Friday, August 22, 2014

Our greatest enemies...

"To live will be an awfully big adventure..."
- Robin Williams as Peter Pan in 'Hook'

God, that quote is something, isn't it?  The line from the book is "To die would be an awfully big adventure." Peter says it to suggest that even a greater adventure lies ahead.   At the end of the play and the movie, the above quote is said.  Casting Robin Williams as the boy who won't grow up...Why didn't I ever see the magnificence of that until just now?

Grandtots, I didn't know this human.  I knew of him.  He made me laugh.  But something more as well.  He was onto something, wasn't he?

Celebrities die all the time.  Someone who found their way into the limelight can do so for any number of reasons.  They could have met the right people, gotten a lucky break, stood in the right place at the right time.  They could be physically attractive, touching upon people's natural longing for beautiful things.  Some people get into the limelight through hard work and tenacity, some get there by burning a path through every obstacle, leaving a wake of destruction behind.  And some people, some very rare people, found their true selves, who they were meant to be and what they were meant to do very early in life, they held fast to that "spark of madness" and never let go.

Robin Williams was that last kind of rare person that was doing what everyone in the world knew he was meant to do.  He was designed by forces beyond our comprehension to make people laugh: to lighten their burdens, to walk out before them and offer himself up in the hopes of providing people a few minutes of respite from sometimes very difficult lives.

I don't think I've ever realized how noble a pursuit that was until just now.  How important a thing it is to have people of mirth in the world.  Without humour, really think about your days, our lives, the human condition.  Humour and wonder is the real difference between children and adults.  Without mirth, this world can be undeniably bleak.  Thinking about it, that may be my only true virtue - the one from which all other flow - I honestly believe I can find humour and absurdity in just about anything.  I can see the humour and absurdity in the death of this good man; honestly, it's like a chapter out of Joseph Heller's Catch-22: to think the man that gave this interview, and said these words (55:10) would eventually turn around and change his mind.  It's humbling to think that it wasn't enough to save him.  That in the face of depression and despair, one of the greatest senses of humour in the history of the world wasn't enough protection from the darkness within the minds of women and men.  Khalil Gibran writes: A sense of humour is a sense of proportion.  I couldn't agree more.  Death by your own hand seems to me like an over-reaction, a disproportionate response.  That's exactly what Robin is saying in his internal monologue in that interview - it's just a drawn out discussion of how excessive suicide can be.

But death is a type of salvation too, I guess.  I don't like thinking that it is, but I have an open mind.  Gibran also writes:  Perhaps a man may commit suicide in self-defense.  What if your mind is your own worst enemy?  What if your own mind is hurting you?  What if it offers you no hope of a better tomorrow?   Isn't death, in this conception, protecting you from yourself?  I honestly can't imagine it, but I try.  I try to be able to imagine the Kobayashi Maru, the no-win scenario, the decision between stepping forward off a cliff or waiting for the flames to burn you where you stand.

But, then again, Jim Kirk solved the kobayashi maru - by changing the parameters of the game.  Couldn't Robin have done that - changed his expectations of tomorrow?

When I think of the value of humour in the world, I actually fully understand the outpouring of grief and love at the passing of this one person.  By that criterion, the world is measurably diminished by the death of Robin Williams.  I say 'measurably' not as a commentary on the intrinsic value of a human life.  But rather as an acknowledgement that large swaths of humanity wake and go to bed without ever directly contributing to the spiritual health of their fellow man.  I don't lighten anyone's spirit other than my Sheba.  Robin Williams did that for millions, including myself.   He did it with smiles, with laughs, with jokes and gags.  He did it through humour and through drama, filling the air that he passed with passion and joy for life.  He did it with ferocity and with meekness, with confidence and humility.  He did it selflessly, when no one was watching, when there was no benefit in doing so other than the fact that it might have, for a short while, made the world a better place. One struggles to think of anyone in the public eye whose public virtues are so disproportionate to his public faults.  It's hard to imagine many people as uniquely situated at the nexus of talent, goodwill, breadth and depth of work as this man.  It would be fine if we only wept for ourselves and for his family, at what is lost from our world with his untimely passing.  But it occurs to me that we weep for him as well: for someone who has given of themselves in so many ways, put a memory in so many minds, to die alone. Millions of people would have gone out of their way to sit down and try and talk him out of it.  The idea that he died alone leaves a bitter taste in my mouth.

When I pictured Robin Williams dying, it was as a very old man, with surrounded by family, with a smile on his face.  God above, the man deserved a happy ending.

He didn't leave any sort of note.  But whatever the future holds for me, here I leave mine.  Grandtots, and anyone else who cares: I loved my life, I loved my wife, I loved my family and friends.  I fought to keep my greatest enemy at bay.  However my life ends is no commentary on how it began or how it was lived.  It's human nature to dwell on how someone like Robin Williams died.  It is my deepest hope that when all is said and done, I get to do some small measure of the living that Robin Williams lived.

- Grandpa

Saturday, August 16, 2014

You get what you pay for...

So long as the bosses pretend to pay us, we will pretend to work.
- Soviet communism political joke


Something just occurred to me as I was writing a comment on a police investigator's blog:

“You would have to be insane to try and wrestle an edged weapon out of the hands of a deranged suspect if you had a deadly force option.”
Mr. Jewell, I’m not expecting a response. I appreciate your efforts to act as an apologist for the police profession – they clearly do more good than harm. The fact that they do so much good is what makes these perceived lapses so difficult to fathom.
With respect to your statement above, I suppose I myself, and a lot of people who might wonder at such tragedies, have to ask: If the deranged suspect was your wife, or son, or daughter, your father, or mother, would it truly be “insane” to expose oneself to risk, significant and perhaps even mortal, in order to secure a peaceful, non-lethal resolution to the situation. If it were your family standing before you, would you resort to the deadly force option?
This is why most of us don’t think that decision insane. It is because we actually see our loved ones on the other end of police officers’ weapons. We have an expectation that, for our sake, the sake of the public that you police officers swear to protect, a public that included Mr. MacIsaac, that you, too would see a citizen first, and a threat second, and act in a manner that sets you apart from the average citizen. We expect that higher standard of police officers. If some deranged person attacked me and I had a gun in my hand, that gun might go off out of fear. But we expect more of police officers. I guess what we all are wondering, sir, is: should we? Should we expect courage from police officers? No one doubts that it would take courage to close distance on someone with a knife or a bat. No one doubts that it would take courage to risk one’s life to try and control an armed attacker when you have the discretion to kill them. But as a police officer yourself, is that an unfair expectation for us citizens to have of those who swear to serve and protect us?

In light of the shooting of Michael Brown, and Michael MacIsaac, and Sammy Yatim by police in the last year, I wanted to do a little digging as to the prevalence of these things in Canada and the U.S.  I also wanted to get a sense of how dangerous it was to be a Toronto Police Officer vs. a cop elsewhere.  In the 180 year history of the TPS the memorial wall has 40 names.  In the 165 year history of the NYPD, 843 officers have been killed in the line.  Obviously New York has a lot more people historically than Toronto, but this can be made to suggest either that being a Toronto cop isn't fraught with daily mortal danger or that, perhaps it is, and Toronto police take extraordinary steps to keep themselves out of harm's way.  New York is averaging 5 lost cops a year; Toronto is averaging one lost cop every four and a half years.

So is Toronto generally safer?  And if so, do our cops make us safer or simply benefit from that safety? A combination of both?  Or is it a third option?  In the pilot episode of the West Wing, a conservative lobbyist asks Jed Bartlet: "Sir, if anyone can buy pornography on any street corner for 5 dollars, isn't that too high a price to pay for freedom of speech?"  The President responds: "No.  But I do think 5 dollars is too high a price to pay for pornography."

Toronto cops don't die that often.  On the surface, this is good. But policing isn't supposed to be a risk free endeavour.  Is there an argument to be made that they are not putting themselves in harm's way to the degree that some of their counterparts do?  And if they aren't, why?

I believe the answer is that we don't pay police officers enough to buy their courage.

I'm a hypocrite.  I'll be the first to tell people to hold themselves to a high standard.  Every day, I have the opportunity to excel at my job.  But I don't because - they don't pay me enough to excel.  They don't pay me enough to go the extra mile.  There is no incentive to do more than I have to.  This isn't just me - this is a human calculation.

Cops are humans, too.  They are uniquely human.  They have to put up with all the rest of us.  They have to get yelled at, and stand in the hot sun.  They have to drive around in cars looking for something to do.  Then, when they find something to do, chances are they are called into a place where there is danger.  If they are lucky the danger will come from an object rather than a person.

The human condition is uncertainty.  Uncertainty is the nature of policing.

We have this vision of police officers, don't we?  Unflappable in the face of danger.  Eager to be in harm's way, rushing into danger, fighting the good fight.  Kind to children, an example to look up to.  Heroic and precise: they can put a bullet in a man's leg at 50 yards, dust him off, apply a tournaquet and call an ambulance for the dude that just tried to kill him.  In other words, we think of policemen the same way we think about Superman.

Then reality hits us like a screen door in the face.  Policemen aren't Superman.  They are you and me.  With a badge and a gun.

Sure some police officers, like some of us, can display acts of conspicuous gallantry and courage in the face of danger.  But statistically, that percentage should be expected to be low.  Courage is not mankind's defining quality.  If I were to say what was it's defining quality I would say - staying alive, through fighting, fleeing or freezing.  But facing fear is not something that I would say we all excel at.  The world isn't the shape that it is today because the majority of humans do things out of love.

So if police are us, and we are mostly panicky wusses, how can we incentivize police to feel compelled to err on the side of courage?  To risk a little more on behalf of the citizens they swear to protect?  To think about the ramifications of their actions to society for half a second before they think about the personal jeopardy to themselves?

The same way we seem to incentivize everything in our world.  Cash-money.

People are quick to say that for $100,000 a year, we deserve better cops.  Sorry, but this is what we are paying for.  This is what you get from $100,000 a year cops.  You want better cops, tougher cops, braver cops - we need to pay cops more.  Because they obviously don't feel like their cheating society out of anything.  We pay them to deal with unpleasant, unsavory people.  Serve warrants.  Arrest suspects. Drive around and deter crime. Clean up and catalog the mess that comes from heinous violence.

But do we pay them enough to be brave?  To deliberately go into mortal harm?  To err on the side of risking their own lives?  Simple question:  how much would somebody have to pay you in order to do that, to run INTO gunfire?

I know my answer: $500,000.

For $500,000 a year, I'd be willing to risk my ass.  For $500,000, I'd feel bad if someone called me a coward and said I was overpaid.  If I was expected to be brave, for $500,000 a year, I'd be brave.  Everyone has their number.  But I'm pretty sure that at $100,000/yr levels, most people, including cops, would say, even if only in the back of their minds: psssht, they don't pay me enough for this shit.  They don't pay me enough to feel bad for this guy coming at me with a knife.  They don't pay me enough to risk my ass.  They want the world to be safe.  Well I'm part of the world, I want to be safe too.  Law says if I'm spooked I can shoot, and that's what I'm going to do.

I think that would be the analysis for a lot of sane people, if they were cops.  But we have this expectation of more from them, for reasons I don't entirely comprehend.  They aren't Superman.  They aren't Spartans trained from birth.

Mr. Jewell's response:

James G Jewell
As hard as this is going to be for you to hear the answer is definitely yes, it is to much for you to ask.
No one should have the expectation a Police Officer would unnecessarily risk their lives by using less force than is required for a situation that requires deadly force. Your suggestion makes absolutely no sense and has nothing to do with courage.
Universally accepted Police use of force protocols dictate Police Officers are legally authorized to use a level of force higher than the level of force used against them. That standard has been upheld in our Courts and is the law of the land.
Your suggested approach would drastically increase Law Enforcement deaths and dramatically increase danger to the public.
I understand where you’re coming from but I’m afraid you are way out of touch with reality.
Police Officer’s have to protect themselves so they are able to protect the public.
You clearly see things differently.

Clearly.  Clearly I'm out of touch with reality to suggest that cops be brave.  I couldn't have written a more a propos response than the one coming out of the mind of this 26 year vet.

I notice he didn't answer my question as to deadly force with respect to a loved one.  But honestly, I didn't expect him to.  We all understand that contradiction, to objectify someone when we're afraid and reduce them to simple euphemisms: threat, target, assailant.  Not person.  They can't be a person in that moment, the same way my brother is a person, or a friend is a person.

He took what I was saying as a suggestion of cowardice.  But that wasn't my intention at all.  I was really wondering if he'd wax philosophical about whether a police officer is paid enough to behave the way the public expects them to.  Whether, in the thick of things, there is an calculation that weighs public good  against personal risk to the officer.  To Mr. Jewell it couldn't clearer: the greatest public good is the safety of the officer.  There is no greater priority.  Because there is no greater priority, anything that puts a cop at risk warrants deadly force. Public faith in the police, protecting the mental ill - all those things are secondary to the safety of police officers. 

I've been wondering for a while about the legality of ordering someone - a senior police officer to a junior police officer - into harm's way.  How do the courts reconcile a person's right to not get themselves killed with a police officer's duty to serve and protect?  If I'm a cop and it's looking a little too hairy for me in there, do I actually have an obligation to run into near certain death?

It's something to think about.  But maybe the problem really doesn't lie with police, maybe it lies with us. Maybe there is no amount of money you could pay someone to expect them to be Superman.  When Officer John came to our school in Grade 1, he couldn't be more proud to say that he'd never fired his gun.  As little kids, we thought how nice and safe we all were.

But as adults, maybe we should ask ourselves: if this cop has never fired his weapon, why should I think that he will know the difference between when exactly he has to and when he doesn't?  How would you know, if you were a cop?  

I'm not sure that I would know.  I'm pretty sure cops don't know.
- Grandpa

Saturday, August 02, 2014

A workout for the mind and heart

This story makes my mind and heart start churning, along with my stomach:

From what I can gather, looks like an Australian couple put their seeds inside a Thai woman and agreed to pay her to be their womb.  The Thai woman had twins, one with Down's syndrome. The parents asked the surrogate to have an abortion; she refused on religious grounds.  The parents took the healthy kid and left the unhealthy kid.  The Thai woman takes responsibility for raising the Down's syndrome child but is looking for support for the child's congenital health issues, which she can't or hasn't gotten from the genetic parents.

First of all, it sounds like a thought experiment from an ethicist's textbook.  Bad guys?  Good guys?  There's plenty of indignation to go around.  The surrogate disobeying the wishes of the parents?  The parents insisting on an abortion for the surrogate?  The parents taking the good kid and leaving the bad kid?  The surrogacy system for allowing this circus to even happen?

As a thought experiment, I feel we have to remove the Down syndrome aspect from the equation for a moment. If these parents wanted the abortion simply because they only wanted one child and the surrogate wanted to bring both children to term because of her beliefs, would the parents feel the same ease at taking one and leaving the other? Would they feel the same ease at providing no support for their kin? Would relinquishing the second child constitute abandonment or is it some sort of fiduciary prerogative of the parents?

This situation has so many issues going on at the same time it's hard to figure out what we're actually talking about. Is it the exploitative nature of surrogacy? The rights of the genetic parents? The rights of the surrogate? The rights of the children? Breaking of a contract? Abandoning your own genetic lineage? Abandoning a child with a congenital disorder? Somewhere in all of this is the very clear sense that regardless of the contracts that are signed with one another, if you put your genetic material into someone else's body, you will have to live and die by that surrogate's decisions. You can point at stipulation 4 of the contract that says the surrogate has to eat right, or stipulation 9 that says if the child has a defect that it has to be aborted, but find me a court that will enforce what the parents want on the surrogate's body? Force her to eat well? Force her to have an abortion? One way or another the parents are tied and beholden to that surrogate's freedom to do with their body as they please.

We can then say that the surrogate must take responsibility to keep the child if the parents want the child aborted. But doesn't the question follow: if a father wants an abortion but the mother doesn't want one - do we say that the father has no responsibility to contribute to the welfare of the child just because they didn't want it? No, I think we come down on the side of saying, whatever the reasons that allowed this living thing to come to being, if you are genetically related to it, that responsibility remains yours.  Doesn't matter whether you wanted it or not, sick or healthy.

The laws that are paramount are not the contractual obligations or understandings. The laws that stand out most starkly are our expectations as humans that 1) the surrogate (or anyone) can do whatever with your own body that you want and 2) that if you share your genetic line with someone, you have an obligation to them, even if that obligation is simply leaving them in the custody of someone who can care for them.

To my mind, if the kid had no health issue and the parents somehow chose to leave their kin with the surrogate who wanted it, they would have done their duty by leaving the kid with someone who would care for it. Would have been strange to break up twins, but as long as they can both grow up and be taken care of, then everyone is satisfied.  When the health issue is added, my problem with this situation is that leaving their kid in the custody of the surrogate does not meet what I would think is a valid standard for a minimum investment of care in your kin, due to the surrogate's inability to meet the child's health needs.

But it isn't easy and the feelings of entitlement, abandonment, commodification of human life - they are blurring the line between where my mind starts and where my heart begins. My love and I are staring ahead at these questions, as we begin to build our family.  I hope we have better answers.