Julie L. Kessler
lawyer traveler writer

News

How much do you really want to know?

Dec. 11, 2013

My article “How much do you really want to know?” appeared in today’s edition of The L.A. Daily Journal. This article discussed biomarkers, biotechnology and 23andMe, the innovative personal genomics company located in Mountain View, CA, whose operations were recently suspended by the FDA. There was also a brief history on the FDA. Bottom line is that our laws have simply not kept up with the speed of the science they seek to regulate. My money, however, is on 23andMe.

 

Full article off copyright and now available:

https://www.vagabondlawyer.com/uploads/News/How_much_do_you_really_want_to_know?.pdf

Fifty-Fifty wins a place in “50 Great Writers You Should Be Reading” contest!

Dec. 11, 2013

I was delighted to learn this just today!-JLK

 

Julie L. Kessler, author of Fifty-Fifty: The Clarity of Hindsight, will appear in the 2013-2014 edition of “50 Great Writers You Should Be Reading,” a publication of TheAuthorShow.com.

 

Julie L. Kessler has moved from finalist to the status of winner in the contest sponsored and created by The Author Show.

 

Julie was chosen as a result of a public voting process. Her work, entitled Fifty-Fifty: The Clarity of Hindsight offers a warm, moving, and at times tearfully funny account of growing up in Hawaii and California as the child of a single mother, acquired a love for travel at a very early age, and struck out on her own after her mother’s death when Julie was 21, largely alone in the world. The book follows her through her exploration of family ties in Israel and Europe (including those with her elusive father), her discovery of the language, food, and magic of France, reflects on her time living in Japan, her encounters with Hill Tribe women in the mountainous countryside of Vietnam – and her chance encounter with the son of a conman whose path she’d unwittingly crossed before . . . .

 

The winners were announced on The Author Show website on December 5, 2013.

Time to reflect on the recent past

Dec. 4, 2013

My article "Time to reflect on the recent past"appeared in today’s edition of The L.A. Daily Journal.

 

This article discusses the seemingly never-ending epidemic of mass shootings around the world (Westgate Mall in Nariobi, Navy Yard in Washington, D.C., Sandy Hook in Conn., Aurora, Colo., Oslo, Norway) and how we attempt to deal with such unmitigated horrors. It also discusses the NRA’s position, Wayne LaPierre’s rhetoric and the apparent new normal in which we now live.

 

Full article off copyright and now available:

https://www.vagabondlawyer.com/uploads/News/Time_to_reflect_on_the_recent_past.pdf

You’ve come a long way, baby

Nov. 27, 2013

My article “You’ve come a long way, baby” appeared in today’s edition of The Los Angeles Daily Journal.

 

This article analyzed the news last week about the first three women ever: Pfc Julie Carroll, Christina Fuentes Montenegro and Katie Gorz, who successfully completed the punishing U.S. Marine Corps infantry course, and what this means respecting the final frontier of complete integration of women into the U.S. military. Indeed, you’ve come a long way, baby. Semper fi.

 

Full article off copyright and now available:

https://www.vagabondlawyer.com/uploads/News/You’ve_come_a_long_way,_baby.pdf

How well do you really know your partners?

Nov. 20, 2013

My article How well do you really know your partners? appeared in today’s edition of The Los Angeles Daily Journal. This article reviewed a legal case eerily similar to Frank Abagnale in “Catch me if you can,” but with a truly terrible twist. In this case, the defendant is a man who alleged to all who knew him that he was a physician who served in Vietnam and had earned a bravery commendation, among other fictions. The truth is he was a complete fraud. He was never a physician, nor was he ever in Vietnam. He is however now standing accused of murdering his girlfriend on October 26, 2011 in Beverly Hills. The single mother was stabbed so many times in her apartment that she was nearly decapitated. The defendant stated to his therapist that very same day in 2011 that “I think I killed my girlfriend.” At arraignment the defendant pled not guilty. He is due back in court later this month when the trial will finally be scheduled. Stay tuned.

 

Full article off copyright and now available:

https://www.vagabondlawyer.com/uploads/News/How_well_do_you_really_know_your_partners?.pdf

Peter Principle and the story of Stephen Glass

Nov. 13, 2013

My article Peter Principle and the story of Stephen Glass appeared in today’s edition of The Los Angeles Daily Journal. This article reviews the California Supreme Court consideration of whether Glass, infamous because of his journalistic fictions passed as non-fiction and the great lengths he went to in order to create them, should now be admitted to the California bar. The final decision will be rendered by the highest court in the state in just under three months.

 

Full article off copyright and now available:

https://www.vagabondlawyer.com/uploads/News/Peter_Principle_and_the_story_of_Stephen_Glass.pdf

Fifty-Fifty makes finalists’ list in The Authors’ Show competition

Nov. 7, 2013

I was really pleased to receive notice today that my book Fifty-Fifty: The Clarity of Hindsight is among the finalists  in The Authors’ Show‘s ’50 Great Writers You Should Be Reading’ competition. Thanks to everyone who got me there!

The horticulture of rape

Nov. 7, 2013

My article "The horticulture of rape" appeared in yesterday’s edition of The LA Daily Journal. This article reviewed a recent criminal sentencing of a half-dozen gang rapists of a 16-year-old girl in Kenya. The sentence the rapists received from the Kenyan court was to mow the lawn of the local police station. Public beautification in exchange for child rape. The article went on to review a likewise unbelievable 30-day rape sentence in a Montana case where a 49-year-old teacher raped a 14-year-old child, a girl not even old enough to possess a learner’s permit to drive her mother’s car. The sentence is now on appeal. Stay tuned.

 

Full article off copyright and now available:

https://www.vagabondlawyer.com/uploads/News/The_horticulture_of_rape.pdf

Practice…if you can get to the courthouse

Oct. 30, 2013

My article "Practiceif you can get to the courthouse," which covered the historically groundbreaking move of the Saudi Arabian Minister of Justice that granted the first four Saudi women licenses to practice law in the kingdom, appeared on the front page of yesterday’s edition of The L.A. Daily Journal. The article also discussed in detail the irony of this historic event in light of the fact that women in the kingdom still do not possess the right to drive themselves to the courthouse where they may now finally enter. Saudi Arabia remains the only country in the world where women are not issued driver’s licenses.

 

Full article off copyright and now available:

https://www.vagabondlawyer.com/uploads/News/Practice…if_you_can_get_to_the_courthouse.pdf

A lovely honor from the Isaac Brock Society

Oct. 28, 2013

As you may know, I recently wrote about the Foreign Account Tax Compliance Act (FATCA) in an article that appeared on October 18th in the Los Angeles Daily Journal. The Isaac Brock Society, a group of “individuals who are concerned about the treatment by the United States government of U.S. persons who live in Canada and abroad,” has awarded me a place in its Hall of Fame for this piece. While I was not aware of the Society before having written this article, I was very pleased to learn of the award. The unintended ramifications of FATCA for Americans living abroad–and, in some cases, their spouses and dependents, even if those people aren’t American citizens–are serious, and I am glad that my article has helped to raise awareness of the Act and its collateral effects.

The expats’ dilemma–article published in the L.A. Daily Journal

Oct. 24, 2013

An article I wrote on the impact of the Foreign Account Tax Compliance Act (FATCA) on U.S. citizens living abroad was picked up for publication by the Los Angeles Daily Journal and appeared in its October 18, 2013 edition. I’m very pleased to have my work appear in the LADJ, the premier legal publication on the west coast. The LADJ  is a subscriber newspaper in both its print and on-line formats; however, the article is now off copyright, and you may read it below:

https://www.vagabondlawyer.com/uploads/News/The_expats’_dilemma–article_published_in_the_L.pdf

The college conundrum

Oct. 23, 2013

The November 1st deadline for early-decision college applications is fast approaching. Thankfully, the two remaining teen people — Irish twins — who live in our home and for some odd reason keep calling us Mom and Dad have both completed their college essays and supplemental information, and have turned everything in with eight days to spare. In terms of earthly miracles, and setting aside the ten plagues visited upon Pharaoh, that’s on par with the parting of the Red Sea by Moses himself. Getting something done and sent in before the deadline is, for a teenager, the equivalent of a Herculean sprint. Now, however, is the real test: the mad marathon to hurry up and wait for the finish line — the acceptance letters. Which, of course, in reality, represents only the starting gate for their respective futures.

 

And what a process it is. There are the AP course exams, the PSAT testing, the SAT test and the SAT subject tests. Then there is the CommonApp (which this year was replete with blood-pressure-busting techno-errors), the general essays, the specific university essays, arranging for teacher and academic counselor recommendation letters, and on and on and on. The last few months of their lives have been utterly consumed with drafts, rewrites, computer glitches, Office Depot runs, and the requisite Starbucks pit-stops to refuel. This was all in addition to their regular senior workloads, hospital volunteer work for one, portfolio accumulation for the other, club fund-raising, babysitting, and tutoring gigs, with a bi-weekly or so reminder to us of their respective names, since they were spotted upright only on rare late-night refrigerator raids. Our teenaged daughter actually gets less sleep than I do, and I hardly get any, so I have no real understanding of how she manages to get the grades she does and cram all of the activities and commitments she has into her conscious hours without keeling over; this is apparently the province of the young and hormonally over-endowed.

 

Such is the final year of the early-21st-century high school senior—incredibly busy, neurotically competitive, and a more than a bit chaotic. My husband and I have often commented on how much more insane it is now then when we were approaching the end of high school back in the dark ages, long before cell phones, computers, and social media invaded our universe. (For those of you under 30 and wondering how we survived, I had a behemoth IBM Correcting Selectric — the very mother of all electric typewriters—and my husband, who is still today is a proud two-fingered typist, had a Dictaphone and a perpetual roll of dimes for the payphone!)

 

Now it also seems that the idea of college discovery and the fostering of one’s passion has been replaced with the concept that a student’s passion must already be fully developed and, as a practical matter, wholly realized before he or she even gets to university. How can that be? How on earth can a 17-year-old possibly know, much less be absolutely resolute about, what precisely is his or her calling? When did things change so drastically?

 

I suppose I will really sound like a T. rex here, but it used to be that the whole point of going off to university was to uncover, discover, and polish what it was that floated your boat. Not so any more. With the competition as fierce as it is, high-school seniors today not only have to have their personal road maps and necessary prerequisites firmly in place, but also have to compete with kids who have discovered new diagnostic methods for pancreatic cancer screenings (as seen last week on 60 Minutes), climbed Kilimanjaro earning the trip’s expenses through massive on-line fundraising via kickstarter, or spent the last four years manning (or rather womaning) the telephones at a community rape crisis center.

 

These are all, of course, wonderful and commendable, but it seems that something has gotten lost along the way. Sometimes you need to just be, to explore and question in order to find your real passion and your place. To take courses in foreign languages because they tickle your tongue’s fancy, to study literature because it feeds your soul, to learn history because as a society we make the same damned mistakes over and over and over again anyway, to understand world religions so one can grasp the genesis of so many of those mistakes, to study ethics so we can think about the vexing problems we face, and of course to study the arts so we can fully appreciate humanity’s enormous contributions to the beauty that surrounds us, despite the gargantuan problems that plague us.

 

As a parent I am hopeful (okay—on my knees, lost in resolute prayer) that these two remaining at home are competitive enough so that they will get into one of their top choice schools (if for no other reason than to end the seemingly never-ending conversation on the topic that threatens the very vestiges of what remains of my sanity).

Then, of course, will come the next huge hurdle: getting a job.

 

The anemic job market these young people will probably face when it comes time for them to seek employment means that the markets will disproportionately recompense those who graduate in the STEM fields (science, technology, engineering, and math). There are countless studies reminding us practically daily of how far and how fast we in America are falling behind our counterparts in Europe and Asia in these arenas. I don’t doubt this, especially given the state of many public schools in the U.S., and the over all standardized test scores seem to prove it.

 

As a parent who wishes the front door of our home to be open for meals, holidays, and family gatherings, I also wish not to manage a perpetual boarding house into my own retirement at the ripe young age of 106. So of course I wish for them to find rewarding jobs after university that will not only feed their souls, but also pay their mortgages (and hefty student loans). So while medicine, business, and computers will probably do the latter, I truly hope they will have a shot at the former by having the opportunity to study the humanities in depth while at university. What is sometimes lost in the translation of the books-for-bucks mentality is that the humanities provide an essential context for students’ understanding of and participation in the world. The next generation of leaders in a world connected at virtually the push of a button will require not just a desire to be part of the shared common experience, but also a worldly perspective born of curiosity, intelligence and sensitivity. Those traits come from, among other things, the ability to think and express those ideas by connecting with one another emotionally, and by grasping and understanding cultures, histories, languages, and stories different from our own. And without a thorough study of the humanities and the balance those studies provide to the STEM fields, we will all be poorer, even if the mortgage gets paid.

 

So while one of the Irish twins hopes to be a physician, and the other a business-oriented computer maven, this parent hopes that the humanities will be explored with the same fervor as the mad race for the dwindling possibility of the proverbial brass ring. Cogito, ergo sum.

Complaining about the complainer

Oct. 11, 2013

I have often written on various aspects of foreign travel. Those musings appear in my book Fifty-Fifty, The Clarity of Hindsight and elsewhere. It is a subject which obviously is quite near and dear to my heart.

 

I recently came across an article of various complaints received from Thomas Cook Vacations from dissatisfied customers. The list was long and, frankly, quite shockingly funny in a sad and pathetic way.

 

Here are a few of those complaints, along with some possible solutions to rather sticky situations:

1. From visitors to Spain. “There were to many Spanish people there. The receptionist spoke Spanish, the food was Spanish. No one told us there would be so many foreigners.”

 

Really? No one at Thomas Cook made any mention there would be so many foreigners in a foreign country? It must have been really stunning for these tourists to find not only Spanish people in the great nation of Spain, but Spanish speakers to boot! Imagine that? This traveler should definitely request, and be granted, a full refund from Thomas Cook Travel. Serious cultural omissions like this should simply not be tolerated by traveling members of the public, and someone of course should pay for this dereliction of duty. Or perhaps this traveler should have stayed home where there are no foreigners; and instead communed with like-minded (or perhaps non-minded) non-foreigners. Just a thought.

 

2. From visitors to Jamaica. “It took us nine hours to fly home from Jamaica to England. It took the Americans only three hours to get home. This seems unfair.”

Indeed, I agree with this tourist that it is in fact patently unfair. After all, why should things be so easy for us Americans? It seems to me that it would be far more fair if the travel operator had instead arranged for a rocket to beam this tourist up to a very far away galaxy, where he might find some basic books on geography. Or perhaps even an almighty atlas. How about a one-way trip to a public library with an umbrella-laden drink?

 

3. From visitors to an island resort. “I was bitten by a mosquito. The brochure didn’t mention mosquitoes.”

Now why on God’s green earth would there be mosquitoes on a tropical island? Or on an African safari? Or in a park in L.A. in the summer time? Might that be, pray tell, where mosquitoes actually live their short lives? The nerve of mosquitoes, inhabiting a traveler’s airspace! Clearly, those island mosquitoes have no manners whatsoever, and certainly they don’t know their proper buzzing place. In the interest of fundamental fairness, I’m thinking that the travel brochure should also tell prospective visitors to take toothpaste, because (one never knows), the tourist might want to engage in the odd activity of brushing his or her teeth. This reminder would be done simply as a public service, of course. The travel operator might also want to suggest visitors take sunglasses, because there may in fact be sunshine present on an island. After all, that does happen sometimes. Finally, they should probably suggest that visitors with impaired vision pack glasses and/or contact lenses, in case they have a strange desire to see anything. Just saying.

 

4. From visitors to a beach resort. “The beach was too sandy. We had to clean everything when we returned to our room.”

Now this one really upset me. No one, and I mean no one, should have to engage in any kind of washing when on holiday, as that defeats the whole purpose of going on vacation. Talk about bad business practices! I simply cannot imagine what the marketing department at Thomas Cook was thinking when they wrote up their brochure. Clearly they weren’t thinking at all. Had I been employed in the marketing department and asked to draft the brochure, I certainly would have added some clear disclaimer language. Something like, “Please be summarily advised that, sadly, should you elect to actually participate in the reckless and dirty activity of beach-going, YOU WILL FIND REAL SAND ON THE BEACH. The Company is not, will not, and shall not be held in any way responsible or liable for any or all cleaning of such sand, or related activities or expenses associated therewith.” There. Now that seems much clearer.

 

5. My perennial favorite. “My fiancé and I requested twin beds when we booked, but instead we were placed in a room with a king bed. We now hold you responsible and want to be reimbursed for the fact that I became pregnant. This would not have happened if you had put us in the room we booked.”

This letter renders me completely shocked by the outrageous corporate behavior of Thomas Cook. Of course the hotel in this instance should be held responsible. And perhaps Thomas Cook Travel as well. After all, had there been twin beds in the guest room in question, there of course would have been a zero chance of anyone EVER becoming pregnant. Nosireebob. It is very well-known that there has never been a single reported pregnancy ever in a university dormitory, frat or sorority house, military base, rehab facility, or any other housing situation where there are multiple beds and occupants under one roof. Nope. This is simply corporate irresponsibility of the highest magnitude.

 

Frankly, I think this tourist should consider retaining an attorney. Why? To sue the traveler’s parents. The cause of action would be for the intentional infliction of stupidity. Or if they can’t prove that on the facts at hand, then perhaps the unintentional infliction of moronic conduct. As an alternative, the tourist’s parents could perhaps be sued for the many times this tourist was apparently dropped (very hard, it would seem), on her head as a small child. Only that could account for such a post-holiday letter to a travel operator.

 

Travel safe, travel well, travel on and bon voyage. And please, don’t forget your glasses.

Fifty-Fifty now available in Taiwan!

Oct. 5, 2013

Fifty-Fifty: The Clarity of Hindsight is now available in Taiwan through the Readmoo platform. This is great news! Here’s hoping readers of English in that vibrant country will enjoy the book! If you’re a reader in Taiwan, please feel free to send me feedback via comments or on my contact form.

Sausages, the law, and SLAPP

Oct. 3, 2013

There’s an old saying I heard with regularity while in law school: “There are two things the public should never see being made: one is sausage, and the other is the law.” The origin of this statement is clouded in historical fog, but it has been attributed to, among others, Otto von Bismarck, the Prussian statesman who dominated German and European affairs in the late 1800s, and Benjamin Disraeli, the learned British Conservative politician, writer, and aristocrat of the same period, who served twice as Britain’s Prime Minister. We may never know who actually uttered these descriptive words, but their meaning is clear: certain things are simply better left forever unseen.

 

On September 27, 2013, I wrote “What price justice?” about Michael Jackson’s family’s claims against entertainment behemoth AEG Live for both non-economic damages ($290 million) and economic damages ($1.6 billion) arising out of MJ’s death.

 

The Jackson family attorney argued in closing that the lure of riches turned AEG Live and Dr. Conrad Murray into mercenaries. AEG Live, for its part, argued the angle of personal choice: Michael Jackson had made bad choices and bad decisions, about the drugs he used and the physician who provided them, and was, in effect, the architect of his own early demise.

 

The five-month trial finally ended when the jury came back after three days of deliberations with its verdict, and a surprising message: The jury found AEG Live not liable in the wrongful death suit brought by MJ’s family, and did not believe cardiologist Dr. Conrad Murray was unfit or incompetent. After the verdict was read, the jury foreman was quick to point out that the jury followed the verdict form language and instructions, but said that that “doesn’t mean we felt he [Dr. Murray] was ethical.”

 

There were five questions the jury had to respond to in the affirmative in order to find AEG liable. They agreed that AEG had hired Dr. Murray — but on the next question, asking whether Dr. Murray was incompetent or unfit, the jury decided in the negative, making the remaining three questions legally irrelevant. (This civil decision does not alter Dr. Murray’s criminal case — he was convicted of involuntary manslaughter and sentenced in 2011 to four years for his involvement in MJ’s death, but because of prison overcrowding, will be released later this month.)

 

In this case, saner heads prevailed, forcing issues of personal responsibility and accountability squarely to the forefront where they belonged. The net result was a verdict that, while it no doubt made MJ’s family very unhappy, was nevertheless a sound one. This long-drawn-out final chapter of a sad and tragic book is finally closed.

 

On the other side of the country, late last year, Jonathan Schanzer, an American author, scholar in Middle-Eastern studies, and president of the Washington-based Foundation for Defense of Democracy, had written an online opinion for the magazine Foreign Policy concerning the two sons of Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, Yasser and Tarek.

 

A few months later, Yasser filed a libel suit in federal court in Washington, D.C. against Schanzer and the magazine. Last week, a U.S. district judge threw the case out, concluding that Schanzer’s statements in Foreign Policy were either not capable of defamatory meaning or were protected opinion statements under the First Amendment, thus applying D.C.’s anti-SLAPP (Strategic Lawsuit Against Public Participation) statute. These types of statutes are intended to guard against suits aimed at quashing the court of public opinion. This enormous victory will act as a strong deterrent to influential foreigners who seek to stamp out critics and commentators.

 

In tossing the case, the judge noted that the Abbas brothers had filed defamation suits or threatened libel actions three times previously against an Israeli television channel, Reuters, and Al-Jazeera. In this case, the focus was limited: Were Schanzer’s questions concerning the source of Yasser’s wealth libelous? The court answered in the negative, holding that the case involved claims about a public figure and touched on a public-interest issue — “the relationship between the United States and the Palestinian Authority.” Hence this case squarely fit within D.C’s “strategic lawsuit” definition. The court noted that while the questions concerning the Abbas family’s wealth raised by Schanzer may have been “embarrassing or unpleasant,” they were simply questions. Continuing, the judge made clear that even if those questions rose to the level of assertions, Schanzer’s questions were opinions protected by the Constitution.

 

It was a good week for the First Amendment and the court of public opinion — and, no doubt, also a very good week for Mr. Schanzer. And in an overly entitled world, it was also a good week for the confirmation of personal accountability and responsibility. So while Bismarck, Disraeli, and their learned brethren may often turn in their respective graves with increasing regularity as the wheels of justice inch forward, this may also be a week when they may rest comfortably and in peace. And one where the making of law, and perhaps even sausage, can indeed be viewed by the public without too much stomach or other upset.

The Shadowy White Widow and Morning Coffee.

Sep. 30, 2013

The other day, at precisely 6:15 a.m., I was sitting in my kitchen reading The Wall Street Journal when my 17-year-old daughter stormed in and abruptly stated, in the way that only a teenager can, “Oh my God, I can’t believe she just didn’t join a NORMAL cult!”

 

Under “normal” circumstances I, of course, would have had no idea what she was talking about. However, it was at literally that same moment that I had just finished reading a WSJ article about 29-year-old British national Samantha Lewthwaite, who has become known in media circles as “The White Widow.” This somewhat odd moniker was given to her following her husband’s participation in the 2005 suicide bombings in London, which killed 56 people and injured more than 700. A few days after the Westgate Mall siege ended in Nairobi last week, Interpol issued an “international wanted persons alert,” also known as a “red notice,” for Ms. Lewthwaite, stemming from Kenyan charges in December 2011 for possession of explosives and conspiracy to commit a felony resulting from an alleged bomb plot in Mombasa that police ultimately foiled. Police also believe that Lewthwaite has links to Al-Shahab, the Somali militant group that carried out the attack at Westgate Mall. Lewthwaite  is also under investigation for alleged possession of a fraudulently obtained South African passport, and for a possible role in the Westgate Mall attack.

 

As it turned out, my daughter’s “normal cult” comment was in reference to Ms. Lewthwaite; she had read a similar article online about her before she came downstairs for breakfast. My daughter, who has spent nearly as much time abroad as she has in the U.S., and possesses native-tongue fluency in more than one language, was completely dumbfounded that a Western-educated Caucasian woman would opt for communing with militants who plan terror plots and, if the criminal charges prove to be true, would engage in participation in wholesale murder, on soil not even her own.

 

Needless to say, a rather spirited, caffeine-fueled early morning conversation ensued. About economics, displacement, disenfranchisement, religion, revolution, the London bombing, the Boston Marathon massacre, and, further back in history, the Symbionese Liberation Army’s Patty Hearst and Sara Jane Olsen, white supremacy groups the world over, and the more “normal” cults (to which my daughter was initially referring), such as certain ashrams in the Pacific Northwest. This led to a far more inclusive discussion than I had ever intended at that early hour; however, the common thread of the conversation was really about how it is that certain individuals can be swayed to engage in extreme conduct in which they perhaps would not otherwise partake. (In Ms. Lewthwaite’s case, she apparently became despondent at the age of 17 over her parent’s 1994 divorce and converted to Islam; she then married the man who became one of the four London suicide bombers. Thereafter, she moved to East Africa with her children, where authorities believe she commenced facilitating terrorist activities in operational roles.)

 

How does one even begin to explain to a young woman in her final year of high school, with university looming and a bright future on the horizon, what it would take to make a woman only ten years her senior, and with two young children in tow, engage in such behavior? What was it about Lewthwaite’s upbringing or background that made her uniquely vulnerable to starting down the road to extremist behavior? What were the triggers, latent or otherwise, that finally pushed Lewthwaite over the edge and changed forever the course of her personal history — and that of her children? And, of course, her victims?

 

This, of course, is not an easy conversation to have at any hour, much less long before significant amounts of coffee have been digested and have taken effect. But it is a necessary one nevertheless.

 

A common thread of discussion among parents of teenaged children who are about to go out into the world is how we have somehow managed (not volitionally of course) to present our children with a far more complex and frightening world than the one we faced when we came of age. (I won’t even bring up geopolitical issues such as global warming and economic ones such as the various financial and banking meltdowns around the globe, all of which together play a role, however tenuous, in the culmination of the impulses of the disenfranchised, the disappointed, the disillusioned and the dispirited.) While probably every generation since Adam and Eve has uttered similar phrases as its young sail off into uncharted waters, somehow, the problems du jour seem far more daunting and damning now than at any time in recent history. And it’s not just access to 24/7 news that makes me think that.

 

Interpol’s red notice will circulate to the organization’s 190 member countries and will, in effect, act as a global trip wire for Lewthwaite, who is now deemed an international fugitive. The rest of us will send out the next generation of young people into a world where the new normal is not a thing like the old normal. We will also hope against hope that, as they confront the enormous obstacles that face them, the idea behind Golda Meir’s statement, made in a completely different context in 1957 at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C., will one day take hold. While Ms. Meir was of course referring to the Arab/Israeli conflict when she said, “Peace will come when the Arabs love their children more than they hate us,” this statement can be altered slightly to have universal meaning, application, and appeal. That peace will come when our enemies love their children more than they hate us. It is indeed a very good place to start.

What price justice?

Sep. 27, 2013

$85 Million. That is the amount that Brian Panish, the attorney for the Jackson clan, urged jurors to award each of Michael Jackson’s three children in the case against AEG Live. Plus another $35 million to Jackson’s 83-year-old mother for “non-economic” damages, e.g. loss of love and comfort. On top of this $290 Million “urging” were the “economic” damages. And while an exact figure was not proffered by Panish, the family’s claim is $1.6 billion–simply mind-boggling beyond any rational belief.

 

More laughable perhaps was Panish’s comments that “We’re not looking for sympathy, we’re looking for justice.” Really? What price, pray tell, would that be? Five hundred million? Seven hundred and fifty million? The combined GNP of several emerging nations?

 

Central to the determination of the case is the critical question of who hired Dr. Conrad Murray. Was it AEG Live or was it MJ himself? (Dr. Conrad, a cardiologist, was convicted of involuntary manslaughter in the death of Michael Jackson in 2011 and sentenced to a four-year prison term.) MJ’s mom says AEG Live negligently hired an inappropriate and incompetent doctor, and missed a series of red flags about his failing health in the run-up to his death. AEG Live says it didn’t contract with Dr. Murray, and that a promised $150,000 a month for his medical services were to have come from an advance it was making to MJ, meaning, effectively, that Michael Jackson hired his own physician.

 

One has to ask a basic question here: How long would any physician in MJ’s employ (regardless of who actually hired him) have lasted had that doctor not provided MJ with the powerful and inappropriate drugs he insisted on receiving to aid his insomnia? MJ actually referred to the anesthetic narcotic Propofol, which he took with frightening frequency, as “milk.” This is by no means in defense of Dr. Conrad; clearly the Hippocratic Oath was misplaced, lost, or forgotten in his care of MJ. However, in arguing damages, why does MJ’s family completely ignore the role of MJ himself?

 

Despite the well-known and wide variety of personal problems that MJ had at the time of his death, the fact remains that he was a 50-year-old man and, as an adult was, like the rest of us, ultimately responsible for his own health when he died, as AEG Live attorney Marvin Putman has argued to the jury. While Dr. Conrad’s sad or bad role in this seemingly never-ending legal trauma drama is reprehensible–while financially convenient for MJ’s heirs–it’s difficult to dismiss the role that MJ’s complete abdication of personal responsibility played in his own demise, as Panish would like the jury to do in deciding the damages in this case.

 

Sadly, the Jackson children lost their father, and MJ’s parents, their son. This is clear. That the world lost a talented performer with MJ’s death also goes without saying. And AEG Live probably did certain things in handling its talent that are very regrettable at best. But at a certain point, one cannot really completely ignore MJ’s own hand and his long-standing demons in this dark story. Both personal responsibility and accountability have to be taken into account during the damages phase of this trial. Otherwise, the numbers are simply pulled out of a magician’s hat and based purely on emotions and the quality of counsel. This then has the collateral effect of tipping the scales of justice to the point where justice has virtually no relevance and perhaps worse, no meaning at all.

Guns, guns everywhere . . . .

Sep. 24, 2013

This article has been removed as it was accepted for publication by The L.A. Daily Journal and appeared on December 4, 2013. The article discussed the mass killing by Al-Shabab gunmen at the Westgate Mall in Nairobi, Kenya, leaving over 60 dead, the shooting by a mentally unstable navy reservist and contractor with a security access clearance who opened fire at US Navy Yard in Washington, leaving twelve dead and many wounded, the Sandy Hook murders, the Empire State Building shooting, the Norway mass murders and several other high profile, high murder count shootings. It also discussed the NRA, its official mouth piece Wayne Lapierre, and his undeniably offensive rhetoric. Finally, the article discussed the ways in which we try to lead normal lives while inhabiting the new normal.

For the love of a child

Sep. 16, 2013

In the seemingly endless newsfeed to which so many of us find ourselves exposed, becoming sufficiently hardened to the onslaught of shockingly bad news appears to be a method of self-preservation. However, sometimes the bad news is so heartbreaking, so gut-wrenching, so unconscionable, that the air you breathe seems literally stolen from you.

 

That is what happened to me last week when I learned of an eight-year-old Yemeni girl who was forced to marry a forty-year-old man. If that were not awful enough, the young girl died of internal bleeding and uterine rupture on her wedding night.

 

Most of us in the West almost don’t possess the parameters within which to process such news, much less accept it.

 

The Republic of Yemen, the poorest country in the Middle East, has a relatively recent genesis. In 1990, the traditional North and Communist South merged after years of clashes. Modernization attempts have been slow at best, and the country still retains much of its tribal character. The intervening years since the unified country’s birth have seen a civil war in 1994 that left 250,000 dead, and in 2011, protests inspired by the Arab Spring ultimately resulted in the resignation of President Ali Abdullah Saleh, a man who had run North Yemen, and then the unified country, for a total of thirty years. Following the closure of their bases in Pakistan and Afghanistan, Al Qaeda filtered into Yemen, and it became a major Al Qaeda stronghold.

 

Yemen also has the highest illiteracy rate in the region. The literacy rate for women is approximately 40 percent, compared to 70 percent for men. This gap is explained by traditional views on female education, which is thought at best to be inconsequential, and at worst to be in direct opposition to a girl’s good morals.

 

Poverty, tribal warfare, political instability, illiteracy. A veritable guaranteed recipe for disaster of the type to which we have just borne witness.

 

Human Rights Watch reports that 14 percent of Yemeni girls are married before the age of fifteen; however, the Social Affairs Ministry in 2010 reported that number to be 25 percent. Although Yemen passed a law in 2009 making it illegal for girls under seventeen to marry, the law was ultimately repealed after conservatives said it went against the teachings of Islam.

 

Is it the teachings of Islam against which the Minimum Age Law went? Or was it patriarchal and impoverished rural families’ inability to resist “bride prices” for their daughters that caused the law’s repeal?

 

For the eight-year-old Yemeni girl named Rawan, the reason (I simply cannot type the word rationale in this context) behind the law’s repeal matters not a damn. She was sold by her parents and now she is dead; killed by her purchaser in, without a doubt, the worst possible way. It is utterly impossible to try to imagine what her last thoughts were — or perhaps even her first, once her little eight-year-old mind began to grasp the truth of the awful, amoral transaction to which her parents had subjected her.

 

To add insult to injury, Yemen security officials deny the incident took place.

 

While we would especially like to in cases like this, we cannot legislate morality outside our borders. And although the EU foreign policy chief demanded that Yemen ban child marriage and reinstate the repealed Minimum Age Law in keeping with international norms, in all likelihood it will not happen anytime soon. Certainly we will hear of another child like Rawan dying a horrible and senseless death.

 

Simply put, only when a society values its girls to the same extent as it does its boys will this hideous type of child abuse finally commence its long-overdue dark ride into the annals of ancient history.

What’s in a name? Part II

Sep. 13, 2013

On August 20, 2013, I posted an article entitled “What’s in a name?” about the Baby Messiah case in Tennessee in which a bench officer unilaterally changed a toddler’s first name in a family law case involving determination of paternity and child support. The bench officer stated that she based her decision to change the toddler’s name from Messiah to Martin as Tennessee had so many Christians, and many people in the state she believed would be offended by the toddler’s given name.

 

My article received many comments from readers, the overwhelming majority of whom agreed that a sitting bench officer had no business changing a child’s given name, especially on religious grounds. There was one reader (an eighth-decade Episcopalian minister turned evangelical) who wrote that while he “was preparing [himself] to be offended by [my] article, he thought it was well written.” Which I took to be a sort of backhanded compliment offered, to my relief, without his religious views or objections on the matter.

 

After reviewing the mail on the issue and upon further reflection, I realized perhaps even more than before just how important our given names are to our sense of self in general and our sense of identity in particular — perhaps even more important than our surnames, which are handed down without much agency or deliberation.

 

Our surnames are bestowed upon us by ethnic background or region, and historically, by the professions of our forbears (Shoemaker, Blacksmith, Kaufman [meaning trader], Cohen [indicating one from the rabbinical caste], etc.) However, our given names clearly represent choices, those of our parents. They thus represent a far more important element of familial desire and identity than our surnames, and are often selected based on the popular first names du jour, on some special family meaning, in memory of a deceased loved one, or on a myriad of other modern-day and often odd choices (Gwyneth Paltrow’s daughter Apple, anyone?)

 

Throughout all but the most recent history of immigration to the United States, many given names were changed upon arrival at Ellis Island by lazy or bigoted entry officers, following perhaps the same rationale expounded by the Tennessee bench officer in the Baby Messiah case. My paternal grandfather, for example, arrived at Ellis Island with his wife and three teenaged children in the midst of WWII. His first name was Ignatz, at the time a fairly common Austro-Germanic given name. However, the immigration officer on duty that day at Ellis Island simply didn’t like his first name or couldn’t pronounce or spell it, and thus my grandfather, a Holocaust survivor who arrived stateless in the U.S. and had already lost so much, had then also lost his first name that day with the brisk stroke of a careless man’s pen. My grandfather thus unceremoniously became Nat, and he kept that name for the rest of his very long and abundantly happy life. In retrospect (and my grandfather never once complained about the name change — he often just rehashed the story as part of family lore), it seems an extremely small price to pay: losing one’s given name in exchange for the chance of entry into a hospitable country and a good life while ethnic annihilation is happening elsewhere. But that’s not really the point.

 

The point is choice. It is always about choice in a democracy. As a law professor friend of mine says repeatedly in her Constitutional law classes, “Democracy without freedom is like two wolves asking a sheep, What’s for lunch?”

 

It is also the freedom to make a bad choice. And this is true even in the commercial sector. I recall many moons ago when Chevrolet began marketing a midsize car called the Nova. That was just fine for the US market. However, Chevrolet then started exporting it south of the border. That, Chevrolet quickly learned, was a huge problem, as “no va” in Spanish means “it doesn’t go.” Not your best bet for a motor vehicle. And then there was the Korean restaurant my husband and I loved mainly because it was the site of our first date. We returned there regularly out of a sense of nostalgia and the need for fiery bulgogi and burning kimchi. Years later, the restaurant changed hands and the new owner changed the decor. He also had the brilliant idea to rename the restaurant. When I drove by one day a few months later, I could hardly believe my eyes. In a city that hosts an enormous and vibrant Latino population, the new owner chose the name Moku, which in Spanish means, to be anatomically correct, nasal detritus. Predictably, the restaurant closed shortly thereafter.

 

The freedom to keep one’s given name and bestow names upon our children seems so obvious that the discussion almost seems absurd. But clearly it is a discussion that must take place, as a judicial maverick, under color of authority and a sense of religious self-righteousness, has purported, however misguidedly, to have a legal basis on which to alter this most basic freedom of parental choice and identity. Personally, I would never name a son of mine Messiah, chiefly because I don’t share the religious connection, and from a more pragmatic perspective, I would fear that as he grew up his friends would call him Messy or Mess for short. Nevertheless, I hope Baby Messiah’s mother’s appeal in Tennessee to unload the name Martin will be successful in short order. Because what’s in a name is a fundamental personal choice — the choice to bestow it, to keep it, or to change it.