Saturday, December 03, 2016


A Brutal Timidity

Writing for the Washington Post yesterday, Tana Ganeva described the very sad case of Ferrell Scott, who is doing a life sentence for a non-violent marijuana trafficking case. To be sure, Scott was convicted of actual trafficking of significant amounts of marijuana, but a life sentence (which is greater than that for nearly any federal crime other than first-degree murder or terrorism) is not proportional to the crime.

Yesterday, I was really trying to work on a new project, but people-- family members, those in prison-- kept calling me wondering if there was any hope in their case. Some I knew, some I did not. But I gave them all the same answer: I just don't know.

Friday, December 02, 2016


Haiku Friday: The Paper

I love newspapers. In the last year, I have gotten to tour three of the papers I have read for a long time (and that have published my stuff): The New York Times, the Washington Post, and the Waco Tribune-Herald. All of it fascinates me, and it is amazing to see the places where some of my heroes work (and there are some in all three of those places).

Let's haiku about newspapers this week! It can be about your favorite story, or an old paper you loved, or perhaps your ideal headline. 

Here, I will go first:

Came home every noon
Each day in high school; eat lunch
And read the Free Press.

Now it is your turn; just use the 5/7/5 formula and have some fun!

Thursday, December 01, 2016


Update from Washiington

I was in Washington yesterday for the White House Convening on Criminal Justice. The main event was a little bit of a downer; I was looking for some urgency on clemency, and got no sense of it. Loretta Lynch did tell us about three new programs-- to get ID for prisoners being released, improving education in prison, and create standards for halfway houses-- all of which are good and very much needed. Still, I left the building and walked out into the dusk in less than a festive mood.

The rest of the day was great, though. In the morning, I toddled over to the Heritage Foundation and met Paul Larkin for lunch. He is someone who has done some great work exploring clemency reform, and there is a lot of overlap in our views. After the White House event, I met up with Sari Horwitz, who gave me a little tour of the Washington Post. It is a fascinating place, purpose-built for the digital age.

Finally, I met up with IPLawGuy for dinner. Captions welcome for the photo above...

Wednesday, November 30, 2016



For reasons I can't fathom, the song stuck in my head has been "Go Tell Aunt Rhody," an old folk song that someone decided would be fun for kids to learn back when I was a kid. Really, America? Here is one version of the lyrics (different than the one I learned, which revolved around "the old grey mare is dead."):

Go tell Aunt Rhody,
Go tell Aunt Rhody,
Go tell Aunt Rhody
The old gray goose is dead.

The one she's been saving,
The one she's been saving,
The one she's been saving
To make a feather bed.

The goslings are mourning,
The goslings are mourning,
The goslings are mourning,
Because their mother's dead.

The old gander's weeping,
The old gander's weeping,
The old gander's weeping,
Because his wife is dead.

I suppose life on the farm was pretty hard, but that is one depressing song. To really ratchet up the pathos, it even creates the fiction of geese being married! It only uses two notes, though (A and D), so perhaps simplicity trumped theme...

Tuesday, November 29, 2016


The turn towards Christmas

Sigh. Thanksgiving is over-- my favorite holiday. And once again it was great in every way.

Now we take the turn towards Christmas. As a society, of course, we tend to jump right over Advent, but the Episcopalians and Catholics around me are reminding me not to do that. 

Still, I need to get the lights out. I need to make a cd of Christmas music. I need to go out and cut down a tree. It is easier to make that turn in Minnesota, when any day might bring snow and the frosty air is pretty reliable. On December 1 they will start building the hockey rink and the skating ring down in Arden Park a few blocks away, and smoke will show up over the warming hut and its wood stove. A walk at night by the skaters... that can fit into the quiet spirit of Advent.

Monday, November 28, 2016


Now THAT'S memorable!

There were lots of great haiku last week. But...

I'm not fond of anonymous comments generally, but whoever this anonymous is, he or she had a memorable Thanksgiving!

Slapped him in the face.
(My brother-in-law, that is)
It caused quite a stir.

Sunday, November 27, 2016


Sunday Reflection: Advent begins

Have we ever needed Advent more?

After a year where discourse took us to a bad place over and over.  We turned our national election into a mess by obsessing over and rewarding the worst instincts of politicians.

It's time for calm and reflection. And thank goodness for that!

Saturday, November 26, 2016


Today's the day....

... that  Michigan fans have been waiting for allllll year:

Friday, November 25, 2016


Haiku Friday: Reflecting on Thanksgiving

So... what happened to you on Thanksgiving? What intriguing discussions did you have? What upsetting t-shirts were worn? [see illustration] Was there a meaningful moment for you? Or one where you wanted to be somewhere else?

Let's haiku about that today. Here, I will go first:

Hear a great story
Ate all I could. Contentment
Came easy; grateful.

Now it is your turn! Just use the 5/7/5 Syllable pattern and have some fun!

Thursday, November 24, 2016



When I was little, I loved everything about Thanksgiving, but mostly I loved the way it smelled. There were eggs in the morning, and then about mid-day the amazing scent of a turkey in the oven, and fresh bread. I still love all of that, and long for it.

Now, though, I mostly love the thing that the holiday is about. I know very well that I am a lucky man, in so many ways. I have a lot to be thankful for, and it is good to have a day to dwell on that. It took a while, but as I have had the chance to observe other lives I have become more aware of the challenges I have been spared along the way.

A long time ago, I was walking along the side of a road. I was walking because my car had broken down, and I was far from anything in an area of farms and forests. Cell phones were not a thing everyone had in their pocket back then.  There was no sidewalk, so I walked on the edge of the shoulder of the road. It was kind of mesmerizing, and I felt real joy in it. The sun was out, low, and the fields were dusted with snow.  Coming past a house, I smelled a turkey roasting; it was November, but not Thanksgiving. That smell filled me up, a gift.

Soon after that, a car came by. A woman leaned out and offered to give me a ride into the town where I was going. I accepted, and sat down in that small warm space and she took me to where I needed to go. My car was towed, and then it was fixed. I went on my way. Life was, and is, good.

Wednesday, November 23, 2016


Over 1,000 commuttions...

Yesterday, President Obama granted 79 more commutations, bringing the total to over 1,000 (though probably not in response to my article in the Star-Tribune).

It's an important landmark, and something to be glad for this Thanksgiving. I think that we need to incarcerate some people, but that we lock up too many for too long, and this has been a good way to address that problem.

There is a lot more to do, though. I'm not laying out here everything that I have been doing, but there is a lot going on. It is going to be a busy few months.

For now, though, I am going to enjoy this holiday tomorrow, and be thankful. It is my favorite holiday, after all.

Tuesday, November 22, 2016


My Thanksgiving Message

Every year, the spectacle of the President pardoning turkeys gets me upset. Turkeys! There are so many actual people who need commutations and pardons-- and who have earned them.

And every year I write a little piece in protest. Previously, these have appeared in the Washington Post, the Detroit News, the Waco Tribune Herald and a few other places. This year's edition is probably my favorite, since I messed with the form a little. It appears in the Minneapolis Star Tribune today-- you can read it here.

Monday, November 21, 2016



Ok, I loved Jill Scoggins' haiku:

Photo of pageant
winners captioned as "sinners."
Ladies not amused.

And I cringed just as MKS wanted:

A report for work
Forgot the L in public
You can't trust spellcheck. 

Sunday, November 20, 2016


Sunday Reflection: Good-Bye, Hilly Kinton

Last Sunday I was reading the Times and came across Jesse Wegman's piece about a Hillary Clinton action figure (which his daughter called "Hilly Kinton"). It was beautiful and sad. It still is rolling around in my head, and I think it perfectly reflects my mood.

A lot of people are angry about this election, but to people like me it feels more like a deep wound to the soul. Our work has been premised on an idea of America-- one that is fundamentally good, able to change, and moving towards what is better-- and this election seems a repudiation of that idea. I have thought that we are moving along that arc of history far down the line from Bull Connor and the fire hoses. Now I wonder not whether we are still moving forward, but whether that arc really does bend towards justice, or even exists at all.

Here in Minnesota the most prominent minority, Somalis, have the distinction of being immigrants and black and Muslim.  The stories (from eyewitnesses) in the wake of the election are harrowing: fights in the hallways, girls' hijabs being torn off. In nearby Iowa, similar things are happening.

I suppose that this is what if feels like to lose an idea, an idea at the center of your being. So what do we do?

First, I guess we (those of us working on clemency) will try to free the prisoners we can. Now that we know that Senator Sessions will be the AG, I think the right analogy is the last chopper out of Saigon. We just need to make sure it is as big as possible.

Second, we need to accept that elections have consequences. Donald Trump won this election. Those of us who did not support him have to actively analyze why he did, and how we can get a different outcome in the future.  

Saturday, November 19, 2016


Harvard & Yale: More than a game

Today is the annual Harvard-Yale game, an event that usually is completely irrelevant on the sports landscape (except for two years ago when Sportscenter went to Boston for the match) but still kind of fascinating. 

The two schools play an unusual role in the American imagination. Actually, I should say roles because people imagine them differently. For example, in a comment to a humor piece in the Yale paper about the game, someone (probably unaffiliated with either school) had this to say:

Harvard, and Yale, are Social Justice Warrior Academies producing obedient drones for imposing Soros' Open Society. Look around you, it's hard to miss. 

In rolling the comment around in my mind, I started to list the contemporary conservative political figures who got a degree from Harvard or Yale (or, in some cases, both):

Steve Bannon
Tom Cotton
Mitt Romney
George H.W. Bush
George W. Bush
Pat Robertson
Bill O'Reilly
Antonin Scalia
Samuel Alito
Clarence Thomas
Kris Kobach
Ted Cruz
David Vitter
Ben Sasse
Mike Pompeo
Chris Wallace

That is just off the top of my head; there certainly are many more.

The point is this: Harvard and Yale aren't an "academy" for either the right or left. The problem is that they are the academies for both the right and the left.

Friday, November 18, 2016


Haiku Friday: Oops!

Sometimes it just takes one little mistake to mess everything up... I'm certainly not immune. Just yesterday, I posted that it was "Haiku Friday." Oops.

Let's haiku about little mistakes, the ones that turn out to be important (or not). The human moments, you know?  Here, I will go first:

Seemed a good idea
To paint the van with house paint
That did not work out!

Now it is your turn... just show a little love, use the 5/7/5 syllable plan, and have some fun!

Thursday, November 17, 2016


Political Mayhem Thursday: Term Limits

I spent the start of this week in Washington DC, and people there are confused, worried, and turned around. The election of Donald Trump was not foreseen by either side, really. There is a lot to say about the whole thing, but let's start with a small, digestible bit.

Right off the bat, Trump repeated his argument for Congressional term limits, On 60 Minutes he said “We’re going to put on term limits, which a lot of people aren’t happy about, but we’re putting on term limits.”  

It's not hard to guess who is not "happy" about this, of course: Congress. They like the job, and don't want to give it up. Some of them have been in Congress for most of their adult lives. 

There are strong arguments for term limits, but because of gerrymandering many if not most congressional elections will not be competitive no matter who is running-- they were constructed to be won by one party or the other.

So what do you think about the idea of term limits?

Wednesday, November 16, 2016


The Pope on hope

This is from his homily on Nov. 6:

Today we celebrate the Jubilee of Mercy for you and with you, our brothers and sisters who are imprisoned. Mercy, as the expression of God’s love, is something we need to think about more deeply. Certainly, breaking the law involves paying the price, and losing one’s freedom is the worst part of serving time, because it affects us so deeply. All the same, hope must not falter. Paying for the wrong we have done is one thing, but another thing entirely is the “breath” of hope, which cannot be stifled by anyone or anything. Our heart always yearns for goodness. We are in debt to the mercy that God constantly shows us, for he never abandons us (cf. Augustine, Sermo 254:1).

In his Letter to the Romans, the Apostle Paul speaks of God as “the God of hope” (15:13). It is as if Paul wants to say also to us: “God hopes”. While this may seem paradoxical, it is true: God hopes! His mercy gives him no rest. He is like that Father in the parable, who keeps hoping for the return of his son who has fallen by the wayside (Lk 15:11-32). God does not rest until he finds the sheep that was lost (Lk 15:5). So if God hopes, then no one should lose hope.

Tuesday, November 15, 2016


Pain and hope and fear

I am in Washington for a series of clemency events. Last night there was a vigil in front of the White House with people who have received clemency, family members who are waiting, and others (including Van Jones, who organized it).

The setting was stark: cloudy, with a Supermoon cutting though. I suppose that was fitting. We could not stand right by the White House in Lafayette Park, because the scaffolding is being built for Donald Trump's inauguration. I suppose that, too, is fitting.

I was able to see and talk to many of the people who have contacted me over the past several years. Some I have been able to help, others I could not. 

One of them was a woman I have corresponded with for years, whose brother is incarcerated for a non-violent narcotics offense. She has been a remarkable advocate and hero, pushing me and others to take on his case (I prepared and submitted his petition earlier this year). As we talked, she told me about the sleepless nights and worry, the disappointment that her brother has not been on the lists of those given clemency, and the slam of despair that came with the election of Donald Trump for her and other African-Americans. I gave her something, something ancient and precious, and she broke down. I held her as she sobbed, all the sadness and heartbreak pouring out of her. It was deep and real and true, for both of us.

And this, too, in the long nightshadow of the People's House.

Monday, November 14, 2016


Haiku in a new age

Wow! You guys did some good work. I admire Gavin's the most:

Five word short story
"For Sale: Pantsuits. Never worn."
That's the Heming-way!

Desiree (aka the Green Momster) told what must be the truth:

Indoor composting.
Sounds cool. Order worms online.
Fruit flies invade home.

David, are you SURE she liked you?

I liked her and she
liked me, so I kissed her lips,
then she ran away.

This from the Dirt Devil himself:

I was ten years old.
"Wait a sec! Vacuums clean things!
I'm done with laundry!"

Tried to vacuum the
dirt off of my clothes. Turns out
that there's a reason

You do laundry. You
can't clean with vacuums. Plus, I
kinda broke the vacuum.

And finally, Steve set out what others were thinking:

Molotov cocktails
Were sent to the D N C
By mad working people.

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