to be dealt with; they certainly did not walk off the grounds of LMHI and disappear into thin air.

The current calls to “defund the police” (an unfortunate choice of phrasing in my opinion) are at least in part a reaction to the fact that, just as teachers have been tasked with more and more responsibilities that are not educational in nature (feeding children, clothing children, providing before- and after-school care, watching for and reporting indicators of abuse or neglect, protecting their students against armed attackers, and so on), the police, for a variety of reasons, have become the first responders for a wide range of problems. There are certainly situations that need intervention by someone trained to stand in harms way to ensure our safety. There are also situations that need counselors, arbitrators, someone to offer comfort in crisis, referral specialists who know what resources are available in the community, and so on, and asking one person to be trained and skilled in all these is asking a lot. I think “redesign the police force,” while still lacking nuance, is closer to what we need. 

I know from my experience in the field of education that there are many teachers out there who are very good at teaching math or English or history and not only unskilled in crisis intervention, but often make things much worse. I would imagine that the police force has similar members in its departments, and would have as much trouble fixing this issue by sort of nibbling around the edges with rewritten mission statements, mandatory training sessions, etc., as the education system does. The brutal slow motion murder of Charles Floyd, the killing of Rayshard Brooks, shot in the back and then literally kicked while he was down, the killing of Breanna Taylor in her own apartment during the execution of a no-knock warrant, and all the other incidents coming to light make the case for significant police reform much more strongly than any superficial intellectual analysis of mine ever could. 


We have a new dog in the family now. Frankie joined us two days ago; she’s part shepherd and part something (or several somethings), eight weeks old and doing the standard cycle of full speed ahead, crash for a few hours, repeat. Razor teeth, no bladder control to speak of, and still a little scared of all the new sights, smells, and sounds, not to mention the two adult cats who are not thrilled at sharing what they thought was their space by divine right. No fights so far, just wary circles and uncertain boundaries. We’re all still getting used to each other. I’m sitting here now thinking about Frankie and all the other pets my wife and I have had in our years together.

A little over 40 years ago I spent quite a few days on our property clearing brush from the site of what is still our home, and letting our two Labs run. I wasn’t worried; we were off the paved road and backed up to House Mountain, so there was all kinds of room. One afternoon, I hadn’t seen them for a little while when a pickup truck pulled into the clearing and a man got out. He motioned me over and pointed to the bed of his truck, where a dead turkey was lying. “Your dogs chased her down,” he said, and paused. “She was settin’ a nest, too.”

I stammered something about how sorry I was and how of course I’d pay for the turkey and chicks, and he interrupted me. “No need,” he said, “just keep your dogs up from here on in.” I nodded, knowing from being raised in the country that you don’t insult a man by offering him money after he’s declared the matter closed. He got back in his truck and left. He didn’t want my money; he wanted to know if I was going to be a good neighbor. Sort of a test, I guess, looking back on it now. After that we only let our dogs run one at a time, because we knew neither one would go far without the other one, and that worked out well. The only other problem we had from those two was once when Tasha got out and came back with a chicken in her mouth. She must have carried it a quarter mile or more, and that was the most terrified chicken I have ever seen. 

Counting Frankie, Suzanne and I have owned probably a dozen dogs and cats in our time together. The combination of living on a dead end gravel road, having a good vet, and making sure they’re well cared for has resulted in long lives for almost all of our animals. I’d like to think it’s been a good life for them, and they certainly have added something important to our lives. It’s been said that pets are good for you in many ways:  physical, mental, emotional, social, and spiritual. The added expense and time commitment required seems a very small price to pay for that level and variety of benefit.

Many thanks to Union County Humane Society for helping us find the newest member of our family.


In my professional career I both practiced and taught crisis intervention. The particular system used included physical restraint, and the primary rule for the team was safety: if the person being controlled indicated that they were being hurt or were having trouble breathing, resolving that issue became first priority. The staff were to immediately adjust their holds to allow the person to breathe, and change position if necessary to prevent injury. This did not mean a full release; on occasion the person being restrained was still dangerous, either to themselves or others, and safety had to be maintained. It did mean that maintaining that safety was for everyone involved, including the person being controlled. Inflicting pain or damage was strictly forbidden, as was the use of mechanical restraints of any kind. What resulted was a kind of give-and-take, with the staff (ideally) using only the amount of force necessary to maintain safety; if a less restrictive hold would do that, that was what was used. It required the staff to be aware of the details of the situation as it unfolded and read as accurately as possible all the signals, verbal and nonverbal, using that information to continuously manage things safely. If taking physical control of the person was not absolutely necessary, it was not done. Laying hands on a person escalates the situation, almost by definition, and was to have been avoided unless it was needed. Even then, the least intrusive methods that would allow the situation to be resolved were to be used.

This makes the case of Mr. Floyd particularly heartbreaking for me. I know that the police, who are sworn to protect and serve the public, are trained in the use of deadly force and can use that option if it becomes necessary. I can’t imagine how Mr. Floyd, on the ground, handcuffed, with several officers in the immediate area, required the use of deadly force to maintain safety and protect the public. I have never been a police officer, but I have worked in settings where danger was both real and immediate, and I have to say that the videos of this case are disturbing on many levels. This needs a complete and detailed investigation by professionals who have enough distance from the parties involved to consider the facts as they stand.

One of the reasons I worked hard to establish and maintain good respectful relationships with the teens I was responsible for was that I learned early on how much difference it made in de-escalating a potentially dangerous situation. If a student was heading toward another student with the intent to harm him or her, it was my job to step into the aggressor’s path if necessary, manage the crisis, and keep the area we were in safe for everyone concerned. In those situations, action was called for; it was way too late to establish a relationship. I had to work with the tools available in that moment, and if I had an existing connection to the teenager it made a successful resolution much more likely. I have also seen how easily a situation can be made much worse, almost in the blink of an eye, by missteps on the staff’s part. Sometimes those are unavoidable, the result of being a fallible human being, but in other cases, the desire on the staff’s part to win what they perceived as a battle rather than manage the situation contributed to a downward spiral that no one escaped.

There’s a counterintuitive element at play here; just as the concept of free speech is important not for the speech I like, but for the speech I hate, the practice of treating others with respect is not confined to those who already treat me that way. The offering of respect should come from who I am, not who they are. One of the many lessons I learned from teenagers, some of whom who were sarcastic and uncooperative on their best day. 

The fact that now pretty much everyone has the ability to be a videographer has changed how situations like the one involving Mr. Floyd play out in the most basic of ways. Although it is not without drawbacks, the combination of a recording device in everyone’s pocket and the existence of the internet as a worldwide, cost-free distribution system means that questions of abuse of power, from the inconsequential to the deadly, are no longer just one person’s word against another. It’s a different world, y’all, and one with fewer secrets. I think overall that’s a good thing.

Thoughts on the Pandemic

Some meandering and possibly disconnected observations from the last two months or so, all of which are, of course, my opinion and not objective fact. None of us have all the answers, or even all the right questions. It’s impossible to see the whole picture when we’re in the middle of it. Rebecca Solnit says that the future is dark and no one can see farther than their candle, and I think that’s true. It’s very important, I believe, that in this crisis we refrain from blowing out our candles and stumbling around in the dark, or blindly following someone who claims that their candle is the only real light. 

We’re far enough into this now to allow for old habits to be set aside and new habits learned. As restrictions ease, I wonder how many old habits will be set aside for good and new ones put in their place. Without a replacement habit, the old ones will almost certainly resurface.

Many people are both able and willing to do the right thing even if it’s somewhat (or more than somewhat) inconvenient. To be reminded of this, it’s necessary to step away from the media, which spends much of its time giving the rest their fifteen minutes.

The economic system under which we live is in some respects a house of cards. A system built on the necessity of continual growth is apparently unable to respond effectively to a crisis when the solution is to stop, take a step back, and wait for the danger to pass.

Millions of people all across the country have suddenly become aware of how dependent we are on those who are at the bottom of the ladder as far as income and prestige are concerned. We have always needed them, and now that has been brought into sharp focus. We are an interdependent web indeed, and right now we are being forcefully reminded of that.

I have a feeling that we’re starting to move toward a grasp of the characteristics of this virus and a way to deal with its more damaging effects, but it certainly has been a stumbling path forward.

For some reason, I am reminded of one of the basic rules for dealing with students’ stubborn behavior. I remember telling myself, “You just have to hold out a few seconds longer than they do. Just a few seconds.”

It’s usually easy to tell when a scientist is talking; they are careful in their statements and are generally unwilling to offer conclusions that cannot be supported. Statements by those who do not demonstrate the same restraint should be taken with a grain of salt, especially if the subject is scientific in nature.

The Dunning-Kreuger Effect is real.

The characterization of this as a war is inaccurate. The virus is not our enemy. It has no intent to do us harm; it has no intent at all beyond mindless replication. It has no organization, no homeland, no plan of attack, no ideology that stands in opposition to our own. It does not form alliances or target specific countries or groups of people. This is a medical emergency, not a war.

Asking a politician to refrain from politicizing an event or situation is like asking a weather forcaster to ignore the jet stream or a business owner to ignore profit and loss information. It’s not going to work. 

Like the attack on September 11, this medical crisis has presented the world with a rare opportunity to set aside questions of boundaries, sovereignty, and political ideology and come together in common purpose. And, like in the weeks immediately following the September attack, many government leaders have turned down this chance in favor of seizing the opportunity to assign blame and consolidate power.

Small and flexible is often more effective and successful than big and powerful.

Planning things out ahead of time never works for me as a writer, and I find that I’m not much better at it in other areas of my life. It’s a learning process, and probably good for me to develop this skill.

The desperate plight of those among us who are dependent on a paycheck to stay alive and sheltered but who have no paycheck and no way to get one is frightening, not least because the number of people affected is so large.

The British admonition to “Keep Calm and Carry On” is evidently more difficult to pull off than it sounds.

I’ve discovered that while I still love my wife of almost 40 years, I also like hanging out with her for days on end, a discovery of no small importance during this pandemic. Also, it is my great good fortune that she continues to tolerate my odd take on life in general and many things in particular. It makes this whole thing so much easier to bear.

It’s important to be smart about this, and at least as important to be kind and generous. Recognizing that we (meaning the entire human race) are all in this together can help us reach past differences to common ground, and in that direction lies healing for many of our ills.