Thursday, December 20, 2012

Newtown: A Nightmare, and a Brief Call to Action

One week ago tonight, I was on the back end of a business trip to Texas. My computer buzzed; Lori was calling me on google. I put the call on video. Elianna got on, then Aaron. Elianna put devil's horns on her head, then a mustache on Aaron's face. It was funny and silly and care-free. But I also missed my kids, and was counting down until I could be home again.

Early Friday afternoon, a holiday lunch was ending. The mood in the room was cheerful, volunteers were wrapping gifts for children served by a local charity. I checked facebook on my phone. A message said, "unable to move," and then, "god bless the 26, 18 of which were children. There are no words for this." I looked across the table, and asked to those who were still there, "Was there a shooting somewhere today?" Inevitably, the sad answer was yes.

It is my worst nightmare. I expect it is the worst nightmare of many, many parents. We drop our kids off at school, we wish them a great tell, tell them that we love them, we expect they will reunite when the school day is over... I saw a picture of Noah Pozner, the youngest of the children to die. He had just turned 6 years old. A winter coat, dark hair sticking up in back, sweetly smiling, big eyelashes. He looked not altogether unlike I looked at that age.

Shortly after, I read a blog post entitled, I Am Adam Lanza's Mother. It was a cry of help from a mother who feared for her mentally ill child, and in fear of her mentally ill child. She wrote: "In the wake of another horrific national tragedy, it's easy to talk about guns. But it's time to talk about mental illness." The post went viral. Her small personal blog, which had received very few comments in its 4 year history, got thousands of new comments. On facebook, the post was liked more than a million times. The mother, Liza Long, was right: It is time - past time - to talk about mental illness.

Fortunately, relatively few of us who are parents will ever have the issues that Ms. Long claims, or that Mrs. Lanza had. But just having a child, that we know. We're already there.

I am not Noah Pozner's father. I don't pretend to be. But his reality is my nightmare. There is only so much a parent can do to protect their kids. So I do want to talk about guns. I want to talk about too many guns that can do too much damage and that can all too easily end up in the hands of people who are all too willing to use those guns to kill others. At 31 school shootings since Columbine, we are nationally out of control.

Adam Lanza's mother was described as a "gun enthusiast" who was very careful with her guns. She acquired her weapons legally. She broke no laws by having those guns in the home along with a child she knew to be mentally ill; one media report claimed that just days before the attack, she confided to a drinking buddy that "I'm worried I'm losing him." But the guns remained, legally, right up until the moment her son used one of them to kill her.

I'll start there. Whatever laws need to be changed so that the next parent can't have those guns in that place, change those laws. The combinations of the weapons and magazines and ammunition that the murderer used, there is no reason for civilians ever to have those. The 2nd Amendment protects the right of the people to bear arms; it does not protect the right of all people to bear all arms and all ammunition in any quantity. Many people have written sensible suggestions; some of the best I've seen have come from the Nicholas Kristof of New York Times.

If you agree, you can write your congressman or your senator. Stand up and be counted.
If you would like to sign an online petition, here are links to two of them:

Mayors Against Illegal Guns

New York Daily News

ADDENDUM: On December 21, Wayne LaPierre, chief executive of the National Rifle Association (NRA), called on Congress to "to appropriate whatever is necessary to put armed police officers in every school in this nation." This is wrong, on so many levels. Presumably he'll be back to propose more appropriations for shopping malls, movie theaters, school buses, Jungle Javas, McDonald's Play Places, Chuck E. Cheeses, and anywhere else people -- especially children -- gather in large numbers. LaPierre didn't even have the decency to propose that appropriations come from new gun or ammunition taxes. Their answer to too many guns, is to add ever more guns.

This must stop. Stand up and be counted.

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

"Vacated" is short for "Vindicated": Bounties, the New Orleans Saints and the NFL, concluded

In August, I wrote a blog post called Bounties, the New Orleans Saints, and the NFL. The post was just my personal thoughts on the then 5-months old public flogging of the New Orleans Saints organization, from its highest management level to its defensive players. While I noted that certain coaches of the Saints were "a bit detached from what I might call 'normal'," what seemed inescapable to me at the time was that the league had not presented "any evidence of a bounty program." The league, led by commissioner Roger Goodell, suspended 4 current or former Saints players, for terms of up to one year.

The league was required, per its Collective Bargaining Agreement (CBA) with the NFL Players Association (NFLPA), to provide the evidence upon which it intended to rely, as part of the players appeal process. Those exhibits are still retrievable from the NFLPA website. Although the league trumpeted those exhibits as "overwhelming," I found the exhibits to be, at best, amateurish attempts to dress up a bad case. Some pundits agreed, but I was in a distinct minority with them. Comments on discussion boards such as at espn.com decisively sided with the league; almost anyone who wasn't a Saints fan seemed overly eager to display their toughness by demanding the accused players to "man up" and accept their punishments. Not being a Saints fan, I had little company.

Since my initial post, it became apparent that nearly all of the league's evidence came from two former coaches. One of the coaches may have been carrying out a vendetta for having been fired by the Saints (that that coach was subsequently hired by Princeton University gives me some pause, when considering the judgment within the Ivy League); the other coach -- who did author some batshit crazy powerpoint decks -- was apparently threatened with a lifetime ban from the NFL if he did not "co-operate" (i.e., give up the names of "guilty" players). Both coaches, according to various reports, attempted to recant either partially or completely.

Commissioner Goodell had authority to rule on the appeals. "Policeman, prosecutor, judge, jury and appeals court, if you will," was how I put it in August. The players, nonetheless, demanded that Goodell recuse himself. One of the players had filed a defamation suit against Goodell in Federal Court and the judge had seemed sympathetic. Goodell turned the appeals over to his predecessor, former NFL Commissioner Paul Tagliabue.

Over these past 4 months I also noticed something else in my blog space. My August post started getting hits. More hits than any of my personal posts, more hits than most of my music posts. It seems that a search on some combination of "Saints," "NFL," and "bounties" managed to find the page in some search engines. Recently, the hit rate picked up. Not many hits, but more than enough for me to notice. I'd like to think that more than a few others saw the case for what it was... or perhaps more accurately, what it wasn't.

Today, the case ended. Commissioner Tagliabue vacated the suspensions against the four players. Tagliabue issued a brief statement, that included this: ""My affirmation of Commissioner Goodell's findings could easily justify the issuance of fines." The word "affirmation" may seem to support Goodell, but the rest of the statement gives it away: This was never a bounty program. Commissioner Tagliabue's statement is consistent with how a competent Commissioner might approach a garden-variety pay-for-performance program, more commonly known as a "kitty."

Naturally, the very people who insisted that the players "man up" are now circling the wagons. Witness Sports Illustrated's Peter King. King was completely snookered by the NFL's sham evidence in June and wasn't exactly saying, "I was wrong" or "I was fooled by a PR campaign." But no one denies that Commissioner Goodell has lost this case -- and perhaps his grip on the job of NFL Commissioner.

The case against the players is over. I don't know if Jonathan Vilma will continue with his defamation case against Goodell. The Saints hardly "won"; their 2012 season has been a disaster, due no doubt in substantial part to their head coach and top assistant having been suspended as part of this case. Even the underlying issue of "pay to injure" has long since faded; in each of the past two weeks active players have died the day before a game, in horrific events. The league plainly has more important things to deal with than trumped up charges from things that may or may not have been said 3 years ago. For a day, though, I'll take a moment out and cheer a bit of justice, however rationalized, and however delayed.

Saturday, December 08, 2012

Graham Parker and the Rumour in Downtown Newton, NJ, December 7, 2012

Graham Parker and the Rumour at the Newton Theater, December 7, 2012 (photo: Aaron Orel)
The Newton Theater is a 605 seat theater in the small town of Newton, New Jersey. That's up in the northwest corner of the state, and I expect that even people who grew up in New Jersey -- like me -- generally have no idea where it is. The theater was built in the 1920s and has gone in and out of operation, most recently re-opening as a concert venue in late 2011.

Last night Graham Parker and the Original Rumour appeared at the completely sold-out theater, playing a non-nonsense mix of songs originally recorded with The Rumour, post-Rumour songs, as well as most of Parker's newest album, Three Chords Good. Parker certainly knew where he was: as I heard one amused fan saying it on a bathroom run just prior to the show starting, "we're in bumblefuck New Jersey!" But if Parker is, as my brother described, "the best rocker no one's heard of," the Newton Theater might be the prettiest little theater (with a wonderful no-frills pizza joint right next door) in the nicest looking little town that no one's ever seen.

Parker and the band took the stage as Bruce Springsteen's version of Jersey Girl played, and quickly launched in to Fools' Gold, from the 1976 album Heat Treatment.Parker easily integrated his new material in to the show, eventually performing 7 of its 12 tracks. Early on in this mix, Parker said it was time to get the "controversial" song out of the way, referring to the politically charged Coathangers.  Another highlights among the new songs was Old Soul; Parker called it his favorite among the new songs.

The setlist included Watch The Moon Come Down, which will be included in the upcoming Judd Apatow movie This is 40. Noting that the movie is to be released on December 21st, the same day as the supposed Mayan end of the world, Parker advised the audience to see a matinee on the day of release.

Don't Ask Me Questions
Unlike other concerts I've seen with band members changing out instruments between nearly every song, there were no guitar techs in sight last night. Parker -- dressed in a button down shirt and with shades that would have gone well in 1979 -- had two guitars: an acoustic and an electric. The other band members stayed on their basic instruments the full evening. Martin Belmont and Brinsley Schwarz traded off on the guitar solos, each adding their own distinctive sound to the mix. Last night's set also included the tour debut of the title track from Howlin Wind, a crisp performance the segued seamlessly in to the new song Live in the Shadows.

Throughout the show, Parker repeatedly referenced his location ("downtown Newton") and his history with New Jersey, and this inevitably led to mock-horrified remembrances of other bands that sold more records than The Rumour (Christopher Cross ended up on the wrong end of one particularly biting reference). He had nicer things to say about New Jersey natives The Smithereens. The audience ate it up.

After the show, Martin Belmont remarked that playing and recording together again was "easy," and that many of the new album performances were first takes. Hopefully, more people in easier-to-find places will be able to discover this for themselves.

(note: the first edit of this post misidentified the song used in "This is 40." I have corrected it.)