We have a woodsy yard. It’s next to a ravine; it’s more of a forest floor than a proper lawn. We take care of it well enough, but we don’t manicure the thing–because manicuring a forest is absurd, if not downright sinful. The other day, we got a notice on our door, from the city, telling us that if we didn’t trim the branches next to our sidewalk, they’d fine us. The yard looked the same as it always did; there were some overarching branches that could touch you if you were seven feet tall and if you were carrying a child on your shoulders. But sure. We called the city to find out exactly what they wanted us to do. The Yard Poobah was very reasonable. He said that city code required that we keep our branches at least eight feet off the ground. But he also said that he wouldn’t even have bothered us, except that a neighbor had complained. This made us mad. I hate tattletales. I almost got a piece of chalk and wrote, “All you had to do was ask” on the pavement–but James had the better sense to point me at something large to lop off and cuss at. He gave me a cold can of Diet Coke. He told me our hostas looked pretty.

Fine. We have a next-door neighbor who inherited her house from her parents when they died. She lives alone. She has to work six days a week to even keep the house–and she has a double lot. In the summer, she’s out with a lawnmower and a flashlight, mowing her lawn until ten o’clock. She’s in her late fifties. She doesn’t mow every week. Yesterday, she got a visit from the Yard Poobah. Someone had complained about her lilacs. The bush sits by the sidewalk. True enough, most of the branches aren’t eight feet off the ground. But lilacs? What are they going to do? Hold you down and remind you of your grandma?

She was out there after sunset, with her ladder and her clippers, while the bats flew around. She wouldn’t accept any help. But she did point to the part of the city notice that said if they have to talk to us again, they could levy fines. Like a citation. Our trees could get a ticket. 

Now: I want to protest a lot of things at once. I want to protest the fact that this neighborhood tattletale doesn’t have the cojones to knock on our doors and make a simple request for us to do some very specific things to take care of a situation that doesn’t bother the general population. If somebody had asked us to trim our branches because he, um, likes to rollerblade while balancing his mother’s urn on his head, we would have done the neighborly thing and trimmed our branches. In fact, if somebody had talked to us, we might have a better idea about what so offends them. Because truth be told, trees grow. And I don’t want to get fined for not measuring mine compulsively enough to satisfy a neighborhood tyrant’s attachment to a city code that might date back to the days of horse-riding–a code, in fact, that receives little enforcement unless somebody makes a stink. I also want to protest that by complying with the tyrant, we are only encouraging the tyrant. Clearly he got what he wanted with us; it’s not a coincidence that he moved on to our neighbor. And it’s not improbable that he’ll continue his crusade.

I agree that a yard should look healthy. It’s a living thing; it should be cared for and nurtured. But you know where the modern lawn came from? The modern lawn dates back to the nobility in Europe, who close cut the foliage around their keeps so they could get a clear shot at intruders. At its heart, a lawn isn’t a pretty thing. It’s an artificial thing–and it’s a hostile thing. One might even say it’s a classist thing. And maybe that’s the real point. I don’t really consider myself a hippie, but I’m more of that sort than I am a yuppie. And I happen to believe that loving both nature and neighbor involves not harassing either one until they give up and live somewhere else.

(Originally posted August 2, 2013)

Mother Country

The following is from Matthew White’s The Great Big Book of Horrible Things, which examines the hundred worst atrocities in human history. It’s bleak reading, but some of its lessons on social policy are… enlightening. Here White talks about the famines in colonial India–something I never knew about, even though they rank fourth on the list, having killed approximately 26.6 million people.

“The guiding philosophy of the time was that relief should be difficult to obtain in order to discourage the poor from becoming dependent on government handouts. Recipients were expected to work hard for their supper, digging ditches and breaking stones. The [relief] camps accepted only the able-bodied and healthy into their public works projects, and they hired only workers from at least ten miles away, on the theory that a long walk would weed out the weaklings. Hundreds of thousands were turned away as too weak to be used.

“Most British authorities agreed that helping the poor only created a cycle of dependency. The finance minister declared, ‘Every benevolent attempt made to mitigate the effects of famine and defective sanitation serves to enhance the evils resulting from overpopulation’…. A later government report concluded, ‘if the government spent more of its revenue on famine relief, and even larger proportion of the population would become penurious.’

The ration that Richard Temple [the local, governing Brit] distributed to each inmate of these labor camps was only two-thirds of what he had given out during his successful relief in 1874–1,627 calories per day instead of 2500. [For his previous welfare efforts, ‘The Economist had scolded him for teaching the Indians that ‘it is the duty of the government to keep them alive’] In fact, the new daily ration for the starving Indians of 1876 had 123 fewer calories than the ration for an inmate in the Nazi concentration camp at Buchenwald in 1944.”

The reach of this sort of disaster might be exceptional, but I worry that the ideas–or at least their resulting tendencies–are not.

(Originally posted February 16, 2013)


From TIME Magazine: “In the New York City police department, for example, officers involved in gunfights typically hit their intended targets only 18% of the time, according to a Rand study. When they fired 16 times at an armed man outside the Empire State Building last summer, they hit nine bystanders and left no bullet holes in the suspect–a better than average hit ratio.” These are academy-trained professionals who must maintain a 78% accuracy rate in periodic (if somewhat infrequent) range tests. If a civilian wants to own a firearm, the law requires somewhere between one and three days of gun training, depending on the state.

(Originally published January 18, 2013)

Outvoting Justice

I recently attended a lecture by Justice Michael Streight, who was one of the seven state supreme court judges who unanimously passed the ruling that made gay marriage legal in Iowa. A year after the decision, Streight was voted out of office, along with every other supreme court justice who was up for renewal. This is my take on what Justice Streight had to say in his address:

When the justices first received the gay-marriage case, they took a preliminary bench vote, and found that everyone agreed, without argument, that Iowa law permitted gay marriage. Ultimately, the justice who wrote the final ruling was a Republican.

Since the 1950s, Iowa has voted only seven supreme court judges out of office. Three of those seven lost their positions over the marriage ruling. However, just 5 percent of the judge-removal-campaign money came from Iowans themselves. The remaining 95 percent came from Mississippi, Washington DC, New Jersey and Newt Gingrich. No one, to Justice Streight’s knowledge, criticized the legal aspects of the ruling. No one found fault with the judges’ reasoning. In fact, most every attack centered on questions of religious belief, quasi science (debunked by the AMA and the APA) and the so-called interests of tradition. 

Few Iowans reacted to the judge-removal campaign until it was too late. The judges themselves didn’t react until deep into the election year. For the most part, Iowa figured that our judges had never lost their jobs to a political movement–and that they’d certainly never lost those jobs to a political movement whose funding came from out of state. And because we were so complacent, most of us didn’t fill out the judicial portion of that year’s election ballot. 

This November, Iowa Justice David Wiggins faces re-election. As one of the judges ruling for gay marriage, he’s featured in the No Wiggins bus tour. No-Wiggins participants include Rick Santorum and Bobby Jindal. 

This kind of campaigning has inspired movements in other states as well. In Florida, a similar judge ouster could happen in regards to a ruling on business laws. And in Michigan, a judge told Justice Streight that although he believes it’s Constitutionally correct to rule for gay marriage, he would never do so, because he’d lose his job.

So please: If you’re proud that our courts defend their constitutions, or if you’re happy with the separation of the branches of government, or if you’re just partial to the idea of a state’s own people making a state’s own decisions–vote for your judges. And vote for them manually. Voting a party-ticket won’t do it, because, as interpreters of the law, the justices aren’t affiliated with politics. That’s the whole bleeping point.

(Originally posted September 24, 2012)

Planned Parenthood Saves Lives

About a year ago, I decided, on a whim, to take my blood pressure at one of those grocery-pharmacy jobbies. The machine said that I was hypertensive. (It turns out that this was utterly bogus, but I didn’t know this at the time, and I freaked.) I didn’t have medical insurance, and I didn’t have the time to find a walk-in clinic. So I went to Planned Parenthood. 

I passed through a line of protesters who basically stood in front of my car until I rolled down the window and refused their pamphlets. I went straight to the PP appointment desk, and told them my problem. They took my blood pressure immediately. They took it twice. They told me I could come back at any time. They refused a donation, because, they reasoned, they hadn’t really done much.

I went back to my car. The protestors hollered about how God loves my baby. And I wanted to holler back that last I heard, their God loves the poor. And he loves the people who ease the burden of the poor. And he loves children, yes. And this probably means that he loves them to be healthy, and safe–and come to think of it, he probably loves them not to be pregnant themselves. And if you really want to get technical, there is one other thing that God allegedly loves–and that is the lesser evil. So if you are talking about a certain procedure that, contrary to Rep. Boehner’s claim, is only a minuscule portion of Planned Parenthood’s services–and if you are convinced that this procedure amounts to the killing of a child–then choose it as a lesser evil than forcing certain people (read: the poor) into back-alley operations that likely result in the death of the child and the mother as well.

I have medical insurance now. I don’t have to use Planned Parenthood any longer. But I still donate, because contrary to anyone’s claims, they do a great, godly amount of good.

(Originally posted February 3, 2012)