A Freudian Slip

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It’s fitting, in some way, that the trial I served as a juror for ended on Tax Day. I realize that taxes aren’t due until the 18th of April this year, but everyone knows April 15 is the day that we’re supposed to settle up with the IRS by filing our tax returns. Money changes hands on that day, generally in the form of a tax refund that people use for whatever they need some extra money for.

That didn’t happen for me this year. Instead of a healthy refund, I owed something to Uncle Sam, and not a trivial amount, either. But I paid that amount because, well, that’s just what you do. It keeps the National parks open, and pays for social programs and military defense and all the other places our tax dollars go to. Living in America is a privilege that I can’t fully appreciate because I haven’t lived anyplace else. But that privilege comes with a price, and the IRS is there to extract part of it from us all, whether we want to pay it or not.

Another price of citizenship in this country is jury service. In my many years of living, I had never served on a jury, of any kind, until this past week. The right to a trial by jury is an enormous gift, and that entails giving up your time when called by the courts to do so.

The trial I served as a juror on wrapped up yesterday, and I made a point to ask the judge if I was allowed to write about the case online. Writing is a form of free, self-induced therapy for me, and I needed to put a few things out into cyberspace, before the experience fades away into memory. I expect jury service to be a once-in-a-lifetime experience, and after this trial, I very much hope that’s the case.

Part of me wants to get into the specific facts of the case, but that’s not really going to help anything. Painting in broad strokes about what happened is probably good enough, at least for my purposes. I could write a long treatise about the case I was charged with deciding, but the end result wouldn’t change, not even the tiniest bit.

The case had to do with a fraud, pure and simple. The federal government rooted out the defendant’s misdeeds, which were filing tax returns in the name of people who had no idea they were having returns filed on their behalf. Their names and social security numbers, and access to online tax filing software, are apparently all it took to set these wheels into motion.

So prisoner A (We learned his real name and saw him testify in court, but his first name began with A so I’ll call him that here) is doing time. I learned what it was for, but it really didn’t matter that much. He’s serving time, and not receiving any Social Security benefits from the government. But a tax return was sent to the IRS, indicating that not only was he receiving these benefits, but he had a portion of those benefits withheld by the IRS, and he wanted the withheld portion back. It’s a classic case of turning nothing (as in the Social security benefits which were never paid in the first place) into something (as in a few hundred dollars that wound up in the tax preparer’s pocket.

This happened for hundreds of prisoners, and the IRS paid off like a slot machine by depositing the money in waves. There were hundreds of prisoners, and thousands upon thousands of dollars being shoveled out for this scam. The legal term is “scheme,” which sounds a hair more respectable than a “scam,” but this was the scammiest thing I’ve ever seen in my life. And it makes a mockery out of those who pay taxes and wouldn’t think to  run a fraud like this.

At the close of the trial, on Thursday afternoon, the jury received instructions from the judge about what the relevant law is. We were told to follow those instructions, whether we agreed with them or not. One juror failed to do so, and that vote was enough to result in a hung jury. Our romantic notions of “Twelve Angry Men” and the noble juror who spares a defendant from being wrongly convicted by standing up to, and ultimately persuading, his fellow jurors didn’t apply in this case. Life didn’t imitate art, at least not in this instance.

But the two sides had to give closing arguments before we could begin deliberating, and the otherwise masterful defense attorney nearly gave away the game with one small, practically imperceptible slip. I may have been the only one that noticed it, but it was very telling. It didn’t make a difference, in the end, but I wanted to preserve it here, anyway.

A Freudian slip, also called a parapraxis, is when someone gives away their inner feelings by accident. As the defense attorney was summing up the defects in the government’s case–since they have the burden of proof, his job was to point out the ways they haven’t done so, regardless of whether any such defects actually existed–he said “They have fooled–failed–to show….”

The “fooling” that the defense attorney referred to, in his moment of unintended candor, wasn’t the government’s doing, but his own. He was there to fool the jury into believing that his client had been wrongly accused of defrauding the government–and by extension the taxpayers on the jury and all over the United States–out of withholding proceeds from prisoners who had not receive any Social Security benefits while they were behind bars. All he had to do was fool one juror, and the week’s worth of trial would have gone for naught. And that’s exactly how it played out, too.

I put a picture of Frederick Douglass in this post, because the holdout juror bears a strong resemblance to him. I even thought of him as Fred, though his real name was something else. Frederick Douglass became friends with Abraham Lincoln, and their unlikely rise from the circumstances they were each born into has always inspired me. I will always admire Frederick Douglass, but I’ll probably see pictures of him now and think about the juror who wouldn’t agree with the rest of us on the jury. Life takes some strange twists sometimes.

On my way home from the courthouse, after the verdict had been read and my fellow jurors and I were excused with the thanks of the court, I took a train to a bus in order to get home. The transfer point from train to bus led me to a statue of Abraham Lincoln, which I’ve written about before in this space. I looked up at Lincoln, who is depicted not as the bearded president we all know, but as a clean-shaven Illinois attorney, which he was for many years before he was elected president.

As I looked up at Lincoln’s representation, I tried putting my frustrations with the case into some type of order. And I realized that our legal system, for all of its imperfections, is still something to be proud of. The defendant wasn’t set free by my jury, and he still has to face the prospect of perhaps another trial in the weeks and months ahead. We as jury did what we had been charged with doing. I didn’t like the final result, but it was far from the first time where something I was involved with didn’t end up the way I wanted it to. Those are the breaks, whether in the courthouse or anyplace else in life.

The Lincoln statute reminded me that our legal system is worth preserving and supporting, even if it isn’t perfect. It won’t ever be perfect, but it will always seek to do justice. The truth is  that I’d rather live in such a place than anywhere else.

Everybody wants to rule the World

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A song by Tears for Fears encapsulates the 80s for me like few others do. And the irony now, all these years laters, is that it was probably in the air when a high school teacher and coach named Hastert was doing some terrible things to trusting young kids.

He went from Yorkville High to third in line to the presidency. He literally did help to rule the world, at least in theory, and made millions in the process. Some of those millions would later be funneled to those who he abused when nobody knew his name. That’s punishment enough for what he did, right? If only if were that simple.

I never knew any of the people involved in this tale, so perhaps it’s not my place to say anything about this. But the good teachers and coaches who want the best for the kids they work with will bear the brunt of Hastert’s actions, far more than he ever will. And that is beyond unfortunate.

High school sucked for me, and I’m not the only one who felt that way. When adults in position of authority and trust use the circumstances of this difficult age of transition for their own benefit, in order to sexually prey on those who are still trying to figure out their own place in the world, all of us suffer, in ways that we may never realize. I’m grateful that nothing like this ever happened to me, but I can easily understand why others were not so fortunate.

After a long and financially rewarding stretch in the halls of power, Coach Hastert’s past finally caught up with him. He paid off his prey, but money alone can’t make everything OK, either for those he molested or the rest of us, as well. He’s old and going to die soon, so perhaps he’ll get what’s coming to him when that happens. But here on earth, his request for probation is an affront to anyone who’s paying attention.

His “family values” and likely unstated opposition to the very behaviors he engaged in as a wrestling coach makes him an outsized hypocrite. Sending him to prison won’t make him any different, but the idea that he can do this and slink off with nothing more than his own shame and humiliation seems wrong, on some level.

I have no doubt he feels bad about what he did, but this is only because it came up again. The abuser can forget his actions however he wants to, but the abused cannot. And to protect those who need it, neither should the rest of us.

Spending an afternoon with my mom

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There’s a scene from Good Will Hunting that has stayed with me, more so than the remainder of the movie. In the scene, the Minnie Driver character says that she would trade all of the money she has to spend another day with her dead father. And the reason she would is because once somebody is gone, there’s no way of bringing them back. So enjoy your loved ones while you still can.

My mom was 21 years old when I was born. At an age when I was still finishing up college and enjoying the carefree (as in, child-free) days of my early 20s, my mom didn’t have that. She had me and my sister and two brothers to contend with. Not that it was an actual competition, but she had demands on her time and resources that I can’t imagine. And she did a great job of raising us, I have to say.

I’m very pleased to report that she’s still with us today. I get to enjoy spending time with her while she’s still young enough to get around without a wheelchair or a walker. And we did exactly that a week ago, for the funeral reenactment of Abraham Lincoln. It was six hours in the car to spend four or five hours with the woman who did so much for me back when I was unable–and sometimes unwilling–to appreciate what that meant. It was a trade that I was glad to make.

I know that my mom reads my blog. So in a sense, I’m writing to her knowing that she will see it and probably get emotional. I’m getting emotional writing it, myself. But on the off chance that anybody else ever finds this online, here’s a picture and a story about my mom. She, like all mothers, loved her children and didn’t get nearly enough in return for her emotional and financial investments through the years. This is a humble attempt to repay a debt that can never be fully squared. And I’m very pleased to still have the opportunity to make payments on this account.

A day to honor Lincoln

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image150 years ago today, Abraham Lincoln’s body lay in state in Chicago. For those who waited in long lines, there was a chance to move past the president’s body and make the tragedy seem real. I’m sure nobody who made this wait ever regretted doing it.

I hoped there would be some kind of acknowledgement of this fact today, but if there was, I completely missed it. Instead, everything was about the NFL draft, which brings tourism and attention to this city. I understand this, but feel as though a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity was missed. Lincoln deserved better than to be ignored.

I’ll write up everything I did someday, but for now here’s a sample image. I call it “two Lincolns” and there are others where this came from. I even cobbled together a few readings and posted it to my Facebook page. My Lincoln tribute was something I’ll always remember, in part because it came from my own actions. Since nobody seemed to be interested in commemorating Lincoln, I stepped up and did it myself. We cannot do enough to honor his memory.

Remembering the fallen

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Yesterday was the 150th anniversary of the heaviest fighting at the battle of Spotsylvania in the Civil War. A century and a half ago, the Civil War was grinding on and on, with no end in sight. A presidential election was coming up in the fall, and the staggering losses were dimming Lincoln’s reelection chances. We know how it turned out now, but the spring of 1864 must have been a very tense and heartwrenching time for the Union side.

Although Lincoln himself is never too far away here in Chicago, the lack of a battlefield from that conflict can make the war seem remote sometimes. The Confederate mound is on the South side, and I’ve written about it here before, but it seems like a well-kept secret sometimes. And thousands of dead Confederates evidenced the war’s human toll for me, but they were also fighting to preserve a government that was built upon human bondage. It was hard to feel any love for them.

I wanted to take a moment to honor the fallen, not necessarily from Spotsyvania itself, but from the totality of the war that shaped this nation that my family calls home. So I drove to Rosehill cemetery, which I’ve also written about before, and stood among the rows of fallen Union soldiers.

There were hundreds of them in all, and they represented untold numbers of widows, parents, children, brothers and sisters, cousins and nephews who had to carry on with their lives after they fell. The lives that were lost were in evidence, but the lives that were forever altered as a result could only be surmised.

I read the names and the dates and the company designations, and wondered how many of these fallen soldiers had someone come to pay their respects. Two men named Stewart from separate companies in Vermont, for example, found their earthly rest a very long way from home. Perhaps they were biologically related, and perhaps they were not. But there they are, 150 years later, lying not too far from each other in a Chicago cemetery. And there I was, wondering about what their stories were, and paying my respects to them and all of their comrades in arms.

I wouldn’t know how to behave in the presence of a slave, or a person who considered himself worthy of owning another human as his property. I want to believe that I would comfort the slave and afflict the slaveholder in any way that I could, but the law would be on the slaveholder’s side, and not mine.

Whether the men who lie buried in Rosehill cemetery opposed slavery or not–and I have no illusions that all of them did oppose it–their sacrifice spared all of us from having to witness the debasing nature of slavery.

Confederates had their principles too, I suppose, but I cannot–and will not–honor their sacrifices. If Davis and Lee and the other Confederates had prevailed, the world today would be so ugly that I can hardly imagine it. It’s a great and glorious thing that what some consider the “lost cause” was, indeed, lost.

The surrender at Appomattox is the symbolic end of the Civil War, but in many ways the war still continues today. Those who had their families torn apart, or who spent the rest of their lives carrying the physical and mental scars from the fighting, have all left us now. Their sacrifices are often lost, amid the sacrifices made in more recent American wars. Those wounds are still fresh, after all. But appreciating the Civil War, with its permanent reordering of American society–both North and South–must also be done.

This piece was written with love and gratitude for the sacrifices they made.

Changing college sports as we know them

NCAA Football: Illinois at Northwestern

Today–March 26, 2014– is the 35th anniversary of the Magic Johnson/Larry Bird title game in the NCAA tournament. I remember watching that game as a ten year-old kid in Springfield, Illinois. It was broadcast on NBC, instead of on CBS. There was no three point stripe, no shot clock, and no possession arrow. The NCAA logo was some silly interlocking letters arranged inside a circle. The game followed a third-place game, where the two teams that lost in the Final Four still had one last chance to salvage something. In short, there were still five men on a side and the team that scored the most points won the game, but otherwise the modern sports fan would hardly recognize it.

And on the anniversary of that game, which arguably changed basketball itself for the next decade, the NLRB handed down a ruling that Northwestern’s football players can vote to form a union. There are many writers and fans bemoaning the ruling, saying that it will “change college sports as we know them.” To which I reply, change happens all the time in life. The NCAA championship game from 1979 (which is within my living memory) is all the proof anyone needs that change is inevitable, in sports and in life itself.

To those who would bemoan the loss of something in college athletics, I would invite them to consider that the athletes on the floor in the basketball tournament, and on the field during the bowl games and in the regular season, are generating millions of dollars for their schools, yet they aren’t allowed to share in any of it. The schools do award scholarships and provide room and board, but they keep the money and in turn make their professional coaches into wealthy men. They give the chattering heads of CBS, ESPN, and a thousand other places something to talk about and write about and take pictures of. They allow the advertisers to reach a captive audience and sell more product. And what do these athletes get in return? Not what they should, if you ask me.

There will never come a time when the NCAA, in its benevolence, decides to share the wealth with the players who do the work and assume the risks. There will never come a time when a school pays for the long-term medical bills of a player who gets hurt playing a game, while wearing their school’s colors. And there will never come a time when a player who can’t keep up with his academics and his team responsibilities is told that academics are why they are in school. Football comes first, or basketball comes first, and everyone understands this. But it’s wrong and it needs to stop.

It’s ironic that the very first Final Four, or the first time that NCAA schools competed on the same floor for a basketball championship, happened on Northwestern’s campus, all the way back in 1939. I know that that was basketball and today’s ruling applies to football, but that’s not the point I’m making here.

Northwestern–my alma mater–showed the NCAA the possibilities that a championship tournament offered. And 75 years later the Final Four, and the tournament leading up to it, is a money-making juggernaut. But what Northwestern giveth in basketball, it taketh away in football and–soon enough–in basketball, too.

If making money from the toil of players who don’t get to fully share in the pie they create seems fair, I will respectfully disagree with that premise. Million-dollar coaches don’t play the games; the players do. And the false hope of a professional payday–which the overwhelming majority of college athletes will never get to see–is shameful. It’s gone on for too long, and the sooner it comes to an end, the better.

Kudos to Kain Colter and the Northwestern football team, for sowing the seeds that will one day bring about some much-needed and long-overdue changes in college sports.

Link to an old memory

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Twenty years is a long time, no matter how you slice it. Twenty years ago I had no kids, no house, no car, and I was still in graduate school, getting a Masters degree in the hopes of becoming a teacher. So the guy who went to the baseball game described in this post bears little resemblance to the guy who wrote about it two decades later. But it’s a good story, I think, and I’m glad to still be around to tell it.

Opening day 2014 can’t get here soon enough for me.

 

Rebel, Rebel

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I recently went on a long drive out west to see my in-laws at Christmas. A few pictures and stories from the trip were shared in this space, but the vast majority of it will live in brain’s memory, rather than in my computer’s memory. And that’s as it should be, I suppose.

But one moment from the long drive home stands out. We spent a night in Wichita, Kansas, and had to get back to Chicago the next day. After a drive through Kansas and into Missouri, and then across a long stretch of Iowa, we made it into Illinois. But even then, we still had to get from one end of the state to the other along Interstate 88, which has been named the Reagan expressway because it runs through Ronald Reagan’s birthplace of Dixon. But this story begins before we even made it that far.

We pulled off the highway to fill up, and I then went inside to use the restroom. My younger daughter came along too, and as I was waiting for her to come out I started to peruse the store. The first thing I noticed was one of the Calvin-type little boy stickers peeing on the word Obama. A disrespectful sticker to be selling in the president’s home state, certainly, but not terribly surprising because once you get more than five or ten miles away from Chicago, Illinois is not much different from Iowa or Missouri or even Kentucky, culturally speaking at least.

But just because I don’t like the message that a sticker sends, that doesn’t mean others can’t buy or sell it as they want to. This is America, after all, and the freedom to disrespect those in power, whoever they are, comes with the territory. I have no problems there.

But another sticker that I saw in the store had a much different effect on me. It carried the words “Kiss my rebel ass” wrapped around a confederate flag. That’s where where my tolerance ends, because the Confederacy killed off more Americans than the British, the Nazis, the Soviets, and Al-Queda ever will.

Why would anyone buy a symbol of disunion, sedition, and human bondage to attach to a car? Especially in Illinois, which never was a part of the Confederacy to begin with and–even more importantly–was home to the man who put the Confederacy out of business. Anyone who traffics in the Confederate flag in Illinois–even the western edges of it–only reveals their ignorance of the past.

But maybe that’s where the rebel part of this comes in. The bravado of the “kiss my ass” part of the sticker is designed to mask–or perhaps even to amplify–the ignorance of someone who would buy and display such a sticker. The Confederacy may have been able to run a weak president to the ground, but Abraham Lincoln proved to be their downfall. He kept the nation together, somehow, through the Civil War. And Reagan expressway or no Reagan expressway, and sitting president from Illinois or not, this is–and always will be–known as the Land of Lincoln. And hailing from such a place makes me exceedingly proud.

I wanted those stickers to be hidden from view somehow, so I turned them around and put them back in place on the rack. It was a small protest against an idea and a cause that was as un-American as anything ever has been. I’m sure it has been recognized by the gas station by now, and the stickers have since been put back into the proper position for some fool to consider buying one. But the rebel flag will always be an anathema to me, here in the state that did more than any other to shut the Confederacy down.

Long live the First Amendment and freedom of expression, but even longer may the memory of the terrible things that the Confederacy stood for be remembered.