Sunday, November 30, 2014

Another birthday never to be celebrated

Had she lived, my big sister would have been celebrating her 70th birthday today. Had the car in which she was riding left a little earlier or a little later, it would not have collided as it did that balmy Sunday night in August. But because she was there, and because two objects cannot occupy the same space at the same time, she never celebrated her 18th birthday or any day after it.

Timing had always been a little off for her. She was born when our father was thousands of miles away in the Pacific, serving as a machinist mate third class in the Navy. Our mother had gone to live with her parents temporarily so that she would be closer to the hospital when the time came. But when she awoke during the night and announced the baby was coming, she was told she was wrong — the baby wasn't due for another couple of weeks. But she knew she was right. She had delivered two babies in the previous three years, both boys, and she knew what labor pains felt like. Her first daughter came quickly and early.

A year later, when Daddy returned home from the Navy, he came in the middle of the night, having taken a train to Hamlet, a railroad terminal 45 miles away, and then a taxi on the final leg of his long journey back home. He couldn't abide the hours of waiting for the next train to get him closer to home. Mother took him into the bedroom for his first look at his daughter, who immediately raised up her hands to greet him with a hug.

Long after the shock of an untimely death, we are struck at certain dates with thoughts what might have been. When my sister's high school friends married, Mother could not help but think of the wedding she would never attend. When her other children graduated high school and college, there was that shadow of graduations never to be seen. I thought of my sister on her 40th birthday as I became more aware of my own aging and of how she cared for me when I was a toddler. I wondered how our relationship would have matured or changed.

Today I wonder what she would have been like as an older woman with children and grandchildren of her own, of the advice she might have given me as I raised my own children. I regret that she never met the woman I married or held my babies.

I even wonder whether she would still be alive, if she had managed to miss that two-lane stretch of highway 52 years ago. Our brother died at age 70. Our younger sister died at 61.

These encounters with death make me more and more grateful for the years I've had and for the years I hope for but can never be sure of.

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

The sidewalk is for pedestrians

The encounter between Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson and teenager Michael Brown last August went all wrong. As a result, Brown is dead, Wilson's career in law enforcement is over (despite his not being indicted by a grand jury), and millions of dollars worth of property has been destroyed by rampaging protesters.

It didn't have to happen this way. It didn't have to happen at all.

The incident began when the officer encountered Brown and a friend walking down the center line of a street. He called out to them to get onto the sidewalk. Brown responded with expletives, followed by blocking the officer's door and, according to the officer's testimony, blows to the cop's face and a tussle for the officer's pistol.

If Brown had simply complied and moved to the sidewalk, as ordered, he would still be alive today. Regardless of what transpired after that initial order, regardless of whether Wilson was justified in shooting the teen, regardless of whether Brown's hands were raised, regardless of whether he was surrendering, as some witnesses claimed, or attacking, if Brown had simply moved out of the vehicle lane and onto the sidewalk, he would be alive.

What on earth makes teenagers — mostly African-Americans — want to risk their lives, and the lives of others, by walking after dark in the center of streets and roads? I have encountered, with heart-pounding fright, young people riding bicycles in the center of a dark street while bearing no light or reflectors on their bikes. The sudden encounter in your headlight's glare of bicyclists just 10 feet from your front bumper is enough to make a driver slam on the brakes and jerk the steering wheel to avoid a tragedy.

I've also encountered black teens, and, less frequently, white teens, strolling along the street in the middle of the traffic lane. Years ago, returning to work at mid-day from my home in a predominantly African-American neighborhood, a group of three girls strutting (there's no better verb for their movements) down the middle of the street. They took up enough of the street that I could not go around them, either on the left or right. I slowed to a stop and waited. They slowed to a stop and danced. They were not oblivious to my presence a dozen feet behind them. They knew they were preventing me from driving my car toward my destination, and they sashayed delightfully at their power over me, an old white man in a car. I refrained from honking my horn or shouting out the open window for them to move. I waited until they crossed the intersection, and I changed my route, turning instead of following behind them as I had intended.

What is it about the middle of the street that makes young people risk their lives for the opportunity to make the point that they can claim the street for their own. No doubt, some have been injured or died because they refused to give up their claim to the center of the street. Likely, some motorists have run off the road and wrecked to avoid walkers they encountered along darkened streets.

In Ferguson, MO, last August, one teenager who refused to give up his right to the center lane died as a result.

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

No indictment in Ferguson shooting

A grand jury in Missouri has ruled. There will be no indictment in the shooting of Michael Brown by Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson.

That conclusion to an extended grand jury session comes as something of a surprise, despite some predictions that no indictment would be handed up. Details of the shooting are in dispute. The officer's account differs from that of some eyewitnesses. The forensic evidence of gunshot angles and wounds seems to support the officer's version, but it still seemed to leave room for charges less than first-degree murder — manslaughter, perhaps, based on a contention that the officer used excessive force to fend off the larger but unarmed teenager.

The death of an unarmed teenager is tragic and appalling, but what followed the grand jury decision is nearly as appalling, more destructive and less excusable. Thousands of protesters took to the streets in a rampage of destruction, throwing rocks at police, torching a car, breaking store windows, burning buildings and looting businesses. Those who lost their property to the rampage were not responsible for the shooting or for the grand jury decision. Their only offense was owning property. Some have charged that the more violent protesters were not Ferguson residents but had come from far away to take advantage of the rage in Ferguson.

Shootings of unarmed people by police is all-too-common in America. These incidents must be prevented through better police training, changes in attitude and culture and improvements in mutual respect. Violent riots do not improve the situation.

One aspect of this shooting follows a familiar pattern. Initial descriptions of the shooting victim, Michael Brown, portrayed him as a sweet, lovable teen who wouldn't hurt a fly. Subsequently, surveillance video showed him shoplifting and then physically threatening and shoving a much smaller store clerk. The autopsy showed he had been consuming marijuana. None of this justifies the shooting, but it should remind news consumers that not everyone who is the victim of a suspicious police shooting or who is accused of a crime is sweet and innocent. Exaggerations of the victim's character are no more helpful than exaggerations of the shooter's character or perception of danger. 

An addendum to my post:

I have since read testimony given by Officer Darren Wilson, who says the teen who attacked him ran away after he fired shots from inside his vehicle. Wilson then chased him, and the teen stopped, turned and came toward him. Wilson shot him from several feet away, firing the fatal shot into his head as the teen fell to the ground.

While I think it is dangerous to second-guess a grand jury, or any jury, I find it hard to understand why Wilson's actions were not considered excessive force. With the suspect running from him, Wilson was in no immediate danger. The final, fatal shot was fired after the suspect was seriously wounded and likely incapable of further resistance. An indictment for assault or involuntary manslaughter might have given a jury an opportunity to judge the actions of both Wilson and Brown.

Nevertheless, none of this justifies the wanton destruction perpetrated by mobs of protesters last night. Brown's own father appealed for the public to avoid violence and keep any protests peaceful. This destructiveness sullies Brown's memory.

Monday, November 24, 2014

Thanksgiving over the years

On this Monday of Thanksgiving week, my thoughts are fixed on the week's worth of work that must be done in three days at the office. With a little extra effort and wise use of time, I should be able to handle that challenge.

Getting Thursday and Friday off, and enjoying the presence of my children and six grandchildren will make the early week rush worthwhile. Our younger daughter has agreed to host the gathering of extended family at her home in Greenville — a site farther east than any of the alternatives, but her home is spacious and can handle the cacophony whirling, laughing, running cousins, all under age 10.

Thanksgiving has become my favorite holiday, despite a dearth of celebration when I was growing up. The textile mill where my mother worked did not close for Thanksgiving, which meant that she worked and we children fended for ourselves throughout the Thursday off from school. If the weather was clear and mild, I would head into the woods to explore and pretend, lost in nature and the refreshing, soothing impact of seasonal change, which I did not yet truly appreciate.

The first Thanksgiving after we married, my wife exposed me to her family Thanksgiving tradition, a welcoming of aunts, uncles and cousins into the modest house by the lake. Only five months earlier, her mother had died unexpectedly in that house, still in her forties, never to enjoy her grandchildren or see her children graduate college or (except for the one I stole away too early) marry.

It fell upon my bride, just 19, to preside over the small kitchen, to cook the turkey, to arrange the table, to serve as hostess for more than a dozen guests. My admiration of her capabilities and skills, already high, rose higher as the day progressed. She substituted marvelously for the woman whose absence was so much on her mind. She was determined to live up to her mother's example, and she did so brilliantly.

In 42 Thanksgivings since then, we have often hosted dinner for family — and occasionally, friends — and each time she has provided the welcome and the sustenance everyone needed. A photo album she pulled out over the weekend chronicles the holidays. The first photos are of that first Thanksgiving, in black-and-white. More recent color photos remind us of other Thanksgivings at the lake house or in homes we claimed for a few years or many, with a changing cast of relatives but usually including my parents or hers. One slightly forlorn year, our crowd was only four — our two children still at home and ourselves — but we dressed up and cooked as if for a crowd

This year, we will not be hosts, but we will preside, in a sense, as patriarch and matriarch of the gathering — a reminder that we are older, substantially so, than our parents were at that first Thanksgiving after our wedding. "All of life's a circle," and we are spinning rapidly toward the next phase of the cycle.

Of all the things I have to be thankful for, memories of a life together are among the best.

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Winter arrives early

The winter solstice is a month away, and already the darkness slips into the afternoon hours like a blackened fog. My drive home from work requires headlights, and the sun, which had blistered my eyes as I drove toward the western horizon only days ago, is gone now, leaving only traces of red in the sky. My headlights push back the darkness, and streetlights form little oases amid the dark, but the darkness has the advantage and cloaks all around me.

The cold has crept in, too. The forecasters blame an arctic air mass, but I believe it's the calendar, the unpredictability of late November and the misfortunes of chance. I wrap myself in warm toppings and shiver to warm myself through kinetic convection, but my fingers still ache with the chill. The dry air leaves my hands rough and dry as sandpaper accented by tiny white lines, like streams in a Google Maps page.

Despite what the calendar says and where the sun lies along the celestial equator, winter has arrived. Get used to it. Days will be short, and nights will be long, and thermometers will have little but bad news for the next four months. We will grow accustomed to it, not because we like it but because we must.

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

UNC's neck is in the guillotine

University of North Carolina alumni and fans are awaiting a verdict from the NCAA a little like a man with his neck in the bottom of a guillotine. How bad will it hurt?

To punish a scandal that essentially sold out the university's integrity for success in athletics over a period of 18 years, presumably giving UNC an advantage over college teams that didn't bend the rules (wink, wink) or forgo the college's agreement to provide a college education to talented athletes willing to toil for the college's glory, what is the appropriate punishment? I'll never understand the logic behind the NCAA's inconsistent decisions, but it seems inevitable that UNC will have many, most, or all of its game victories and championship seasons negated. Roy Williams' stellar record of career basketball victories could be shoved to the bottom of the list, just as Bobby Bowden lost his place in the career victories list after a scandal at Florida State. That might be the least of the consequences.

The NCAA could go for the coup de grace. It could issue the "death penalty," as it did in response to a scandal at SMU in 1987. SMU's offenses were long-standing — a slush fund that had paid players for a decade. SMU was barred from fielding a football team for a year, which stretched into two years because the university had to start over from scratch. UNC's scandal was longer-lasting but perhaps not as blatant as SMU's. UNC did not violate the sacred notion of amateurism, but it tarnished its own academic reputation and integrity. A "death penalty" is not out of the question for UNC.

Ameliorating circumstances on UNC's side might be that the academic fraud was limited to one department and was conceived by and run by a handful of lower-level officials. But that might not be a sufficient excuse. The ability of non-academics to hijack education for the benefit of struggling athletes (and a few others) indicates a lack of oversight by the university administration. Perhaps that fault falls outside the purview of the NCAA — an academic matter rather than an athletic one — but it's of little comfort for UNC supporters who are embarrassed and angered by the indignity of it all.

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

The morning after an election

The morning after has headaches aplenty to go around.

For Democrats, it's hard to find any positives in the election results. Going into Tuesday's voting, they knew the cards were stacked against them in Senate elections — an unpopular president, more seats to defend to keep control of the Senate, and an anti-incumbent mood from coast to coast. Even so, Tuesday's shellacking was worse than most analysts expected. Republicans even managed wide victory margins in races that were supposed to be close in Kentucky and Georgia.

Few people expected Democrats to retain control of the Senate. Republicans needed to win only six seats to achieve majority status. But the GOP's seven gains were more than most expected, with a few races yet to be decided.

North Carolina's Senate race was perhaps the most surprising of the lot. Democratic incumbent Kay Hagan had maintained a narrow lead in nearly every poll leading up to Tuesday's vote. Early returns had her in the lead by single-digit percentages. But Republican Thom Tillis ended up with the most votes at the end of the night. Hagan had been seen as vulnerable almost since she won the seat in 2008. Her Senate record was undistinguished, and she was closely allied with an unpopular president.

And then there was the outside money. More than $100 million was spent on this election, most of it by outside interests on both the Republican and Democratic sides. Nearly all of the advertising was negative — ads attacking Hagan for being too much like Obama or attacking Tillis for controversial laws passed by the state House that he led.

Having Republicans in charge of both chambers of Congress will bring changes, but only the naive will think partisanship will wane. President Obama can be combative, and he is likely to veto Republican legislation that comes to his desk, setting off more controversy. The GOP Congress might feel empowered to place limits on the president's ability to establish policy through executive orders and other administrative actions, creating more conflicts.

Clashes are inevitable, and the 2016 presidential elections will hang over every day of the next 104 weeks.