Monthly Archives: February 2015

“Divergent” by Veronica Roth – further reflections

I took a look at the Amazon entry for this book, and what do I see at the bottom of the description?

Supports the Common Core State Standards”

Can somebody tell me what this means? Divergent is part of an American education? Why? Is it “literature”? Is it being taught in high schools? It is reasonably grammatical. Is that what it takes to “support the Common Core Standards”?

So why am I surprised? I know that The Giver, also decidedly dystopian, is taught in middle schools.

On the one hand, I’m all for books that youngsters will actually (and enthusiastically) read. I was delighted by the Harry Potter series. But that was FANTASY. It got “darker” as the story line progressed, but was ultimately a story in which good (including hard work, loyalty, intelligence) triumphed. When the last book came out, a friend posted on Facebook “Thank you, JK Rowling, for helping me raise my children”. I know what he meant. I think many families found that Harry, Ron and Hermione became “part of the family”. We cared about them.

The Harry Potter series does not bear the “Common Core Standards” imprimatur, at least not on the Amazon website.

So I guess this means I don’t think every book that gets kids reading is equally worthwhile. What about the Twilight series? Vampire romances… It’s not marked “Common Core Standards”. I think I read one volume and was not impressed. If my child brought it home from high school, I would be on the phone complaining.

So what do I have against Divergent, besides personally finding it depressing? Does it glorify risk taking? If so, is it any different from all the high risk action on TV and in the movies? Here’s an issue – it emphasizes corruption in people in positions of authority, a problem I acknowledge. Would it “push” a person towards conspiracy theory, the fear that ALL authority is hopelessly corrupt? Is it asocial or antisocial?

Enough… I like literature with some element of transcendence. I like to see people learn, resolve, grow, accomplish, and often this takes place in the face of daunting challenges. I suppose I should read the whole trilogy to see if Divergent supplies this. But I’m not sure I want to invest the time.

Does Divergent belong in the high schools? I’d love to hear your opinion! And what’s the BEST (contemporary) book currently being taught?

My Days in Court – Reflections on Jury Duty

Somehow, I avoided jury duty for much of my adult life.

  • I worked for County government, and was classified as an “essential employee”.
  • I was teaching, and they couldn’t figure out my vacations.
  • I had primary responsibility for a child under age 16.
  • They forgot about me.

Then I turned 50, and started getting regular greetings from the County court system. Every two years I was summoned to Civil Court, hung around for a day or two, and watched other people be put onto juries. Once I was called for grand jury, an even more solemn venture, but two 16-member panels were generated without my name being called.

I was called to Civil Court again this month and was (again) not seated as a juror, but was exposed to a new, higher level of judicial seriousness. Hence, these comments…

I’ve always been called to Civil Court, and each case has involved assignment of responsibility and financial compensation. These are not criminal cases where someone may be sent to prison. I assumed, therefore, that I was unlikely to be exposed to something violent or sordid. Wrong.

In my current service, I began by waiting through the selection of a jury to determine who was responsible for damage to a house – homeowner vs contractor – but it was implied that the next case coming up was “big” and might last more than a week.

So on my second day of duty, the jury assembly room was crowded. The group led into the courtroom was so large that all seats were occupied and at least 20 people stood along the walls. The judge introduced himself and the case, which dated back to 2010. A city police officer arrested a man carrying drugs, who was convicted of possession and (I think) served prison time. That, of course, was the criminal side of the case.

The civil case resulted from an accusation that police brutality was committed during the arrest, in violation of the civil rights of the suspect. In this civil case, the police officer was the defendant; the man arrested was the complainant. The jury would decide whether the actions of the officer constituted a violation of rights, and if so, how much money should be awarded to the complainant.

The details of the alleged brutality were sufficiently grim as to send a wave of distaste across the prospective jurors. I felt like I could hear my neighbors’ thoughts, predominant being “I don’t want to deal with this.” The first stage of jury selection, excuses for hardship, began. A quarter of the potential jurors departed. Then came the issues of knowing any party to the case (including a long list of witnesses), familiarity with the location of the arrest, etc. Some potential jurors asked to speak to the judge privately.

We were handed long sheets of standard voire dire questions and told they would be supplemented by additional, case specific questions. All questioning was handled orally, one potential juror at a time. We were advised to pay attention.

After lunch the first panel of 8 jurors was seated. Each had to rise and introduce him or her self, following a list of questions supplied by the court and including “how do you spend your spare time?” and “do you have any bumper stickers on your car, other than political election stickers?” Bumper stickers, it turns out, are rare in this County.

My mind was racing. Should I tell the judge that I don’t believe in the war on drugs? That it has become a war against the poor and disadvantaged? That it isn’t reducing drug use or making us safer? I have considered this carefully. I would be unwilling to convict in certain drug cases, on religious/moral grounds. But this was a civil case. No one would be sent to jail. I could very likely get myself off the case by expressing my opinions to the judge. Should I do so?

My one and only bumper sticker would probably get me off in any event. “War is Not the Answer”. It also appeared that anyone with education beyond a Bachelor’s degree was being excused from duty. The judge repeatedly told us not to “take it personally”.

As time wore on and the slow process was carried forward, I realized that the TRUTH about this case was very important. If police are brutalizing suspects and breaking their own ground rules, we-the-public need to know. Conversely, if this is a false accusation, the police officer in question has to be defended. I consider false accusation to be especially heinous, because the damage done to an individual may be so far beyond repair.

Considered as a process being conducted in service of truth, this case seemed to me to be more and more weighty as the day passed.

As the afternoon wore on, juror after juror was “thanked and excused” by one side or the other. The pool was down to perhaps two dozen tense and tired citizens when the jury of eight was finally sworn in late in the day. The lawyers and their clients rose and turned to face us as we filed out, a polite gesture many did not appear to notice.

What did I learn? Does “the system” work? I don’t know, but I am not as cynical about it as some of my friends. I felt that the judge and the eventual jury were acting in serious good faith. If we aren’t going to use this system to determine truth and defend rights, WHAT IS THE ALTERNATIVE?

I assume this case is important enough so that I will eventually find the outcome in the newspaper. I deeply hope that it will be based on truth.

But even if it is, there’s still something troubling me. The jury trial process is so unremittingly adversarial. One side or the other will WIN. The other will LOSE – completely. Might the “truth” be somewhere in between?

Either way, the resolution of this case will do nothing to restore the faith the between police and community which has been so very badly damaged in our country over the past year or so. It will not rebuild trust or understanding.

There is a new concept on the horizon – RESTORATIVE JUSTICE. The idea is to facilitate some kind of reconciliation between perpetrator and victim in criminal cases. It’s hard to see how it would apply to the case described above. RESTORATIVE JUSTICE has been around long enough to have an entry in Wikipedia. Maybe, over time, “the system” can be changed to serve us all better.

I welcome comments from anyone who wants to discuss his or her experiences with jury trials and the pursuit of justice.

“Divergent” by Veronica Roth

I shouldn’t read dystopian fantasy novels. They fill my head with ugly images. And often, if I start, I can’t STOP reading! Some of them are very compelling.

Divergent was recommended by a friend, and I admit I couldn’t put it down. But I don’t plan to read the series (it’s book one of a trilogy).

The social setting for this book is an America in which war and disorder have been stopped by setting up a system of “factions”, each of which capitalizes on a particular human trait – dauntless, abnegation, amity, candor and erudite. (Grammatical awkwardness sic – I’d prefer consistent parts of speech.) Each faction has particular responsibilities. Then there are the “factionless”, an underground of social outcasts who subsist on the margins, hungry and feral.

Our heroine (Beatrice, age 16) faces the ritual of choosing to either stay where she was born (in abnegation) or switch to another faction. Either way, there will follow a rigorous training and initiation period. If an initiate fails, her fate is to be factionless.

A test given before the choosing ritual reveals to Beatrice that she is “divergent”, having an equal aptitude for three of the five factions. The divergent are very few.

Beatrice, not selfless enough for abnegation, opts for dauntless. The training is brutal and involves risk. Dauntless is clearly the faction of adrenaline addicts. Beatrice makes the grade.

Beatrice learns that the factions are on the brink of war. By the end of the book, she is (involuntarily) part of an underground cabal facing a very uncertain future.

This reminded me of The Hunger Games, which provides another reason for not reading the rest of the series. I would not expect redemption or resolution, just more brutality, risk and unpleasantness.

Sometimes I DO want to read this type of fast action book, when I want distraction. The best for me was Game of Thrones, and I wish George RR Martin would get cracking. I’m ready for Book 6.

“The Birds of America” by John James Audubon – the most valuable book in the world!

Copies of the elephant folio version “The Birds of America” by John James Audubon are very rare. The Library of the Academy of Natural Sciences in Philadelphia was a subscriber to the original edition of this mighty work. And you can see it whenever the Library is open, which is almost every working day!

I visited the Academy last week. At 3 pm, it was announced that the daily page turning was about to take place. The folio rests in a climate controlled cabinet. Each day at 3:15, it is opened and a Library employee wearing white gloves turns a page so a new print can be appreciated. To me, there’s something magical about a really old book, especially one that is in such lovely condition.

I was not the only spectator for the page turning. I chatted with another guest and also the employee who turned the page. He was not well informed about the bird revealed (a gallinule), being a historian rather than an ornithologist, but he willingly went on line to check when I asked him if the folio included a picture of the black vulture, the newest bird on my (non-existent) life list. Yes, Audubon painted my favorite scavenger.

Turning one page each working day means the entire collection of 435 prints can be viewed in about two years. Not more than 200 copies of the elephant folio were produced, and 119 can now be accounted for. Thirteen are in private hands. The value of a complete set is about $12,000,000, but they are seldom sold.

What makes this book so wonderful? There’s the artistry. The plates were produced by copper etching and aquatint, followed by hand application of water color. They are detailed and very beautiful. The birds look alive, although they were painted from skins and mounted specimens.

Audubon later produced smaller prints of the original works, and now, of course, all is available digitally on line. But there’s nothing quite like gazing at the old, fragile pages and enjoying their color and detail. Go and see this treasure! It is breathtaking.

My Letter to the Editor – Death with Dignity Legislation in New Jersey

It must be at least five years since I have felt strongly enough about an issue to write a letter to the editor! My letter below was published today:

Press of Atlantic City – Voice of the People

04 Feb 2015

Approve bill to allow death with dignity:

The “Aid in Dying for the Terminally Ill” bill (S382) will be up for a state Senate vote soon. It would permit a terminally ill patient to self-administer medication to end life in a humane and dignified manner. Only adults of sound mind would qualify for access to this measure.

I’ve watched several friends die of cancer. It is clear to me that pain control is an inexact science. Sometimes it doesn’t work.

A close friend of mine died of lung cancer four months ago. She endured grueling treatments and exceeded the expected survival for her type of cancer by many months. A few weeks before her death, she told me she was ready to die and felt frustrated that New Jersey prohibited her from obtaining a lethal drug like those available in Oregon and Vermont.

I don’t want to end up dying slowly and in pain.

I support the right of the individual to make this intensely personal medical decision. I urge everyone to look at this legislation, decide what you want for yourself and loved ones and contact your state senator.

“So, Anyway…” by John Cleese

This autobiography was recommended to me by someone who is much better informed about comedy than I am! But we agree that John Cleese is one of the funniest people on the planet. His “Fawlty Towers” TV series was the best British humor I ever watched, and “Monty Python’s Flying Circus” is a classic film.

Cleese begins with some family history, then describes the various stages of his education. His family wanted him to move UP in the British class system, and undertook this by sending him to the best schools they could arrange. Ultimately, he went to Cambridge and studied law. To me, this was the most interesting part of the book. Oxbridge (as Cambridge and Oxford are called) is the pinnacle of the British educational system.

I’m fascinated by accounts of how young adults grow and learn. Cleese studied law but never practiced it, moving into comedy and comedy writing before he really finished his studies.

Cleese was part of the explosion of British satire that rocked the 1960s. Before that time, evidently NO ONE  mocked the English establishment. See my review of the autobiography of Tony Hendra (a friend of Cleese) in this blog dated January 21, 2014 (“Father Joe, the man who saved my soul”). Hendra’s life was changed by the inspired satire that Cambridge generated.

Cleese has a lively, informal style of writing and is fun to read. I hope he writes more, as he didn’t say much about “Fawlty Towers” and his movie making experiences.