On politics, money and the death penalty

The death penalty – telecommunications money – Donald Sterling – corruption – shifting politics – even abortion access – it was all in a day’s conversation for the popular Week to Week political roundtable at San Francisco’s Commonwealth Club today. But audience members, at social gatherings before and after, spoke of how the lively discussion – fueled in part by some pointed questions from the audience – indicates the widespread nature of citizen concerns in the information age.

“You can keep up with the basics of everything through social media,” said one thirty-something woman in a chic business suit, “but that makes you want events like this to dig a little deeper.” An older woman in the same small group added, “Well, I still read newspapers. And online magazines. But having a chance to hear real, live journalists discuss what they’re writing about is important.”

The program featured Debra J. Saunders, San Francisco Chronicle columnist and “Token Conservative” blogger; author and former columnist Joan Ryan, Media Consultant for the San Francisco Giants; and Carla Marinucci, Senior Political Writer for the San Francisco Chronicle. Roundtable host is John Zipperer, Vice President of Media and Editorial for the Commonwealth Club.

Discussion of embattled, racist L.A. Clippers owner Donald Sterling quickly led to talk of what crimes and misadventures do or do not affect aspiring politicians. “Neel Kashkari is in fifth place behind a registered sex offender (Glenn Champ) who’s in third place,” Saunders commented; and Marinucci added that California Senate candidate Mary Hayashi denied having shoplifted $2,500 worth of goods from Neiman Marcus in 2011 despite having been convicted of the crime. All of which leaves open the question of whether people in public positions are, in fact, judged by what they do (Marinucci invited everyone to watch the video of Hayashi’s meeting with the Chronicle editorial board) or, as Saunders pointed out about the Sterling case, what they say.

On money and politics, the panelists were in agreement that telecommunication dollars killed the kill switch bill CA State Senator Mark Leno now plans to reintroduce. The bill would mandate software on smartphones that would enable owners to lock their devices remotely once they are lost or stolen. With smartphone theft rampant and law enforcement strongly backing the bill it might seem a win-win… except that, as Marinucci pointed out, replacement of phones and tablets is a $30 billion business for the wireless industry and no small business for replacement insurance companies.

There was less agreement on the death penalty, and the recent botched Oklahoma execution of Clayton Lockett, convicted of a horrendous crime in 1999. Saunders, who favors keeping the death penalty in California, suggested that some of the talk about individual cases and issues is not unlike abortion opponents using legal means to achieve extra-legal ends, as in passing state laws which effectively deny constitutional abortion rights. The panel did not take on that issue.

But Ryan, who strongly opposes the death penalty, stood her ground. She pointed out that the problem with securing proper drugs is that countries which could supply them have long since abandoned the death penalty and are incredulous that we still have it. “Do I mourn him (Lockett)? Not at all. But we have the ability to lock him up forever. I am against the death penalty because we are diminished by it.”

Zipperer wound up the event with the traditional Week to Week news quiz on current events ranging from local to international. In this audience, nobody answered wrong.

A love affair with a park

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(This article first appeared on Huffington Post)

Love the earth? Love the park.

A world without parks would be, well, like a life without sunshine. Wherever you live on this crowded planet, I hope you have a favorite, nearby park.

My earliest favorite was Nashville’s Percy Warner Park, where Sunday afternoon picnics were highlights of this Depression kid’s childhood. Today The Warner Parks include several thousand acres of trails, athletic fields, overlooks and golf courses – the largest municipally administered parks in Tennessee – but to my four-year-old mind an afternoon at “persywannerpark” was a time of bliss.

So to see the four-year-olds who regularly romp around San Francisco’s little urban jewel, Mountain Lake Park, is nostalgic joy. Mountain Lake is part of the Presidio National Park, which you and I, citizens all, have owned since the Sixth Army moved out.

For this writer, dozens of Significant Others preceded my fully committed love affair with Mountain Lake Park: Hanover (VA) Courthouse, Bryan Park in Richmond, VA, Atlanta’s Chastain and Piedmont parks, and a long list of occasional others. But with Mountain Lake and me, it’s a forever thing. For better or for worse. Visiting grandchildren loved the playground, serenity rises from the lake and the Parcourse fitness trail beats any expensive gym or meditative yoga class all to heck.

This is why there was no question about it when the pretty, young Presidio Trust woman asked. I took The Pledge.

Behind the drive to get park people to take The Pledge is a story probably like the story of your own favorite: park abuse. Despite their extraordinary kindness and generosity – play space, clean air, quiet shade, assorted nourishments to our souls – parks tend not to receive goodness in kind. More frequently what they get includes cigarette butts, discarded hamburger wrappers and an overabundance of well-fed pigeons. In Mountain Lake’s case, abuse over the centuries also included a toxic accumulation of runoff from Highway #101 which unfortunately runs along one border of the lake. But thanks to our tax dollars and the good work of the Presidio Trust, the lake has been undergoing a multi-year restoration. It may not get all the way back to the pristine waters from which the Spaniards, and countless Native Americans before them, happily drank, but every day it gets better. Fascinating to watch.

If you love a park, you may want to generate a pledge campaign of your own. Small children were lining up at Mountain Lake for instructions and bumper stickers (“Love Mountain Lake”) – and earnestly taking The Pledge. Which reads:

I pledge:

To protect the wild animals that live at Mountain Lake by allowing them to find their own natural foods.
Not to abandon unwanted pets or plants at Mountain Lake or other park sites.

To share what I’ve learned about how to keep Mountain Lake healthy, and encourage others to take this pledge.

Earth Day might have slipped by recently, but it’s never too late to Love Your Park.

 

Ahead for women: good news & bad

The years ahead could be not good times to be a woman.

Childcare support? Abortion access? Equal pay? Contraception coverage?

How we will fare in the years ahead — those of us who are females of the species — is an open question; and some of the answers being bandied about are not pretty.

Paul Ryan’s budget would repeal benefits and protections currently enjoyed by millions of women, forcing us to pay out-of-pocket for potentially life-saving things like mammograms and cervical cancer screenings. Cuts in food stamps would hit women disproportionately, cuts in Medicaid would have a similar impact: women make up 70 percent of Medicaid’s adult beneficiaries. Prescription drug costs? Up, thanks to the re-opened Medicare drug coverage gap, the late and un-lamented donut hole. The list goes on, almost as glaringly as the list of benefits to the super-rich goes up. There are not a lot of women, especially single head-of-household wage earners, among the super-rich.

At a recent Planned Parenthood Shasta Pacific (CA) gala, former Michigan Governor and Current TV host Jennifer Granholm ticked off these and other ways GOP policies take from women and give to the super-rich. But Granholm, in a conversation with CA Attorney General Kamala Harris moderated by San Francisco Chronicle columnist Carla Marinucci, framed the opposing political policies as overall good news. With the GOP’s social and economic attacks on women in such sharp focus, she said, they can be seen for what they are — and defeated.

One can hope.

There are plenty of smart, honorable registered women Republicans. Whether they will worry about senior women having to pay more for drugs, or low-income women losing health benefits, or all women continuing to have to work three months more per year just to make what men make, that’s one of the questions still open. Reproductive justice? All women lose when reproductive rights diminish.

But at another meeting last week the focus was on distaff good news. The National Abortion Federation held its annual meeting, complete with continuing medical education for physicians, nurses and all those who will enable the progress and preservation of reproductive rights in the years ahead. This writer was fortunate to be invited to the Membership and Awards Luncheon, surrounded by extraordinary men and women including several award winners I am privileged to call friends. NAF President and CEO Vicki Saporta was among the speakers, and her report was one of optimism. My own optimism about the future for women in the US.is centered in three of the award winners whom I quite fortunately happen to know. They include:

Maggie Crosby, Senior Staff Attorney with the ACLU of Northern California, honored for her decades-long fight for reproductive justice — or, more accurately, her repeatedly successful fights for reproductive justice wherever it was about to be compromised.

Beverly Whipple, an extraordinary woman whose story — at least some small snippet of it — is included in Perilous Times. Whipple was leaving immediately after the NAF meeting for an extended motorcycle trip around Europe with her partner, but they slowed down long enough for a table-full of us to celebrate at the awards luncheon. More on Beverly Whipple in a few days.

Sarp Aksel, Past president of Medical Students for Choice and current Executive Clinic Chair of the ECHO Free Clinic at Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York City. For those of us in despair about the future of abortion rights, Sarp Aksel is the face of hope. Bright, highly skilled and highly trained, and totally committed to women’s health and autonomy, Aksel is representative of the men and women determined to protect women’s reproductive rights.

Those who would take away women’s right to choose or ability to earn might well make gains for the super-rich in the near future. But they will have to contend with people like Saporta, Granholm, Crosby, Aksel and a host of other fighters for justice… including most of the women of America.

More on kindness…

This essay first appeared on Huffington Post

Some favorite people – okay, my daughter and daughter-in-law – recently posted a link to a heartwarming story from “Prank it Forward,” about a waitress who clearly deserved some good luck getting a LOT of it from her co-workers and friends: $1,000 cold cash, two airline tickets to Hawaii, a dream job and a new car. It was hard to follow without laughing and crying all at once.

Clicking around for the source revealed an originating site heavy into pranks of all sorts, apparently good-natured ones even if not always winding up life-changing good news for the prankee. The site originators seem committed to bringing moments of joy, and if there’s anything this world needs right now it’s moments of joy.

Clicking farther led to another site surely worth visiting, DoSomething.org. Over at DoSomething.org, members are doing things like collecting jeans for homeless kids, recycling cans to save the planet, or campaigning to stop bullying. You have to love the DoSomethingers. Their avowed purpose is “to make the world suck less.” This writer, unfortunately, can’t join them, as their members are between 13 and 25 and everybody over that is Old People in whom they are pointedly not interested. And who can blame anyone under 25 for that?

But it’s still the personal random acts, those small kindnesses anyone can do and no one organized, that most warm this writer’s heart. The little things: picking up the neighbor’s overturned trash can, handing the grocery checker a $20 for the food stamp buyer behind you in line, giving away roses from your garden, sending a snail-mail note to a perfect stranger in a nursing home.

Catherine Stern, co-founder, with Carole Mahoney, of Project Grace and herself an act of kindness, shared one such story about a Project Grace participant. The young family had just moved into a new house in a new community when their three-year-old was diagnosed with a rare and deadly form of cancer, forcing them to spend long hours driving to the hospital many miles distant. They were faced with juggling care for their other young children alongside the overwhelming needs of the sick child. Every time the exhausted parents pulled into the driveway of their new home they worried about what the neighbors must think of their unkempt yard, overgrown with weeds and scraggly grass. But one day, coming home after another long and exhausting time at the hospital, they were astonished to see their front lawn fully landscaped, grass mowed and flowers planted by their unseen neighbors who had somehow learned what was happening with the new family in the community.

Which is what kindness is all about: the community of humankind.

Crime on the political stage: It’s funny… until it turns sad

This article first appeared on Huffington Post

You can’t make this up. Prominent longtime politician, a state senator now running for Secretary of State, gets caught in a years-long FBI operation allegedly involving enough nefarious big-money schemes to fill a library of pulp fiction. One associate indicted for gun-running, drug trafficking and purportedly arranging a murder for hire. Political pals already in trouble for things like holding legislative seats for districts in which they unfortunately do not reside. Throw in an ex-con accomplice by the name of Raymond “Shrimp Boy” Chow

A recent “Week to Week” political roundtable at San Francisco’s Commonwealth Club led off with what panelist Josh Richman termed “a journalist’s dream.” Richman, who is a State and National Politics Reporter for Bay Area News Group, remarked on the thorough and extensive media coverage of what is a local scandal playing out on a national stage.

California State Senator Leland Yee is the centerpiece of this improbable media bonanza. Yee has been charged with seven federal felonies described by San Jose Mercury News writer Howard Mintz as resulting from:

… dozens of… clandestine meetings with undercover FBI agents, many involving promises of political favors, influence peddling with fellow legislators and a Hollywood-style scheme to arrange a multimillion-dollar illegal weapons deal through the Philippines for an undercover operative claiming to be a New Jersey mobster.

“At the heart of the government’s case against Yee,” Mintz writes, “are his own words — replete with expletive-laced demands for money in exchange for political favors, even if it meant dealing with gun runners and organized crime figures.”

The roundtable, regularly hosted by Commonwealth Club vice president of media and editorial John Zipperer, also included Hoover Institution Research Fellow and Stanford University Lecturer Tammy Frisby, and Melissa Griffin Caen, an attorney and contributor to KPIX-TV and San Francisco Magazine. All four — along with audience members — tried hard to deal seriously with the issue; there were a lot of “allegedly” air quotes in use. But it is preposterous beyond all limits of credulity. “Insane,” was the term Frisby used; “like Grand Theft Auto come to life.” Caen brought along a copy of the entire 137-page criminal complaint.

Lee has posted a $500,000 bail — hardly a problem, as he has more than that already raised for his Secretary of State race and is legally entitled to use it for bail money or lawyers or whatever else lies ahead. He continues to draw a $95,291 salary for the state senate job despite having been suspended from that body.

Eventually the roundtable moved on to national and global affairs, but it was the Yee scandal that held the entire room in thrall. How could it not?

Most of those following this outsized drama — and it’s impossible not to be following it unless you’re (already) in solitary confinement — are simply shaking their heads. Some are saying “Oh, all politicians are crooks.”

And it’s that last reaction that turns the comedy into tragedy. Caen said she found, reading through the 137 pages, it was almost funny. But she came to two parts where it turned terribly sad. Those were when Yee “demeaned the office” by suggesting that financial contributions could be beneficial (to the contributor) in future actions of the Secretary of State relating to, say, supervision of elections; and when he “allegedly” accepted cash with the remark that his children “could write the check” to launder the money.

There are more than a few good books waiting to be written on it all, and probably a TV show or two. But in the interim, the goings-on of one alleged political bad apple in San Francisco are making it difficult to shake one’s head over corruption in Ukraine.

On choosing one’s words…

I was taken to task, rightly so, by a reader who categorized my saying “no one… has an abortion without anguish” (you can read B’s articulate comment, and my response, in the 2/22 Comments) as “hokum.” She might also have said “hogwash.” Mea culpa. “Anguish” was a poor descriptive choice. “Serious thought” maybe; “self-reflection,” “concern.” Actually, the decision does involve anguish for many women, especially those whose rights are being denied by lack of access or harsh state restrictions.

But one word can wreak havoc.

Take the hyphenated word “pro-life,” which has been appropriated by those who are ferociously anti-woman. As if the issue of abortion — always complex and private, and occasionally anguishing — involved nothing at all beyond the (potential) life of a fetus. I consider myself ferociously pro-life, it’s just that I value the life of a woman. And am pro-woman’s-life enough to honor and trust her ability to make her own decisions about her body.

Or the emotionally charged word “suicide.” Those of us who believe in the individual’s right to a compassionate and dignified death have worked hard to get that word out of the discussion. Suicide is the desperate act of a despairing person; “physician aid-in-dying” is a compassionate choice made by a terminally ill, mentally competent adult.

Word choices took much of the focus in a fascinating panel on “Defining Death” sponsored recently by the University of California San Francisco Medical School. More about that event on HuffingtonPost as soon as I can get to it. Cases under study included the tragic, ongoing story of 13-year-old Jahi McMath, and the equally tragic story of 14-week-pregnant Marlise Munoz, whose brain-dead body was briefly kept on “life” support because the hospital and the State of Texas placed the potential life of that pre-viable fetus above the expressed wishes of her husband, parents and even Munoz herself. The distinguished UCSF panel of experts on medicine, law and ethics spoke repeatedly of how much anguish — the word definitely fits here — might have been prevented if only a few, kind words could have replaced some of the jarring words that unfortunately must eventually be said.

Imagine you’re the patient, or family, or attending healthcare worker (try to leave the lawyers out of this.) When does a moments-ago-healthy person become a “corpse”? A “dead body”? Who decides if a pre-viable fetus is a “person”? How can the average person even understand “brain-dead”? If you bring the lawyers in, you encounter “property.” In more than a dozen states there are laws on the books that say that if a pregnant woman dies her body must be maintained until the fetus can be delivered… no matter what advance directives she may have that specify her wishes to the contrary. One family fought against this outrageous miscarriage of justice by claiming their dead loved one’s body — which was, in the eyes of the law, their “property.”

It’s a scary world we live in. But that word JUSTICE. If we can only hang onto that one.

 

 

End-of-life compassion slowly winning

If you think you might die some day, and you’d like to do it with as much dignity and as little pain as possible, things are looking up. Which is encouraging to me, a believer in end-of-life and reproductive rights both — and progress in one out of two causes is something to cheer about.

credit acpinternist.org
Credit acpinternist.org

The outlook for a compassionate end to this life in the U.S. continues to brighten. In a recent New York Times article summing up advances that are being made in multiple states,reporter Erik Eckholm quotes my good friend Barbara Coombs Lee, President of Compassion and Choices: “There is a quiet, constant demand all over the country for a right to die on one’s own terms, and that demand is likely to grow as the baby boomers age.”

Lee, a baby boomer herself, is in a position to know. She has been at the forefront of the death with dignity movement since it was in its infancy. We first met when I was researching Dying Unafraid (Synergistic Press, 1999) and she was head of Compassion In Dying, headquartered in Seattle. That group had formed, I learned during a weekend spent with leaders and volunteers in the late 1990s, “because we got tired of reading headlines about people with AIDS jumping off of highway overpasses. And we thought there had to be a better way to die.” Compassion In Dying later merged with End-of-Life Choices, which had itself grown out of the somewhat more in-your-face Hemlock Society, to become Compassion and Choices. (And I am proud to have been a part of C&C since its inception as a volunteer, former local board chair, current leadership council member and general cheerleader.)

In those early days, all was not optimism. While Oregon was proving that a physician-aid-in-dying law could work, efforts elsewhere were failing with heartbreaking irregularity. The one most painful to me culminated in the defeat, in 2006, of a bill which would have legalized compassionate dying — in other words, with the aid of one’s physician if one so chose — in California. Assembly members Patty Berg and Lloyd Levine introduced the legislation, and polls showed overwhelming support among Californians, including a majority of California physicians. Victory seemed all but certain, despite a vigorous and expensive campaign against the bill by the Catholic Church (not most Catholics, just Catholic officialdom) and the California Medical Association (of which a small percentage of CA doctors are members.) At the judiciary committee hearing chaired by then CA Senator Joe Dunn  — who had loudly proclaimed his support —  Dunn suddenly had a change of heart. Something about a conversation with his priest, he said in a rambling commentary. Dunn then cast the deciding vote against the bill and it died an unnatural death in committee. A few weeks later Dunn was termed out of the California legislature and took a job — surprise, surprise — as CEO of the California Medical Association. It was not my personal most encouraging experience with the democratic process.

Now, however, sanity is prevailing. The option of choosing a compassionate death is legal in Washington, Vermont, Montana and New Mexico and the cause is gaining in other states. As Steve Heilig, another highly esteemed friend who is co-editor of the Cambridge Quarterly of Healthcare Ethics, points out in a current letter to the New York Times, “Progress is possible if carefully and ethically pursued.”

If only there could be a careful, ethical pursuit of progress — instead of the ongoing, reckless, politically and religiously-driven backward march we’re seeing — for reproductive rights.

You and your brain are in the crosshairs of neuromarketing

Why does this not seem altogether good news? Details have recently been revealed about new insights into the human brain — and how marketers can make use of them to sell more stuff.

Just in from Daily News & Analysis — which reportedly “has fast entrenched itself in the lives of a young and dynamic readership in India’s commercial capital Mumbai” and from that position offers its readers “a composite picture of India and the world” — is a story about new discoveries in neuroscience that are expected to revolutionize the marketing world. How? By using tests to measure, with a high degree of accuracy, your brain’s responses to whatever catches your eye. Well, maybe not your brain, but focus groups of brains enough like yours that sellers will be homing in on you as never before. It’s called EEG-based neuromarketing.

It’s all covered in a new book titled The Buying Brain: secrets for selling to the subconscious mind, by A.K. Pradeep, founder and CEO of NeuroFocus Inc and a Silicon Valley entrepreneur whose MySpace page says that his brain research company is going to change the world as we know it forever.

“Companies around the world, including the largest and most successful global giants”, reports DN&A, “are increasingly turning to EEG-based neuromarketing that measures the whole brain because it offers far more accuracy, reliability, and actionable results than conventional market research methods.” That “actionable results” business refers to you and me, Mr. & Ms. Target Market.

But to move from the Daily News & Analysis over to Amazon.com, here are a couple of tips from its Product Description segment which says “The Buying Brain is your guide to the ultimate business frontier – the human brain.”

1) Your brain gets scared in some stores. Your conscious mind doesn’t know it, of course, but your subconscious mind views sharp corners as a threat. Who knew?

2) Too much of one thing can make your brain go blind. “Repetition blindness” sets in when we see too many of the same objects. (The TV department of Best Buy either has not figured this out yet, or has found that TV buyers like to buy blindly.)

3) Men and women are hard-wired to shop differently. Men shop by looking for targets; women shop by looking for landmarks. Women explore their territory; men make maps.

There are fewer and fewer secrets. You may indeed be able to improve your memory or strengthen brain function, but marketers are probably going to be one step ahead of you. That caveat emptor phrase has morphed from “buyer beware” to Be Very Afraid.

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