First Sentences

“The killer came by streetcar.” David Zucchino, Wilmington’s Lie: The Murderous Coup of 1898 and the Rise of White Supremacy.

“From across the aisle Harry Bosch looked into his partner’s cubicle and watched him conduct his daily ritual of straightening the corners on his stacks of files, clearing the paperwork from the center of his desk and finally placed his rinsed-out coffee cup in a desk drawer.” Michael Connelly, Nine Dragons.

“Let’s look beneath the ice-chipped surface of a fish counter at a Whole Foods in New York City.” Benjamin Lorr, The Secret Life of Groceries: The Dark Miracle of the American Supermarket.

“It all started one afternoon early in May when I came out of the House of Commons with Tommy Deloraine.” John Buchan, The Power-House.

“Imagine an archaeologist, thousands of years from now, whose trowel clangs against something solid.” Edward Dolnick, The Writing of the Gods: The Race to Decode the Rosetta Stone.

“He no longer feels cold; instead, a curious heat is spreading through his veins.” Arnaldur Indridason, Strange Shores.

“The Headquarters Building at the Central Intelligence Agency in Langley, Virginia, is a grim maze of identical corridors flanked by blank, color-coded office doors that are always shut tight.” Nicholas Dawidoff, The Catcher Was a Spy: The Mysterious Life of Moe Berg.

“On the first Monday in March 1901, in the early evening when the sound of sleigh bells filled the air, a student unexpectedly knocked at my door.” Lauren Belfer, City of Light.

“These are the fisherman who stand sentry over the cod stocks off the headlands of North America, the fisherman who went to sea but forgot their pencil.” Mark Kurlansky, Cod: A Biography of the Fish that Changed the World (1997).

“The last time I’d eaten at the Watergrill I sat across the table from a client who had coldly and calculatedly murdered his wife and her lover, shooting both of them in the face.” Michael Connelly, The Reversal.

“Years ago, as a medical student in Boston, I watched a senior surgeon operate on a woman.” Siddhartha Mukherjee, The Laws of Medicine: Field Notes From an Uncertain Science.

“I have no intention of explaining how the correspondence which I now offer to the public fell into my hands.” C.S. Lewis, The Screwtape Letters.

“The story of modern cancer research begins, improbably, with the sea urchin.” Sam Apple, Ravenous: Otto Warburg, the Nazis, and the Search for the Cancer-Diet Connection.


His ex-wife said a Republican seeking a senate seat had physically abused her and their son. Previously, he had left office when it was learned that he had taken pictures of his naked hairstylist without her consent. Am I being sexist if I think that it should disqualify any male from being elected to office if he has a hairstylist?

We have honored people by naming parks, craters, stars, mountains, prizes, streets, buildings, campuses, and more after them. Doctors, however, often have maladies named after them. Do they like that?

The Supreme Court justice was hospitalized for an infection. He stayed in the hospital longer than first predicted. We were told that he did not have Covid, but there was nothing said further about the nature of the infection. How many of us were hoping that it was related to an STD?

Nearly 90% of American students attend public secondary schools. Only three of the present nine Supreme Court justices did. None of the justices attended a public college, university, or law school.

The Final Four is alliterative. Did the NCAA phrasemongers also think Elite Eight and Sweet Sixteen were alliterations?

I have been trying but failing to understand who comprise “the elites” conservatives rail against. Are the Elite Eight in that group or do they comprise it?

I received a letter “signed” by Donald J. Trump urging me to become a member of the Republican National Committee. It did not offer me any membership benefits but urged a money contribution. The letter pointed out Biden’s less than stellar poll numbers and continued, “And my polls are at an all-time high.” I wondered about that and went to RealClearPolitics, which aggregates polls. It reported that Trump’s favorability number was 44.6 and his unfavorable rating was 50.8. They are a bit better than Biden’s, which were 42.5 and 52.0, but would you brag about polls that show the majority of the country views you with distaste?

The letter’s salutation from the RNC signed by Trump was “Dear Fellow Patriot.” And I have thought that “Trump, the patriot” was a very short joke.

Why is it that some jokes are painful if told by the comedian but make me laugh when told by a ventriloquist’s dummy?

“A different taste in jokes is a great strain on the affections.” George Eliot.

Even though the book review interview stated that the author had written many books and I have not, I felt as if I were the same as the writer when the interview reported that the novelist can’t read Proust anymore.

Proper perspective. After that incident that got a lot of attention at the Oscars, a Brooklyn news source had the headline, “Brooklyn Man Gets Slapped on National TV.”

The Words Fail (concluded)

Although I was a criminal defense attorney, that work included no child pornography cases. My first personal involvement with a child pornography charge came in my teaching career when a colleague–I will call him Fred–was arrested for having pornographic images of children on his work computer. Subsequently, many more such images were found on his home computer.

These events led to many reports in all sorts of media including on Fox’s O’Reilly show before charges of sexual harassment led to a change in Bill’s career path. (I was invited to enter that “no-spin zone” to discuss Fred’s situation. I declined.) In media accounts, Fred was invariably described as a “child pornographer,” and I began to think about what that label conveyed. What does the term elicit for you?

Fred, in fact, was in a long-term, successful marriage. He had two daughters doing well in elite schools. They described him as a loving, supportive father. He had a successful academic career. He had never sought out any untoward contact with any children. Neither colleagues nor students had ever indicated anything wrong with his behavior (other than that he could be boring.) He did look at images that most of us would find disgusting and that a psychologist did say indicated an arrested sexuality, but if so, no one could find any harm from it in his personal or professional life.

And when you hear someone is a child pornographer, what activities do you think that person has engaged in? Someone procures the children. Someone puts them into a sexual situation. Sometimes that may involve two similarly aged children, but it may also be an adult or older child raping or otherwise sexually abusing a child. Someone arranges the location of the activities. Someone takes pictures of the abuse. If it is internet porn, someone uploads images, perhaps to a website monitored by another person. If there are payments for others to view or download the images, someone operates a system to transfer funds.  Then someone views and often downloads the images. That person might keep this activity private or share images with others.

Fred was the last person in this chain. He had learned ways to download these images without payment, but he did not share the pictures with anyone. (He freely talked with the police when arrested. They were very interested in how such images could be viewed or downloaded without paying. Fred showed them how.) Every so often he looked at some of them; too many had been downloaded for all of them to ever have been viewed. It was his dirty, guilty secret; it was his addiction and sickness which had afflicted him from childhood.

I learned from Fred and from subsequent exposure to similar cases from public defenders that the downloaders–like Fred–were labeled “child pornographers.”  But I have also seen that in the all-too-rare circumstances when those who create or distribute the images are arrested, they, too, were called “child pornographers.” We don’t have separate terms for the different activities. It is as if the international drug smuggler, the meth manufacturer, the local drug seller, the doctor over-prescribing opioids, and the drug addict were all just labeled drug offenders without any distinctions.

The Senate “conservatives” who were trying to suggest that Jackson was soft on child pornography lumped this entire network of child pornographers into one category. If, however, a sentencing judge makes distinctions among the offenses and the offenders as she ought to do–and naturally would do for drug offenses–some of the sentencing would appear wrong to the simple-minded Senators.

Of course, the Senatorial simple mindedness may have been calculated merely to tar Jackson, but their motivations may have been even worse. A few years ago, it might have seemed unlikely that members of the august Senate would pander to QAnon conspiracists, who see child pornographers and sex traffickers around every pizza parlor. Now, however, “conservative” politicians do, and whether intentionally or not, the suggestion that the Supreme Court nominee favors pedophiles feeds the Q crazies.

Even if their questions were well-intentioned, the exchanges were still discouraging because they showed basic flaws in reasoning and revealed a frightening authoritarian streak. That Jackson gave “light” sentences to some has little meaning without comparisons. How often did she give “heavy” sentences to others convicted of pornography crimes? And what about the “control” group? How often have other judges given supposedly light sentences for child pornography? If many in the judiciary have done as much, this could indicate that there is something wrong with the sentencing laws covering these offenses. This should compel a congressional consideration of whether these laws can be made better, more nuanced. But, of course, while today’s Congress may revel in and seek to create gotcha moments, they seldom show much interest in making our laws better.

Finally, some Senators maintained the sentences were inappropriate because they were less than the prosecutor recommended. These Senators should be required to take many, many hours of remedial civics classes. We don’t need sentencing judges if they are supposed to unquestioningly follow what the prosecutor says. The Senators should know that if judges just do what prosecutors want, a little more of our freedom dies, but apparently that would be consistent with the new conservatism.

The Words Fail

          I have not watched the televised hearings about the nomination of Ketanji Jackson Brown to the Supreme Court and have not deeply immersed myself in the news reports of them, but I gather that there has been a barrage of questions about sentencing for child pornography offenses. The queries have often shown an ignorance or a willful disregard for some basic criminal law principles that the lawyers who have attended elite law schools and clerked for federal judges should know.

          The law draws distinctions among related criminal behaviors to grade the culpability of the crimes and the possible sentences. For instance, I intend to kill Ted and I do kill him. While the wording of statutes is not precisely the same in all jurisdictions, in New York I have committed murder. The legislature has mandated a life sentence for that crime and gives the sentencing judge discretion of a minimum sentence between fifteen and twenty-five years.

          Assume that I intend to kill Josh, but I only wound him. Now I am guilty of attempted murder, which has a lesser sentence than for murder. But what if I do not intend to kill Tom but seriously injure him, and he dies? Although states use different labels for this crime, most places would say I have committed manslaughter, which has a lighter punishment than does murder. If I intended to injure Ted, Josh, and Tom but none dies, I have committed an assault, a crime that also has gradations.

          This all follows a common sense that the public shares. We think intentional killing is more heinous than unintentional killing. This is true for other crimes. We hear “armed robbery” and we think that is worse than other kinds of robberies. The criminal statutes reflect that common sense opinion.

          Child pornography statutes, however, often are different with little attempt to make distinctions among offenses or to grade culpability. This approach does not punish the worst offenders more severely than others.

          When I was a public defender, I did not have any child pornography cases. In those pre-internet days, few arrests were made for the offense. I, however, represented many people charged with drug offenses, and crimes, which we shall see, bear resemblances to child pornography.

          The illegal drug cases were broken down into categories that reflected judgments on the culpability of the offenders. The basic distinction was between sellers and possessors of controlled substances, which reflected the basic common-sense conclusion that drug pushers had committed worse crimes than those who only used the drugs. Sellers deserved, and got, more punishment than mere users.

Furthermore, both the possessor and seller categories had gradations by amounts. The greater the quantity sold, the more serious the offense. If I told a colleague that I had just been assigned a “sale case,” the immediate response invariably was, “How much?” That meant how much was the weight of the drugs allegedly sold. A sale of a kilo of heroin was a much different offense from pushing a few grams.

  The seriousness of possession cases, too, was measured by amounts, but for a different reason. Possessing more drugs was not necessarily worse than possessing a lesser amount if the drugs were to be used by the possessor, but the assumption was that a person possessing a large quantity of drugs was not possessing them solely for personal use. Instead, the possession of a large amount indicated that the person was really a seller. Thus, because he possessed with intent to sell, he should be punished more like a seller than a user. Once again, both the law and popular culture tried to distinguish among the drug offenses.

In state court, I never dealt with another category of drug offenders—the importer, the smuggler, or the manufacturer of a drug. We would simply call the smuggler or the meth cooker a “drug seller,” for they will sell their product, but that label does not suffice to categorize their criminality.  If you believe in our drug laws, the importer’s or manufacturer’s culpability is worse than the “clocker” selling drugs on a street corner. (If you are not familiar with that term, or even if you are, I highly recommend Clockers by Richard Price.) And of course, the culpability becomes worse the greater the amount of drugs made, imported, or sold.

My point is that we almost instinctively make what seem like natural distinctions among drug offenses and do not put the same label on all offenders. We require more information than the mere statement that a person is a drug offender.

This does not mean the gradations perfectly mirror culpabilities. For example, I represented a woman who was a user of drugs and, sadly, a prostitute in what was then a scruffy part of Brooklyn. An undercover police officer “befriended” her and offered her $50 if she would lead him to people who could sell him a kilo of heroin. After much beseeching by him, and after she made some inquiries, she led the cop to some major drug dealers who sold a kilo to the cop. She was charged with acting in concert with the big sellers although all agreed she stood to get only $50 from the transaction. For that she got a life sentence.

The drug gradations may not have been perfect, but it is right, and seemingly natural, that we make such distinctions. We recognize that all the behaviors concerning the drug trade are not equally culpable and should not be lumped together. Our response has been different for child pornography.

(Concluded March 28)

No Public Defender Need Apply . . . (concluded)

          Republicans have attacked judicial nominees for having been public defenders, that is, for having defended poor people charged with crimes. These critics may be trying to raise a soft-on-crime banner, but they aren’t pledging fealty to the Constitution when they do so. These “conservatives” do not seem to know an important decision made by our Founders about defense counsel and our fundamental rights.

          You might take it for granted that those accused of crimes can have a lawyer to aid with their defense and assume that that right goes back to time immemorial, but when our country was formed, English law did not permit a defense counsel in criminal cases. It was not just that English law did not provide a lawyer for a person who could not hire one. Instead, those charged with felonies, even those facing execution, were forbidden from having an attorney.

          Our founders rejected those English restrictions. The Sixth Amendment to the Constitution, which followed state constitutions that had already granted the right, guaranteed the right to a defense lawyer in criminal cases: “In all criminal prosecutions,” it states, “the accused shall enjoy the right . . . to have the assistance of counsel for his defence.”

          This was not some abstract right for the founders for they acted as those lawyers to defend unpopular clients charged with crimes. For example, there was this one future president….

          On March 5, 1770, while British soldiers were occupying Boston, a dispute erupted at the Custom House. The soldiers, led by Captain Thomas Preston, opened fire. Three Bostonians were instantly killed, and two others died soon afterwards. The event became known as the Boston Massacre.

          The soldiers were tried for murder in two separate trials. Captain Preston was prosecuted first, and the rest of the soldiers jointly tried later. With the defendants claiming self-defense as justification, Preston and five of the other soldiers were acquitted by juries, while two others were convicted only of manslaughter. 

          The lead counsel for the reviled defendants was John Adams—yes, that same John Adams who was our first vice-president and our second president. His defense did not stand in the way of these later political successes even if today some Republican senators would try to use his  advocacy to prevent him from serving in the federal government. Adams, however, was proud of his action. Three years after the trials, as the drums of the Revolution beat ever louder, Adams wrote that a “Judgment of Death against those Soldiers would have been as foul a Stain upon this Country as the Executions of the Quakers or Witches, anciently.” The right to defense counsel that existed in Massachusetts had helped prevent that blot.

          John Adams was not the only lawyer of the founding generation to act as a defense counsel for the unpopular. Gulielma Sands lived in a New York City boarding house run by her cousin and her cousin’s husband, Catherine and Elias Ring. On December 22, 1799, Sands left that house never to return. On January 2, 1800, her body was fished out of the Manhattan Well. Newspapers flooded the town with rumors suggesting that fellow boarder, Levi Weeks, had killed her.

          Public titillation ran high and only a fraction of those seeking to attend the subsequent trial of Weeks got into the crowded courtroom. The case seemed simple but damning for Weeks. The prosecution maintained that he and Sands had become intimate. He had promised to marry her. People in the boardinghouse thought that the two had left the house together on December 22 for their marriage. Weeks returned later that evening, however, and claimed not to have been with her. A few days later, a boy found Sands’s muff in the Manhattan Well, and on January 2 her body was recovered. Doctors said that she had been strangled before being thrown into the well, and Weeks had intimated that her body was there before that fact was publicly known.

          The defense attorneys brilliantly shredded every part of the prosecution case, and Weeks was acquitted by a jury after five minutes of deliberations despite the publicity against him. The acquittal, however, did not return his standing in New York. He remained despised as a seducer and murderer and soon left for Mississippi.

          While the accused did not recover his reputation, the defense of this unpopular person did not tarnish his lawyers. People may have had many negative thoughts today and back then about Aaron Burr, soon to be vice-president, and Alexander Hamilton, but none stem from their defense of Levi Weeks. (Although they were political enemies, Burr and Hamilton appeared in the same courtroom, sometimes on the same side as in the Weeks trial and sometimes as opponents, during nearly every important legal case in New York City after the Revolution.) A third lawyer, Brockholst Livingston, joined them at the defense table. His participation did not stop Thomas Jefferson from nominating him to the Supreme Court, where he served for seventeen years. (Don’t take all your history from musicals. Hamilton refers to the Weeks trial, but has it set at an incorrect time.)

          The founders guaranteed a right to counsel. The founders acted as defense counsel. Today they would be attacked for this.

          Conservatives, however, attack public defenders for another reason. Those defenders do not just represent those accused of crimes. They represent the poor, the outcast, the powerless, and that also makes the defenders dangerous to Republican senators who apparently think that only those who have served the rich and powerful should be in the government, and that is especially true for the Supreme Court.

No Public Defenders Need Apply for the Supreme Court

          Joe Biden has nominated Ketanji Brown Jackson to be a Supreme Court Justice. And this is where we now are on judicial nominees: Republicans know they will oppose her nomination, so they are now looking for reasons to justify that opposition. Lucky for them she was a public defender because now they can vilify her as being lax on crime.

          Other Biden judicial nominees who were public defenders have been asked by Senators Tom Cotton, Josh Hawley, and Ted Cruz questions that boil down to, “How could you represent such scum?” Public defenders are not surprised by this question at social gatherings from people who do not fully grasp our legal system. On the other hand, Cotton, Hawley, and Cruz have degrees from some of the country’s finest law schools. The all clerked for federal judges, two of them for Supreme Court justices. You might expect them to understand American justice and recognize the importance of defense lawyers in that system, but their comments only reveal either their ignorance or their disingenuousness.

          The Senators, however, are selective in their disdain for lawyers who represent criminals or those accused of crimes. When I taught, some students would tell me that they could never represent organized crime. My response was, “I guess you are not going into corporate law then.” I was only being semi-flip. Although corporate crime has seldom been a high prosecutorial priority, many corporations have defended themselves in our criminal justice system. For example, to avoid criminal prosecution in 2015, General Motors paid a $900 million fine for hiding a fatal ignition switch defect responsible for 174 deaths. (How often has a public defender had a client linked to 174 deaths?) As a result of charges filed in 1996, Archer Daniels Midland pleaded guilty to criminal antitrust violations for fixing prices and paid a fine of $100 million. In 2013, Halliburton pleaded guilty to charges stemming from an oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico that killed eleven people. In 2021, United Airlines paid over $49 million to resolve criminal charges and civil claims on postal service contracts.

          You can play a little parlor game: Put into a search engine the name of a corporation and “criminal” or “felony” conviction and see how many hits you get. You can go further and put in the name of a major financial institution together with “fraud” and see what comes up. You might learn that investment firms paid over $20 billion to settle fraud claims from the sale of mortgage-backed securities in 2005 to 2007, behavior that might have been criminally prosecuted.

          In other words, if you know a corporate attorney, there is a good chance that you know somebody who works for, and presumably gets well paid by, a criminal. But there is little chance that you would hear those lawyers derided by Republican senators because of their clients.

          True conservatives who are concerned about checking governmental power and overreach should, of course, be thanking, not denigrating, public defenders. The government has the power to criminally investigate and punish people. Right wingers screech about this power only when other right wingers are caught up in our criminal justice system, but true conservatives should be concerned with the appropriateness of this authority all the time. Since defenders provide a check on governmental power and overreach, they should be celebrated by those who claim conservative credentials.

          I am not surprised when “conservatives” pandering for partisan gain do not uphold conservative principles, but I still found some recent comments by the Republican National Committee noteworthy. A news story reported that the RNC “in a background paper on her nomination for the high court referred to Judge Jackson’s ‘advocacy for these terrorists’ [imprisoned at the U.S. military prison at Guantanamo Bay] as ‘going beyond just giving them a competent defense.’” If an attorney for the government at Guantanamo were a judicial nominee, I doubt the RNC would label the lawyer an advocate for torture even though it has been established that detainees were tortured. More startling, however, is that conservatives are trying to vilify Jackson for going beyond competence in her job. They apparently don’t want people who do their jobs too well on the Supreme Court. Mediocrity is good enough.

          And while I assume the Senators Cruz, Cotton, and Hawley have proclaimed that they want Supreme Court justices who are “originalists,” these conservatives would appear to be ignorant of the importance placed on defense advocacy by the founders of the country. Our Constitution expressly rejected English law and guaranteed a right to counsel because of the important role defense attorneys had for preserving American freedom.

(continued March 23)

The Humanitarian War: An Oxymoron?


          A few postings back, I asked readers to compare and contrast the Russian invasion of Ukraine with America’s 2003 invasion of Iraq. Some who responded saw nothing to compare. For them, Russia was evil and the U.S. good. Others took a diametrically different stance and saw the two events as fundamentally the same since both were based on lies, or–as those more generous towards America put it–on premises that should have been known to be false.           From a smart, learned, and thought-provoking friend, however, I got a more detailed and nuanced response about the two invasions in which he listed more than a few similarities and differences that I had not thought about.

More of his comments may be explored over the coming weeks, but one of them made me think about how extraordinary our Iraq invasion was. He wrote that while Russia invaded a bordering state for purposes of territorial expansion (or, at least, for creating a “neutral” buffer), the U.S. invasion did not contemplate a territorial expansion. However, my friend continued, protections of oil supplies may have been one (unstated) consideration for our actions.

          This is a difference between the two, and I have been grappling with whether this is an important distinction. In invading a neighboring state, Russia’s action is similar to many previous conflicts. Most wars I could think of started out at least as a border conflict. The boundary is in dispute or, as my friend suggests for Russia, one country wishes to increase its size by taking land next door or sometimes is acting to remove what it sees as an unfriendly neighboring government.

          On the other hand, the examples of one country leapfrogging thousands of miles to invade another nation were comparatively few. The World Wars started out with conflicts among neighboring countries. Others, such as the Falklands/Malvinas war was over disputed sovereignty of distant lands. Other long-distance conflicts were justified as defense of colonies. Some sought to spread religion—often Christianity, the religion of peace—while extracting riches, such as Spain in the Americas. Our Iraqi invasion, unless its goal really was just to control oil, was different.

          The stated reason was a humanitarian one. Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction—biological, chemical, and soon, we said, nuclear; history indicated that he was willing to use such weapons; and so he needed to be stopped, even though he was not a threat to the invaders, i.e., us. (Not even faintly credible evidence was presented that Iraq threatened the United States.) Instead, Hussein needed to be stopped because he was a danger to peoples and lands other than the United States. Our action was not in self-defense; we were only seeking good for others. Let’s all sing: What a comfort to be sure, that our motives were so pure.* We were going to war, we said, only with the most magnanimous of motives.** Oh, and besides, we were going to bring Jeffersonian democracy to what had been a dictatorial regime.

          However, the words of Francis Bacon come to mind: “A just fear of an imminent danger, though there be no blow given, is a lawful cause of war.” Although Russia claims that Ukraine is a threat to itself and to the Russian minority in Ukraine, only deluded people can believe that Russia has a just fear of those possibilities. Those “reasons” are only pretexts.

          Although we supposedly had “humanitarian” reasons for attacking Iraq, a country thousands of miles away posing no threat to us, they could only be good grounds, Bacon might say, if the United States had just fears that Iraq posed an imminent threat to its neighbors. However, we know that this was not true; Iraq did not pose such a threat. Unfortunately, U.S. leaders were acting something like Putin has: They first decided to invade Iraq and subsequently looked for justifications for that decision. If the Iraq war was not based on bald-faced lies as Putin’s invasion has been, it was based on the conjectures of fools who could not acknowledge the lack of evidence for the military action.***

          My friend has concluded that it is hard to justify an invasion of a sovereign state for any purpose other than self-defense or, perhaps, an internationally recognized humanitarian threat. That said, he continues, bad as the invasion of Iraq was understood to be at the time (and understood now to be even worse), the Russian invasion of Ukraine reflects a far greater violation of accepted norms and poses far greater dangers to world safety than our Iraqi actions.

          I agree that the Russian invasion of Ukraine poses a greater global danger than our invasion of Iraq, but that is because of the fear that Putin might use nuclear, biological, or chemical weapons. If, however, Russia continues to use only conventional weapons, is the Russian action a greater danger to the world than our Iraq invasion was? We are seeing death, destruction, and millions of frightened refugees resulting from the Ukrainian invasion, but of course, that was also true of our action. The number of deaths resulting from our invasion and occupation vary widely. Nevertheless, Iraq Body Count, an organization that carefully sought confirmation of reported deaths, concluded that over 160,000 people died from the Iraq invasion with over two-thirds of them civilians. Other sources report much higher numbers: 600,000, 460,000, and 1,033,000 deaths. Refugee numbers also vary, but many sources have concluded that 2 to 3 million Iraqis became refugees because of the war.

          Moreover, the Iraqi invasion helped foster terrorism in places outside of Iraq. Shortly after the invasion of Iraq, I had occasion to meet with officials who had been in Israeli intelligence services. They were mystified by our action. They said that Iraq was not a state sponsor of terrorism in the Mideast. But Iran was. They said that an invasion of Iraq was sure to increase the influence of Iran in the Mideast, and this would be detrimental to Christians and certain Muslims in the region as well as a threat to Israel. They were right. Furthermore, while ISIS was formed before 2003, it came to prominence and gained strength soon after our invasion of Iraq, and it continued to flourish in the chaotic milieu that our military adventure helped to create. The Ukraine invasion has caused deaths and an extraordinary number of refugees, but I doubt that it will spawn international terrorism anywhere near the extent that our Iraq invasion has.

          What is happening in Ukraine is both a tragedy and frightening because the conflict could spread and/or escalate. Our Iraq invasion may not have produced the same fear of escalation, nuclear or otherwise, but it was also a tragedy.


*In Man of La Mancha two women who will benefit if Don Quixote is locked up in a nuthouse, sing that they desire that result only because they are after his best interests. The Padre sings:

They’re only thinking of him.

They’re only thinking of him.

How saintly is their plaintive plea.

They’re only thinking of him.

What a comfort to be sure,

that their motives are so pure.

As they go thinking and worrying about him.

** Margaret MacMillan notes in War: How Conflict Shaped Us (2020) that humanitarian interventions such as our Iraq invasion “raise questions about who decides what is just and suspicions about the motives and goals of the intervening powers. Critics have argued that Western powers are simply cloaking their deeply-rooted imperialistic attitudes to the rest of the world in the fashionable new language. ‘Hypocrisy,’ as the Duc de La Rochefoucauld remarked, ‘is a tribute vice pays to virtue.’”

*** Before we launched our invasion of Iraq, I saw a TV interview of a congressional leader who had just emerged from an intelligence briefing. The congressman said that the briefing had given him an “intuition” that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction. He had just met with intelligence officials and had nothing more than an “intuition”?! That told me that the intelligence agencies did not have solid information showing Iraq had those weapons. Nevertheless, that congressman voted for the war. He had made up his mind to support the invasion and was only looking for grounds to justify it. I am sure that he was viewed as a “good” man, but he voted for death because he had an intuition.


A show on a weather channel is titled, “Why Planes Crash.” The answer should always be the same: Gravity.

The label boldly stated, This Product Has Not Been Tested on Animals. Does that indicate that it has been tested on humans or that it has not been tested at all?

The headline on a news feed said, “Most Satisfying Veggie Sandwiches.” I know that the answer always is, The One I Give to Someone Else.

The spouse does not like I Love Lucy because episodes are often based on some silly, farfetched mistake or disguise that should have been easily recognized. The spouse, however, goes to Shakespeare whose plays often feature some silly, farfetched mistake or disguise that should have been easily recognized.

According to a footnote in The Piltdown Forgery by J.S. Weiner, Science Service, (a Washington, D.C. publication) reported in June 1954 that “when the Piltdown hoax was exposed at the meeting of the Geological Society of London in November 1953, it precipitated a violent discussion. . . . The meeting soon broke up into a series of fish-fights (sic). The fracas resulted in the expulsion of several members.” I began to wonder. Was there a buffet table with a selection of fish? Poached salmon does not seem to be a good weapon but a whole haddock might be. Did anyone run to the kitchen to get an uncooked cod that might have done serious damage when it was whacked across the cheek of an opponent? Was anyone in formal dress or wearing a monocle? Were there any marvelous mustaches the ended up with flakes of fillets in them? Perhaps there was a woman or two. Did they participate or suffer collateral damage? I conjured up images that should have been in a Marx Brothers movie or a Three Stooges short, but, of course, I realized that this was probably only a delightful typo. (But still a surprising one, since I was reading the fiftieth anniversary issue that contained a new introduction and afterword.) My delight was also dashed because the author of the book was one of the authoritative exposers of the fraud at the November 1953 meeting, and he stated that “it will be as well to deny categorically” the Science Service report. “There was in fact no general discussion and no disturbance of any kind at any of the meetings at which Piltdown was discussed.” Damn.

I am fascinated by the fact that China, although stretching about 3,000 miles from east to west, has only one official time zone. Solar noon is the point in the day when the sun is highest in the sky, and solar noon in Beijing is about noon on the official Chinese clocks. Beijing is in the eastern part of China. In the western part of China, solar noon can be as much as three hours later than the clock reading, which also means that sun rises and sets three hours later than it does in Beijing.

I also wonder if there are palindromes in Chinese. Also: Do geese see God? Was he able ere he saw Elba?

I Get a Kick Out of . . . Coats

(Guest Post from the Spouse)

I get no kick from sports cars.  

Riding at all in a car that’s too small, well,  

Neither do I much like boats.  

But I get a kick out of … COATS.  

With apologies to Mr. Porter, it has recently crossed my mind that during my lifetime I have coveted neither diamonds nor fancy cars but have always loved coats (well, and dinnerware — dishes and glassware and cutlery — but that’s for another day).  

My first “necessary” coat was in graduate school. It was Chicago, after all, and one needs a warm coat in Chicago, but warmth was only a secondary consideration. In the late 60’s, surplus army/navy stores were all the rage (at least for poor graduate students), and I desperately “needed” a Navy pea coat. It was a navy blue (duh), double-breasted, heavy wool jacket with broad lapels and large buttons with a navy anchor etched into them. You can buy one today at L.L. Bean for $279. Mine cost around $15. I also had to have the pants to go with. They were navy blue (duh), heavy wool trousers with wide bell bottoms and, instead of a zipper fly, the classic rectangular array of navy buttons. The pants probably cost $10. It was a smashing outfit, if I do say so myself. I must have had a hat, but who cared about hats?!? 

I married, moved to New York, and got a job as a secretary at a publishing house on 59th Street off Lexington Avenue. My husband was in graduate school, and I was a secretary. We were lucky to make the rent. My coat at the time was a navy blue (duh), nondescript cloth coat (think Pat Nixon) – longer than the pea coat, but lined and warm enough. I had that coat for a long time…long enough that the polyester lining started to fray. New coat? No way. New lining? Okay. And so it lasted until the cloth itself started to fray.  

Sometime during those years I also acquired a beautiful springtime coat. I bought it in a thrift shop in San Rafael, California, when visiting my sister. Long, flowing, sky-blue (duh) light wool, with no buttons, zippers or belts. Very stylish.  

Back in New York and on my way to work every day I would come up the stairs of the Lexington Ave. subway to be met by the windows at Bloomingdale’s (“like no other store in the world,” they said). I was making $135/week, so Bloomingdale’s was not exactly within my budget.  

But, of course, I wanted a new coat from Bloomingdale’s. 

When my husband started a paying job and the rent was no longer at issue, it was time for me to get a new coat…at Bloomingdale’s. This was perhaps the most generous gift my husband ever gave me: a long black wool coat with the most luxurious gray fox collar ever to be had on earth. The coat cost $200! It was mine, and I looked smashing in it, if I do say so myself. The hat was a $9 black beret. That Christmas I got black leather gloves. I never loved any other coat as much as I loved that coat. 

But I had always really in my heart of hearts wanted a fur coat – a mink coat – not a mink jacket — a mink coat. My husband thought me shallow for wanting such a status symbol, but I couldn’t help it. So, when, after six years of graduate school and another six as a post-doctoral fellow, I finally got a paying job as an assistant professor, I went hunting for a mink coat with my husband’s reluctant acceptance of my deep superficiality. What I learned is that there are mink coats and mink coats. There are mink coats that cost $1000 and there are mink coats that cost $15,000, and the latter are, in fact, nicer than the former. During my search, I became secretly disappointed that I was not going to be able to buy one of those really gorgeous mink coats, but I bought one that I could afford, and thought it wonderful. It was, indeed, a lovely, classic brown coat (matched my hair) with shoulder pads (stylish at the time), and I looked smashing in it, if I do say so myself. 

Mink coats were not for everyday going to work, so I moved on to other coats: one was down-filled with a beautiful fox collar, and when down-filled coats went (briefly) out of style, a blond wool one with the most gorgeous fox collar ever to be had on earth, and yes, I looked smashing in them, if I do say so myself.  

After some years, fur became de trop and shoulder pads went out of style, so I had the mink coat re-styled. Since its restyling some twenty years ago, I think I’ve worn it once.  

Somewhere along the way, my enthusiasm for coats faded. Maybe it was the disappointment in the restyling of my mink, or perhaps it was after the moths decimated my sky-blue spring coat and my blond wool one, too. As I became more matronly, my desire for pizzazz seemed to be replaced by a need for functional comfort. My go-to coat became an all-weather coat from Land’s End with a hood. Boring, but functional. 

But then…two years ago my child, the NBP, found – yes, found! – the most amazing jacket. It’s designed for a man, but uni-gender is all the rage, and who cares anyway? Salt and pepper wool with features — wonderful features: a zippered pocket on its front, a zip-in lining with a zippered front giving it a kind of internal vest. She wanted it for herself, but it’s slightly too big for him, and my lovely child has ceded it to me. I do look smashing in it, if I do say so myself. Now if I could only find some black bell bottoms… 


Have you wondered how many of those North American truck drivers protesting the vaccine have used uppers bought in a restroom in a stop alongside the highway?

Sometimes I see it spelled “Zelenskyy” (the only double y I can think of) and sometimes “Zelensky.” I assume that has something to do with translating from the Cyrillic alphabet, but I have no idea what it is.

Hearing the news about Ukrainian nuclear power plants, I recalled a book I read last summer, Midnight in Chernobyl: The Untold Story of the World’s Greatest Nuclear Disaster (2019) by Adam Higginbotham. He wrote that the demand for electricity is expected to double by 2050 and that coal, even though burning it leads to climate change, remains the world’s most widely used source of energy for the generation of electricity. Furthermore, particulates from the fossil fuels electricity plants kill 13,000 people a year in the U.S., and 3,000,000 people in the world die each year from air pollution from fossil fuel plants. Higginbotham points out that nuclear electric plants emit no carbon dioxide and have been a safer electricity generation source than anything else including wind turbines, and new nuclear designs may even be safer.

At this time of the year, the sports channels prattle about what college teams will be the number one seeds in the NCAA basketball tournament. I wonder how much it matters if a school is slotted first or second. A number one seed plays the sixteenth seed in the first round while the second seed plays the fifteenth seed. Are there any statistics on how much difference this makes? And if all goes to form, no matter who is seeded first or second, the number one and two seeds will play each other on a neutral court. 

I just watched Drive My Car. The movie is long and slow-moving and marvelous. It has depth and layers; one of them is that Uncle Vanya is intertwined throughout it. While watching the movie, I thought back to the three or four productions of that Chekhov play I have seen, and I realized that I remembered little of the play. I can’t summarize Uncle Vanya or its characters, but that is not unusual. I retain little of the art I see, hear, or read. I do, however, remember aspects of the first Uncle Vanya I saw fifty years ago, a legendary production. It was directed by Mike Nichols, and Nicol Williamson and George C. Scott had the two lead roles, Uncle Vanya and Astrov. Americans may have mostly forgotten Williamson, but he was called a genius actor by many who saw him. I then knew of Scott primarily from film roles, but of course he first came to fame with Joseph Papp’s New York Shakespeare Festival. The cast also included Lillian Gish, Bernard Hughes, Conrad Bain, and Julie Christie. The production was at the Circle in the Square Theater, which has a thrust stage with most seats, including mine, only a few feet from the actors. And gosh and golly, I do remember how lovely Julie Christie was in her lacy morning dress as she stood a few feet away from me. As beautiful as she was, she could not match the presence and fire of Williamson and Scott. But while those facts and images came back to me while watching Drive My Car, the themes and language of Uncle Vanya did not.

But you don’t have to know that play to appreciate the genius of Drive My Car.