On ‘I Can’t Breathe’

I Can't Breathe: A Killing on Bay StreetI Can’t Breathe: A Killing on Bay Street by Matt Taibbi

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I can’t imagine anyone watching the video of the last minutes of Eric Garner’s life and not being utterly horrified. Horrified by the excessive use of force and complete lack of concern for a man’s life.

I also cannot imagine how haunted Matt Taibbi must be from the research and passion he put into this book. But, I’m glad he took on those ghosts and took such care into getting the narrative right. He succeeded in so many ways.

By all accounts, Eric Garner shouldn’t be dead. At least not because of an illegal choke-hold. But, he is, leaving a giant hole in his family’s life as well as the community he called home. By all accounts, the man responsible for choking him to death — Daniel Pantaleo — should have been held to account. He was not. In a rather twisted alter-reality, Pantaleo is viewed by many as the victim.

This book isn’t just about that fateful arrest and its aftermath. It’s about a system — in New York as well as the United States in general — that forces us all to examine our own ideas of community, safety and policing, and the consequences of attempting to ‘feel safe’. It’s about what we’re willing to allow police to do to feel safe. And, it’s about what we will accept as ‘the way it is’.

As much as I respect anyone who chooses a career in law enforcement, I also fear how far the justice system itself has gone to protect its members. When entire communities recount story after story after story of ‘walking while black’, being pulled from cars and brutally beaten for asking a question, and then charged with crimes they did not and could not possibly commit, we must recognise that something is broken. And, it’s not the windows.

Taibbi packs so much food-for-thought within this book. It’s heartbreaking, even more so when you consider living within the realities he describes so painstakingly. We know Eric Garner’s name because of the clear evidence of brutality captured on a cell phone. The world saw that video and collectively gasped. We gasped again when a grand jury came back with no indictment.

Taibbi begins this book by describing another event in Staten Island. Ibrahim ‘Brian’ Annan, a young man stopped by police around the same time Garner was choked, was pulled from his car and beaten so violently by two police officers that one leg was broken in three places. He was charged with a total of seven felonies, all of which were eventually dropped, a process which took nearly a dozen court appearances and more than two years. The charges lobbed against Annan were so absurd and so obviously intended to simply force him to relent even the judge presiding over the cases found them silly. Annan’s beating was not captured on film. And, whilst disabled, he lived to tell the story. But, sadly, this is not uncommon in Staten Island, in particular, or in other inner cities in general (think Baltimore and Freddie Grey). It is sadly not new, either. Taibbi also tells the tale of Clementine Ross, a woman who has been waiting 50 years for closure on the shooting of her husband by a cop in Arkansas. His crime? Asking for a receipt.

Matt Taibbi focuses on a killing on Bay Street. But, given all of the names of all those who have died before and since Eric Garner, individuals primarily unarmed and shot by law enforcement officials, I’m surprised any of us can breathe.

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Springing forward

As the world springs back to visible life in Helsinki each year, tiny seemingly imperceptible changes create what one friend referred to as a ‘green haze’. It’s incredible. And, such a contrast from the sepia monotones of winter.

Each evening as we stroll through our neighbourhood for our daily peripatetic spousal bonding sessions, we can’t help but notice the tiny explosions of life that seem to change immensely from one day to the next rather than from week to week.

Yesterday, we ventured down (and up) a path we’ve never explored before. The views from the top were truly stunning, particularly given the calm water below and the blue, blue skies above. And, everywhere that green haze of new leaves and grass and even moss and lichen.

Closer to ground, the buds of new leaves and fleeting fresh flowers provide close-up signs of that change from one season to another.

Regardless of the particular lens — macro or wide and expansive — these signs move us forward from the slumber of winter to the rejuvenation and rebirth of spring.

Every-day choices

My schedule these days sucks, if I’m honest. My to-do lists are never-ending.

Between various job responsibilities and shuffling between campuses, volunteering for any number of science communication and university-based events and wanting and needing to spend quality time with my darling husband, I need longer days. Squeezing in a few mental health breaks for a run or a quilty pleasure book or sleep or cooking or any number of other ‘things’ seems absurdly luxurious. Time, much as life, is precious.

But, stepping away from the to-do lists is necessary. I’ve [perhaps] finally learned that lesson so obvious to so many. One item I am placing on my permanent to-do lists is scheduled mental health breaks. Some of these take the form of meditation or at least quieting the mind for a bit each day. Some of these breaks involve grabbing a book rather than my phone when on a bus.

More importantly, each day features some form of lacing up and heading out amongst the trails. When I can, I run. Because, I love running. Recently, the rewards of doing so have been priceless. I’m slow, and I feel horribly out of shape and far from race-ready. But, none of that really matters after a run. And, that’s what I’ve come to focus on lately. That and some of the stunning scenes and quieted mind or much-needed attitude adjustment offered as the minutes and kilometres tick by.

Spring in Helsinki isn’t necessarily gorgeous. Although it can be. Last week, after a rather surprise blizzard hit Helsinki, the views the next day along my run were absolutely incredible — there is nothing quite so lovely as fresh, pure-white snow bathed in abundant late winter sunshine. More than that, my mood after that particular run compared to when I laced up could not have been more different. I felt murderous when I left our flat. I was all about the rainbows and unicorns when I returned. That run was my adjusted my viewpoint enormously not just for that day, but for the days that followed as well.

As my schedule shifts yet again this week, I’m making choices. Why? Because there is only so much time in any one day and at least a portion of that time needs to be spent on preserving my sanity. Not just for me, but for just about everyone around me. So, I choose between accomplishing a few more bits of work each day or walking with my husband (when I don’t have class or haven’t just been on a run) or adjusting my attitude (by lacing up and running a few kms).

Most days, those runs and walks come with rewards. Walks with my husband feature much hilarity, and the opportunity to enjoy one another’s company without the constant pinging of email and messages of various sorts.

When I run, there is nothing else really. It’s an alternate form of meditation for me, one spent in constant movement rather than sat. (Perhaps that’s why it works better for me — sitting idly is torture on some days!) Last week, on that day when I wanted nothing more than to escape from quite literally everything, I accomplished a goal it took me until the end of June to reach last year. That goal might appear rather modest for most runners; for me, it was and is huge. A group I’m a part of consisting of crazy runners from across the globe all aim to run 1018 kms in the calendar year. Last year, I ran a whopping 371 km. My goal this year isn’t necessarily to reach 1018, although I will work towards it. I just want to beat what I accomplished last year. In 2017, it took me until 25 June to reach 100 km. This year, I achieved that milestone on 3 April. Something tells me I’ll hit 371 well before the end of 2018.

Regardless or perhaps against that target number, and regardless of whatever else may be on my to-do list, here’s to choosing me. Hopefully, by doing so, I can be the better, more-present and perhaps more patient version of myself for all those around me.

 

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Kids these days…

I am astounded by the bravery and logic of kids today. I am also shamed by them.

We, the adults, have largely failed them. As we have argued and shouted into our own echo chambers, disregarding any voice of dissension, we’ve polarised ourselves into wider and and more disparate perspectives. The results have been stalemates and inaction.

We’ve forced kids to take stands for their own rights and own safety because we, the adults, have behaved like children. We have risked their lives and their safety, and have not allowed them, the kids, the simple luxury of being kids.

Today, these same kids will be marching for their own lives, not just in the US but across the globe in nearly 820 cities. And, many of us adults will be following their lead.

It shouldn’t take a Parkland or a Sandy Hook or a Columbine, let alone atrocities and scenes of carnage like that in Las Vegas, to spur action. In fact, little action other than shouting back and forth has taken place, at least at the adult table.

That is, until the kids started making noise. And, asking questions. And, speaking up and organising. Maybe they should be in charge?

A friend posted a screen shot of a letter sent out to the parents of a school in some average place in the US alerting them to a possible ‘threat’ at the school. Her daughter opted to stay home the next day, and quite rightly was extremely upset by what might happen. Another friend’s four-year-old, when telling his parents about his day, recounted an ‘active shooter drill’ at their daycare facility just after Parkland. Four years old. Let that sink in for a moment. What were you telling your parents about your day when you were four?

These are but two instances of hundreds from amongst my network in the US. And, these do not include the many posts from teacher friends not just afraid for their students, but for themselves. Every. Damn. Day.

Personally, I don’t like guns, and decided long ago that they would not be a part of my life and would not be allowed in my home. That is my choice and my right. I now live in a country with fairly strict gun control laws, and I feel safer for it. As civilians, I do not think we need to have access to things like AR-15s, nor do I think anyone should be able to buy as many bullets as they want. Again, these are my personal opinions. Would I like to see a world without guns? Very much so. Do I think that is at a reasonable possibility or position? Nope.

Regardless of my personal beliefs opinions, we must talk about policy options and allow research to understand why so many die in massive shootings in the US. We must find common ground and consensus to move beyond where we stand now. To my mind, kids these days are providing the adults with a path towards action.

Today, as I sit behind my desk adulting working, I am also applauding all those marching. I stand with you all, particularly with you kids these days. I’d prefer you enjoy the silliness of just being kids. But, I’m incredibly glad and proud that you are taking the lead. May we all follow your lead. (And, please remember to register and vote!)

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Running on ice

I should have been running on ice since we returned from our holiday in the sun. To put it incredibly simply, I have not. I’ve lost my running mojo. And I blame it entirely on… me.

Despite my best intentions, despite my desire to train and be ready for not one but two half marathons this May and June, respectively, it’s time I admit that I won’t be. Not even close to ready.

I certainly won’t be ready for anything until I hold myself accountable and get out there and hit the trails once again.

So, how do I reignite that running fire and get out there more than once a week?

Perhaps it’s cosmic coincidence that landed a link on the 10 laws of productivity in my news feed today. This week, I have thought so many times about wanting to run, but simply can’t seem to lace up. So, any link that mentions my fellow runner and eclectic music lover, and favourite author Haruki Murakami is certainly going to rank high amongst the reads of day. Combine that with a bit of self-reflection on re-establishing some necessary and beloved habits, and I’m in.

The truth is, I’m a bit intimidated by that number: 13.1. Thirteen-point-one miles, all in one go. Can I do that? I’d like to channel that little engine that could and say, ‘I think I can’. But, the voice of doubt creeps in just as I think about lacing up.

The trick, I know, is to quiet that particular voice, and allow all of the other cheerleaders to drown out the dissenting opinions. Deep down, I know that anything is possible, as long as I just get going and believe. But, my journey of however many steps there are in 13.1 miles will never get started until I train for it. And, I know that the hardest part of any run is simply lacing up and getting out the door.

So, borrowing from Murakami and those laws of productivity, I shall develop a routine and start small. I will break this little journey up into smaller chunks and phases, the first of which entails that routine and starting small.

And, when I fall behind or can’t quite accomplish what I want, I’ll forgive myself first and then regroup.

Running on Ice

I’d like to blame my lack of motivation on the weather. But, it’s gorgeous when running in snow. 

 

 

On ‘Notorious RBG’

Notorious RBG: The Life and Times of Ruth Bader GinsburgNotorious RBG: The Life and Times of Ruth Bader Ginsburg by Irin Carmon

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Ruth Bader Ginsburg has always reminded me a bit of my grandmother. Quiet. Proper. Often wearing a stern look or serious expression accentuated by flawless hair and pearls. And, retorts at the ready which leave all present to hear them slack-jawed and cowering at their own ignorance. In my family, we often repeated a mantra, ‘Don’t cross Grandma’. I would imagine some variant exists for RBG amongst those nearest and dearest.

Notorious RBG is a must-read for any self-respecting feminist or equal rights activist (Is there really a difference between the two?) needing a beacon of hope and a dose of ‘get up and go’. And, RBG the woman is that beacon during very dark times. This woman. Unlike her, rather than seeing nine women justices on the highest bench in the land, I’d like to see nine RBGs at SCOTUS.

Oh, to dare to dream.

Detailing her life as a young newlywed law student, then graduate of Columbia Law (top in her class) unable to land a job, then law professor (needing to hide her second pregnancy)…, she understands not just in theoretical terms but from lived experience what perceived differences mean and they affect us as individuals and groups. To her, it isn’t simply about disregarding those perceived differences and the ideal roles of men and women; it’s about those institutionalised cateogories and erasing the various barriers and injustices they unfairly impose upon us. Her weapon of choice, however, is the law and the US Constitution. And, this woman plays the long game.

As I was finishing this brilliant, inspiring book this morning, I wept. Not because of anything particularly troubling that appeard upon the page at that precise moment. But, because so many of us are simply too tired to continue fighting for and working towards what we believe is right and just. If this tiny woman could become one of the most inspiring memes of our times, we—who have benefitted from her tireless efforts in classrooms, courtrooms and on the bench—can certainly work just a little bit harder to solidify and make permanent those giant gains she made for us.

RBG inspires for many reasons. And, we do her and all others who have blazed various trails a disservice by simply giving in to despair because it is too damn hard.

One of the appendices features a list of ‘How to be like RBG’. It reads:

  • Work for what you believe in
  • But pick your battles
  • Don’t burn your bridges
  • Don’t be afraid to take charge
  • Think about what you want, then do the work
  • But then enjoy what makes you happy
  • Bring along your crew
  • Have a sense of humour
  • I’ve got my to-do list sorted then.

RBG. However long she graces the Supreme Court and this world, it won’t be nearly long enough to satisfy me. I’ll still want more. But, her legacy. Long may it guide and inspire us all. And, may we all have red hot pens at the ready to sharpen and hone our words. Because words and how we wield them truly matter.

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Happy Finland

What does it mean to be happy? How do we measure it? Ask any one individual or ten random folks, and most likely they’ll have very different notions of how they define happiness.

Finland, in an annual publication from the UN Sustainable Development Solutions Network, ranked first amongst nations on the happiness index. The Guardian perhaps put it best with this:

The UN placing is the latest accolade for Finland, a country of 5.5 million people that only 150 years ago suffered Europe’s last naturally caused famine. The country has been ranked the most stable, the safest and best governed country in the world. It is also among the least corrupt and the most socially progressive. Its police are the world’s most trusted and its banks the soundest.

Not at all a bad place to call home.

Earlier this week, I had a conversation about striving for happiness, that nebulous, elusive ephemeral existence we seek but rarely if ever define for ourselves. The notion of happiness then returned a day later in an entirely separate discussion, again wondering what it actually means to be ‘happy’. And, now, Finland tops the ranking in this year’s World Happiness Report.

Unsurprisingly, the concept—the meaning of happiness—is now foremost in my thoughts.

Beyond any real quantifiable measures and based on a rather subjective comparison of countries and places I’ve called home, Finland by far offers the calmest environment in which to simply be. Life isn’t all rainbows and kittens, naturally. Anyone with whom I’ve had more than a 10-minute conversation about Finland knows that I bitch about lament Helsinki’s weather more than just about anything.

Still, life and living our life centres less on concerns related to meeting our basic needs such as housing, food, etc. than anywhere we’ve resided for any amount of time at all. Our life here remains relatively free from the stress caused by the system in which we live, particularly compared to our lives in Russia, the US and Cuba, respectively. In other words, most of the stress we experience stems from the stuff we have more control over than on anything related to Finland per se.

Finland may not have been on our radar as a potential place to call home, but it certainly has offered us a home and a life in relative calm. And, regardless of how we define happiness or how that definition changes and shifts as we change, we as residents and immigrants face far fewer stresses related to simply living than we have anywhere else.

More than anything, I’m grateful to this quiet calmness in which we exist. And, I’m immensely grateful to Finland for providing it to us. Perhaps more than any other time in our lives, this feels like happiness, in that I feel content.

Thank you, Finland. And, congratulations on yet another milestone.

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