Category Archives: Wisdom

Christmas Display

I saw the most wonderful display in front of a church as I drove down University Blvd today.  Not a creche, no lights, no crosses, no Santas or reindeer.  Just:

{Image:  photo of a church buliding with -- in front of the church -- a long concrete and brick ramp under construction.}

a ramp under construction.   St. Michael and All Angels Episcopal Church is building a beautiful ramp in front of their church building.  No back entrances here; nothing ad hoc or flimsy.  They’ve given over the front lawn of the church to a cut-back concrete ramp, lined with brick to match the building.

{Image:  more distant photo in which the entire church building is visible within the frame, as is the ramp extending the width of the building.  Construction equipment is visible in the lower right of the photo.}

I was very moved by the message of inclusion that this collection of concrete and bricks and construction equipment sent especially at the time of year when there is generally so much hand-wringing about Christmas displays.*  Sometimes the simplest things speak the most eloquently.   It’s is even more moving, I think, because the ADA does not require churches to be accessible, so this likely reflects a simple decision that everyone should feel and be invited to worship.

Because ramps are fun to do in panorama:

{Image: a panoramic view in which the entire ramp is visible close up, with construction equipment to the right.}


* You know, the creche; the creche + menorah to show that we’re ecumenical; the creche + menorah-even-when-Chanukah-was-over-two-weeks-ago to show that we’re ecumenical but sort of clueless; the creche + menorah + Santa Claus to show that we’re not really religious, just seasonal; and of course the creche + menorah + flying spaghetti monster just because we can.

Reason #1,000,000 why I love Dahlia Lithwick

I never know what to think about Israel.  Partly it’s ignorance.  Partly it’s my mixed heritage and the angst I feel about what I *should* be thinking as a half- (technically entirely-) Jewish, thoroughly liberal American.  I have friends and family with deeply-held, passionately-expressed, 180-degree opposite views on the subject.  Over the past week, one friend posted to Facebook at picture of a person wrapped in a red and green flag with the caption “When injustice becomes law, resistance becomes a duty,” while my dear cousin posted a link to “Friends of the IDF.”

Leave it to Dahlia Lithwick — the only person who could make reading about Antonin Scalia enjoyable — to say it perfectly.  Writing from her sabbatical in Jerusalem (emphasis added, as we say in the law biz):

I don’t know how to talk about what is happening here but it’s probably less about writers’ block than readers’ block. It says so much about the state of our discourse that the surest way to enrage everyone is to tweet about peace in the Middle East. We should be doing better because, much as I hate to say it, the harrowing accounts of burnt-out basements and baby shoes on each side of this conflict don’t constitute a conversation. Counting and photographing and tweeting injured children on each side isn’t dialogue. Scoring your own side’s suffering is a powerful way to avoid fixing the real problems, and trust me when I tell you that everyone—absolutely everyone—is suffering and sad and yet being sad is not fixing the problems either.

You want to hear about what it’s like here? It’s fucking sad. Everyone I know is sad. My kids don’t care who started it and the little boys in Issawiya, the Arab village I see out my window, don’t care much either. I haven’t met a single Israeli who is happy about this. They know this fixes nothing.

Thank you, Dahlia.

In honor of Banned Books Week

The copy of Ulysses that my grandfather bought in Paris in 1928, at which time it was banned in the US.

Shows spine of weathered copy of Ulysses



Flyleaf of Ulysses signed Clarence I. Blau Paris 1928


He was, of course, much smarter and more literate than his granddaughter, but I enjoy displaying the books I inherited from him so I look well-read.  Biography of Henry JamesHistory of the English Speaking Peoples?*  Of course!  Um… how about that Peyton Manning!?


*Clarence was actually my Jewish grandfather, though his reading tastes tended toward the WASPy and Anglophile.  My Christian grandfather, on the other hand, was a big-ass Zionist and Nazi-conspiracy-theorist.  And you wonder why I’m confused!

“Whatever” — how have I overlooked this blog?

I just had to link to this excellent explanation of privilege.  Most of the time when you say something like “nondisabled straight white men are privileged,” you are either accused of being accusatory, accused of overlooking millions of poor nondisabled straight white men, or accused of overlooking affirmative action.  John Scalzi explains that being a NSWM is like playing a role playing game on the lowest difficulty setting.  Note:  I play precisely zero role-play games, but the wonderfully-written extended metaphor is very accessible.

Okay: In the role playing game known as The Real World, “Straight White Male” is the lowest difficulty setting there is.

This means that the default behaviors for almost all the non-player characters in the game are easier on you than they would be otherwise. The default barriers for completions of quests are lower. Your leveling-up thresholds come more quickly. You automatically gain entry to some parts of the map that others have to work for. The game is easier to play, automatically, and when you need help, by default it’s easier to get.

His follow-up post responding to comments and criticism is good too, as is his post ridiculing some of the stupid and/or assaholic comments.  From his comment on comments:

2. Your metaphor/analogy is good, except for [insert thing that commenter finds not good about the metaphor/analogy]

Well, yes. Metaphors are not perfect; it’s why they’re metaphors and not the thing the metaphor describes.

What’s even cooler about this post for me is that it introduced me to his blog, Whatever, and I now have the delightful adventure of reading through 15 years (!) of entertaining writing.

We’ll miss you, Judge Williams.

“Are y’all some kind of thrillseeker?”  That was the question to litigants who were stupid or ballsy enough to defy Judge Richard Williams’s courtroom procedures or, God forbid, direct order.  I had the honor to clerk for him the year after I graduated, and Tim and I were lucky enough to persuade him to marry us in 1993.  Now, with deepest sadness, I mourn his passing.

I can’t begin to list all the things I learned from my clerkship year with Judge Williams.  He was a brilliant jurist, a gentle and good-humored teacher, and a hilarious storyteller.  Late last year when my friend Laura Hershey passed, I explained how she was part of my Mental Greek Chorus.  Well, Judge Williams is right there in my head every time I stand up before a Court or sit down at my computer to write a motion or brief.  I aspire to be both smart enough and professional enough that I would not risk his good-natured admonition.

Herewith some random photos and memories.

Chambers the year I clerked:  Randy; Spence; Maria; Skip; Mark; and of course, The Judge.

Others will do a better job of telling his story; even the outline is amazing.  Raised on a peach orchard in rural Virginia and educated in a one room schoolhouse, he joined the army and ended up surviving the attack on Pearl Harbor.  After the war, he benefited from (in his words) “the biggest affirmative action program of all time,” and attended the University of Virginia and UVa law school on the GI Bill.  He was in private practice in Richmond, then served on the state bench before being appointed by President Carter to the federal bench.

Learning from the Judge went far beyond the courtroom.  In chambers, we heard stories from his practice and his tenure as a judge that were generally hilarious and ultimately provided an education toward the legal Holy Grail:   how to be a good advocate, while being professional to your colleagues and opponents, and keeping a sense of humor about the whole business of law.  My only complaint is that he completely spoiled us.  I left my clerkship after a year expecting the practice of law to be as fair, learned, efficient, and humorous as I had experienced in Judge Williams’s chambers.  Alas, this turns out not to be the case.

He was also a learned naturalist, and both during the clerkship and during later visits to Denver, we had long, educational hikes with the Judge and his wife, Gene.  I became very comfortable answering the Judge’s Socratic questions about my bench memos.  What I didn’t realize is that this this mode of interaction would extend to the natural world, as well.  When we hiked near Richmond,

I was happy to learn (= internalize briefly) the names of the local flora and fauna.  When we hiked Waterton Canyon near Denver,

it turned out I was actually supposed to know things about the natural world near my adopted home town.  The dialog went something like this:

Judge:     What is that?

Me:        A bird.

Judge:    And that?

Me:        A tree.

I think he came away very relieved that I had only been his law clerk, and that he had not had to rely on me for Birding Memos.  During that visit, we also took the Judge to a Rockies game

and, if memory services, convened an “investment opportunity” — of the seven-card variety — in our apartment with former clerk Sunhee Juhon and her husband, Arthur Hodges.  We called the judge “Judge.”  Once during an “investment opportunity” at the Judge’s cabin, my co-clerk Mark Batten called him “Coach.”  Although it didn’t stick (and probably would not have been preferred) it was accurate.  He was our coach, during our clerkship year and after.

Judge Williams was also — for some unknown and, for us, heartwarming reason — a big John Elway fan.

When we sent him a jersey one year, we were very pleased to get back the photo above, which remains one of my favorites of him.  But my all time favorite is this:

Of all the wonderful things Judge Williams brought to my life, marrying Tim and me was the one for which I am the most grateful.

Today we attended his funeral and met and heard stories from many of the people whose lives he had touched.  It’s hard to believe I’ll never again hear his gravel-inflected voice telling us a rip-roaring tale of the cast of characters who populated his practice and his courtroom.

We’ll miss you, Judge.  Thank you.

What he said:

You see, when a tragedy like this strikes, it is part of our nature to demand explanations – to try to impose some order on the chaos, and make sense out of that which seems senseless. Already we’ve seen a national conversation commence, not only about the motivations behind these killings, but about everything from the merits of gun safety laws to the adequacy of our mental health systems. Much of this process, of debating what might be done to prevent such tragedies in the future, is an essential ingredient in our exercise of self-government.

But at a time when our discourse has become so sharply polarized – at a time when we are far too eager to lay the blame for all that ails the world at the feet of those who think differently than we do – it’s important for us to pause for a moment and make sure that we are talking with each other in a way that heals, not a way that wounds.

Scripture tells us that there is evil in the world, and that terrible things happen for reasons that defy human understanding. In the words of Job, “when I looked for light, then came darkness.” Bad things happen, and we must guard against simple explanations in the aftermath.

For the truth is that none of us can know exactly what triggered this vicious attack. None of us can know with any certainty what might have stopped those shots from being fired, or what thoughts lurked in the inner recesses of a violent man’s mind.

So yes, we must examine all the facts behind this tragedy. We cannot and will not be passive in the face of such violence. We should be willing to challenge old assumptions in order to lessen the prospects of violence in the future.

But what we can’t do is use this tragedy as one more occasion to turn on one another. As we discuss these issues, let each of us do so with a good dose of humility. Rather than pointing fingers or assigning blame, let us use this occasion to expand our moral imaginations, to listen to each other more carefully, to sharpen our instincts for empathy, and remind ourselves of all the ways our hopes and dreams are bound together.

From President Barack Obama’s remarks at the memorial in Tucson.

Laura Hershey

On Thanksgiving, one of the things I was thankful for was writers who make me think.  All too quickly we’re mourning the passing of one of the people I had in mind when I wrote that.  Laura Hershey was, among so many other things, a poet, writer, activist, word nerd, Scrabble ass-kicker, disability-rights mentor, partner, mother, and friend.  She passed* the day after Thanksgiving.

Others will write about Laura’s long history in the disability rights and LGBT communities, of working with her as a writer, or protesting with her back in the day.  My perspective is as a relative newcomer to the disability rights world, a straight, non-disabled law nerd wielding the dry prose of the legal brief in lieu of poetry or protest.  I’ll miss Laura immensely as a friend, but I wanted to write about another role she played and will continue to play for me.

Laura is an important part of my Mental Greek Chorus.  Perhaps you have one of these?  My MGC consists of the people with whom I have the mental arguments that help hone my own views on things.  (BTW, if having an MGC is a sign of mental illness, all I can say is I highly recommend it.)  Membership in my MGC consists of really really smart people who I love and who call bullshit on my views.  As you might guess, my husband and my brother are charter members.  But so is Laura.  Even though we could both be found on the left side of the political spectrum, she often challenged the assumptions in many of my views.

We disagreed on the question of abortion.  But what, I asked, do you think of people deciding to have an abortion when they learn their child will be disabled?  Her response:  it’s wrong, but we can’t force people to make the same intimate decisions we would make.

She challenged my civil libertarian views of assisted suicide.  Sure, in theory, everyone should have the same right to take his or her own life, but theory isn’t all that helpful in a world with limited support systems for people with disabilities, and a popular culture that often sends messages of pity and dependency.

And then there was the question of modesty.  As you can see from her eloquent final blog post, Laura spoke frankly about sex.  I think this is terrific — in theory.  My own conversational approach is more, um, prudish.  I recall Laura’s amusement as she described — over dinner at Little Shanghai — an art exhibit the theme of which was “what I was wearing when I had my first orgasm.”  I suspect her ongoing amusement at her and Robin’s gift of a condom and a mint when my gift suggestion for Tim had been “exotic condiments” was motivated more by how long it took me to figure out the rebus than the actual blush value of it.

On these and so many other topics, I will always hear Laura’s voice adding nuance, intelligent commentary, and good humor to my dry legal analysis.  She will live on for me in my heart and in my Mental Greek Chorus, continuing to gently, lovingly, and eloquently call bullshit.

*  After my father passed in 1997, I noticed that his southern and African-American friends all said “passed” whereas non-southerners and non-African-Americans tended to say “passed away.”  I came to prefer “passed,” because so often it feels like he is not really that far “away.”  I’m thinking Laura would smile at taking the occasion of describing her death to nerd-out on word choice.

Here are some links by and about Laura:

This link has two of her poems:

Here is her Denver Post obit:

“The Hard Work of Compassion” – TNC

I read something today that was among the most remarkable pieces of writing I’ve ever read.  It’s by Ta-Nehisi Coates, who writes a blog for The Atlantic.  Coates, who is African-American, has been doing a lot of reading and blogging about the Civil War.  In the post that struck me, he was writing about Drew Gilpin Faust’s Mothers of Invention, a history of women in slaveholding families during the Civil War. It leads to a meditation on what it takes for him to understand such women, and why:

To answer such a question, it is not enough to understand cause of the Civil War. A debate over the meaning of the Confederate Flag is almost beside the point. You have to remove the cloak of the partisan, and assume the garb of the thespian. Instead of  prosecuting the Confederate perspective, you have to interrogate it, and ultimately assume it. In no small measure, to understand them, you must become them. For me to seriously consider the words of the slave-holder, which is to say the mind of the slave-holder, for me to see them as human beings, as full and as complicated as anyone else I know, a strange transcendence is requested. I am losing my earned, righteous skin. I know that beef is our birthright, that all our grievance is just.  But for want of seeing more, I am compelled to let it go.

More than any other book, Mothers has confronted me with the hard work of compassion.

In this society, we view compassion as a favor, something along the lines of forgiveness extended to the humble and deserving. No. My compassion is utterly selfish, and is rooted in a craving for power. It is compelled by my curiosity, itself, just another name for hunger, for desire, for want of the great power of knowing. It is not enough for me to sit around scoring morality points on dead people, all the while blind to the living morality of this troubled time. There’s no power in that. I need to know more.

Those paragraphs just totally kicked my ass.  “The hard work of compassion.”  A compassion that is not charity, but that also does not excuse.  Does not draw its eyebrows together and go “awww.”  That rolls up its sleeves and says, you can understand this but it won’t be fun.

Reading this, I thought of a couple of recent reviews I’ve read of Breaking Night:  A Memoir of Forgiveness, Survival and My Journey from Homeless to Harvard.  The title is pretty self-explanatory, but the reviews both* made clear that, while the author’s childhood was rendered almost unimaginably awful by her parents’ drug addictions, she has deep compassion and love for these flawed people.

As I sat there feeling stunned that an African-American can undertake the work of compassion toward Confederate women and a former cocaine baby can write compassionately about her mother, it dawned on me that it was Yom Kippur,** and appropriate to repent, or start the process of repenting, or start thinking about what a really good idea it would be to repent, of the many areas of my life in which I am too lazy for the hard work of compassion.  And after all the repenting, it’s time to get off my ass and get to the hard work.


* OK OK the other review was in People Magazine.  I’m traveling this week, so I’m fully caught up on celebrity news, fashions, and – um – books.

** I’m half Jewish and a half-assed Jew.  It’s the closest generally acceptable label for my heritage and religious views, though still off by a considerable distance.  Fair warning:  there’s probably going to be future blog post about all that.

Update:  TNC is also the genesis of the “drinking with white people” concept which I found so evocative.  Also updated to correct an embarrassing error in punctuation.  Not telling.