What I Did On My Summer Vacation

Want to know what I did on my summer vacation?   I died.

Twice.  Three times if you count when doctors stopped my heart during open heart surgery.  Overall, the first week of vacation with sun, sand, seafood and family was fun, the second week with two heart attacks, three ambulance rides, four hospitals and double bypass surgery…not so much.

On the morning of Saturday, August 10, 2013, I was sitting alone on the deck of a beach house in Kitty Hawk NC, drinking coffee and thinking about going for a run.  I had been running during vacation, part of my lame pattern of every few months deciding I was too fat so I had to exercise.  But this season I was not able to go very far, less than a mile before huffing and puffing brought me to a walk.  This was unusually poor performance, but I attributed the weakness to getting up there at age 54.  I decided to hold off on running because I felt a little sick to my stomach.

I woke up moments later flat on my back, looking up at the bottom of the table, wondering why I was lying down.  Spilled coffee soaked into my shirt and shorts. I felt no pain or shortness of breath, no crushing chest sensation or dizziness.   I thought I fainted and when I went inside and told my wife Ruth, she guessed the same.  We decided I was dehydrated after a week of vacationer’s diet of coffee and beer, so I would drink more water and we’d keep an eye on it.  In the back of both of our minds was an episode I had the day before, where as we went to lunch I remarked that I should be a lot hungrier than I was, having skipped breakfast and all.  She told me we had in fact had breakfast together, ate bagels at the table and read the newspaper.  I could not remember any of it.  I had lost about an hour of the morning. Spooky but not terrifying. Yet.

Two hours after the fainting spell, while walking back from the beach, I began to feel sharply nauseated.  It came on fast like sea-sickness.  I wondered if the same fainting thing were about to happen and began looking for a place to sit down.  Again I woke up on the ground, this time face-down in the sand next to the beach road.  Eyeglasses were bent, forehead cut.  I went and found Ruth, who drove me through the heavy departing-vacationer traffic to a local urgent-care clinic.  They gave me saline drip, and an EKG which showed nothing, but they were concerned and ordered me an ambulance to go to Outer Banks Hospital in Nags Head.  The nurse hugged me and told me she would pray.  That was scary, as was my first personal – not police-work-related – ambulance ride.  Staff at Outer Banks Hospital also found no damage on the EKG nor enzyme-related evidence of heart attack in my bloodwork, but guessed that I had experienced a sudden arrhythmia – a break in my normal heart rhythm that dropped my blood pressure and flow of oxygen to the brain.  Further serious tests were not available there, so another ambulance ride (same crew, it’s a small town) took me to Albemarle Hospital in Elizabeth City NC, on the mainland.   Preparing for the ride, the EMTs put conductive patches for defibrillators on me, and showed me the big needle I’d see myself getting when I woke up if I went out again.  They knew more, and were worried more than I knew to be.

At Elizabeth City the next day, I had a nuclear stress test where radioactive dye that sticks to damaged heart tissue was injected into me, then I ran on a treadmill.  The dye revealed no heart injury but my blood pressure skyrocketed during the test – most unusual.  I have always had slightly high BP, but nothing ever to trigger treatment or concern.  I recently started taking Crestor to begin working on slightly elevated cholesterol, but again nothing that really concerned my personal doctor.  I had never seen a cardiologist until this day, when I met Dr. Lindsey White, who saved my life.

Dr. White said I had no apparent damage to the heart, no history to indicate serious issues other than two episodes of “syncope.”  Syncope is my new word, it is doctor-speak for fainting but sounds so much more serious, which I appreciated because until that point it was looking like I had triggered a lot of EMS and ER response for just a little dehydration.  Dr. White said this was more than fainting, that he heard me when I said I had spilled my coffee all over myself and that nobody spills their coffee when they faint.  Even if they don’t remember, they always have a few seconds as they fade out to put the cup down.  He decided my syncope was instantaneous, thus very serious.  So he ordered a cardiac catheterization, where tubes were run up my wrist to the external cardiac arteries feeding my heart muscles and dye again injected.  The dye is monitored in real time via a device like a small CAT scanner over my chest.  My wife sat near him as he used this rig to locate first a 100-percent blockage of the LAD (Left Anterior Descending artery, the biggest artery supplying blood to the heart muscles) then an 80-percent blockage of the ramus artery, then a 30-percent blockage of another one.  My wife heard his great concern as he related this discovery to his staff.  If he like others had mistaken my syncope for simply dehydration, I would have been released that day, likely to die another.

One hundred percent blockage of the LAD is well-known among medical personnel, my sister the surgical nurse told me, as “The Widowmaker,” and is almost always found only on autopsy.  As I moved from facility to facility, through emergency room to exam room to surgical prep and recovery, several nurses and doctors confirmed this nickname.  Many could not hide their shock and concern when they met me and learned of this diagnosis.  It seems I was not supposed to have survived.  The most eloquent and direct among them, a much older and traditional nurse at the hospital where my eventual surgery was performed, held my shoulder and said, “God must have something more for you to do here.”

Dr. White said my options were two:  cabbage or stents.  Cabbage is more doctor-speak, for CABG – coronary artery bypass graft, commonly known as bypass; or stents – flexible pipes inserted in blocked arteries to be widened in place so they open a hole through which the blood can flow.  Neither sounded pleasant, but as I had learned from Dr. White and a senior nurse, the most likely scenario involving my syncope was that I died each time, that my passing out was in fact my heart simply stopping due to inadequate oxygen supply, and that I had banged it back to life by the impact of falling to the ground.  AKA sudden cardiac death.  Twice.  They don’t know for sure since I was alone each time and certainly not hooked up to EKGs or other monitors.   I took that as an indicator of fantastic luck, and ignored my fear of a little unpleasantness like chest-cracking open-heart surgery.

Another ambulance ride, to Norfolk General Heart Hospital, where cardiac surgeons agreed that CABG, though far more serious and invasive, was the better solution.  Stents, easily implanted via remote surgery and little incisions, are temporary, lasting maybe five to seven years before requiring replacement and are not always successful in opening or maintaining arterial flow.  Bypass surgery  involved sawing the breastbone in two after a foot-long incision is cut down the front of the chest (this is why surviving open heart patients are said to have joined the “Zipper Club”) and requires the actual medical stopping of the heart by drugs and freezing slush poured into the open chest cavity.  Terrifying stuff, but not when compared to the alternative.  I figured  I’d already stopped my heart twice all by myself, so a third time with doctors there could not be so bad, and what’s a new scar?   Let’s go for it.  Ruth, my absolute rock, my healthy heart at my side every moment, was very but quietly scared.  I was not.

Surgery went well.  (How should I know, I was asleep. But I woke up, a reliable  indicator of success.)  Surgeons reached in the hole in my chest, snipped off the end of the non-vital artery that feeds my left mammary gland (tits on a boar and all) and attached the end to the LAD just below the blockage, restoring  blood flow to that area of the heart.  For the ramus, they removed about a foot of the saphenous artery from my left thigh, apparently an artery I can live without. (For many older CABG patients, it is this harvesting of the saphenous artery that causes the greatest ongoing pain and disfigurement, as removal used to require cutting a trench the length of the artery to snip off each end and scoop it out.  Nowadays they go in through a one-inch lateral cut at one end of the harvest, and robotically roto-root around it via cutters of some sort.  Miraculous.)  The bypass artery is sewn above and below the blockage.  The third 30-percenter, they left alone to be monitored for the rest of my life.

Just as miraculous was that the very next day, I was sitting up in a chair, out of bed, and eating a sandwich.  Modern medical procedures, good drugs and fantastic staff.  Other than agonizing pain when I forgot to get morphine on schedule (the schedule is, take it well before you need it because it takes a while to catch up), one of the most challenging things was getting shaved for surgery.  Shaved from chin to ankles.  Everywhere except, oddly and thankfully, my arms.  Nurses were cute and would say, “Oh, you’ll look good, you’ll look so young, your wife will like it.”  Great, like I’m eight?

Morphine was great, but I wanted off that fast, so I worked through Vicodin to Percocet.  Vicodin gave me post-surgical delirium – monsters that looked like evil versions of Where the Wild Things Are came out of the walls to eat me – and I learned the next day that this was not uncommon.  Percocet got me out the door after four days of recovery to spend a week at my mother-in-law’s home near the hospital, too sick to travel home while Ruth drove the kids to college.  The kids were outstanding through all this, never letting on how scared they were, but still not letting me win at Scrabble. Mama was wonderful, she is 90 and as a registered nurse was glad to have a patient to care for again.  She about nursed me to death, in that good way. Stepped further down to Tylenol 3.

After a month at home, with visiting nurses monitoring my progress, I began 12 weeks of cardiac rehabilitation, wherein wonderful exercise physiologists at INOVA Alexandria Hospital watched me closely while I pitifully pedaled a stationary bike, walked on a treadmill and gripped an elliptical without pumping the arm bars because I couldn’t do chest work till the sternum healed, six weeks away.    I worked out while connected to an EKG, and every so often one of the EPs would rush over and tell me I had exceeded my target pulse rate, which is 126, kept deliberately very low by a beta-blocker drug called Metoprolol.  Plus , in rehab I got lectures on proper diet (low- or no-salt, reduced fat and cholesterol) and stress reduction.  I didn’t want to feel disabled, but more on that later.

Stress reduction was made very easy from the start.  I have not returned to work since the heart attacks, haven’t carried a gun or answered a call – for service or for any commander-related issue. I would read the work emails, but others now answered them since I have been replaced quite easily and ably in both of my assignments as police  PIO and Records commander.  My family tells me I am happier, and nearly everybody I meet says I look relaxed.  I’ll take it.  Stress-fighter pro tip:  turn your smart phone off at night (or day if you are a night-shifter) and on weekends.  I know this actually can’t be done in our work environment, but it is the one piece of advice I truly wish we could follow.  We never get down time nowadays because technology keeps us in harness at all hours.  If it’s a true emergency, someone can call you on your home phone.  Stress makes your heart beat faster in a fight-or-flight response, and makes your blood vessels constrict for the same reason – which makes your heart work harder to pump blood through the constrictions (same as cholesterol buildup in the arteries).  I have learned I can lower my pulse rate by, well, thinking happy thoughts.  Really.  I can also raise it by thinking about work – not the fun stuff like bad guys and handcuffs but meetings and City Manager’s reports.

Diet change was surprisingly easy, too.  In the hospitals for nine days, then at Ruth’s mom’s for another five (she is a former nurse who allowed no nonsense at meals) provided a forced period of transition from bacon burgers and fries to boiled vegetables, tuna and fruit. These were never my favorites but they became if not preferred at least appreciated.  Sodium restrictions were challenging and oddly fascinating.  Sodium raises fluid retention, increasing the blood volume and thus placing pressure on the interior of blood vessels.  Blood vessels must be flexible to allow for pulses of blood as the heart beats and for bodily movement, but pressure makes the vessel surface hard and irregular. Hard spots and irregularities are where fat globules (cholesterol) in the blood supply stick, causing blockages.  Blockages slow blood flow throughout the circulatory system, making the heart pump harder, and cut off blood to vital things like, well, the heart itself. Cut off enough and things die, like heart muscles, which is what typically happens in a heart attack.  I had no apparent or measureable heart muscle damage, although we recently found nerve damage that probably indicates some level of injury.

But back to sodium.  I used to be a salt fiend. Ask anybody I worked with as a police Field Training Officer.   Forced to dine with their FTO, recruits and I would go to Arby’s where my standard meal was two beef-n-cheddar sandwiches, fries and a soda.  After my heart operation, my restricted diet limited me to 1500 milligrams of sodium a day.  That is about a teaspoon.  Not a teaspoon added to food, but total.  Each of those beef-n-cheddars had contained 1540 mg sodium.  So I would double my current restriction, add fries, and put table salt on all of it.  Imagine the total.  Now add constant stress.

No wonder I died.

Sodium is in everything – bread, cheese, almost any processed or boxed food.  Read a soup can label sometime just to blow your mind.  And low-fat “healthy” items have more sodium in them than their regular-fat counterparts because it hypes the taste.   Drives you crazy.  Shopping at supermarkets is like a science test during a scavenger hunt but after a while we got good at it.  We shop at Harris Teeter, but go to Trader Joes just for the marinara sauce and a specific bag of tortilla chips.  Because sometimes you have to have something crunchy and tasty, and low-sodium tortillas are as naughty as I’ll get now.

You have to have help, too.  Such complete dietary inversion would have been impossible without my sweet wife along for the bumpy ride (and she has lost 10 pounds on our new healthy diet.)  I’ve eaten more vegetables in the last year and a half than in the prior ten.  Fish is a huge percentage of our diet now, chicken and turkey are big (as are chicken and turkey sausage and chili, soup etc).  I dropped 23 pounds after the attacks, but am now putting some back on. I use the fact I am on baby aspirin as a blood thinner as my excuse to grow a beard and avoid the mortal danger of nicking myself. Actually, I like the beard, and Ruth does too, along with the long non-reg hair.

And for my cop friends:  you have to have help navigating the bureaucracy of a serious illness, too.  Heart disease is covered under the Police-Fire Heart Lung Bill as a disability related to police work, but it is not simple or clear cut like a car crash or an assault injury.  Police Personnel, City HR, the City’s insurance organizer PMA, City Finance, the state Workers Compensation board and the state Industrial Commission – everybody has a piece of this.  They overlap, but they don’t always communicate well, so if you think you gave forms to one city agency, don’t be surprised if you get called down for not providing to another.  The bureaucracy is challenging and stressful – just what you won’t need. What you will need is a lawyer. Call me.

But there is light at the end of, and at a couple of places inside, the tunnel.  (Again, this is mostly for my cop friends:  I followed some good advice and applied for a disability retirement a few days before City Council voted to drastically cut our disability pension plan. My thanks to out to the Commanders’ Association for this advice, and no thanks to the Alexandria Police Association from which I  heard nothing since this started – I want my 28 years of APA dues back.  But as it turned out, I did not  pursuing disability retirement. First, the pay is the almost the same  but the system is weird and complicated, and the “disability” classification of a disability pension  and its tax advantage cut off when you reach “normal retirement age” so the money converts to your standard retirement pay.  Which for me was December 2014, while I was out on sick leave when I turned 55.)

Second, I don’t feel disabled or want to describe myself as disabled.  Already I am stronger than I was before the attacks, as documented by my performance in rehab.  And how could I claim to be disabled when I plan on running (well, sort of running) in 5Ks, and rowing with my son in crew competitions?  And hang-gliding, and kayaking.  Did you see those former NYPD jerks who took 100 percent disability retirements after 9/11 and were just shown on the news riding on personal watercraft and teaching self-defense?  Fraudulent? TBD. Embarrassing? OMG.

Not for me, nope.  I retired straight-up, 28-year, honorable, I-did-my-time service.  And proud of it, but ready, too, for great change.  Those who know me know I had planned on getting to 30 and out, so this was only two years early.     The bottom line, the final determining factor for me was my doctor’s simple equation:  “Coronary artery disease is caused by stress, and police work causes stress.  You should not go back if you want to continue to live.”   I will always have to take heart medication, will never be allowed to shovel snow, and my kids will have to check “yes” on doctors’ forms asking about family history of heart disease. Due to the seriousness of my condition, my cardiologist advises me to seek out other less stressful employment, as it appears that I am permanently physically unfit for unrestricted duties as a police officer. So far, it’s writer and lately, blogger.

I am the luckiest man in America.  I had a decent career, avoided too much personal violence, rose higher than I thought I could, missed out on few opportunities, had fun and helped people.  I think I was a good street officer, a decent sergeant and at least an okay commander.  On the job I met my wife (I was in TAC, the street-level narcotics unit and she was a Public Defender, it was love at nearly first sight but she beat me on our last case against each other).  We have two amazing kids, “A” students, a dancer and an athlete at big schools, they are happy, strong and smart-assed as they should be.  I now get to write my novel, and maybe someday you’ll get to read it if published. If in fact that happens, I will donate 10 percent of my sales profits to efforts to fight police suicide.  In my 28 years with the APD, I lost one fellow officer to hostile gunfire and three to self-inflicted gunshot wounds.  And that terrible proportion pretty much plays out nationwide.  We kill ourselves far more than they kill us.  So if it’s ever published, risk some money on “Apprehension” by Mark Bergin.  It’s for a good cause.

And some of us eat and stress ourselves to death, so I hope to work on that too.  I waas been invited by City Hall to join the pension committee to help  develop the Department’s health and wellness programs and maybe take that citywide.  I figure I am the poster-boy for what not to do with your life early, and how to save it late. Stay tuned.

I want to hear from, meet and talk with any and all of you, at any time.  Friends know I am good for coffee or lunch.  Shy folks or strangers are welcome to call or write me to talk about diet or death, or the Department, whichever you want.   You know how to find me.

One last thing for my police brothers and sisters (and forgive the boast, because it is not the point.)   I recently  bumped into a parking enforcement officer whom I have known forever, I won’t tell you his name (but it’s not my friend John Nasibi).  He asked after my health, and when I told him it was preventing me from returning to work he looked down and said, “I am sorry to hear that.  We liked it when you were working.  You always came and checked on us.  We felt safer when you were working.”

That was the greatest compliment I have ever received.  It was always my goal, to protect and serve my people, so maybe I achieved it.  It should be your goal, too.  Keep your partners safe always. It means you will be safe, too. I want you to get home every night.  Like I get to, now.

Baltimore

I watch the television news tonight out of Baltimore until my heart feels crushed, and I have to stop.   Doctor’s orders.

Sheesh.   I came out of Alexandria Hospital this afternoon to see flames and cops on the tv screen and it is too much déjà vu for my wounded heart.  Why does a trip to the hospital always seem to trigger conflagration for my family?  Not to mention our distressed neighbors in Baltimore, and my (former) colleagues in blue.

In 1993, 22 years ago this month, I left Columbia Hospital for Women after the birth of my daughter to see news film of the federal siege of the Branch Davidian compound in Waco, Texas.  Twenty years ago, I came home after the birth of my son to see the Oklahoma City bombing.   Today, after three days in Intermediate Care after an ambulance ride Friday (another heart-related false alarm, thank you.  More later) I came home to see looters and burning police cruisers and fires and disorder. No deaths so far. I pray.  But at least 15 police injured so far.

And I can’t turn it off.

The restrained and professional police response has given the press little to criticize, until tomorrow when cops will certain face criticism for failures to act or predict or be everywhere at once.  As if a cop or a dozen or a hundred can stop a crowd of motivated thieves set on “getting paid” today, using a funeral and a  protest as cover for  thievery and crime.  A CVS is raided, emptied and burned.  A liquor store is stripped, and the crowd moves one storefront to the right and crashes/trashes a cellphone business.  More and more, and I can’t keep up.  My wife, as she has so many times since I retired, clutched my arm and said, “I’m so glad you’ re not on anymore.”

I’m not.  I want to be on duty, out there, in Baltimore, or in Alexandria where our community has so far escaped the rift of anger and lack of communication and trust that flashes to violence like we see tonight.  Where the good cops, like so many truly are, serve and protect and earn the trust of the people. The good people, who are out there but hidden under the smoke of the arson fires in stores and burning cars.

But not all are hidden.  Helicopter cameras show lines of men in black suits, white shirts and black ties trying, gently but forcefully, to curb the flow of criminals in the street and protect the violated stores, presumably Nation of Islam members acting for calm as they so often do.  Brave reporters (for brave, read: white press wading into angry black crowds) to interview masked men who identified themselves as peacekeepers.   And it helps the optics that the mayor, police chief and patrol commander are black, since there is the clear and undeniable racial component in Baltimore that started with the revelations last week that a black male had died in the custody of white police.  An angering event, in light of the recent history of protested and press-highlighted deaths of black men at the hands of police.   That many or most of these have been reviewed and resolved, and that this most recent case in Baltimore has led to every available response  by authorities – suspension of the officers involved, ongoing investigation by the police and the U.S. Department of Justice –  should be reason for the protestors to back down.  There is no step available that protesters can demand, at least logically.  But today Baltimore moved far beyond logic.

Logic.  What is that?  Just now, the local Fox news station reported that a peaceful group of ministers had marched through a violent crowd and up to police, knelt in the street and raised their hands in the recognized “Hands Up, Don’t Shoot” anti-police protest. Logic might dictate that this gesture be discredited with the Department of Justice report that such an event, attributed to the late Michael Brown in Ferguson, Illinois, never happened.

And what else didn’t happen?  We still don’t know what happened to Freddie Gray, the beloved son of Baltimore lovingly described in Saturday’s Washington Post as a gentle and friendly sort. The part where he ran from police while illegally armed is somehow forgotten.  We don’t know how his spine was damaged, but could it have been at the skidding, rough tackle at the end of a police foot pursuit?  It is alleged that he was not seat-buckled in the back of a Baltimore PD prisoner van, implying some vehicular movement, deliberate or otherwise might have inflicted injury. But I have seen a prisoner unbuckle his own belt and throw himself face-forward against a police cruiser safety screen, in anger or frustration or because rumors were rampant in Alexandria that the city would pay for such injuries in lawsuits.  So we don’t yet know what happened to Gray.

And it is too early to parse out the mistakes, misstatements and misrepresentations that the news media will feed to us as the night goes on, and tomorrow and the weekend continue.  But there has recently been a reason to hope for better from the press.

Last week television screens and computer monitors lit up with the dramatic and ghastly drama of a police cruiser deliberately ramming a pedestrian in Arizona.  Dash-cam footage showed (till cut by sensitive editors) the man’s body pinwheeling away as the cruiser struck him.  At first glance, it appeared to be a terrible accident and fit well into the nationwide police misconduct story.

At first glance.

But this time, glimmers of understanding shone through early.  But only when the entire video was shown, explaining that this man had that morning allegedly robbed a convenience store, broken into and torched a church, burglarized a house and stolen a car, then stole a rifle and bullets from a Walmart and was at the time of the filmed event marching down a populated street with the loaded gun under his own chin. That the gun was loaded was emphasized by seeing him raise the rifle and fire a shot in the air.

After a Today Show intro that highlighted “a new wave of protests across the country condemning police brutality,” the video from Marana, Arizona was shown in which Officer Michael Rapiejko forcefully ended the deadly threat posed by suspect Mario Valencia and his stolen rifle. Even the police chief admitted it was unorthodox.

But the most unusual thing occurred next.  Today host Matt Lauer, wrapping up the Arizona coverage, admitted that there might be more to the story than the press was seeing, or saying.  “I think if you just see the video and you know nothing about the story, you immediately jump to one conclusion.  But if you hear more of the details of what happened before, it’s much more nuanced.”

Give that man a cigar.

Why dig out the truth when the unexamined imagery keeps viewers enthralled. Or outraged.  Why do your journalism job (which, of course, is only filling a few minutes of airtime between paid advertisements) when the narrowly edited and unexplained visual – of a flying body, a police shooting, a driver beaten by officers with clubs – is so much easier to file.   And of course, don’t question statements made about the event by axe-grinders like, for example, the suspect’s attorney who told CNN:  “Everything in the video seems to point towards an obvious excessive use of force. It is miraculous that my client isn’t dead.”   I won’t hold her strident advocacy against her, she’s just doing what she’s paid to do.

No, I hold it against the reporters who don’t challenge such one-sided statements. Who don’t ask, “What else could  the officers have done against this deadly threat, what tools did they have to end this confrontation safely, what choice did Valencia give them?”  Who don’t give Matt Lauer the details, or wait for them before pronouncements.

No. Just show the video.

We’ll see what they say tomorrow.  But I can’t watch anymore tonight.

It’s Good to Be a Grownup.

There are gray areas everywhere.  Circumstances when it is hard to know exactly what to do or say.  Places where a thing is allowed or encouraged, or taboo. Or illegal.  Times when an opinion on one activity is approved and supported, and an identical opinion on a nearly identical activity is scorned.

Lawyers are good at gray areas. The sharpest lawyer I know (and whom I get to live with!) tells law school stories about rising to argue one side of an argument, and the professor ordering her to then argue the other.  Because there are far more than two sides to every argument.  This particular lawyer pointed out to me that while I don’t agree that a bakery in Indiana can properly refuse to make cakes for a gay wedding, I would probably agree that a Jewish haberdasher would not be judged for turning down a Nazi contract for t-shirts.  Singer  Charlie Daniels had a hit that went: “Be proud you’re a rebel ‘cause the South’s gonna do it again.”  Would you buy it if it went: “Be proud you’re a Nazi ‘cause the Krauts gonna do it again.”

Maybe not.

I think there are some things that go too far, see above.  I would travel to Indiana to buy a simple shirt – for this simple man – from the Jewish haberdasher to support his cause against the Nazis.  But I hear there are folks contributing to a fund to support the anti-gay bakers.  Am I better than they?

Experienced Biblical scholars, or just better readers than I, have knocked me for taking Scripture out of context.  They cite passages that allegedly define marriage as between a man and a woman as the foundation of so-called defense of marriage laws.  Others go so far as to claim that a step down the slippery gay-marriage slope will lead to weddings between men and cars, or women and trees.  I cite back with a few lines out of Levitticus that prohibit consumption of shellfish (I’m going to Hell), trimming beards (Purgatory) and tattooing of skin (I’m good here, if only because my lawyer strongly advised against such body art.)

Some of us (read: me) join a police force in the hope that the gray areas can be distilled to a simple line that we can tell – or force – people not to cross. The Law.  “It’s against the law” seems an easy departure point.  Over there, over the line, you are a bad person and I get to arrest you.  Over here, you are good. Our communities sometimes move that line on us. What was illegal is now legal.  Marijuana laws are changed or dropped. Speed limits are raised.  Parking restrictions change.    Sometimes it appears that regular folks are unaware of just what some laws are.  Protesters, pundits and the press which amplifies their shouts seemed surprised when, in their view, people are thumped for minor crimes.  Let’s ignore for the moment the notion that cops thump people for breaking the law. Cops use force to overcome resistance to what should have been minor, inconsequential arrests.  Cops aren’t the punishing arm of society, society is, in the form of established courts and often elected prosecutors, upholding laws developed, approved and enacted by established and elected government.  Do cops sometimes cross the line and inflict harm?  I wish I could say no, but that would be untrue.  Is that the system?  No, but cops are human and lines are broad, and sometimes gray. But I, again, digress.

The First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution is widely considered to confer freedom of speech, religion, assembly and the press to the people. It does, actually, prevent the government from infringing on these things, which is not exactly the same.  You don’t have the right to say or write anything you want at any time, as civil slander and libel laws attest.  You can’t shout, “Fire” in a crowded theatre because that becomes conduct, and conduct can be governed by government.  Cops protect protesters who say bad things about cops, but generally prevent them from saying them in the middle of interstate highways.  Speech vs. conduct.   But we are free to express opinions on almost any topic with support from, and generally without interference from, the government.  The 18th-century French satirical polemicist (read: blogger) Voltaire once wrote “…I detest what you write, but I would give my life to make it possible for you to continue to write.”  (This is commonly misquoted as “I do not agree with what you have to say, but I’ll defend to the death your right to say it,” but these are the words of Voltaire biographer Evelyn Beatrice Hall.)

So I get to say anything I want, as long as I am able to back it up, or defend myself against a punch in the nose from those who disagree.  That’s what’s great about being a grown-up.  So here goes…

It is wrong to refuse to sell cake to gays. It is not wrong to refuse to sell hate t-shirts to Nazis.

So there.

PS:   Inquiring minds may want to know, but it’s too early to review the murder charges placed this week against an officer who shot a man after a traffic stop and foot pursuit.  The videotapes released to the New York Times are troubling.  Maybe next week I can write something about it.  But put it this way: I recently proffered my services to a local TV news organization as a law enforcement analyst, hoping they would use me to help the public understand police videos or events about which the news talkers had no clue.  Today, with a South Carolina video that’s hard to look at, I’m glad they turned me down.

PPS:   I quoted Maya Angelou in my last column, but not until I checked the quote three times, and still found two different interpretations. Does that mean I can get a job at the U.S. Postal Service?  Probably not.

The Age of Umbrage… or… I May Be an Internet Crybaby

My sister challenged me this week.  I had posted on Facebook that I was oddly grateful to the national news media because their coverage of Trevor Noah, the new host of the Daily Show on Comedy Central, had quoted him as saying he feared American cops more than those in his home of South Africa. He said he had been in the “hands-up, don’t shoot” pose since he got here.

I wrote that this press coverage was valuable to me, saving me the wasted time of watching this fool.  As you may know, I am fairly pro-police and thus am anti the anti-police.

Her simple, place-putting response:  “Could he be joking?”

Well, du’uh, sis.  Of course he’s joking, but you can’t joke about this.  I mean, you shouldn’t joke about… about something I care about.

And have no sense of humor about.

And take great umbrage about.

And that’s her point.

From Merriam Webster: umbrage – a feeling of being offended by what someone has said or done. Origin:  Middle English, from Anglo-French, from Latin umbraticum, neuter of umbraticus of shade, from umbratus, past participle of umbrare to shade, from umbra shade, shadow; akin to Lithuanian unksmė shadow.  First Known Use: 15th century.

We word-geeks think stuff like this is cool.

When the “hands-up, don’t shoot” protest chant went nationwide last fall, after the death of Michael Brown in an encounter with a police officer in Ferguson, Illinois, I was concerned that the spreading lie of deliberate, careless police violence against black males was going to take root and affect my former colleagues in law enforcement.  Allegedly, Brown had raised his hands to surrender to Ferguson Officer Darren Wilson, who shot him. A grand jury first, then the U.S. Department of Justice, cleared Officer Wilson of wrongdoing and proved the “hands-up, don’t shoot” claim to be false.  And while it is true that some of my former police colleagues lately report increased resistance and verbal confrontations in their contacts on the street, the anti-police movement and the so-called “Ferguson protests” have largely petered out.  Certain positive effects did occur: dialogue between disenfranchised community groups and police increased in some cities that needed it; government budget minders began considering equipping their officers with body cameras (which I consider a great benefit – some disagree.  Maybe a future column?)   And, oddly enough, in my view the national media has increased its coverage of the good things cops do, which this week included ramming a dangerous wrong-way driver before he hit civilians, and buying baby carseats for a challenged family instead of ticketing them.

But the wave of anti-police sentiment and activism I had feared since Ferguson did not overcome us. And this week I was about ready to put down the sword of pro-police piety – and pomposity- and move on to more interesting topics like having heart attacks, writing novels, or cool things my kids did, when I found myself worked up over Trevor Noah and wrote that I would avoid his show.  No great sacrifice on my part:  I’ve never watched The Daily Show.  But FB Me proclaimed a personal boycott far beyond the worth of the issue, and in so doing I seem to have leaned into the national trend toward self-important umbrage instead of just laughing, or not laughing, at things a comic says.

As Jim Norton of Time Magazine put it, (Trevor Noah) … neglected to take into account that Western culture as a whole has become an increasingly reactionary mob of self-centered narcissists who all have their own personal lines drawn in the sand. A comedian is fine unless he crosses their particular line, which, of course, in the mind of a self-centered narcissist, is the only line that matters.

Norton’s article was sent to me by another blogger, my friend Dave Statter of STATer911.com.   If you are not familiar with his site, you may remember Dave as a reporter for WUSA9 a few years ago.  (Funny the incestuous way we bloggers pass each other around, like novelists who review their friends’ novels just to get their own name on the covers. INSERT PLUG HERE – My novel is in the post-editing phase, stay tuned.)

Self-centered narcissists, as Time magazine  put it.   I called myself arrogant when I started this blog, in the certainty that my thoughts and opinions are vital to the national discourse on whatever issue I set my sights on.  Like defending law enforcement against what I feared were fires of criticism stoked by a careless national news media who followed only shouting pundits like Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson and not the truth.  But the pundits, if not silenced, have been finally recognized as charlatans or for having cried wolf too many times.  It is true that bad cops exist, and good cops make mistakes, but the frenzied claims that all cops are killing all black men have finally receded like they should.  Maybe now we can focus on and strive for, if not harmony, at least a better understanding of the cooperation we need to be a community.  As the late Rodney King said in 1992 after his bloody confrontation with police pushed him into national prominence – and Los Angeles into riot – “Can we all get along?”

Like my sister, Dave Statter challenged me to reconsider my personal suppression of  Trevor Noah in this Age of Umbrage.  He informed me of a protest by pro-police groups against the appearance of rapper Common at New Jersey’s Kean University. As reported by the Associated Press this week, Common, who won a Grammy Award for composing the theme song for the movie Selma, was disinvited from speaking at the Kean commencement because he wrote a song about a cop-killer named Joanne Chesimard, who goes by the name Assata Shakur, and was convicted in 1977 of killing New Jersey State Trooper Werner Foerster. She escaped from prison and has been living in Cuba as a fugitive.  “A Song for Assata” was written 15 years ago.

Statter wrote:   While I think of myself as pro-police and totally understand the group’s concerns I don’t think we are better off as a society when we silence voices, I would much rather see the university keep the speaker and give this group or any other group an area to protest. We are in era where art, political views and even scientific findings are being silenced by claims that something is offensive. While, for many, this one may have more merit than others, it’s still the same concept.

Statter is not just pro-police, he is as pro-First Amendment as I am. We are both former reporters (I reject the high-falutin’ moniker of journalist) and believe in the right of free speech, free expression and a free press.  But I am learning to recognize the unfortunate power of internet expression to overcome the voices, views and sometimes rights of others.  However pro-police I am, I have to support Common on this one. And as sick as it makes me feel to write it, I also must support the right of Goddard College in Vermont to recently host a commencement speech (via audiotape from prison) by convicted cop-killer Mumia Abu-Jamal, who shot Philadelphia Police Officer Danny Faulkner to death in 1982.  I wouldn’t send my kids there, or pour piss on the fire if the school burned down, but I support – we have to support – their right to free speech.

Years ago when I was the public information officer of the Alexandria Police Department, fellow cops got riled over Ice T’s song Cop Killer. I pointed out to my colleagues that every Irish bar singer covers The Wild Colonial Boy, about a robber who shoots the posse capturing him. There’s a sign commemorating his life outside his hometown of Castlemaine, Co. Kerry, Ireland. And Eric Clapton made a few bucks singing Bob Marley’s I Shot the Sheriff.

Umbrage is given greater authority and power by the internet, by the implication of propriety and support a Facebook message, or a meme, or a blog gain by appearing in the visual though ephemeral print of the computer screen.  I see that now.  Whether I am smart enough to do better remains to be seen, but like Maya Angelou once said:

“I did then what I knew how to do. Now that I know better, I do better.”

We’ll see.