Wednesday, April 29, 2015

The Supreme Court weighs marriage issue

The Supreme Court justices' questions and remarks yesterday make it appear that maybe a nationwide blessing of same-sex marriage might not be the slam-dunk many were expecting. Justice Kennedy, seen as the swing vote in most controversial cases, expressed some sympathy for the states defending same-sex marriage bans.

But from a practical standpoint, setting aside for a moment the morality or principle of same-sex marriage, a ruling reversing the rampant trend toward same-sex marriage would be chaotic. It seems incomprehensible that the court would declare thousands of same-sex marriages null and void. Such a ruling would also strike down changes to state and federal laws and regulations, including IRS rulings that would affect untold numbers of tax returns over several years. Accommodations to same-sex marriages in a majority of states would also be reversed.

Regardless of morality, principle or legality, siding with the states that prohibit same-sex marriage would create an upheaval that the Roberts Court seems unlike to stir up.

Monday, April 27, 2015

A family reunites, briefly

On Saturday, there were about a second-helping dozen of us, all brought together by the bonds of family and memory. We are the remaining grandchildren of William Wiley and Katie McInnis Tarleton, remnants of 34 (as best we could count) first cousins. We gathered for a few hours at a historic country inn a short drive from where our grandparents lived and from where many of us were born.

The first generation from that 1900 marriage have all died. Only two former wives of the Tarleton brothers still live. The last brother died nearly a decade ago.

Reunions of this family were annual events throughout the memory of most of my generation, though many of the cousins were too scattered or too busy with life to attend the reunions and get reacquainted with our cousins and meet those cousins' children and grandchildren. My generation, the grandchildren of Katie and Wiley, spanned about 20 years. My oldest first cousins are two decades older than I. Our grandparents' firstborn was born more than 20 years before their youngest, so two generations of this family take up a lot of space on a timeline.

We gathered Saturday to enjoy a meal together and to tell stories — reminders of what the generations before us were like, what they did, and the stories they told. We also remembered our own generation and the generation or two that have come after us.

These cousins have endured mourning, each of us losing parents and many losing siblings and even children. Those lives could be remembered without wailing, although grief never dies, as we laughed at the stories of our lives and our parents' lives and our grandparents' lives.

The stories are important. We pass them to our children, embellished perhaps, misremembered perhaps, but essential for establishing who we are, whence we came, where we are going.

Monday, April 20, 2015

A rainy day and an anxious night

A rainy Sunday afternoon called for a nap, so we lay down and read until our eyelids slowly closed, like a light bulb dimming gradually to dark. The gentle rain sang into our dreams for about an hour before our guilt over chores undone stirred us from our slumber.

The little, mundane tasks — quotidian work, they have been called — consumed the next two or three hours. We spent our time cleaning, dusting, vacuuming, straightening and putting away all that had piled up over the busy, stressful days of the past week. And then it was time to begin dinner, and when it was over we read a bit and talked to our son, who had called to check in on us. By the time the conversation was over, it was time to get ready for bed. I made coffee and set the timer, let the dog out, checked the locks, turned out the lights, wound the clock and found something to read then lay in bed and waited for sleep to take me away.

The heavy rain drops, wind and thunder awakened us, and I remembered that nearby counties had been under a thunderstorm watch earlier in the night. I waited and listened anxiously, fearing that the wind might topple the big oak whose roots must be soggy from all the rain or might snap the tall pines and send limbs crashing through our roof.

And then the dog decided he needed to go out, but he refused to go out in such a downpour, so my wife grabbed an umbrella and walked him out a few feet so he could relieve his bladder.

After all that, having been fully awakened, gone downstairs and up again, we floated at last into sleep until the alarm snapped me awake.

It had been a mundane day and a not unexceptional night. We've had so many like them that we won't register them in our uncertain vault of memories. But days like these are the ones that matter, the ones that make life good — not a highlight of our decades together, not a sad, grieving, painful or inspiring day, just a day like so many others that, strung together, make a life that is good and joyful and worthwhile. It was, to use that word again, quotidian, in the most positive sort of way for a word often used negatively.

Thursday, April 16, 2015

Booth destroyed South's best hope

On April 14 150 years ago, John Wilkes Booth assassinated Abraham Lincoln, who was watching a play in Ford's Theater. It was the first presidential assassination in U.S. history, but it wouldn't be the last.

Booth, a Southern sympathizer, apparently believed that killing Lincoln would aid the Confederacy, whose largest armies had surrendered in the previous two weeks. Lincoln had toured the nearly demolished Confederate capital just 90 miles away in Richmond. The South was in ruins; its armies were defeated; hundreds of thousands of its soldiers were killed; its agricultural economy was ruined, its barns, fields and plantation houses were smoldering.

In killing Lincoln, Booth did exactly the opposite of his intentions. Instead of helping the Confederacy, he hurt it. Weeks earlier, at his second inauguration, Lincoln spoke of how he hoped to bring the seceding states and the loyal states back together after four years of horrific warfare. He promised a post-war policy "With malice toward none, with charity for all," He would work "to bind up the nation's wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations."

Lincoln's death changed the post-war policy. The vengeance that Lincoln had opposed was imposed as retribution for his death. Although the paroling of Confederate soldiers and their generals and political leaders was generous and perhaps unprecedented in the history of warfare, little was done to resurrect the South's devastated economy. Its agricultural base was destroyed. The fertile Shenandoah Valley was left in ashes. Its railroads were ruined. Its Confederate money was worthless. And an occupying army of Union soldiers stoked resentment among grieving widows and orphans and frustrated veterans. For nearly 100 years after Reconstruction, Southerners kept former slaves and their descendents subjugated and politically powerless.

Had Lincoln shaped Reconstruction, he might have formed policies that would be more palatable to the former Confederates. He might have helped former slaves and former slave owners to see their mutual interest in redeveloping the South. Had he lived, northern politicians would be less interested in seeing the South suffer for its sins.

But John Wilkes Booth, with one gunshot, hurt the South he loved far more than he hurt the North he opposed.

Monday, April 13, 2015

Season come; seasons go; enjoy the change

The cold afternoons and evenings when we huddled around the television to watch college basketball games are over. The last games have been played, and the champions all have been declared. The buzzer has sounded and the red lights behind the backboard have flashed off this season.

The weekend's coverage of the Masters golf tournament has declared basketball season officially over. The blue skies, green grass and red and white azalea blooms announce the end of winter, the end of shivering, the end of indoor sports. It's time to be outside. It's time to celebrate the spring and the colors of nature.

Next month will mark 40 years since I last played a round of golf, and I would be hard-pressed to name half of the top-10 golfers on the tour, but I turn on the Masters each year to see the pines and the azaleas bordered by perfectly groomed grass that out-shines emeralds. You don't have to be a golfer to love the views from Augusta National, just as you can enjoy the acrobatics of basketball star even if you can barely touch the bottom of the net or dribble two steps.

So many markers record the seasons' changes. The sun rises earlier or later, the temperatures rise or fall, tree leaves sprout or wither, sports seasons begin or end. All tell us that time has moved on, and we must move with it.

Do not lament the seasons past, the disappointments of too-high expectations or the thrill of unanticipated success gone by. Welcome the new season, the new hope of future promise.

Tuesday, April 7, 2015

Two trials test use of capital punishment

Two first-degree murder trials currently under way could determine whether the death penalty is dead in this country.

The two trials are the Boston Marathon bombing trial in Boston and the Craig Stephen Hicks trial in Chapel Hill. In each case, there is no question as to whether the accused committed the crime. Attorneys for Dzhokhar Tsarnaev have admitted that the defendant planted bombs that killed and maimed dozens of innocent spectators. Hicks turned himself in shortly after the murders of three students at a Chapel Hill apartment. The pants he was wearing when he surrendered were stained with blood from one of the victims. Attorneys in both trials are not striving for a not guilty verdict, merely for a sentence of imprisonment, not execution.

The admission by both defendants and their attorneys that the defendants were responsible for the murders takes away one objection to capital punishment — the risk that some innocent person might be wrongly put to death. Whether they are executed or not, these men are murderers.

Most supporters of capital punishment agree that the ultimate punishment must be reserved for the most heinous of crimes. Killings committed in the heat of emotion or passion, killings resulting from extraordinary circumstances should not be punishable by death. But both the Boston and the Chapel Hill trials involved coldly calculated murders, one a carefully planned and cruelly executed mass murder and the other an enraged tantrum by a man reported to be a hair-trigger away from killing anyone who crossed his path.

If capital punishment is ever to be used, these two trials make a case for it. If Dzhokhar Tsarnaev and Craig Stephen Hicks are sentenced to life in prison, no rational arguments can henceforth be made in favor of executions. If Tsarnaev and Hicks can live out their natural lives as guests of the government, no future murderer should ever be put to death.

Monday, April 6, 2015

Workers and their many minimums

The Service Employees International Union has put together a highly vocal and well planned campaign to raise wages at fast food restaurants to $15 an hour. The "Fight for Fifteen" campaign is getting the publicity its supporters had hoped for, and some fast food restaurants and Walmart have announced increases in their starting wages, although not up to $15 an hour.

Whenever I see articles about this campaign, I recall the poster I saw in the boss' office at a locally owned, non-franchise restaurant. I read the poster from outside the owner's office door while waiting for him to complete a phone call. The sign said something like this:

"You have minimum education, minimum skills, minimum motivation, minimum dedication, minimum effort, minimum experience and minimum performance. What makes you think you should get anything other than minimum wage?"

I'm a bit surprised that this argument against higher wages for the lowest-skill workers hasn't been more widely used.

Thursday, April 2, 2015

Fascination with a hangman's noose

The News & Observer article on today's front page about a noose found hanging from a tree at Duke University brought back some old memories for me. When I was in elementary school, probably around fifth grade, boys in my school became interested in hangman's nooses. This interest had nothing to do with illegal lynchings or racial prejudice. It was more about the westerns that dominated television shows and movies at the time. A lot of shows involved someone being hanged, either as a result of a legal sentence imposed by a judge or as vigilante justice meted out on horse thieves or cattle rustlers.

Whatever the instigation, classmates of mine brought hanks of cord to school to show that they knew how to tie a hangman's noose. It had to have 13 (unlucky) loops, I was informed, and it was not a simple knot to tie, I quickly learned. When I tried it, all I ever got was a cord wrapped around itself that would unravel if you pulled on either end. I never learned to tie a hangman's noose.

Although there was something terribly morbid about young boys in the late 1950s or early 1960s being fascinated about the proper tying of a hangman's noose, there was no hatred or terror or violence associated with it. We can't say the same about that noose hung on a college campus.

Until evidence proves otherwise, I have to assume that the noose is no more than a prank, a ghoulish, mean and hateful one, but a prank nevertheless. It is an indicator of our times that a cord hung from a tree with no identifiable victim, threat or purpose could prompt a police investigation and an outpouring of anger against the perpetrators, whoever they may be.

When I was trying to learn to tie a hangman's noose 50-plus years ago, my older brother warned me that simply tying a hangman's noose (done correctly, I assume) was a crime. I don't know whether that warning was factual or not, but in those days, execution by hanging was still standard practice in some jurisdictions.

If the perpetrators of the Duke noose are identified, I assume they could be charged with some criminal action, but if their purpose was to frighten or intimidate anyone at Duke or across North Carolina, they failed and have only marshaled contempt against their actions.