Monday, June 26, 2006


Mom with grandson Ben at Marine Corps War Memorial commissioning ceremony, July of 2004

My mother, Janette Sapiro Finkelstein, asked me to write this column. Mom wanted me to let her friends and acquaintances know that she moved to Connecticut last week. She told me that they read my stuff faithfully. Unfortunately, the cause of the move was a decrease in her faculties and ability to deal with day to day life. Fortunately for her, she has family who care about her- most especially my sister, Sue, who coordinated her move to an assisted living facility a few miles from my sister’s home in Darien, Connecticut.

Mom’s stay in Albany was 13 years. She moved here the year after my son had his Bar Mitzvah, into the apartment vacated by my fiancé, Dawn, after Dawn and I moved in together shortly before our wedding. My mother quickly had an impact, making an astonishing array of friends and acquaintances at the Mall, the YMCA, Phoebe Northwest, and Darton, just to name a few. To the many of her friends who regularly ask me how my mom is doing, the answer is not very well at the moment, but hopefully she’s on the mend.

My mother was born in a leap year on February 29th, 1928, in Venice California. That year her family numbered six- including her mother Lillian Bockser (born in Russia), and father Barnett Sapiro (from London’s East End), both of whom emigrated to the United States in the early 1900’s. In the late 1930’s Mom, her parents, her two older brothers Norman and Louis, and her sister, Phyllis, moved to Hawaii. She was alive and sentient when Franklin Delano Roosevelt was elected President in 1932, when Adolph Hitler became Chancellor of Germany in 1933, and when the Jews were officially declared less than human in Nazi Germany in the 1930’s, then exterminated in the 1940’s. My grandparents were active in founding the Jewish congregation in Hawaii, years before it officially became the 50th state, and Mom has always been proud of that fact.

When the Japanese dive bombers came early on Sunday morning, December 7, 1941, she and her family were there, near the flight path of the bombers as they struck the ships in the harbor and the American planes on Hickam Field. Her oldest brother Norman protected the family that day and night with an old rifle while they waited for a Japanese invasion that never came.

My Dad grew up in Johnstown, Pennsylvania. When the Army Air Corp (later the United States Air Force) stationed him at Hickam Field, Honolulu, just after World War II ended, he met my mother. They married in 1948- she was 20, he was 25- and moved to Johnstown. Her first trip home after her wedding was 10 years later, in 1958, and my parents brought their three children with them. The trip was about six thousand miles, propeller airplanes all the way. I still remember looking down at the great expanse of Pacific Ocean as we flew to Honolulu from Los Angeles.

One of my regrets is that the people who have met her in recent years never got to know the very real, loving, caring, and concerned human being that I knew growing up. Juggling raising three kids and college classes, she managed to get her degree from University of Pittsburgh at Johnstown in 1965, about 19 years after she started out as a freshman at University of California at Berkeley. She had a social conscience, and got me involved in tutoring a first grader who needed help reading back when I was in high school. That initial experience was so rewarding that I continued tutoring while in law school and for about 15 years here in Albany. She was selfless in the extreme and worked incredibly hard to raise one very difficult child, plus my brother and sister.

Unfortunately, after her illness first manifested itself in 1961, there were several months long hospital stays in the 1960’s as we grew up. By the late 1970’s, Lithium controlled the illness- variously called schizophrenia, manic-depressive, and most recently, bipolar disorder- for a little more than two decades. Then in 2001 an unrelated kidney disorder caused her physicians to take her off the Lithium, and the last five years have been pretty tough for her and those who love her.

Last Friday I sat on a chair in her kitchen, tears welling up in my eyes, looking at the nearly empty apartment which would soon be stripped bare. My capable and conscientious sister had spent the week down here getting Mom out of the hospital, obtaining guardianship papers, hiring movers and getting the items shipped which she could use, and otherwise dealing with the problems of an aging parent who can no longer fend for herself. What was left behind were some furniture, books, appliances. All of the various detritus that defines our existence over the decades. By Saturday I felt a bit better, knowing that a lot of the items were going to people who would appreciate them and make use of them.

Strangely enough, sitting there I was reminded of a murder case I turned down several years ago. A young man had been tried and convicted of murdering a teenage student who attended the Phoenix suspension school which used to be near South Madison, and the murderer’s family asked me to review the transcript to see if I could get the conviction overturned. The victim had been picked up by several other students, driven out to a dead end street near woods in South Albany, forced to beg for his life, then shot down in cold blood. The murderer had casually taken the victim's jewelry and money, but on the drive back into town, he stopped and threw the victim’s school books into a dumpster. At that point I stopped reading the transcript and cried. Somehow I could read about the murder and keep my composure, but the callous indifference to the dead child’s textbooks hit me in a spot I didn’t know I still had inside me. I turned down the case, solely because I was afraid that the prosecution may have botched the trial so badly that the conviction would be overturned through my efforts. That was one client I couldn’t stomach. I was glad that being in private practice gave me the privilege of turning down cases when I chose.

I thought about those discarded textbooks as I sat in my mother’s duplex, looking at the odds and ends of her life which had been left behind. A tool lying on a table caught my eye. It was a small steel hammer with a screwdriver set in the handle. As I picked it up, I remembered playing with it as a child long ago. A small screwdriver fit into a slightly bigger one, which fit into a bigger one, which fit into the handle of the hammer. Quite ingenious. Of all the items I took with me, that was the one I took for sentimental reasons.

Mom’s last few days in Albany, staying with my sister at the Marriott, were, thankfully, relatively lucid for her. She gave me a hug and a kiss before she left, which made me melt. It was a gesture of affection I didn’t know if I would ever experience again, and I was grateful.

Monday, June 19, 2006


A fundamentally sound, rhythmic swing can sometimes wither under tournament pressure

On the golf course, a man may be the dogged victim of inexorable fate, be struck down by an appalling stroke of tragedy, become the hero of unbelievable melodrama, or the clown in a side-splitting comedy.
--Robert Tyre Jones (The World of Golf)

Clang! I turned around to see what had made the loud metallic sound. It was a hot, sunny Sunday, and a moment earlier I had been perusing a 10 foot birdie putt on the 16th green at the Flint River (formerly Turner Field) Golf Course. It was the third and final day of the second annual Albany City Amateur, the brainchild of Orthopedic surgeon and outstanding golfer Dan Rhoads. Fifty intrepid golfers, including defending men’s champion Brandon Anthony, a former Darton standout, women’s champ Abby Fitzgerald, the blonde bomber from Lee County High School, and senior (55 and older) champion Dan Rhoads, had teed up on River Point Golf Course Friday morning.

Golf writer Grantland Rice once opined that there are three different sports: golf, tournament golf, and major championship golf. Truth to tell, there is only one sport, with only one set of rules promulgated jointly by the United States Golf Association and the The Royal & Ancient Golf Club of St Andrews. The golf course we played Friday at River Point was the exact same course, except for the placement of the holes on the greens which I had played in a practice round on Thursday. Yet Friday I shot 85 (45-40) and Thursday I had shot 80 (42-38). What was the difference? Simply put: pressure. The internal pressure which tightens our muscles and makes our throats tighten-- that’s why they call it choking.

Different people handle pressure in different ways. Some respond well to it and become unnaturally calm, able to make full use of their faculties. Some lose their composure and their perspective. A rare few handle it with their usual equanimity, neither losing nor gaining by the experience. In golf, unlike other sports, it is relatively easy to discern the differences, either by watching strokes made or by adding up the numbers of strokes.

If an observer had seen my tee shot on the first hole at River Point on Friday, typically the most nerve wracking experience any golfer endures- not just the first shot of a round, but of a tournament, with gallery, tournament officials, and fellow competitors looking on- he or she would have concluded that I handle pressure with grace and ability. The beautifully launched three wood split the fairway, leaving me a reasonable approach to a very difficult opening par four. I made my par on the hole and breathed a sigh of relief. Which lasted for all of about three minutes, until I teed it up on the second hole and made not just the worst shot of my day, but possibly one of the worst since I first picked up a club at the age of 13. The ball ricocheted off the hosel of my driver, caroming into trees at a 45 degree angle left, not even 50 yards from the tee.

I managed a bogey on the hole, but on the third tee, the experience repeated itself, leading to a double bogey this time, and after another poor shot on the fourth, I found myself five over par, with the most difficult holes of the nine ahead. In simpler terms, I choked, ending up with 45 for the 9 holes, a number I was more familiar with the first year I played golf. My only consolation was in knowing that the blessing of a curious, searching intelligence can be an absolute curse on the golf course.

Excessive golfing dwarfs the intellect. Nor is this to be wondered at when we consider that the more fatuously vacant the mind is, the better for play. It has been observed that absolute idiots play the steadiest.
--Sir Walter Simpson (The Art of Golf)

More aptly put, an active imagination is the problem. Make one bogey, and the mind wonders if another is around the corner. Make a bad swing resulting in a lateral movement of the golf ball (called a “shank,” a word never uttered out loud on a golf course by most superstitious golfers, including this author), and surely more must be coming.

I observed just such a tragedy on the 7th hole at Flint River, which locals still call Turner Field, as one of my playing partners lofted his second shot on the par four at an impossible angle directly into the adjacent pond. I’ll call him “Bob” (not his real name) to avoid any further embarrassment, as he appears later in this story. Bob had hit the most impressive drive of the three of us, 275 yards to the middle of the narrow fairway, not 100 yards from the elevated green. The other player (I’ll call him “Stan,” because that was his name) and I had already hit excellent- and unexpected- shots onto the green and had putts for birdie awaiting us after we climbed the omnipresent incline--all of the course’s greens are elevated at least 10 feet because of federal regulations following the 1994 flood. Bob dropped a second ball to play, and as Stan and I watched with barely veiled anxiety, Bob hit another shot into the drink. His third effort reached the green and he made an 8 on the par 4, but he repeated his horrid experience on the next hole as another lateral shot ended up in the same pond as the previous hole.

Speaking of drink, Bob had requested, nay demanded, some form of alcohol before the round even commenced. A truly bad sign for a playing group is when one member comes to the first tee, announces that he had a terrible case of the shanks (that dreaded word which should never be uttered in mixed company) on the practice tee, and declares his need for hard liquor ere he strikes his first shot of the day. A small vial of scotch was duly produced by a sympathetic onlooker, and after imbibing an ounce of same, Bob started his day with a fierce backswing, a torrid downswing (his clubhead speed was astonishing) which produced a duck hook left into the trees, a lost ball, and a triple bogey 7 on the first hole.

Things didn’t get a whole lot better for Bob after that, but he did hit an occasional competent shot here and there, providing some evidence that, absent his nerves, he had some natural ability at the game. He shot a miserable 51 on the outgoing 9, but worse was to come on the back nine. He made it all the way to the 16th hole without further incident, although the continuous consumption of various forms of alcohol (some of which was purchased at the clubhouse at the turn) made me grateful for my decision to walk all three rounds of the tournament. If he crashed our cart, my clubs could be replaced.

Truly, he was a nice enough young man, and we all sympathized with him. When it comes to on course train wrecks, we have all been there- even the best among us, as Phil Mickelson can sadly attest as he threw away the United States Open after leading by two shots with three holes to go, finishing his round with two terrible swings and a disastrous double bogey.

As I turned away from lining up my putt on the 16th to see what the metallic sound had been, I saw Bob, with two pieces of what used to be a putter, one part in each hand. He had hit his driver out of bounds on the hole and had to make a lonely drive back to the tee while the group behind us waited for him to retee and drive again. On the 18th hole Bob drove it into the woods and made another high score. I hit into the woods, too, but the Leprechauns took pity on me and miraculously my ball appeared in the fairway. I finished the round and the tournament with a par, just as I had started it. Bob putted with his wedge on the 18th hole, and for good measure, he broke that club as well. Perhaps before his next round, Bob can take heart from the sagacious advice of President William Howard Taft (1909-1913):

Golf in the interest of good health and good manners. It promotes self-restraint and affords a chance to play the man and act the gentleman.

Monday, June 12, 2006


Freedom means getting the NSA out of our telephones and away from our e-mails

“Freedom's just another word for nothin' left to lose
Nothin' don't mean nothin' hon' if it ain't free, no no
And feelin' good was easy, Lord, when he sang the blues
You know, feelin' good was good enough for me
Good enough for me and my Bobby McGee.”

Me and Bobby McGee, sung by Janis Joplin, lyrics by Kris Kristofferson. (c) 1969.

We Americans aren’t shy about using the words “free” and “freedom,” especially as July 4th approaches and we celebrate the official birth of our country with the signing of the Declaration of Independence, lo these 230 years ago. So last week I read with interest the winning essay from a local church school contest, “What Freedom Means to Me.” The essay was well written, contained quotes from eminent scholars, and appeared to be grammatically correct. But the following phrase, which pretty much characterized the spirit of the essay, chilled me: “Freedom is the right and ability to do what I should do, not what I always want to do.”

I thought about those words, then analyzed them. The “right” to do what I should do isn’t a “right” at all- it’s an obligation. The “ability” to do what I should do merely means that one is capable of fulfilling obligations and responsibilities. Neither has anything to do with freedom. So why did the local church give top prize to the youth who wrote the essay? The answer, most likely, is found in the following passage near the end of the essay:

“Our founding fathers stated in the Declaration of Independence that we ‘are endowed by our Creator with certain unalienable rights.’ Therefore, freedom is God’s gift to mankind. The Bible says in John 88:31-32 that is ‘you continue in My word, you shall know the truth and the truth shall make you free.’ So what is truth? The Bible further clarifies this in John 17:17 where it says ‘Thy word is truth.’”

The essay never tells us what freedom is. It tells us where the author thinks freedom comes from- it’s from the creator, i.e., from natural law, as opposed to man made law. The author claims that the way to achieve freedom is by knowing “truth.” (And I thought that’s what the justice system was designed to do!) But the essay never defines freedom. And that’s a shame, because virtually every school child- even a church schooled child- knows without a shadow of a doubt what freedom is. And I’ll bet dollars to donuts that the author of this essay, when free of the strictures of a religious environment, has no problem recognizing and defining “freedom.”

Freedom is the feeling you get when the school bell rings for the last time before Summer recess. Lack of freedom is the feeling you get the night before school resumes.

Freedom is flying an open cockpit plane in an era with no FAA, no flight plans, and no air traffic. Lack of freedom is sitting in a car in an I-85/I-75 gridlock in downtown Atlanta.

Freedom is being home with ice cream waiting in the freezer, popcorn in the cupboard, and a satellite dish on a Fall Sunday with a pro football doubleheader coming on. Lack of freedom is being stuck at a Fascist inspired summer camp with boring programmed activities, crappy food, and no television.

Freedom is the right to worship anywhere or nowhere without penalty, the opportunity to question the existence of a deity without being imprisoned or murdered, the right of a woman to appear in public without a head covering or burka and a man to have a clean shaven face without being beaten or killed. Lack of freedom is the opposite of those things.

Freedom is making a telephone call or writing an e-mail and knowing that the government won’t eavesdrop.

Freedom is living in a home without the police breaking down the front door because an unidentified informant claimed that someone had an illegal substance in the house next door, but the drug unit read the address wrong and busted into your house instead while the drug dealer stood next to one of the drug agents and looked on (a real case of mine, circa 1994). Freedom is being able to put your small children to bed knowing that they won’t be awakened in the middle of the night with police pointing guns in their faces (same case).

Freedom is reading anything, good, bad, trashy or inspiring. Lack of freedom is having harpies with too much time on their hands trying to ban books that might lead children to think.

Freedom is the ability to date a person of a different race or the same gender. It’s being a member of a minority group while driving a really cool car on Interstate 75 through Lowndes County without being stopped by the Sheriff’s Department and held for a half hour waiting for the drug dog to come sniff the door panels and trunk.

Freedom is being able to pick up and move to a different city, a different state, or a different country, and not needing permission.

Freedom is not being locked up in a jail or prison for having the wrong political beliefs, the wrong religious beliefs, the wrong nationality, or the wrong looks.

But let’s let old Long Tom, Thomas Jefferson, have the last word:

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. --That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, --That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.”

There you have it. Freedom is having our lives, our liberty, and the opportunity to pursue “Happiness.” Or in other words, eating ice cream on a Sunday afternoon while the Steelers pummel the Colts on their way to the Super Bowl.

Monday, June 05, 2006


President Bush explains to a disappointed Prince Abdullah that marriage between two men is not possible in America unless "activist judges" impose it on an unwilling public

Lucy kneels down, the top of the football nicely balanced at a slight backward angle underneath her finger, the ball resting on the ground with laces facing forward, poised to allow Charlie Brown a chance to run up and kick a field goal. Again. Every year, Charles Schultz had his two most famous Peanuts characters line up for the traditional Charlie Brown field goal try. Every year, Charlie Brown would tell Lucy that he wasn’t going to do it, because last year she pulled the ball away at the last instant and Charlie Brown found himself kicking only air, ending up flat on his back, humiliated and embarrassed once again. Every year, Lucy would come up with a reason why this year was going to be different. Charlie Brown would carefully consider the logic of her statements, and full of hope and optimism, start his run towards the ball. Only to end up flat on his back, staring at the sky above, fooled again.

Which brings us to the proposed anti gay marriage amendment to the United States Constitution. The Gallup poll recently discovered that only three out of the thousand Americans polled had the issue of gay marriage on their radar screens as a problem facing the country. So it was inevitable that with the real problems of America and the world facing Congress, the Republicans who control both houses of Congress, including the United States Senate, the greatest deliberative body in the world (their historians claim), will not be addressing the issue of the Iraq War and how to end it. They won’t be crafting an energy policy to put America on a path of self sufficiency that will reduce fuel costs. Deal with global warming? No way. How about cutting the deficit, now ballooning over $400 billion annually, or paying down a national debt which has jumped from $6 trillion to $9 trillion during the Bush presidency? Nope, not on the agenda. Or coping with the looming crisis in Medicare, which will go bankrupt in a decade, and the problems of 45 million uninsured Americans? Sorry, not important enough.

On Monday, June 5, 2006, President George W. Bush and Senate Majority leader Bill Frist, (R. Tennessee), devoted their precious time and energy to promoting an amendment to the United States Constitution which would if enacted, for the first time in history, discriminate against a specific group of people. An amendment which has exactly zero chance of getting the two thirds majority it needs in each house of Congress to be sent out to the States for the required three fourths (38) to ratify.

What President Bush actually said Monday to his audience of handpicked fundamentalist bigots in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building, as breathlessly reported by the White House website (applause moments included!) was:

“Marriage is the most fundamental institution of civilization, and it should not be redefined by activist judges. (Applause.) You are here because you strongly support a constitutional amendment that defines marriage as a union of a man and a woman, and I am proud to stand with you. (Applause.)

This week, the Senate begins debate on the Marriage Protection Amendment, and I call on the Congress to pass this amendment, send it to the states for ratification so we can take this issue out of the hands of over-reaching judges and put it back where it belongs -- in the hands of the American people. (Applause.)

What Bush really meant, if you could hold him down long enough to inject him with truth serum, is that he and the Republicans in control of both branches of Congress are scared, genuinely scared, that they will be losing power in a scant seven months. Scared that they are about to lose their opportunity to control the levers of government, to write in ear marked legislation to benefit the special interests that provide them with hookers and poker parties at the Watergate. (What, you haven’t heard of Kyle “Dusty” Foggo, Porter Goss’s number 3 guy at the CIA who resigned in disgrace just before Goss bolted out of the top job? Foggo, Duke Cunningham, and other so-far unnamed Republican Congressmen were caught partying with hookers at Watergate poker parties.)

So the “morally superior, family values” Republican Party is using the bait of a gay marriage ban to appeal to their right wing, red meat, base of conservative Republicans- the 20 percent who still think Dick Cheney is a wonderful Vice President and that victory is just around the corner in Iraq. And just like Lucy, they will once again pull the football away, and their ever shrinking constituency will be disappointed that somewhere, some place in America, two happy people of the same sex might be able to tie the knot and enter into a loving relationship sanctioned by the State. They won’t care that American servicemen are continuing to return from Iraq in caskets or missing limbs, that poor children are going without health care, that genocide is taking place in Darfur, or that we may lose a few thousand miles of beaches and several major coastal cities after global warming melts the polar ice caps. Because if someway, somehow, two human beings can unite in love, then that will someway, somehow, impact on their own happiness and their own marriage. Sick, homophobic bastards.

Two Republican senators had opposing views on the necessity of wasting the nation’s time with this bigotry, the Washington Post reported on Monday:

“Sen. Wayne Allard (R-Colo.) defended the effort. "Marriage is under attack," he said at a news conference. "The Constitution will be amended whether we pass this amendment or not. The only question is whether it will be amended through the amendment process or by unelected activist judges."

But another Republican -- Senate Judiciary Chairman Arlen Specter (Pa.) -- spoke against the amendment, calling it "a solution in search of a problem." Like Reid and some other senators, Specter said he opposes same-sex marriage but feels states can handle the issue.”

Hey there Republican right wing- how about a game of football? I’ll hold, you kick.