Monday, April 3, 2017

An Open Letter to Justice Anthony Kennedy

April 3, 2017

Dear Justice Kennedy,

This is the first time I have ever written to a sitting Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States. Extraordinary times call for extraordinary measures and these times are certainly out of the ordinary.
As you well know, Justice Antonin Scalia died of a heart attack in Texas in mid-February of 2016. His death came almost nine months before November 2016’s Presidential election. Before Justice Scalia’s body even left the Lone Star State, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky went on record arguing President Obama should not nominate a new Justice to replace Antonin Scalia but should instead defer that responsibility to the next President.

Senator McConnell’s wish was entirely political. As you well know, there is no Constitutional basis for McConnell’s argument. To be sure, Democrats have played politics with judicial appointments as well. Both Senator Biden and Senator Schumer have made the same argument as Senator McConnell. A key difference is that Senators Biden and Schumer never followed through on their hypothetical arguments.

A month after Justice Scalia died, President Obama put forth the name of Merrick Garland as his nominee for the vacant seat on the Supreme Court. This was in keeping with the Constitutional prerogative of the President. Sadly, Senator McConnell followed through on his threat and did not allow any hearings or votes on the nomination. In fact, most Republican Senators refused Judge Garland the basic courtesy of a meeting.

Now it is 13 months after Judge Garland was initially nominated. Donald Trump is President and his nominee for the still-vacant seat on the Court, Neil Gorsuch, will surely be approved by the Senate this week. It’s possible Senator McConnell will need to resort to the nuclear option to make this approval come to pass. Nuclear option or not, Neil Gorsuch will be seated on the Supreme Court in the coming month or two.



I am writing to you specifically of all the Justices because you have shown yourself to be the Justice most willing to eschew judicial philosophical dogma and instead truly take each case on its merits, regardless of the political angles of the case. I am writing to ask you a favor. The favor is not for me, but for the country. Please, to the extent you are able, act as a counter-balance to the addition of Justice Gorsuch. To the extent you are able, please bring the voice of Judge Garland to Court deliberations.

In some ways, you are the last, best hope for a Supreme Judiciary that will not simply rubberstamp anything corporations or the Executive Branch decides to do. The four Justices to your ideological right (assuming Senate confirmation of Judge Gorsuch) can be described as Corporate Authoritarians. Please speak for the great masses of Americans who are in danger of being silenced by the double-barreled powers of money and authority.

A republic is a heavy weight to carry on one’s shoulders, but that is the position you will find yourself in shortly. My thoughts are with you. May your bear up well, knowing that in some very real ways the future of the country is in your hands.

Godspeed,


Chris Dawson

Friday, March 3, 2017

25 Halfs

25 Halves

On November 8, 2009 I was standing outside of a high school in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, stretching my calves out before a half marathon. At that point I had run two or three halfs and I was excited to be doing another.  As I stretched, I started talking with an older woman who also stretching just a few feet away from me. As we talked she told me that if she finished the race that day, it would be the 50th state she had completed a half marathon in.

I did not see her after the race, but I assume she finished. After the race I drove back to New Haven and somewhere on I-95 near New London I decided that I, too, was going to run a half marathon in all 50 states.


(Erica made me this shirt for Christmas a few years ago. I wear it during each of my races and then mark the new state when I finish)


I was not a runner until 2002 when I was 36 years old. I had tried to like running several times before that, but it never stuck. It was always way more pain than pleasure. It wasn’t until the age of 36 that I realized that I could slow down if the running started to hurt. Slowing down made all the difference. Suddenly, I began to see what other people like about running. There were times when everything felt smooth and fluid and for entire miles it could feel good. I got hooked.

Between 2002 and 2009 is ran 5Ks and an occasional 10K. I was never a speed demon, but I stuck with it pretty devotedly. (Just to be clear here---“devotedly” for me means I would run 3 or 4 times a week. I have never been, and will never be, a person who runs every day.) Once a year I would stretch it out and do the New Haven Road Race 20K, which translates to just over 12 miles. That race opened the door to trying a half marathon.

I liked the first one I ran and decided to do a half marathon every year in November to celebrate my birthday. For two or three years this arrangement worked for me.

But then I met that woman in New Hampshire.

There is a history of both heart disease and cancer on both sides of my family tree. Some portion of that history is due to habits and behaviors, but some other portion is due to genetics. I cannot change my genes (CRISPR technology is still way too expensive for me to get the at-home gene editing kit), but I can adjust my habits and behaviors to lessen my risk of developing some cancers and heart disease.

Running is an easy way to do something good for my body.



It is also an easy way to do something good for my mind. It is a reliable way to get some time alone and just be in my body instead of in my head. Rather than say any more about this part of running, I am going to move on. There is little that is more tedious than reading other people’s writings about running.

In fact, I am shocked you have even made it this far. Thank you.
Anyway, It is now 2017 and I have run half marathons in 25 states. The most recent was Washington back in September. It has been a long 5 months of inconsistent training since Washington. Tomorrow I am heading to Arkansas, where I will run in the Little Rock Half Marathon on Sunday morning.  All goes well, it will be state #26.

To tell you the truth, I can sometimes have a hard time with follow through. I have good ideas and make big plans…and then let them fall away. I am fairly well shocked that I have actually stuck with this one. And now that I am halfway to my goal, it would be stupid to stop. I have Arkansas this weekend; Green Bay, Wisconsin at the end of May; Jackson Hole, Wyoming in June; and some as-yet-undetermined state in the late fall.

Funny how random life can be sometimes. If I had not walked over to a quiet part of the high school parking lot in Portsmouth to stretch a bit before that race in 2009, I would never have set this goal for myself.


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Wish me luck!

Monday, February 27, 2017

Yemeni Memory

As a younger man I lived in Yemen for two years. It was from September of 1987 to September of 1989. I lived and worked in the Red Sea port town of Hodeidah. The city had roughly 250,000 people, approximately 4 of whom were Americans. I was there by way of the United States Peace Corps and I taught English in a school originally set up to teach Yemeni civil servants English so that Yemen could begin to have more interaction with the rest of the world.

Not enough civil servants took advantage of the opportunity, so the school opened its doors to anyone who wanted to learn English. In this way, the school where I taught became one of the few places in the traditionally gender- and class-segregated country where people could mix with other people they would not normally interact with. I loved that aspect of my job—it gave me a chance to meet taxi drivers, soldiers, government workers, middle-aged women who otherwise didn’t get out of the house much, male and female high school students, and old men just looking for something new to do.

Many of the people I taught had never met an American before. They knew who our President was (George HW Bush) and they knew when our Congressional elections were, since the outcome often had a direct impact on their country. In contrast, most of the people I knew in America had no idea there even was such a country as Yemen when I told them where I was headed.

When I got back people would ask “So how was it?”

How do you sum up two years in a sentence or two? It is impossible, and I quickly learned that most people really did not want to know how Yemen was. I developed a rote reply I gave to everyone who asked. If people then came back with specific questions or showed that they really were curious, then I would engage in some actual conversation. The rote answer was something like: “It changed my life—it is so different from life here.” 99 times out of 100, people were satisfied to move onto the next topic. Occasionally, someone would want to know more. I really enjoyed those conversations.

One of the best things about my job in Hodeidah was that my school was closed as often as it was open. A term would last ten weeks, and then there would be a five- to ten-week break before the next term began.

Hodeidah is on the flat Red Sea coastal plain called the Tihama. At 15 degrees North latitude, it gets hot there in the summer. Rather than overload you with weather data, let me tell you three things:

1)     on average, the coldest day of the year in Hodeidah is December 31, when the average high temperature is 84,
2)     It twice hit 50 degrees C while I lived in Hodeidah. This is 122 F, with 90+% humidity,
3)     In my two years in Hodeidah, it rained fewer than 10 times.

Simply put, summers were brutal. I would often throw some clothes in a backpack with my toothbrush and passport and head out to the edge of town. On the main road heading east toward the mountains and the capital, (Sana’a), there was a military checkpoint where 19-year old conscripts would check travel papers for anyone coming or going. I would walk over to their checkpoint, introduce myself, and explain that I wanted to hitch a ride out of town. They would check my passport and travel papers and then often they would help me flag down a ride.

To them, I was a real oddity—a white guy who spoke Yemeni Arabic and actually wanted to travel to out-of-the-way mountaintop villages in the back of goat-laden Toyota Hilux pickups.
In this way, I got to see a fair portion of what was then called North Yemen. (In the intervening years, North and South Yemen have reunited to form one war-scarred country.) Speed limits, seat belts, car inspections, load limits, no-passing zones, or really just about any other rules of the road were non-existent. Most males over the age of 13 had either a sharpened dagger called a jambiya in a sheath at their waist or they had an AK-47 slung over their shoulders. From the perspective of 27 years, this description sounds fairly dangerous. In the moment, it felt absolutely liberating.

My life has been good, with many highlights. It is hard to pick one, point at it, and say “There—right there—THAT is the most elated I have ever felt.” I can say without hesitation that on the short list of most-elated moments in my life are a few rides in the backs of overloaded pickup trucks, climbing out of the Tihama heat and humidity and up into the blessedly cooler and drier air in Yemen’s mountains.  The combination of physical relief at escaping the heat, excitement at being in the mountains, and the freedom of no responsibilities was a heady mix that left me giddy sometimes. The feeling was far stronger than I am able to describe.

Sometimes I was heading to Hajjah to visit my friend Amy. Sometimes I was going to Ibb to see Mary and Chris. A few times I went to Taiz to visit other Peace Corps volunteers. There was Lynn in Amran, Toby in Manakhah, and a whole slew of people in Sana’a. And those trips were fun because I got to spend time with friends.

But the trips that left me feeling most elated were the ones without a specific destination, other than a place I had not yet been. A driver would pull over at the checkpoint and ask where I was headed. I would turn the question right back around on them—“Where are YOU headed?” If the answer was a mountain village I had never been to, I would ask to come along. In this way I got to some incredible places.

The landscape of Yemen is hard to describe well. The words I use are all words everyone knows—mountains, valleys, rocks, terraces, stark, colorful, steep---but the reality is like nowhere else I have ever seen. It’s almost like cooking. I can describe for you all the ingredients in a dish, but if it is something you have not tasted, your imagination can only give you an approximation of what the final dish would taste like. The landscape of Yemen is like that.

On one trip, I can remember sitting open-mouthed among goats, sorghum, and two old men in the back of a pickup as we climbed up a switchbacky dirt road that gained at least 3000 feet of altitude from the valley floor to a stone village that was almost invisible at the top of the mountain. The village was made of local rocks, chipped into building blocks and placed on top of each other without mortar. The buildings looked entirely organic—like they had simply grown up out of the rocks and the people had moved in. Some of these mountaintop villages had been there since before Islam came to Yemen in the 600s. Many of the people in these villages did not think of themselves primarily as Arabs or Yemenis or Muslims. They thought of themselves primarily as inhabitants of their specific village.

When the pickup made it to the top of the mountain, the air was a good 30 or 40 degrees cooler. A crowd gathered before the driver had even turned the truck off--mostly kids, smiling and yelling “Soora. Soora!” “Mumkin a ben?” “Wherrrrre arrrrre you frrrom?” (Many village schools had Egyptian teachers who taught English. For some reason, Egyptian English involved much rolling of Rs.) “Soora” was Yemeni Arabic for “picture.” The kids wanted me to take a picture of them and give them a few rials for their trouble. They were also asking for a pen. For some reason I have yet to figure out, kids all over Yemen would ask foreigners for a pen…

Anyway, I was drawn to the edge of the 1000-meter drop-off where I took a seat, got out my aim-and-shoot camera and a Tom Robbins book I was reading, and settled in to soak up the view. I should have known the book was not going to happen. I was soon surrounded by a crowd of boys and men who had a million questions. Once they found that I could speak a little Arabic, the crowd grew. They asked about my family, my hometown, my country. They asked about Israel and Russia and how I could stand living in the heat of the Tihama.

And as the sun started to get lower in the western sky, they asked if I had a place to stay.
When I said no, I was overwhelmed with offers. People were eager to open their homes and let me in. They could not even imagine turning away a stranger in need. I had not left America because there was a brutal civil war and my town no longer existed. I had not left America because violent extremist nihilists were killing anyone who thought differently than they did. I had not left America because my own country’s armed forces had gassed my village. I had not left America because staying meant being forced to join one armed faction or another.

I had left simply because I could. And I knew that when I decided to go back, America, my state, my city, my house, and my family would all still be there. And still these people called me “Miskeen” and argued over who would have the honor of calling me a guest. “Miskeen” translates as something like “poor one.” Most Yemenis could not imagine being far from home and family with just a backpack and no place to stay. To them, it would be shameful to turn me away.

I stayed for a few days in that town and was treated like an honored guest.

I have been thinking a lot about this particular memory lately. These days, it makes me sad.


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Thursday, December 22, 2016

Thoughts Cannot Be a Crime


In the wake of Donald Trump’s election as 45th president of the United States, there has been a spike in the number of reported incidents of harassment and abuse of Muslims, Jews, African-Americans, and members of the LGBTQ community across the country. Some of these incidents have later turned out to be fabricated. Even so, the number of actual incidents of racial, religious, or gender-based crimes has spiked in the past month. This is no surprise if you heard the words and tone of Candidate Trump at his rallies. Of course not all Trump supporters are racist, homophobic, or biased against non-Christians. That would be a ridiculous claim and it is patently false.

Donald Trump received a LOT of votes—in fact, he got just 3 million fewer votes than Barack Obama in 2012 or Hillary Clinton in 2016. It would be ridiculous to believe that all 63,000,000 Trump voters are racist, sexist, homophobic, religious bigots. But of that 63,000,000 people, some miniscule percentage are. And those who are now feel vindicated. They voted for Donald Trump because they believe that the only true Americans are straight, white, and Christian. And because Donald Trump won, they may now feel free to act on some of their baser instincts. Their actions have included breaking windows, spray-painting swastikas, screaming abuse at people wearing head scarves and turbans, and physically assaulting people. These actions are certainly driven by hate.
BUT, the fact that a person’s actions are driven by hate does not make them guilty of an additional crime. 

I believe that hate crime legislation, as well-meaning as it is, is unconstitutional.

It is already illegal to paint on someone else’s property, to threaten people with violence, to push or shove someone who has done nothing to you, or to run them off the road. These are all crimes if you do them on purpose. If a person arrested for any of these actions is charged with an additional crime because the assailant hates the victim due to the victim’s race, religion, or gender identity then the government has just outlawed a thought or a feeling. Maybe this is on my mind these days because I am reading George Orwells’ classic novel 1984 for the first time. Hate crime legislation creates a category of ThoughtCrime that I do not believe consistent with the Constitution.

To see how indefensible hate crime legislation is, let’s turn things around. Suppose a law was passed that said the following: “Stealing the property of another person is illegal. If, however, your motive for stealing their property is love, then you have committed a lesser crime.” It is easy enough to imagine a single parent with a sick child. They have no insurance coverage. The child needs a prescription, but the parent cannot afford it. The parent grabs $50.00 from the cash register of the store where they work and uses it to pay for medicine for the sick child. The motive for the theft was love, so in keeping with “love crime” legislation the thief is not charged with robbery but is instead charged with some lesser crime.

It becomes clear that making the motive, as well as the act, subject to separate charges is not in keeping with American principles of justice. If you want to let people know that their motives are as reprehensible as their actions, leave judges and juries room in sentencing guidelines. This is already the case in most places for most crimes. Judges and juries are allowed to consider mitigating circumstances when they consider punishment—and this is as it should be. Hate crimes legislation is unconstitutional and unnecessary.

To any right-wingers reading this who are agreeing with me, follow along to the next example and see if you still agree.

This is a line from the Flag Code of the United States of America:  
“When a flag is so tattered that it no longer fits to serve as a symbol of the United States, it should be destroyed in a dignified manner, preferably by burning. The Veterans of Foreign Wars, American Legion, Boy Scouts of America, Girl Scouts of America, the military and other organizations regularly conduct dignified flag-burning ceremonies.”

The code calls for the burning of the United States flag.



Recently President-elect Trump tweeted “Nobody should be allowed to burn the American flag - if they do, there must be consequences - perhaps loss of citizenship or year in jail!” Was Donald Trump REALLY calling for the jailing of Veterans of Foreign Wars, American Legion members, Boy Scouts, Girls Scouts, and others who regularly burn the flag?

Of course he wasn’t. He was calling for the jailing of people who burn the flag in protest. In other words, he was calling for people to be punished for their thoughts—which is exactly what the US flag does NOT stand for.


We live in a sprawling country with people from everywhere. It is our greatest strength. And, it is our greatest challenge. How can we live together and still leave room for such strong feelings and beliefs? Certainly not by making feelings and beliefs crimes. And not by hunkering down on our side of the battle lines we seem to etch more deeply every day with every issue. I am going to work hard in 2017 to step out from behind my bunker and see where there is common ground. Maybe all that will mean is getting everyone mad, but it’s a worth a shot. I can’t live four more years feeling like I am always at the ready to engage and attack and defend.

Tuesday, November 1, 2016

An Open Letter to the Cayuga Waterfront Trail

Dear Cayuga Waterfront Trail,

Hey! What’s up? I know we just saw each other yesterday and I’ll probably see you later today too with Ginger and Lotti, but I find myself awake at 5:30 in the morning and you’re on my mind.

Weird, right? That I would be thinking about a trail while having my morning coffee and working on the crossword puzzle? Yet…

I feel like I need to tell you something. We’ve known each other for, what, four years now? I can still remember the first time I saw you. I was living way out at the far end of Snyder Hill Road and I was tired of always having to run on hills. I was just looking for a flat place to run. I didn’t intend to fall in love.

But that is exactly what happened. I’m sorry to surprise you like this, using the word “love” and all, but I can’t hide my feelings any longer. Cayuga Waterfront Trail, I love you.



I’ve never felt this way about a trail before. If it’s a shock to you, well, it caught me by surprise too. I’m not really sure what to do with this feeling. I mean, I know it’s crazy to love a trail. I know you can’t return the feeling. You’re a trail for crisesakes--you can’t be exclusive.

And I know in my heart of hearts I don’t really want to keep you just to myself. I mean, part of what makes you so great is how open and accepting you are of everyone. Bikers, runners, dog walkers, skateboarders, people in wheelchairs, racewalkers, families with kids on trikes---you’re there for everyone and I wouldn’t have you change.



Now that I’ve spilled the beans I feel a little self-conscious. But I’ve also now got nothing to lose. I hope you’re still reading this and haven’t tossed it to the trash. I was telling a friend about you the other day—I talk about you A LOT—and he wanted to know what was so great about you. So I started to tell him about how you change so much from season to season and day to day and even hour to hour. But at the same time you are always there for me.

And I told him about how being close to water makes me feel better, no matter what. Even if I was already feeling good to start with.



But then I stopped talking and took him for a run through Cass Park and over the foot bridge and past the boathouses and the Farmer’s Market and over to Stewart Park and then back. He saw what I meant. We must have seen 40 people while we were walking and all of them were happy just to be near you.

I love the way you make me feel, but I can’t keep that just to myself.  It’s clear you make other people feel that same way.  Cayuga Waterfront Trail, I just want to thank you for being you and to let you know I love you.

Sincerely,

Chris Dawson







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