Yep.  It happened two weeks ago.

I submitted the following op-ed to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, but they weren’t interested in printing it. Here it is, with a few minor changes.

While off-duty last weekend in the Southside, Pittsburgh Police Officer Paul Abel pistol-whipped an innocent pedestrian in the head and then shot him right on the street, according to witnesses.

Apparently, the gun fired accidentally while Officer Abel was using it to beat Kaleb Michael Miller, but that is no reason to downplay the real possibility that Miller could have been killed. Despite this fact, the outrage against Officer Abel has not yet been equal to his effrontery to public safety and human decency. In a drunken rage, a police officer shot a random citizen! This should be front-page, above-the-fold news. Instead, on the front-page of my beloved Pittsburgh Post-Gazette we were given a photograph of a wiener dog race and the PG patting itself on the back with yet another article about the West Virginia University scandal. (The PG broke this scandal months ago, and it’s practically all they ever write about now). Meanwhile, residents of Pittsburgh want answers. And we demand justice.

As it happens, the assault of Miller is only the latest instance in a pattern of thuggery committed by Officer Abel. A pair of articles written this week by reporter Jerome L. Sherman (read them here and here) detailed some of the accusations leveled against him, which include nearly a dozen charges of misconduct brought before the Citizen Police Review Board. A brief summary should bring his pattern of behavior into sharp focus:

  • In 2002, Charles Dixon was asphyxiated by police officers, including Officer Abel, while he aggressively resisted their attempts to restrain him at a birthday party in Mt. Oliver. Allegheny County Coroner Cyril Wecht recommended that homicide charges be filed. The recommendation was rejected, but the family of Mr. Dixon received a financial settlement from a wrongful death suit against Mt. Oliver.
  • Last year, Officer Abel was accused of provoking his own brother-in-law into a fistfight inside the Allegheny County Courthouse and then lying about the details to sheriff’s deputies. The brother-in-law was acquitted of all charges except one, but over a year later Officer Abel has yet to be formally charged.
  • In February of this year, Officer Abel’s wife testified in a court hearing that he forced her to falsely accuse that her daughters’ grandparents had sexually abused them.
  • In January, Officer Abel arrested Joseph Stubenrauch and drove him to Allegheny County Jail. A nurse there insisted that he be taken to a hospital instead because of his injuries, which Mr. Stubenrauch claimed Officer Abel inflicted during and after his arrest. According to Mr. Stubenrauch, Officer Abel slammed his head against a wall at his home and, after beginning the drive to county jail, pulled over, took him out of the car and threw him against it several times “to have some fun and teach me a lesson.”

To be fair, police officers are not always at fault when a suspect is injured or dies. They must sometimes make difficult, split-second decisions about what level of force is appropriate to protect human life. The lives of citizens, as well as those of the officers, often hang in the balance. Policing is dangerous work, and under strenuous circumstances officers are not always able make the best decision. Also, some guilty suspects may think it is to their benefit to claim that they have been abused by arresting officers even if they have not.

But it is difficult to grant Officer Abel the benefit of the doubt when, while in uniform, he reportedly bragged to an employee at his step-daughters’ elementary school that he is “the type of cop that busted down doors and pulled people out by their necks.” Or when his brother-in-law claimed during a trial that Abel once showed him pictures of a man who had been severely beaten and said, “This is what happens when you mess with a cop.” Or when, like a grinning adolescent, he posted on his Myspace page the origin of his nickname, “Pit Bull,” which his coworkers gave him because of his “tendency to knock the [expletive] out of people.”

Although his actual personality is surely more nuanced and complicated – he is a veteran of the Iraq War – it is not difficult to paint a portrait of Officer Abel as a cruel, vicious Neanderthal in a police uniform. And now that his pattern of misconduct has come to our attention in the Southside, many of us who live here are asking, How is it that Officer Paul Abel – an angry, aggressive liar with a history of violence – was allowed to remain on the Pittsburgh police force for so long?

This is a question that must be answered to our satisfaction because the consequences of Officer Abel’s actions extend beyond those who have suffered at his hands, or at the barrel of his gun. People like Paul Abel compromise justice for everyone. And we must demand that the Pittsburgh Police eliminate them.

This truth is illuminated by my wife’s recent experience as a potential juror being interviewed for a murder case. In the same courthouse where Officer Abel and his brother-in-law beat each other in the hallway, she was asked whether she would be more likely to believe the testimony of a police officer than that of an average person. As any person who reads the newspaper would do, she said, “No.” She was thinking, of course, that while there are plenty of respectable police officers, there are also more than enough Officer Abels, and no practical way for the average citizen to know the difference.

Another potential juror effusively affirmed that, yes, she would be more likely to trust the testimony of a police officer because “they’re on the side of the law.”

Guess which woman was chosen for the jury?

Our community cannot say that justice is being served while our juries make decisions based in part on testimony from potentially untrustworthy police officers. But what are we to do? Should we eliminate, during jury selection, those who unquestioningly trust our police officers? No. We should, instead, demand that our police force diligently work to eliminate the Officer Abels from their ranks. As of right now, we cannot trust them to do that. This is why they now must do the right thing and begin to restore our faith in the justice they provide.

It should go without saying, but apparently it doesn’t, that Paul Abel should not be a police officer; the job of a police officer is to protect us from people like Paul Abel. Therefore, he must be eliminated from the Pittsburgh Police Department. Also, to avoid suspicion that Officer Abel continues to receive special treatment because he is a police officer, his sentences for the assault of Mr. Miller and for drunk driving should be to the fullest extent of the law.

This is the minimum we should expect. But I also make some additional suggestions.

In my religious tradition, Christianity, justice is not simply understood as the righting of wrongs by punishing the guilty. It is essentially about restoring peace to the community. A large measure of peace is trust. Right now, we can not have a peaceful relationship with our police force because they have broken that trust. We have learned that they will tolerate a dangerous officer until he is caught marauding the streets drunkenly, beating and shooting an innocent pedestrian. To restore our trust, the Police Department must come clean about how the system failed to prevent this from happening. They must admit their failure and seek our forgiveness. And they must be more transparent with us about problem officers in the future.

Neither do we have peace with Paul Abel – and his incarceration alone will not achieve it. He must seek privately the forgiveness of Mr. Miller and seek publicly the forgiveness of the city as a whole for undermining our peace and justice. And, for the good of his family and of our community, Mr. Abel should be provided with psychological counseling. I can only imagine the personal demons that haunt such a man. But he must face them and overcome them. Only then will peace be possible – with himself and with us.

hordes

Like zombies to brains, the hordes of Obama supporters lumber toward Soldiers & Sailors Memorial Hall.

marianne - obama rally

Although cold, Marianne is resolute in her determination to finally reach the threshold of Obamania.

mike - obama rally

The casual observer will not know that, at the moment this picture was taken, Mike could barely move his numbed fingers.

lincoln

Former President of the United States, Abraham Lincoln, passes a Port Authority bus stop on his way to the Obama Rally.  He probably has tickets for the VIP section.

activist - einstein

Quoting Einstein on the horrors of war is an intelligent and thoughtful way to contribute to political discourse.  But if you vote for Nader in this election, then you are an idiot.

activist - no funds

Also, no funds for red and blue markers.

friends of hilary

About a dozen Hillary supporters publicly announce their determination to remain ignorant of the cultural moment.

friends of hilary 2

Hopefully we can be friends again after the primary is over.

t-shirt guy

The t-shirt guy makes a well-intentioned attempt to fire up the crowd by shouting, “Fired up!  Ready to go!” but most people just look disappointed when they realize that he is not building an actual fire to keep us warm.

laura

Our friend Laura from church is somehow seated on the stage.  If you don’t know which is Laura, you are just going to have to guess.

under lincoln’s words

Obama speaks beneath the words of Abraham Lincoln.  No one pointed out the significance of this arrangement, but no one needed to.

On Monday, local commentator Ruth Ann Dailey published a column, “Black and White and Wrong All Over” about the furor over Barack Obama’s pastor, Rev. Jeremiah Wright.  While I agreed that some of Mr. Wright’s comments were wrong, irresponsible, and even dangerous, I took exception to Ms. Dailey’s assertion that America is a post-racist society.  Presumambly, this means that minorities no longer suffer from discrimination.  As everyone who is not a right-wing crazy person knows, that is a ridiculous thing to say.

So I wrote a letter which was published today in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette under the title “‘Post-racist America’ is far from being a reality.”  I wish I would have had more space to address Mr. Wright’s comments.  But that wasn’t the issue I was trying to address and, anyway, Barack Obama did a much better job of it in his speech in Philadelphia on Tuesday.  If you haven’t watched it yet, I really recommend doing so.  It will be 37 minutes well spent.  Over the past seven years I had forgotten what a real speech sounds like when it is not mangled by a a string of abuses to the English language and common human decency.  Now, imagine listening to this guy for four or eight years:

Have you ever been shopping on Amazon.com and a message tells you that if you just spend another few dollars, your order will qualify for FREE shipping?  So, instead of paying $3.99 for shipping, you buy an $18 book that you don’t need, and thus spend $14 more than the shipping would have cost.

Why do we make such dumb, self-defeating decisions?  An article in last week’s New Yorker reviewed two books put out by behavioral economists who have studied this problem.  They carried out some interesting experiments; here are a few of my favorites, and what we can learn from them.

  • We are influenced by completely random numbersCollege students were asked to write down the last two digits of their Social Security number.  They were then asked if they would be willing to spend that many dollars on the following items: a good bottle of wine, a mediocre bottle of wine, a book, and a box of chocolates.  Then they wrote down the maximum amount they would be willing to spend for all of the items.  The students with the lowest digits (00-19) bid the lowest average – $67.  The next group (20-39) bid $102.  The last group (80-99) bid $198.

The Problem: Is a car really worth thousands or tens of thousands of dollars?  Or does the high number on the window sticker influence our perception of its worth?  Another example: is a frappuccino really worth $4.50?  Or does the number on the menu distort the value we place on it?

  • We are not influenced by meaningful numbers.  In one experiment, subjects were told that migrating birds were drowning in open oil tanks, but putting up some nets to enclose the pools would save the them.  To save 2000 birds, subjects were willing to pay an average of $80.  To save 20,000 birds, they would pay slightly less – $78.  And to save 200,000 birds only slightly more – $88!  Theoretically, $80,000 should have seemed like a reasonable amount for saving that many birds.

The Problem: pretty much every widespread disparity or epidemic.  Hunger, AIDS, malaria, clean water, etc.  Some people are willing to offer a little bit of money to help a few people, but never enough to adequately address the issue.

  • We pick elected leaders for the stupidest reasons.  Researchers were able to predict most of the winners in congressional races based on photographs of the candidates.  If subjects said a candidate looked “competent” that candidate won about 70% of the time.  Also, if a candidate’s name is at the top of a ballet, he or she gets a 3% bump.

The Problem: This guy looked “competent.”

Bush flipping finger

So what does it say about humanity that we are so easily fooled into making damaging decisions that ultimately hurt ourselves and others?  I guess our irrationality is good in some situations.  Occasionally it allows us to make noble sacrifices that, from a strictly objective or rational point of view, don’t make sense.  Like someone running into a burning building to save some kittens or a soldier leaping onto a live grenade to protect her friends.

But until we get a better control over our decision-making process, Starbucks and Amazon.com will be reaping the benefits.

Those books:
Predictably Irrational: The Hidden Forces That Shape Our Decisions by Dan Ariely
Nudge: Improving Decisions About Health, Wealth and Happiness by Richard H. Thaler and Cass R. Sunstein

Cloverfield is basically a Godzilla movie beamed to Earth from the parallel universe of Godzilla Movies That Don’t Suck.

Cloverfield answers the age-old question, “What if Godzilla and the Blair Witch mated in New York City?” The plot is nothing new (a colossal-sized monster ravages an urban landscape) and neither is the cinema verité of the handheld ShakyCam (this time we are spared from the boogery confession). But it is fun.

Cloverfield

Everything begins at the going-away party for Rob (Michael Stahl-David) who is leaving his New York apartment for a VP position in Japan. The event, organized by his brother Jason (Mike Vogel) and Jason’s girlfriend Lily (Jessica Lucas), is being video-taped by Rob’s best friend, Hud (T.J. Miller), who spends most of the first twenty minutes stalking Marlena (played by the Zoe Deschanel look-alike Lizzy Caplan) and spreading gossip about Rob’s brief romantic encounter with Beth (Odette Yustman). Whiny twenty-something melodrama ensues, but is mercifully interrupted by a giant monster sinking an oil tanker, decapitating the Statue of Liberty, eating people, depositing dog-sized spidery parasites that make you explode, and otherwise causing one heck of a ruckus.

Nobody knows what it is, or why it’s so angry. Upon seeing it for the first time, Beth asks, “What is it?” Hud answers with understated honestly. “I don’t know. Something terrible.” Immediately they encounter one of the crabby parasites. “Oh my God. What is that? Again, Hud answers, “Something else. Something also terrible.”

They mystery loses its appeal once the danger of the situation sets in, and everyone bolts for the streets, with Hud in tow, recording everything for posterity. For the next hour, no one has time to breathe as the friends try to make their way to safety. I was biting my fist as the group traveled through the darkened subway tunnels. They hear something moving in the darkness and the tension builds as Hud frantically tries to engage the camera’s night vision. And then I pooped my pants.

Cloverfield is basically a Godzilla movie beamed to Earth from the parallel universe of Godzilla Movies That Don’t Suck. The similarities are so significant that, before its release, rumors persisted that the monster of Cloverfield would, in fact, be Godzilla.

This parallel become more interesting when one considers the origin of the Japanese Godzilla films less than ten years after the United States caused hundreds of thousands of deaths and catastrophic destruction to the cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki when they detonated the first atomic bombs there. In the first movie, Godzilla emerges from the ocean to wreak havoc on Japan after being awakened by a hydrogen bomb detonated by the United States. The echo of August 1945 is unmistakable and one explanation for the popularity of these movies is that they are outlets for the ongoing struggle of the Japanese to come to terms with the enormity of their suffering.

So if Godzilla is the manifestation of Japanese anxiety in the wake of nuclear destruction, how does Something Terrible correspond to the American psyche? If there is a correlation, then we have to see it as the embodiment of the fear we experienced on September 11, 2001. There are similarities between Something Terrible and the Islamic terrorists: 1) they both hate Americans 2) they are both impervious to conventional warfare and 3) there doesn’t seem to be an effective way to get rid of them.

The somber note of that last one rings the truest as the heroes scramble desperately through the wreckage of New York City, unable to understand what is pursuing them, where it came from or what it wants. The same confusion plagued America in the years after the attacks in 2001, and we responded in the same way – with missile launchers, tanks, and bomber jets that were equally ineffective against the primary threat.

In the last scene of the movie, Beth records what she believes might be her last words into the video camera: “I don’t know why this is happening.” The need to know “why” is experienced by any person (or nation) trying to regain some control over a devastating, helpless situation, but there are no answers for Beth, because Something Terrible is pure, malevolent evil that operates beyond the boundaries of cause and effect. Does such a force exist outside the world of Hollywood? An “Axis of Evil” perhaps? No one can say for sure. But if we spent more resources trying to answer the complex question of “why” than we do trying to bomb our way out of it, maybe we could find better ways to protect ourselves from our own Something Terrible.

B+

Apparently I have become one of those people who takes pictures of his/her cat and posts them on the Internet, as if the entire planet is waiting in humble anticipation for the latest photographic update on Alice the Cat, Ph.D.

Oh yeah, and I guess my wife is in the background.

bedroom-1.jpgbedroom-4.jpgbedroom-5.jpgbedroom-6.jpg

At the end of May, we spent a week at a beachfront condo in Myrtle Beach, SC. Since we are both going back to school in September, we wanted a relaxing vacation: hanging out on the beach, reading books, eating good food, and visiting as few touristy sites as possible. The trip was everything we had hoped for.

The condo, which belongs to my mom’s best friend, is amazing. Two balconies, three big flat-screen televisions, fully-equipped kitchen, free Internet, etc.

You can see photos of it here.

And here are some of our photos from the week.

Myrtle Beach Sunrise

Most mornings we woke up early, made some coffee, and watched the sun rise from the oceanside balcony.

Another Sunrise

Another fiery Atlantic Ocean sunrise.

Abstract Sunrise

Here’s an abstract one.

Urban Outfitters Shoot

I didn’t want to say anything, but we were actually in Myrtle Beach for Marianne’s Urban Outfitters catalogue photo shoot.

Tommy the Crab

Myrtle Beach merchants are really into giant, plaster animals. This is but one example. I’m not sure what is funnier: the oblivious smile or that he is wearing a hat with his name on it.

Cute Couple

Hat-tastic!

Our Sandcastle

Our sandcastle was an irresistible target for young, anarchistic boys. We were both sitting by it and reading. When we looked up, it was razed to the ground. O! The melancholy beauty of transient art!

Glorious

Yeah. It was as glorious as it looks. (Special thanks to Mom and Dad who gave us a huge basket filled with specialty cheeses, crackers, fruit and wine)

Miniature Golf

I get really excited about miniature golf.

Marianne golfing

Marianne does not.

My friends Chris and Alan, along with some other people, just won Third Place in the Nintendo Short Cuts video competition. Their entry, “The Nintendo Office” will be shown at the Tribeca Drive-In Short Film Series. Which is pretty sweet. See it here.

You should also watch this Nintendo-themed video Chris made for our youth ministry a few years back, which won Best Short Film at the 2006 GenCon Film Festival and has about 42,000 views on YouTube.

Chris has a blog about his film-making exploits and other film-oriented ramblings.

Early one morning last year – either late November or early December – I bolted upright out of a dead sleep, in the middle of a full-blown anxiety attack. My heart was pounding so hard I could see it moving, and it was beating so fast I couldn’t catch my breath. I was going to suffocate or my heart was going to explode inside my chest, but either way I was convinced I was going to die.

It was the worst experience of my life so far.

I knew I should try to relax but with my heart racing I couldn’t sit still. I paced through our tiny apartment, trying to control my breathing, but every cell in my body wanted to gasp and hyperventilate. I even tried breathing into a paper bag – an idea which I believe surfaced from a memory of The Facts of Life. For some reason I was picturing a flustered Mrs. G breathing into a bag and thought, I should do that! Apparently, in its panicked state, my brain was searching for something, anything that would stop this.

This went on for about fifteen minutes, and I was about to have Marianne take me to the emergency room when my body finally regained its sanity, and all organs and muscles began functioning within their normal limits. I settled uneasily back into sleep and the next morning I made an appointment with my doctor.

I had seen him a few months earlier about some heart palpitations I was having. If you haven’t had one of these, it basically feels like your heart stops beating for a second, because your heart stops beating for a second. Scary, I know. It sometimes makes you feel lightheaded; it always makes you feel like you are some fragile old person who could die at any moment. At the time he decided they weren’t anything serious, but now he was more concerned. He wanted to figure out if the problem was a life-threatening heart deformity or just an inconvenient anxiety disorder, so he wrote a prescription for a 30-day EKG monitor.

Wearing an EKG monitor for thirty days is pretty miserable. Basically, you attach two electrodes to your chest with an adhesive substance that is probably also used on those price stickers that can’t be removed without destroying the product they are labeling. Then anytime your heart does anything weird, which it did all the time before you started wearing the electrodes, you press the “Record” button. While it’s recording, the machine sounds like a 56k modem screaming itself to death, so you try not to go anywhere quiet – like church, the movies, or anywhere else people might swivel their heads in your direction and wonder what the hell is wrong with you. When it’s done recording you have to call a special number and tell the technician what you were doing when you had the “event” and then playback what you recorded.

Now, you’re wearing this thing 24 hours a day, and the technicians recommend that you only change the electrodes every few days, because if you rip them off every day, you’re likely to also remove a significant amount of flesh. Most people, however, take at least one shower over the course of a few days, and what the technicians don’t tell you is that if you don’t take the electrodes off before you shower, water will seep under them and cause huge, scar-like blisters to form. After learning this the hard way, you rip off the electrodes every morning, along with one or two layers of flesh, clean the stubborn adhesive from your skin with baby oil, take a shower, and then attach new electrodes.

Like I said, my heart had these “events” all the time before I started wearing the electrodes. But once I had them on the events suddenly became curiously rare. Of the few that I experienced, many were in situations not favorable to the loud screeching noises necessary for recording a cardiac event. Like when I was about to read Scripture aloud at the Christmas Eve service. Or when I was watching Babel in a crowded movie theater.

I managed to record two or three events over the entire month, but I never had another full-blown panic attack. And nothing I recorded revealed any serious heart anomalies. Still, my doctor determined that the problem was probably mental. We discussed depression. He described to me how depression and anxiety are never independent of each other. They’re always together, but sometimes you experience much more anxiety than depression, or vice versa. So it was possible that I had some very low level depression, and if I developed any further warning signs I should alert him or find a therapist.

He did suggest two lifestyle changes that have really helped. The first was cutting down, or ideally eliminating, my caffeine intake because caffeine can increase anxiety. So for one sleepy month I barely drank any coffee, and my palpitations disappeared altogether. I couldn’t totally give up coffee though, so a few months later I’m back up to one cup of coffee a day, but still no palpitations.

His other suggestion was that I take up running. Aerobic exercise is also good for channeling anxiety, and just good health in general, but I’ve always hated running. I probably hadn’t run anywhere since eighth grade. But I bought some vegan running shoes (New Balance) and just starting running (about 2 miles at a time). To my surprise I’m really enjoying it. And I’m feeling much better.

I had better be: that EKG cost $1601 and both my health insurance and behavioral health insurance refused to pay it. Which, ironically, is giving me anxiety. More on that later, perhaps.

Come Over, Come Over by Lynda Barry

Worst Things About My Life Right Now:

1) Having Loycie Watford for a locker partner and no one will trade!!!

2) Lisa Morris wants to kick my ass for accidently splashing water on her new suede boots. I said I was sorry but does that matter to her?? NO!

My main goal of life: END pollution, prejudice and the population explosion!!!! I will write poems plus make posters!!!!!

I am not now, nor have I ever been, a middle-school girl. But if I was, I’m pretty sure this is how I would talk, or at least how I would write in my Lisa Frank diary. You may have noticed the excessive use of exclamation points – they are but one indicator that this graphic novel is channeling the spirit of a young teenage girl, the narrator, one Maybonne Maydelle Mullen.

That I am even comparing myself, a 26-year-old adult male, to Maybonne should show what an endearing, sympathetic character she is. Is it weird that I found these short episodes of a young cartoon girl navigating the hazards of the teenage years (booze, sex, backstabbing friends, an alcoholic father, a theological crisis) so compelling? Probably. But after all the adolescent suffering she has gone through, she concludes a letter to her friend, as well as the book, with these words: “P.S. I still think life is magical.” And I’ll admit, I found it rather touching.

Also, the cover looks musical. I wish I could find a picture of it to post here.