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December 3, 2008

Value Pricing by lawyers raises many ethical red flags

Filed under: lawyer news or ethics,viewpoint — David Giacalone @ 9:25 am

This posting was originally entitled “some Value Billing issues for today’s ABA Ethics Teleconference” —

At noon Eastern Standard Time today, a 90-minute ABA ethics teleconference and audio webcast will take place, titled “Billing Pitfalls & Pratfalls: Avoiding the Ethical Issues that Snag Attorneys.”  It’s sponsored by the ABA Family Law Section and Professional Responsibility Center.   The description of the session includes this sentence:

“Our expert faculty will discuss hot topic issues relating to  . . .  billing based on ‘value pricing’.”

I’m hoping that the faculty, Mark Chinn (of Jackson, MS, Moderator),  Lori Nelson (of Salt Lake City, UT ), and Chaim Steinberger (of New York, NY), will spend considerable time on the topic of the fiduciary and ethical obligations of lawyers using value billing — especially on standards for avoiding unreasonably high fees.  The issues are most pertinent with regard to the kind of “average” or “Main Street” clients seen by family and divorce lawyers and mediators — clients who are not sophisticated in dealing with lawyers or purchasing legal services.

As used here, “value billing” or “value pricing” is a pricing method in which fees are set in advance of the provision of legal services, based on the client’s perception (guess) of the “value” of those future services, rather than on the lawyer’s time expended, other efforts, costs or risks. [see A. Shields]. Value Billing is distinguished from the more common alternative pricing practice of using a “fixed fee” that attempts to mirror the expected or average cost to the law firm for providing a particular discrete service.

We’ve been raising questions about some of the principles and tactics of value billing for almost five years, and have garnered virtually no analysis of the issues by legal ethics experts or other commentators beyond those with a financial stake in the concept of value billing (a/k/a, value pricing).  See, e.g., our posts starting with “Value Billing and Lawyer Ethics” (Jan 28, 2004), and culminating in  “broadening the hourly billing debate” (Aug. 18, 2008), through “smart clients care about . . . marketplace ‘value’” (Nov. 25, 2008).

As discussed in our prior posts, we’ve seen many red flags that call for ethics scrutiny and guidance, or raise fiduciary concerns regarding value billing/pricing.  For example, value billing proponents:

  • over and over tell lawyers (and other professionals) they deserve to earn higher fees than they can charge using hourly billing, and that they will indeed achieve such higher fees and greater profits by using value billing; meanwhile, most clients seek alternative pricing mechanisms in search of lower fees than generated under hourly billing.
  • argue that value pricing can and should be divorced from the time and effort expended and other costs incurred in providing services to a client; and
  • attack hourly billing, the profession’s predominant method for setting fees, and the corresponding, century-old ethical standards for reasonableness (time and effort expended), as themselves unethical — without offering any standard other than the client’s guess as to value prior to seeing the results of the services rendered.  Of course, we have fiduciary duties of fair dealing and full disclosure precisely because many clients lack the information to make such judgments about a lawyer’s fees, competence, and diligence. [see our post “chronomentrophobia,” on the ethics and practicalities of hourly billing and alternatives]
  • offer tips for reducing a client’s price sensitivity and increasing the lawyer’s leverage in order to charge premium fees, and for achieving higher prices by using information about the client gathered in confidential discussions — including financial status and personal characteristics (such as the client’s emotional condition, anxieties, obsessions, sense of urgency, credulity, etc.).
  • advise lawyers to engage in price discrimination among clients who are fully capable of paying fees in full — in order to charge higher fees to those perceived as able or willing to pay more, and therefore to cherry-pick the highest paying clients and prune-away lower-paying ones (rather than serving more buyers, which is the traditional argument justifying price discrimination).
  • boast that value billing allows lawyers to circumvent competitive market forces that prevent an increase in their hourly rate, and to avoid passing on to clients efficiency gains that would reduce the number of hours billed;
  • praise “Change Orders” as a way to charge ultra-premium fees for any unexpected or added tasks, by using the leverage over the client that the situation creates [click for our reply to Ron Baker’s Auto Mechanic analogy];
  • suggest that lawyers can expect to work fewer hours using value billing and still achieve increased profits.
  • use lots of glib mantras, metaphors and maxims — many of which seem specious or inapt.
  • suggest that giving a money-back guarantee is sufficient to remove any issue of excessive fees — although Rule 1.5 bans agreeing on an unreasonable fee, as well as collecting one, and clients should not have the burden of deciding when to demand a refund; nor should they pay a hidden premium because the fee comes with a refund guarantee.

Some or all of the above issues need to be discussed today by the panel — and, we hope, someday soon by the law professors at the two major ethics blawgs, The Legal Ethics Forum and The Legal Profession Blog, as well as those at Concurring Opinions, and the consumer advocates at Public Citizen’s CL&P weblog.

As family law and mediation practitioners, I hope the panel will comment on Matt Homann’s approach to value billing for a service such as divorce mediation.  Rather than offering a reasonable hourly or flat fee up front, Matt would ask:

“What do you think X would be worth to you?” And remember, “X” is not a contract, will, or deed, but rather peace of mind, security, or some other intangible benefit tied to the specific legal service you’ll be providing.”

[My response to this in a post back in April 2005: “Homann’s Value Billing approach turns the fiduciary relationship into an auction, where the single potential buyer is unaware of the seller’s knockdown price and has no way to judge whether the object for sale is a valuable antique or a fake. No matter the soothing words and good-feely ambiance, it comes down to playing on the consumers fears and sentiments and then saying “make me an offer.” ]

.. Traditionally, “value” has meant “a good product at a good price,” and has always taken into account competitive market forces that tend to bring price down to the seller’s cost.  That’s why computers cost less today than a decade ago, although buyers “need” or “value” them more now, as they have become central in our business and personal lives.  So, we need to be suspicious, I believe, of a new definition of value that is based on a buyer guessing in advance just how much a product is worth, without knowing the quality or quantity of the services to be performed or the actual results, and with no connection to what the service costs the seller to produce.  To say a fee is “reasonable” if the client agrees to pay it (or agrees to the subjective “value” of the service), makes the rule against unreasonable fees moot.  We need a better standard and guidelines when using value billing.  Don’t we?

update (Dec. 29, 2008): Ron Baker continues his defense of Value Pricing, and I respond, in a set of Comments appearing in a prior post on the topic of value billing.

November 28, 2008

let recession rekindle real holiday spirit

Filed under: viewpoint — David Giacalone @ 11:58 pm

.. Go, St. Nick! St. Nicholas v. Santa Claus ..  

Black Friday is almost at an end, and the f/k/a Gang is once again kicking off the holiday season with our annual lament over the over-commercialization of Christmas and the Holiday Season.  While many are bemoaning the signals of a reduction in consumer confidence/buying, we see a great silver lining in those black economic clouds:

Necessity does often gives birth to invention.  Our hope is that recession will be the midwife that helps America (and the rest of the Over-Commercialized Christmas World) create a re-birth in Christmas/Holiday spirit.  With a little effort and creativity, we can let financial necessity help re-invent a spirit that represents — even for the non-religious like myself — the selfless love of Jesus, and the compassion of the original St. Nicholas, rather than the consumption symbolized by Santa Claus.

Even before I read Scott’s piece this morning, “The Blackest of Fridays” at Simple Justice (Nov. 29, 2008), where he asserted:

“Consumerism, especially the crass king that makes it’s home on Long Island, is an evil.  No, not to enjoy material possessions per se, but to need them so desperately to enhance one’s self worth that one would risk the kids’ college or the house to get it.”

. . . and even before the news arrived that “Worker trampled to death at Long Island Wal-Mart during Black Friday stampede” (New York Daily News, by Joe Gould, Nov. 28, 2008), the Gang was searching our archives to recall what we said in other years about consumerism ruining Christmas.  (We’re often pleasantly surprised by our prior insight, idealism and eloquence!)

In the midst of that search, we stopped to check out a few recent articles that seemed  relevant and hopeful.  For example, the Washington Post brought good tidings that America’s economic crisis has already brought us one consumer blessing — a reduction in the amount of junk-mail from direct-mail marketeers, including fewer offers for new credit cards.  (See WaPo article, Nov.  7, 2008)  Even more encouraging, we ran across a couple of commentators who also saw the potential advantages of American belt-tightening:

  • According to Stephen S. Roach, the dive in disposable income and the bursting asset bubbles (leading to a reduction in “net asset extraction” through equity loans) may be bringing a beneficial “Dying of Consumption”  (New York Times, Nov. 28, 2008):

“[T]here is a deeper, potentially positive, meaning to all this: Consumers are now abandoning the asset-dependent spending and saving strategies they embraced during the bubbles of the past dozen years and moving back to more prudent income-based lifestyles.

“This is a painful but necessary adjustment.

“. . . The United States needs a very different set of policies to cope with its post-bubble economy. It would be a serious mistake to enact tax cuts aimed at increasing already excessive consumption. Americans need to save. They don’t need another flat-screen TV made in China.”

  • Meanwhile, the NYT‘s Ron Lieber envisions a “Leaner Holiday Gift Giving, Bountiful in Spirit” (Nov. 21, 2008).  Similar to our thoughts the past few days, Lieber hoped that “Of all years, this may be the one to stop the holiday gift madness — out of necessity for some of us or simply out of reason.”  His vision:

“[A]t a time when so many people have so much less than they did just a few months ago, there ought to be a way to ease the pressure on them and relieve the crushing social obligation that others feel to dole out to an ever-lengthening list of people

He calls for “an effort to make gift giving more meaningful than mandatory.”  For many that may mean spending less, but Lieber hopes that some of us will be able to spend more, by adding more philanthropy to our holiday giving.

Like Ron Lieber, I’m not at all sure exactly how to go about this transition-from-necessity to a saner, more “spiritual” holiday spirit.  We realize that some family members (can you say “Nana”?) may be very reluctant to spend and give less, while others are even more reluctant to receive less.  But, I am sure we should all be thinking of ways to use our worsened national financial situation to justify new buying and giving habits this holiday season — hopefully leading to new attitudes that will continue even if and when our ecomony and fortunes greatly improve.

We bet a leaner Christmas/Holiday Season for 2008 will teach all of us the lesson that fewer gifts — less giving and receiving —  doesn’t reduce holiday joy for parents or children, spouses or lovers, kith or kin, but somehow increases our satisfaction and sense of connection and well-being.

Finding new ways to express our love and affection, and making new commitment to help the less fortunate, may help us find our way back to the “true” holiday joy, cheer and peace we have tried so long to buy and consume into being.  Those of us who don’t have to cut back should do it in solidarity with those for whom it is a necessity — to take the pressure off of them.

Is this anti-consumerist scheme just the stingy ploy of an old curmudgeon — or of a Scrooge or Grinch who never liked Holiday Cheer in the first place?   Give it a try and see for yourself whether less isn’t indeed really more when it come to inspiring the true spirit of this Holiday Season.  Please share your suggestions on how to pull it off and the results of your efforts in our Comment section.

Below the fold (click “more”), we’ve excerpted some of our prior preaching on the subject of commercialization of Christmas (which we proudly call the Holiday Season, to embrace all the holidays and shades of belief that Americans celebrate every winter).

Christmas Eve –
bits of a price sticker
stuck on my finger

… by Michael Dylan Welch The Heron’s Nest (Sept. 2005)

wrapping and packing —  
she pastes on
a holiday smile

… by dagosan


November 25, 2008

smart clients care about bonuses and marketplace “value”

Filed under: lawyer news or ethics,viewpoint — David Giacalone @ 2:59 pm

. . . . from the desk of Prof. Yabut .

A few days ago, the kids who hang out at the “legal tabloid” Above the Law discovered that the major NYC law firm Cravath, Swaine & Moore was going to reduce the bonuses it pays its associates (newer, non-partner lawyers) by 50% this year — with the basic bonus for 1st-year associates (who are making a salary of $160,000 straight out of law school) set at $17,500 and seventh-year associates getting $30,000.  The America Lawyer confirmed it yesterday (Nov. 24), and the gnashing of young lawyer teeth has been heard around the world of BigLaw and the internet.

As of this morning, over 1400 Comments have been left at the original ATL post.  And, those numbers will surely swell, since Above the Law and then The American Lawyer brought news yesterday evening (Nov. 24, 2008) that Simpson Thacher, another top firm, was going to follow Cravath’s lead, with the white-shoed herd likely to join in the bonus-reduction stampede.

Nonetheless, the f/k/a Gang isn’t going to harp on either associate avarice or partner parsimony.  Instead, we want to discuss the debate that has arisen over the statement by Cravath’s representatives, as reported in American Lawyer, that many clients are applauding the reduction in bonuses.  Carolyn Elefant summarizes the controversy at Legal Blog Watch with a post that asks “Should firms cut bonuses in response to clients?” (Nov. 24, 2008):

“Though some might compliment law firms for taking clients’ views into account, others in the blogosphere suggest that clients have no business telling law firms how to run their business.”

The clients-bonuses debate (described and discussed below) highlights one of my primary concerns with the concept of “value billing” or “value pricing” by lawyers as espoused by the leading proponents of value billing [“VBPs”].

With value billing, fees are set in advance of the provision of legal services, based on the perceived “value” of those future services to the client, rather than on the lawyer’s efforts (especially, time expended), costs or risks [see A. Shields].  Separating “value” from a seller’s cost might be a nice tactic for extracting “premium” fees, but it is not what smart buyers (much less buyers owed fiduciary duties) expect in the marketplace.  Let me explain.


November 15, 2008

they’re all atwitter (we’re not)

Filed under: Haiku or Senryu,lawyer news or ethics,viewpoint — David Giacalone @ 10:41 am

.. .. .. ..  [Note: You are entering a Curmudgeon Zone]

Everywhere you look, well-known members of the blawgisphere (lawyers who have weblogs) are all atwitter, chirping excitedly about Twitter — the free web-based application that let’s you answer, in 140 characters or less, the ultimate question of the new millennium “What are you doing?“, and to monitor the answers of lots of “followers” or “followees” with common interests. [E.g., Monica Bay, Bob Ambrogi, Nicole Black, Kevin O’Keefe, Walter Olson; and see “Lawyers Flocking to Twitter for Marketing,” Lawyers USA (Nov. 7, 2008, where the distracted Justin Rebello says you get “140 words.”]

At risk of being called a twit (or a thwowback), the f/k/a Gang is pre-emptively opting out.  This shouldn’t be a surprise coming from a Proud Podcaste Pariah. We can’t help but think that the traditional definition of twitter nails it (American Heritage Dictionary):

twitter: n. The light chirping sound made by certain birds. b. A similar sound, especially light, tremulous speech or laughter. 2. Agitation or excitement; flutter.

Things might have improved a bit (or at least gotten a patina of adult and professional participation) since Time Magazine told us last year that “more often than not” Twitter’s members “are simply killing time.”  But, we’ve seen how often fellow blawgers jump on new technologies and crazes that end up creating an unmanageable and unjustifiable torrent of information and distraction.  So, I’m going to keep in mind Time‘s admonition:

“We cyberjunkies need a new thrill, and what better than a service that combines social networking, blogging and texting?

“. . . I know, it’s totally silly and shallow, but that’s precisely why Twitter is on its way to becoming the next killer app.”

If you think that constant marketing or attracting blawg visitors is at the core of your law practice (or your cyber-business), joining the Twitter revolution might make sense, as you follow dozens, scores, or maybe hundreds of other Tweeters throughout the day or hope they follow you.  But, I sure hope you’re not my lawyer (or my employee), adding yet another wave of cyber-distractions to your workday, instead of focusing on efficiently providing quality services.  For us, maintaining multiple levels of unessential multitasking is not a virtue.

Granted, the f/k/a Gang is not part of the gotta-be-constantly-in-touch generation, nor among the first-wavers clamoring to jump on every new techno- or cybercraze. That might be because the Editor is only 13 months from his 60th birthday.  That needn’t be a bad thing.  When it comes to prioritizing one’s time or activities, getting older might actually mean getting wiser. It has hopefully meant acquiring enough self-awareness to know a time-sink when I see one.

Of course, it also means that I can only speak for myself.  Please don’t let this grumpy apologia stop you from Twittering to your heart’s content.  Just don’t expect Prof. Yabut or myself to be waiting for your next Tweet.

update (Nov. 16, 2008): In our comment section, you will find some rather defensive reactions to this little piece of fluff, especially by Kevin O’Keefe of LexBlog.  Click to see his similar weblog response to this post. If you don’t want Kevin to hurl his poison pixels at you, don’t gore his pet oxen or cash cows — not even with rubber spears. [Kevin says he’s “sorry” in a new Comment left Monday morning, Nov. 17, thanks in great part to Scott Greenfield’s efforts to keep the issues in perspective; see the next paragraph. However, Kevin has refused to amend his post, telling me in a comment at Simple Justice to “grow up” and stop worrying about “ruffled feathers.”]   For a more balanced response from a Twitter fan, see blawger Susan Cartier Liebel’s comment below.

As often happens, Scott Greenfield sees through all the Twitter glitter, with wry, balanced insights about his experience using the Killer App. as a lawyer.  See “The Great Twitter Wars Begin,” Simple Justice, Nov. 16, 2008).  Go read every word of the post (including many Comments from lawyers telling their experiences with Twitter), which concludes, “But I don’t begrudge those who are clearly enjoying it, finding it useful and beneficial and chose to spend their day tweeting away.  Tweet on, Garth.” As for himself, Scott says:

“I expect to tweet again, but only when I have absolutely nothing better to do and too much time on my hands.  No matter how sweet the marketing pitch is made, whether by Kevin or any of the other fans of twitter, it’s just not that useful, and to establish one’s twitter bones requires that one spend an awful lot of time tweeting, even if you have nothing to tweet about or no one cares to tweet you back.”

afterwords (Jan. 4, 2008): Well, now I know why Kevin O’Keefe was so upset with me for failing to bow at the Twitter Altar.  I sure hope lawyers don’t discount their hourly billing for time spent on LexTweet.

Bob Ambrogi [who writes a summary of the controversy started by this posting, here] says “The difference between Twitter and a blog is akin to the difference between a haiku and a ballad.”  That’s a good enough excuse to get off our Twitter Tirade and move to the haiku portion of this posting.  For us, of course, haiku is an extracurricular activity, meant to be taken in small quantities of high quality, at our own pace and on our own schedule.

Here, for example, are a few haiku moments from a haijin we love to follow, Hilary Tann:

spring afternoon
two chickadees . . .
sol-fa, mi-re

playing hooky —
twice around
the village square

dessert menu —
falling for

late afternoon
watching the carp school
before rehearsal

spring jacket —
a haiku fragment

between flights
I summarize my life
for a stranger

waiting for you
the restaurant noren
parts in the breeze

her garden blooms
with flowers whose names
she no longer recalls

…. by Hilary TannUpstate Dim Sum (2008/II)

… photo haiga: by dagosan

November 4, 2008

thank you, America!

Filed under: viewpoint — David Giacalone @ 11:27 pm

..   Thank you, America, for choosing hope over fear, unity over division, and our values over our resentments.  Thank you for voting Barack Obama to be President of the United States.   He will be President of all of us and for all of us.

Let’s work together to make America all it can be.  

afterwords (Nov. 5, 2008): A special thankyou to John McCain for a most gracious and inspiring concession speech — with words and tone worthy of his best self.

update (Nov. 5, 2008): Scott Greenfield, at Simple Justice, is proud that the reactions of lawyer webloggers to the election show “The Blawgoshpere at its best:”

“The reaction has been uplifting, in the belief that regardless of who, and how strongly, one thought would make a better president, so many have put that aside and noted two critically important things:  That we have broken a barrier by electing a black man to be President, not because he is black but because we believe that he is the right man for the job, and that we will now go beyond partisanship to work together to overcome our nation’s problems.”

p.s. .. Laurice and Ed Markowski’s grandson Nicholas Landry is an Obama Baby.  He’s an excellent reason for us to hope, and to act together to make a better nation and a better world. Some of Nick’s friends and admirers have left haiku and senryu in our comment section, joining in the celebration of our new Obama Nation.

November 3, 2008

please vote (preferably for Obama)

Filed under: q.s. quickies,viewpoint — David Giacalone @ 8:51 pm

.. The campaign has taken far too long and still has that weird electoral college wrinkle, which focuses too much attention on toss-up states, and could hand victory to the man with fewer votes (see, The World, “US election system unique,” Nov. 2, 2008)

— “battleground” has been uttered much too often —

.. ..

— and there were some ugly, distorted images —

But, please go out and vote tomorrow, for the candidate of your choice.

[preferably for Barack Obama] ..

Of course, if you’re really voting for John McCain because Obama is black, or because you truly believe he is a socialist or the Anti-Christ, feel free to stay home.  Whatever the outcome, remember we are one country and we need to face the future in good faith together.

p.s. The whole New Yorker cover flap (and the “winkies” we added for the parody-challenged) seems like it happened so long ago and seems rather unimportant now.  But, the ability to publish vibrant satire, even if some folks don’t get it or are offended, is crucial in a free society.

election day
dark skies turn
a bright shade of blue

…. by dagosan

Obama&GrandmaDunham afterwords (Nov. 4, 2008): Heartfelt condolences to Barack Obama and the entire family of Madelyn Payne Dunham, who died of cancer yesterday at age 86.  Losing a loving grandmother takes a large piece out of your heart and your life.  I wish she could have seen her grandson making history today.   At this important point in a very crucial election, her death is a reminder of what is really important in our lives.

after her death
composing roses
instead of words

the space
where the lily was

winter solstice
I unravel my knitting
and begin again

.. by Pamela Miller Ness
“winter solstice” — from The Hands of Women (Lily Pond Press/Swamp Press, August 2007)
“after her death” – “ikebana” – from the sequence “where the lily was” (2003)

– Election Day, Foggy Morning, Riverside Park, Schenectady, NY; by DAG –

winter woods
seeing myself
in black and white

………………….. by yu chang – Upstate Dim Sum 2005/1

.. my polling place (follow the arrow), First Reformed Church, 8 No. Church St., in the Stockade Historic District, Schenectady, NY (photo taken Election Day, Nov. 5, 2008, by David Giacalone)

October 20, 2008

too many men are killing babies

Filed under: Haiku or Senryu,Schenectady Synecdoche,viewpoint — David Giacalone @ 11:06 am

..  . Baby Killers: in Troy, MO, and Troy, NY ..

On Tuesday, September 23, 2008, in the shrinking, economically-challenged City of Troy, New York, four-month-old Matthew Thomas died of serious head trauma due to injuries sustained when his 26-year-old, 500-pound father, Adrian Thomas, “threw him down hard” several times while arguing with his wife. (see CapitalNews9)

That same day, almost a thousand miles away in the thriving, rapidly growing little City of Troy, Missouri, 6-week-old Hannah Edwards sustained severe brain damage after being struck in the head and shaken by her mother’s boyfriend, Ronald I. Schupmann, 23, who was not her biological father. (See the St. Louis Post-Dispatch).

Hannah died on Friday, September 26, the same day that little Matthew Thomas was buried and his father (who was recently unemployed and depressed) was indicted for murder, in Troy, NY.

For quite a few months, I’ve been wanting to write about a terrible trend I’ve noticed here in the New York Capital Region the past few years: Although we are a relatively small Metro area, every month or so a grown man is in the news for killing a baby (usually his own or his girlfriend’s).  The men are most often in their early to mid- 20’s.   They shake, punch or throw the child — usually because the baby is crying inconsolably. Their victims are not even toddlers yet, and often just a few months old.

I’m finally writing this post, because the Schenectady Sunday Gazette featured the article “Shaken baby deaths persist: Problem is all too common” (by Jill Bryce, October 19, 2008) on the front page of the local news section.  From the article and additional research, I’ve learn that about 80% of the perpetrators of Shaken Baby Syndrome or Abusive Head Trauma to young children are male.  In addition:

“The abuser is usually the baby’s father or the mother’s boyfriend. Female perpetrators tend to be a caregiver other than the biological mother.”

When Googling /Troy murder infant father/ yesterday, to locate the recent case described above from the nearby city of Troy, NY (find more coverage of it here and here), I discovered the strange coincidence of baby Hannah’s death the same week as Matthew’s in the very-different city of Troy, Missouri.

According to the National Center on Shaken Baby Syndrome, SBS/AHT (shaken baby syndrome/abusive head trauma) is a term used to describe the constellation of signs and symptoms resulting from violent shaking or shaking and impacting of the head of an infant or small child.

  • Often, perpetrators shake an infant or child out of frustration or anger. This most often occurs when the baby won’t stop crying. Other triggering events include toilet training difficulties and feeding problems.
  • The Shaken Baby Coalition says: “In America last year, approximately 1,200 – 1,400 children were shaken for whom treatment was sought. Of these tiny victims, 25 -30% died as a result of their injuries. The rest will have lifelong complications.”
  • Perpetrator Profile: Average age of perpetrator 22 years; 75% male; 81% had no history of child abuse; 75% had no history of substance abuse; 50% were natural parents of the victims; 37% biological father; 21% boyfriends of the mother; 17% female child care providers; 12% mothers; 13% other
  • It’s estimated that “Twenty-five (25%) to fifty (50%) percent of Americans do not understand the danger of shaking a baby, nor do they realize the possible long-term consequences.”

We haven’t located more-recent statistics, but a 2003 North Carolina study estimated that about 300 babies died in this country from SBS or non-accidental head trauma in 2002. In 1997, the FBI reported that about 5 babies a week are killed in the USA.  In his 1998 “History of Infanticide,” Dr. Larry S. Milne presents some pretty dismal statistics about infanticide in the United States (emphasis added):

Statistically, the United States ranks high on the list of countries whose inhabitants kill their children. For infants under the age of one year, the American homicide rate is 11th in the world, while for ages one through four it is 1st and for ages five through fourteen it is fourth. From 1968 to 1975, infanticide of all ages accounted for almost 3.2% of all reported homicides in the United States.

The 1980’s followed similar trends. Whereby overall homicide rates were decreasing in the United States, the rate at which parents were killing their children was increasing.

(full poster)

The f/k/a Gang can’t offer much direct guidance on this topic.   In a decade representing children at Family Court, your Editor saw many young males (and some females) accused or capable of shaking or assaulting a baby.  Despite the fact that the incidence of SBS/AHT appears higher among the poor and less educated population, it can and does happen throughout our society, affecting every socio-economic and demographic group, across the nation.  We surely need much more vigilance on the part of family members, discretion as to who is left to care for a baby, and education for young parents and their paramours.  Dr. Rudy Nydegger, a clinical psychologist in Schenectady, told the Gazette that the perpetrator often has very little knowledge of how to care for a child.

“It’s terribly important to ensure that people in charge of a child know what to do” when a baby is crying inconsolably.  Caregivers need to ask for help.

Here are links to resources that interested and affected persons and organizations might use to help prevent, understand, and deal with the fatal (or serious, but less severe) effects of non-accidental assaults on “our” babies:

Parents, siblings and other relatives of SBS victims face a special kind of grief.  My heart goes out to them.  They can find some help and comfort from the National Center on SBS, and on the Family Support page of

In 19th Century Japan, Master Haiku poet Kobayashi Issa saw all four of his children die in the first two years of their lives.  His sorrow and loss, and his love for small children, can be seen in many of his poems.  Here is a sample:

this world
is a dewdrop world
yes… but…

why did the blooming
pink break?

heat shimmers–
missing a child
the parent’s face

meigetsu ya hiza [wo] makura no ko ga araba

harvest moon–
my lap would be a pillow
if my child were here

…….. Translator David G. Lanoue explained the context of this last poem:

“This haiku was written in Seventh Month, 1819. Its biographical context is important, because Issa’s daughter, Sato, born the previous year, died of smallpox in Sixth Month of 1819–just a few weeks before Issa composed this poem. As he sits looking at the harvest moon–one of the most joyful occasions in the calendar for a haiku poet–the happy occasion is marred by a palpable absense. If only Sato were here… This sad poem reminds us of how precious children are to us; how, without them, the wonders of the universe, even the resplendent moon, seem drab and ordinary.”

“Gimme that moon!”
cries the crying

………. by Kobayashi Issa, translated by David G. Lanoue

apples picked
and the casket chosen —
lingering sunset

roses on the casket
at the lowering

… by Michael Dylan Welch
“roses on the casket” – frogpond (XXIX: 1, Winter 2006)

mourners and bare trees

……. by George Swede – The Heron’s Nest (June 2005)

October 16, 2008

Maryland Halloween Sign Targets Sex Offenders

Filed under: viewpoint — Tags: , — David Giacalone @ 5:06 pm

. . . for more, see our prior posts: “Halloween tricks: pols vs. sex offenders” (Oct. 30, 2005); “hauntingly familiar” (Oct. 24, 2007); “more scary Halloween laws against sex offenders” (Oct. 9, 2008).  And see, the informative weblog piece by David Hess, The New Urban Myth—The Danger of Registered Sex Offenders at Halloween (October 18, 2010).

…  Md. Sex Offender Halloween Sign

Last week, we told you again about the spread of laws across the nation restricting the conduct of Sex Offenders on Halloween.  One particularly odious and inane rule, from our perspective, is the requirement in states like Missouri and Maryland that sex offenders post a sign at their homes declaring there is no candy at the residence.  The ACLU is challenging Missouri’s law.  After seeing yesterday’s Washington Times, we hope a challenge will be waged in Maryland, too.

Last year, sex offenders in Maryland were given a simple sign to hang on their doors that read: “No Candy.”  That was bad enough, but things have escalated this year.

.. A New Scarlet Letter: The article “Pumpkin symbol marks sex offenders’ homes” (Washington Times, by Tom LoBianco, October 15, 2008), shows the sign that sex offenders must display at their homes in Maryland this Halloween (and we have it at the top of this post).  According to the Times, the bright orange pumpkin is the symbol sex offenders “are required to post on their doors with a warning, in capital letters, to trick-or-treaters: ‘No candy at this residence’.”   In addition to posting the sign, the offenders must stay at home, turn off outside lights and not answer the door.  Some states prohibit sex offenders from decorating the outside of their homes.  But, Maryland is mandating this colorful and “attractive” Halloween decoration.

update (October 31, 2008): Realizing that a sign with a big orange pumpkin on it might actually attract children to a house, Maryland parole agents sent out a pumpkin-less version of the sign this week to sex offenders, merely saying “No Candy at this Residence”.   Strangely, SO’s apparently have the option to use the pumpkin sign.  Parole officials deny they were affected by a Saturday Night Live skit poking fun at their sign (with Seth Myers saying “They are also being required to take down the signs that read, ‘Knock if you can keep a special secret.’”).  See: “Halloween & the Law, Part Deux: Targeting Sexual Offenders
(Wall Street Journal, October 30, 2008); and “Maryland Sex Offenders Under Close Watch on Halloween” (, Oct. 31, 2008)

The signs were mailed out to Maryland sex offenders, with a letter dated October 1st, from the state’s Division of Parole and Probation.  In it, interim director Patrick McGee has this Orwellian message:

“Halloween provides a rare opportunity for you to demonstrate to your neighbors that you are making a sincere effort to change the direction of your life.”

As we’ve mentioned before, there is no record in the United States (nor in Canada) of any registered sex offender abusing a trick-or-treater on Halloween.  The infamous Fond du Lac Halloween Murderer case took place in 1973, when an unaccompanied 9-year-old girl was attacked by a man who had never been convicted of a prior sex crime. (see our posts “halloween tricks: pols vs. sex offenders” and “hauntingly familiar”).

The Washington Times articles also reports that:

  • “Sex offenders In Maryland who do not post the signs and stay home will be taken to court and charged with a violation of parole. However, the new state initiative is not a law.”
  • Wonda Adams, a supervisor at the Parole and Probation Division and coordinator of the Halloween watch program says, “Our goal is public safety, and in keeping with that we need to make sure that the individuals under our supervision are provided with the enhanced supervision that we’re committed to.”
  • In addition, “The state also this year is distributing pamphlets statewide to warn families and trick-or-treaters to stay away from homes with the pumpkin signs, Mrs. Adams said.”
  • One parole agent — who clearly needs a better understanding of the role of the Division and goals of parole —  “has called the new sign a ‘publicity stunt’ and said it should clearly state that a violent sex offender lives at the house.” update (October 17, 2008):  Last night, Jay Leno joked about the Maryland Halloween sign during his monologue, saying it should state “Sex Offender Lives Here.”  It got a laugh, but I’d like to think Jay would reconsider that position in his real life, if he gave the whole notion a bit of thought.

At the website of the Maryland Department of Public Safety’s Division of Parole and Probation, I could find no mention at all of the Halloween parole restrictions, nor of the pamphlet for families.  It is especially appalling that the Division has acted on its own — with no statutory mandate — to initiate a program that is likely to target sex offender homes, on Halloween and thereafter, for pranks, mischief, and possibly violence.  The rule will make it harder, not easier, for the sex offender to “change the direction” of his or her life, and rejoin society, and will surely make life tougher for any family members who live with the sex offender.

Rather than creating a new Scarlet Letter to focus negative attention on sex offenders trying to straighten out their lives, the good public servants in our parole departments and state legislatures should perhaps consider the Biblical story of the Mark of Cain.  As told in the Bible, Cain was the firstborn son of Adam and Eve, and had slain his brother Abel — a serious crime that deserved serious punishment.  However (per Wikipedia):

When Cain complained that the curse was too strong, and that anyone who found him would kill him, God responded, “Not so; if anyone kills Cain, he will suffer vengeance seven times over”, and God “set a mark upon Cain, lest any finding him should kill him” (Gen. 4:15).

Never soft on crime, the Old Testament God would not diminish Cain’s punishment, but made it clear that revenge or vigilantism by others against Cain was not acceptable.  Here’s how Ray C. Stedman explained the mark that the Bible says God put on Cain:

“[T]he mark of Cain is not a mark of shame, as we usually interpret it. It is not a mark to brand him in the eyes of others as a terrible murderer, to be shunned and treated as a pariah. It is rather, a mark of grace, by which God is saying, ‘This man is still my property. Hands off!’ Thus the heart of God is always ready to show mercy.”

Let’s hope that a bit of mercy and restraint will replace the hypocrisy and hysteria that have fueled Halloween restrictions on sex offenders.  Maybe saner heads will reject the unwise, expensive and often counter-productive rules and laws — including residence restrictions — that have been promoted by politicians and civil servants who should know better.

p.s. If I still lived in Maryland (having resided in Bethesda for a few years prior to moving to Schenectady), I’d be tempted to make lots of copies of the Sex Offender No Candy sign, and to urge others who are not sex offenders to use them, too.

Beary wins the Basho Haiku Challenge, challenges some haijin flaws

Filed under: haijin-haikai news,Haiku or Senryu,viewpoint — David Giacalone @ 1:49 pm

Don Wentworth of the Lilliput Review and the weblog Issa’s Untidy Hut, has announced today (October 16, 2008) that our lawyer-poet friend Roberta Beary is the winner of the 1st Annual Basho Haiku Challenge, with this poem:

on the church steps
a mourning dove
with mother’s eyes

….. by Roberta Beary (1st Place, Basho Haiku Challenge 2008)

Don was so impressed with the quality of poems submitted for the contest that he has decided to make it an annual event, and will be “publishing a chapbook of the best 24 poems received sometime after the 1st of the year.  19 poets will be featured.”  Congratulations to our much-honored friend and Honored Guest Roberta Beary, and to Don, who honors f/k/a with his frequent visits and friendly comments.

Roberta has often touched us with poems involving “mother.”  For example:

mother’s day
a nurse unties
the restraints

mother’s visit
side by side we outline
our lips

from here
to there
mother’s silence

………………… by Roberta Beary
“mother’s day” – The Heron’s Nest VII:2; Big Sky: RMA 2006The Unworn Necklace (2007)
“mother’s visit” –  from an untitled haibun, Modern Haiku Vol. 37:1 (Spring 2006); “from here” –  The Unworn Necklace (Snapshot Press, 2007)

.. Ms. Beary is also on the minds of many of us in the haijin community this week, because the Revelations: Unedited section of the latest issue of Frogpond (Vol. 31: 3, Fall 2008; see our prior post) has her four-page op/ed piece “Five Musings on Matters Haiku.”  We can’t type up the entire Revelation for you, but will briefly touch upon each musing:

  • The Usual Suspects: Roberta notes “Of all the haiku conferences and meetings I’ve attended, I can’t think of one where he keynoe speaker was a woman,” and offers conference organizers a “gentle push” to invite haiku poets such as Penny Harter, Anita Virgil, Alexis Rotella, Marlene Mountain, and Alexis Rotella to give a keynote address at a major conference.
  • FOP Book Reviews: Roberta takes on rave book reviews written by Friends of the Poet.  She suggests editors should choose reviewers who are not haiku poets (and refuse to accept unsolicited reviews).  She also mentions similar sentiments voiced as a “sand flea” by George Swede in his Tracks in the Sand column for Simply Haiku journal, Spring 2007.

We checked out that column and found George bemoaning, “A long laudatory review that includes not even minor quibbles.” George suggests: “To foster more balanced, objective appraisals, we need critics who are devoted first to high standards of criticism and scholarship and only second, if at all, to careers as poets.”

  • Civility in Haiku USA:  Roberta notes that constructive criticism was enouraged among haijin in America in the 1990’s.  She believes “things have gotten much less civil lately,” with her email box “full of complaints about the mediocrity of haiku published in today’s journal.”  Roberta recommends, instead, the more “thoughtful approach” of using “a closely reasoned critique in a letter to the editor for publication.”  She also reminds editors that “each haiku submitted to editors should stand on its own, regardless of the name that appears below.”

Editor’s Note: The f/k/a Gang agrees with Roberta Beary that we need to think of constructive criticism as an important and encouraged part of our haiku community’s life and spirit.  It’s possible that Haiku Wars over definitional issues got so ugly in the 1990’s that haijin have sworn off confrontation and criticism.  But the result is whiny private email to our friends instead of public “criticism” in the sense of evaluation and analysis of a work of literature.  When someone [e.g., me] does go public with a serious critique, he or she can feel very lonely and out on a limb, with any support coming only in private messages and not in a public comment.

The self-censorship is such that even the courageous Ms. Beary has not named names.  Thus, in pieces here at f/k/a, yours truly has so far not talked about individual poems, poets or editors in my extensive criticism of the spread of “pysku.”  Once, when I publicly criticized an editor here at f/k/a for not living up to a journal’s published standards, I lost a friend.   On another occasion, at a group website, when I gingerly questioned whether a particular poem constituted either haiku or senryu, I was immediately told to lighten up.

If we are adults and consider haiku to be a “real” literary genre, we must accept, honor, encourage criticism.  Because print publications come out infrequently and have such limited space for criticism, I want to recommend that every publication have a website section — or a weblog (they’re free and easy to use) — with a Critics Corner that is moderated only to assure civility.

  • Serial Presenters: Roberta muses over the soporific benefits of having the same people give virtually the same presentation at more than one conference.
  • Book Blurbs by Dr. Who: Finally, Ms. B. chides folk who use the title “Dr.” to add weight to comment used in publicity blurbs for books.  She also notes that far too many books have only blurbs penned by males, even though “women make up a substantial part” of the book-buying public [not to mention, your editor notes, a substantial part of the most-respected and well-known haiku poets].

Please feel free to respond here to any of the points made by Roberta or myself.  For now, I’ll leave on a lighter Beary note:

first date —
the little pile
of anchovies

family picnic
the new wife’s rump
bigger than mine

ceremony over
the bride unveils
her tattoo

……………… by Roberta Beary
“first date” – 1st Place, HSA Gerald Brady Senryu Award 2006; The Unworn Necklace
“family picnic” – Modern Haiku (favorite senryu award, 2003) The Unworn Necklace
“ceremony over” – Simply Haiku (senryu, Winter 2005)

October 14, 2008

dear Barack: please talk about the poor on Blog Action Day

Filed under: Haiku or Senryu,viewpoint — Tags: , , — David Giacalone @ 10:26 am

. . Oct. 15, 2008 . .

my hut–
the poverty-hiding snow
melts away

in a remote village
they’re used to poverty…
evening cool

… by Kobayashi Issa (circa 1815), translated by David G. Lanoue

update (October 15, 2008; 11:30 PM):  Sigh. Not one word on the poor or poverty from Barack Obama in tonight’s debate — even when talking about the inadequacies of our education system.

follow-up (Jan. 29, 2011):  In his New York Times column today, Charles M. Blow regrets that President Obama “did not include a single mention of poverty or the plight of the poor” in his State of the Union Speech this week. See “Hard-knock (hardly acknowledged) Life” (online Jan. 28, 2011).  A disappointing habit, Mr. President.

Dear Barack Obama:

I‘m writing my Blog Action Day 2008 posting a day early to give you a little time to work Poverty and The Poor into your answers at the Presidential Debate tomorrow.  The last debate focuses on domestic policy and coincidentally takes place on October 15, 2008, the day that 9 thousand weblogs have pledged to discuss poverty.  Because I’m an Obama supporter, I’ve heard from you and your campaign staff a couple times a day over the last few months, so I hope you won’t mind a little frank talk back at you.  To be honest, I’ve been disappointed that:

  • none of your email Campaign missives has mentioned your Poverty Plan or your continued commitment to fight poverty
  • even worse, you have not mentioned the poor or poverty in either of the first two Presidential Debates, instead repeating over and over a middle class mantra; and
  • unfortunately, the four-part economic rescue plan you unveiled Monday deals only with the Middle Class [see the New York Times article (Oct. 14, 2008); and the PBS ReportersBlog, Oct. 13, 2008]

Of course, I am well aware of your need to pamper, flatter and woo the Middle Class to win this election.  And, I know that the poorest Americans are not likely to vote for John McCain, and probably had no savings or stocks at risk in the current big fiscal crisis.  Nonetheless, the rapid rise of the price for food, gasoline and other necessities has made the constant crisis of poverty more intense than ever for America’s poor and near-poor, and they have no assets to dig into and no ability to obtain credit to tide them over.

At your website, you have an inspiring and practical Plan to Fight Poverty and Create a Bridge to the Middle Class — but it has been 14 months since your Speech on Urban Poverty, when you spoke about Bobby Kennedy, and 15 months since you uttered these words in Spartanburg, South Carolina (06/15/07):

”At the dawn of the 21st century we also have a collective responsibility to recommit ourselves to the dream; to strengthen that safety net, put the rungs back on that ladder to the middle-class, and give every family the chance that so many of our parents and grandparents had.  This responsibility is one that’s been missing from Washington for far too long – a responsibility I intend to take very seriously as president.”

Since the general election campaign started, that “bridge to the Middle Class” seems like another bridge to nowhere for the poor.  Therefore, besides talking again about our national responsibility to fight poverty, I urge you to have the courage to make the at least these two points taken from your Poverty Plan at the Debate tomorrow night:

Poverty Rising: There are over 37 million poor Americans [I bet there are even more today]. Most Americans living in poverty work, but still cannot afford to make ends meet.

Minimum Wage is Not Enough: Even when a parent works full-time earning minimum wage and EITC and food stamps are factored into their income, families are still $1,550 below the federal poverty line because of the flat-lined minimum wage.

It would also be nice to hear some specifics about raising the minimum wage and helping the working poor — perhaps a bit about Transitional Jobs, Career Pathways, Digital Inclusion, Transportation Access, and Connecting Youths to Growing Sectors.  Of course, I understand how little can be squeezed into 90 minutes, but I’ll be expecting to hear a pledge to talk more about poverty in America over the few days remaining in your campaign.  I know you can find the rhetoric to tie the fate of the poor to that of the middle class and the rejuvenation of our nation.

A Very Personal Note: Please, Barak, don’t think of me as merely another affluent Harvard Law liberal with a guilty conscience over the plight of America’s poor.  During the two decades that I practiced law (working primarily for consumers and children), I was comfortably middle class and happy to pay taxes to improve the prospects of the poor in America.

Due to a chronic health problem, however, I have been “prematurely retired” from my law and mediation practice for almost a dozen years — and have lived at the poverty level (income and assets) the entire time.  So, I know how hard it is to fill a tank or a cupboard these days, and how poverty limits options and can crush spirits.  I also know how difficult it seems to be for my middle class friends to relate to the daily travails and limited horizons of the poor.  We need a President — and a presidential candidate — who understands the predicament of the poor and includes them as full members of the American family.

So, Barack, I hope my Obama Finger Puppet isn’t the only Obama talking about poverty and the poor during the Presidential Debate on October 15.  I wish you courage and good luck as the election campaign comes to a close.

s/ David Giacalone at f/k/a

update (October 15, 2008): More Blog Action Day coverage by us, here.

There was no internet when Master Issa walked the roads of 19th Century Japan as an impoverished haiku poet.  If Issa had known about Blog Action Day 2008, and had a weblog, I bet he would have posted some of these poems, which have been translated by our Honored Guest Poet Prof. David Lanoue:

my poor dinner
in the palm of my hand…
falling sleet

for the poor
there’s not a spring
without blossoms!

autumn’s first geese
come first
to the poor town

this poor-soiled province
ain’t so bad…

all according to plan, yet
I’m cold!

my poor dinner
puffing steam…
first winter rain

oh great peony
don’t disdain
this poor neighborhood!

even the poor
workhorses of Edo sleep…
in mosquito nets!

back alley–
a poor sake bottle
for the God of Wealth

frosty night–
seven poor men
in a huddle

just for fun
chanting “Alms for the poor!”
clear fall weather

… by Kobayashi Issa (1763 – 1827), translated by David G. Lanoue

October 6, 2008

hang-ups over banning books

Filed under: Haiku or Senryu,Schenectady Synecdoche,viewpoint — David Giacalone @ 10:55 am

A planned quick mea culpa over forgetting to post about this year’s Banned Books Week — September 27 to October 4, 2008 — was complicated yesterday, when I saw an editorial in the Schenectady Sunday Gazette headlined “No good reason to pull library book in Galway” (October 5, 2008). (see our 2007 BBW post last year)

Referring to a story published October 3rd by the Gazette, the Editors explained that the trustees of the Galway Public Library (in the Saratoga County Town of Galway, New York, which has a population under 4000 and is located about 12 miles north of Schenectady), have at least temporarily pulled from its shelves the book Hang-Ups, Hook-Ups, and Holding Out: stuff you need to know about your body, sex, and dating” (Health Communications, by Melisa Holmes, M.D. and Trish Hutchison, M.D., 2008). Hang-Ups is part of the Girlology series of books aimed at pre-teen and teenage girls.  The Gazette editorial starts:

“Maybe Galway Public Library officials deserve some benefit of the doubt for agreeing to temporarily remove from their shelves a popular book on teen sexuality that a patron complained about, citing “factual errors, philosophy and perceived bias.” But not a whole lot, frankly — and none if they don’t hurry up and put the book back, where it belongs.

“It’s one thing to forbid your child to read a book you don’t like or agree with, or to bring it into your home; it’s entirely another to try to impose such a judgment or moral standard on the public — especially in a library, whose function is to make as much information, including opinion, on as many subjects as available as possible.”

The editorial makes other important points, including:

  • “Even if the book in question — “Hang-Ups, Hook-Ups, and Holding Out: Stuff You Need to Know About Your Body, Sex & Dating” — did contain factual errors, removing it from circulation hardly seems like the proper response. Lots of books, including many good ones, have mistakes in them.”
  • “Then there’s this: What constitutes a mistake can be a matter of opinion; who decides? And where does one draw the line as to which mistakes are tolerable and which are not?”

Like a large proportion of all books that targeted for removal from libraries and schools, Hang-Ups deals with teen sexuality.  The Gazette notes that “Teen sexuality, and how to teach about sex to one’s children, is a highly personal and — for some parents — ideological issue that shouldn’t be decided by one member of a community, or even a committee.”  The editorial correctly asserts that:

“If parents have reservations about the methods advocated by a particular author (in this case, two women doctors with teen children), they should instruct or even order their children to steer clear. But it shouldn’t be their decision to make for the rest of the community.”

The Gazette news article about the controversy in Galway reported:

“[Library Director Ashley] Poulin said a copy of the book was delivered to Dr. Anneke Pribis at the Galway Family Health clinic. ‘We’ve asked Dr. Pribis to read the book to see if it is medically accurate,’ Poulin said. ‘We haven’t heard back from Anneke yet’.”

Dr. Pribis, a family practitioner in Galway, has been asked to pass judgment on a book written by a two well-known experts on subjects related to juvenile gynecology and teenage sexuality (find more info on the authors here).  I haven’t been able to find information online about the complaining parent/patron, Patti Venditti, but I would not be surprised to learn that her concerns have more to do with its “philosophy and perceived bias” than with the inaccuracy of any medical information provided in Hang-Ups. (Ms. Venditti is invited to tell us more about her concerns by leaving a Comment below.)

My quick online research about Hang-Ups uncovered only positive reviews of the book.  For example, seven parents reviewed the book at The Parent Bloggers Network, and the post summarizing the reviews says:

“The consensus among the bloggers who reviewed Girlology: Hang-Ups, Hook-Ups, and Holding Out is that we all wish we’d had this book when we were growing up.

And this blogger summed it up beautifully:

“Is this book for you? If you’re a teenage girl? Yes. If you’re the mother, father, friend, teacher, or confidant of a teenage girl? Yes. Yes. Yes. Yes. Yes.“

Hang-Ups also got a rave positive review by a parent at the Scrutiny by the Masses weblog.

My concern is with the willingness of the Library trustees in Galway to pull the book pending their final determination. One trustee told the Gazette that this is the first time they’ve had such a complaint in the history of the Galway Public Library, which was founded in 1998.  It’s clear the trustees either have, or were aware of, no procedure for handling a request that a book be removed from the Library. This is the full treatment of Ms. Venditti’s complaint from the August 2008 Minutes of the Library Board of Directors (Aug. 6, 2008):

Public Comment:  Patti Venditti, a Galway library patron and mother, brought up concerns about a book in the library’s collection, Hang-Ups, Hook-Ups and Holding Out, due to factual errors, philosophy and perceived bias. Ashley [Poulin, Library Director] will provide Patti with a form to fill out for possible culling of the book.  Arlene [Rhodes] moved and Laura [Sakala] seconded that the book be removed from circulation pending determination.  The motion carried.  Patti will be taking the book home with her for use in completing the form.

Yes, that’s right: On the basis one person’s concerns, a popular and much-praised book was taken from the Galway Library shelves “for possible culling” (and handed over to the complainant to help her write up her complaints).  This seems a far cry from the American Library Association’s policy on Free Access to Libraries for Minors (June 30 1972), which the NYS Public Library Department recommends for adoption by all public libraries in this State.

good-news update (October 10, 2008): In an email to me this afternoon, Ashley Poulin, Director of the Galway Library informs me that “The review has been completed and the determination was made to keep [Hang-Ups] on the shelf.”

update (October 15, 2008): The Schenectady Gazette reports today that “Controversial teen book back on shelves at Galway library” (by Kathy Bowen, Oct. 15, 2008). Oddly, Joanna Lasher, President of the Library Board of Trustees, now says the book was never actually taken out of circulation. “It was not out of circulation; it was being reviewed and was still part of the collection,” Lasher said.  I just checked the Board’s August 2008 Minutes, and it still says “Arlene [Rhodes] moved and Laura [Sakala] seconded that the book be removed from circulation pending determination.  The motion carried.”  If the Board is a little squeamish about having over-reacted, that bodes well for the future.

Here are two pertinent excerpts from the ALA policy on access for minors:

  1. “Restrictions are often initiated under the assumption that certain materials are ‘harmful’ to minors, or in an effort to avoid controversy with parents who might think so. The librarian who would restrict the access of minors to materials and services because of actual or suspected parental objection should bear in mind that he is not in loco parentis in his position as librarian. Individual intellectual levels and family backgrounds are significant factors not accommodated by a uniform policy based upon age.”
  2. “The American Library Association holds that it is the parent-and only the parent-who may restrict his children and only his children-from access to library materials and services. The parent who would rather his child did not have access to certain materials should so advise the child.”

By the Way: The online catalog for our regional Library System shows that the Schenectady County Public Library has 3 copies of Girology’s Hang-Ups book; and that Galway Public Library’s single copy is “Out (due: 10/15/08).”

It’s difficult to image any valid reason for keeping Hang-Ups off the shelves at the Galway Public Library, or any other public or school library.  This incident a few miles down the road demonstrates the continued need to celebrate Banned Books Week — to educate the public and public servants about both the importance of free speech (and access to information) and the responsibility of parents to monitor what their children read (as opposed to asking their librarians to act in loco parentis).

At the Banned Books Week website, you’ll find information about books and authors have been most challenged in recent years, along with quite a few ideas about how you can help protect free speech and access (e.g., visiting the linked pro-censorship sites is an eye-opening experience).

The ALA and other sponsors of BBW want you to know that:

“More than a thousand books have been challenged since 1982. The challenges have occurred in every state and in hundreds of communities. People challenge books that they say are too sexual or too violent. They object to profanity and slang, and protest against offensive portrayals of racial or religious groups–or positive portrayals of homosexuals. Their targets range from books that explore the latest problems to classic and beloved works of American literature.”

– some of the many acclaimed books targeted for banishment in the past two decades –

The Top Ten Challenged Authors from 1990 – 2004 were:

1. Alvin Schwartz  2. Judy Blume  3. Robert Cormier 4. J.K. Rowling 5. Michael Willhoite
6. Katherine Paterson 7. Stephen King 8. Maya Angelou 9. R.L. Stine 10. John Steinbeck

Please don’t let the passing of Banned Books Week keep you from getting involved.  The Galway Public Library expects to issue its judgment on Hang Ups in November, and similar decisions are made year-round in hundreds of communities, of all sizes, across the nation.

The f/k/a Gang has run out of time for posting today.  Rather than dig up new haiku and senryu, here are some of the poems we found for our post about BBW 2007, which featured the book “The Earth, My Butt, and Other Big Round Things” (Candlewick 2005), by Carolyn Mackler (which was high on the list of challenged books in 2006, due to its sexual content, offensive language, and purported purported anti-family message and age group unsuitability):

after school meeting
collage clouds turn
round and round

big enough
to pedal home on
winter moon

……………………… by Matt Morden – from Morden Haiku

family picnic
the new wife’s rump
bigger than mine

earth tremor
the teapot sings

…… by Roberta Beary – from The Unworn Necklace (Snapshots Press, 2007; order); “family picnic” – Modern Haiku (favorite senryu award, 2003)

p.s. Free speech is just as important auf Deutsch.  In this week’s Blawg Review #180 we’re reminded that the White House has declared today to be German-American Heritage DayLaw Pundit Andis Kaulis presents many interesting facts for those who only think of Bier und Oktober Fest this time of year, including the surprise (to many of us) that “German Americans make up the largest acknowledged ancestry group in America, even larger than the Irish and the English.”  Thanks to Andis for including our post on Ladies’ Nights in his list of notable recent blawg postings.

Speaking of libraries, laws, and access to information, check out Laura Orr’s important piece at Oregon Legal Research, “Let’s Kill All the Law Libraries” (Oct. 3, 2008)

September 24, 2008

DWP needs its own Doris Aiken

Filed under: Schenectady Synecdoche,viewpoint — David Giacalone @ 10:34 am

.. .. ban DWI and DWP, too . . ..

In 1978, Doris Aitken launched RID (Remove Intoxicated Drivers), the first anti-DWI national organization in the U.S., right here in Schenectady, New York.  Since then, Aitken and RID — using all volunteers in the field and no professional fundraisers — have been instrumental in passing dozens of laws relating to drunken driving. See “RID marks 30 years of efforts to combat drunken driving” (Sunday Gazette, Sept. 21, 2008), and the RID milestones page.

The deaths of Scotia residents Karen and Timothy Morris, 17 and 19 (the only Morris children), caused by an intoxicated 22 year old on Dec. 4, 1977, spurred Doris Aitken into action.  For three decades, she has relentlessly confronted lawyers, courts, politicians, the media and the alcohol industry in her struggle to reform DWI laws.

This Pit Bull wears lipstick. ..  Doris Aitken is over 80 years old, but she is still tenacious and surely still wears lipstick.  She called her 2002 memoir, “My Life as a Pit Bull” (several chapters are available here).

As a Schenectady Daily Gazette editorial said yesterday, “Aiken shows that citizen activism works” (Sept. 23, 2008):

“Thirty years ago, drunken driving was seen as a joke. Today it is seen as the serious, life-and-death matter that it is, by most drivers as well as the legal system. No one person or group deserves all the credit for this societal change in attitude, but Schenectady’s Doris Aiken and her RID-USA, the oldest national anti-DWI group, deserve a lot, especially in New York state.”

Through education, consternation and legislation, RID and similar organizations, such as MADD, have helped change the attitude and behavior of millions of Americans, saving lives and preventing accidents.   As Robert Carney, the Schenectady County District Attorney, told Doris at the RID 30th anniversary event:

“People are making smarter choices, and the highways are safer thanks to you.”

After three decades of ardent advocacy, and Doris Aitken is still passionate and committed. [Last December, the octogenarian started the RID Weblog, where she recently argued “College Presidents wrong on drinking age“.]  Along with so many others here in Schenectady and across the nation, I tip my hat to Doris Aiken and send her my gratitude and admiration.  Today, moreover, I fervently hope that we can somewhere find a focused, articulate and effective advocate like Aiken for an impaired-driving crusade against the similar scourge of Driving While Phoning.

. .. In 1997, The New England Journal of Medicine reported on a study by Toronto researchers, which found that the risk of having an accident is four times greater if the driver is using a cell phone — the same risk as driving at the legal drinking limit. Additional studies have confirmed that finding, with one also equating the reduced reaction times of those engaged in DWP to that of drivers over 70 years of age.  Of course, far more people, from every demographic group, drive impaired due to phoning while driving than have ever driven under the influence of alcohol.  They do it consistently, 24/7, not just in the evening, after parties, or during holidays.  They do it shamelessly, with kids and loved ones in their cars. And, where the phony and ineffective handheld-phone-bans exist, they blatantly engage in DWP in front of law enforcement officers. (see our prior post for more information)

Criminal defense lawyer and Simple Justice blawger Scott Greenfield might believe that some DWI laws go too far, but he is well aware of the importance of the anti-DWI movement and of the analogy to DWP.  In the post “the other drunk driver,”  he wrote last year: “The same people who will rail with inflammatory rhetoric at the evils of driving drunk will happily cruise in their SUV while talking non-stop on a cellphone.”  And, Scott explained back in February:

“First, there is no longer any question that cellphone use while driving is as bad as, if not worse, than drunk driving.  It is not merely benign conduct, but conduct that has the potential to kill.  Worse yet, it lacks the moral stigma of drunk driving, so that ordinary law-abiding people wouldn’t think twice about chatting away on the cellphone while behind the wheel.  It doesn’t make you a bad person.

“For some, the point can be quickly driven home on a policy basis by noting that there is no conversation that someone needs to have so desperately that is worth the life of my child.  Until recently, society survived without cellphones.  We were not on the verge of crumbling for lack of an opportunity to chat with a friend, or even a client.  Are cellphones convenient?  Absolutely.  Are they worth taking a life?  No.”

The f/k/a Gang keeps harping about the dangers of DWP, and the hypocrisy of politicians who pass laws making hands-free DWP legal.  See, the comprehensive post “California’s make-believe phone safety law” (June 30, 2008).  But, we have neither the focus nor the energy to make it our crusade.  DWP needs its own Doris Aiken.

In the blink of an eye, our nation went from having no cellphones to having a population that can’t live or drive without them.  Judging by their behavior, a majority of Americans sees no problem at all in turning their vehicles into giant, speeding desks and sofas — used for endless streams of distracting business and social “communication”.  And, worse, even when they admit the obvious added risk caused by DWP, they dismiss it as secondary to some presumed right to phone, and they give in to the irresponsible impulse to chat with whomever they choose, whenever they choose.

It’s almost too late.  We need a Doris Aiken to educate and embarrass the public and our so-called leaders about the folly of DWP.  We need to change hearts and minds, and create an anti-DWP stigma, the way RID and MADD did with drunk driving. It’s almost too late, but I bet Doris Aiken could do it.

.. .. ban DWI and DWP .. ..

p.s. You can pass on this post using the tiny URL: .

September 11, 2008

the Lipstick Lynch Mob and the Girl Who Cried Wolf

Filed under: viewpoint — David Giacalone @ 8:54 pm

Over the last twenty years, I’ve often professed and confessed that “the average woman is considerably more mature emotionally than the average male.”  The current campaign season has, however, reminded me of another point I frequently make: “politics will change you more than you’ll ever change politics.”  The confluence of the two maxims is on mind today, after seeing the silly firestorm over Barack Obama’s “lipstick on a pig” remark yesterday (e.g., npr links, and WashPost coverage), especially in the wake of the McCain wolf-pack ad, which tries to inoculate his vice presidential candidate from criticism by warning that Obama “will try to destroy” Sara Palin (see CNN coverage).  It has all led me to sadly conclude:

  • In the political realm, far too many women have let politics lower their EQ — and far too many political strategists and candidates of both genders are exploiting that fact. And,
  • As happens on many issues, as soon as a good man (especially a liberal) is accused of sexism for something he said, he waffles and either retracts the statement or tries to give it an innocent, innocuous spin — which allows the virus of false accusations to spread and the meaning of sexism to be distorted and co-opted as a political weapon.

Sexism — real sexism (see our post “trumping reality with the sexism card”) — is far too important a concept and serious a vice to be devalued in order to gain political advantage.

Despite considering myself a liberal, I’ve complained for years about the leftist and feminist habit of seeing sexism in far too many situations (e.g., here).  But, it’s clear that folks on the right are also going to milk the sexism cow for all its worth in Election 2008.  Just as women should have been insulted and felt diminished when Hillary Clinton and her supporters over-played the sexism card in the primaries (prior post), women — and men who believe in gender equality — should be insulted by the McCain campaign’s constant cry of sexism now that they are wooing Clinton voters and have a woman on their ticket.  Maureen Dowd got it right last week:

“Hillary cried sexism to cover up her incompetent management of her campaign, and now Republicans have picked up that trick. But when you use sexism as an across-the-board shield for any legitimate question, you only hurt women. And that’s just another splash of reality.”

As f/k/a said in 2006 about feminist neo-puritanism:

Being seen as thin-skinned, humorless proponents of iffy legal analysis and bad attitudes is scarcely the way to win over the hearts or the minds of those who might still want to perpetuate the unwarranted stereotypes.  Indeed, it might just lose you a few allies or make them wary to come to your assistance every time you “cry wolf.”   Even the most open-minded and fair people can find it rather difficult to think of whiners (and those who insist on special protection) as equals.

– beneath the fold, you’ll find much more, including  

  • Corralling the Lipstick Lynch Mob
  • Carly Fiorina Cries Wolf
  • a few lupine haiku


September 8, 2008

attacks on homeless hit home in Pontiac

Filed under: Haiku or Senryu,viewpoint — David Giacalone @ 6:48 pm

– self-portrait by Wilford “Frenchie” Hamilton (May 2008); via Oakland Press; full-color version below  –

school’s out
the homeless man
hides in a doorway

… by dagosan

It’s too bad Wilford Hamilton couldn’t make it to yesterday’s Villagers Outdoor Art Show here in the Stockade neighborhood of Schenectady, where a hundred regional artists exhibited their best work.  With his love of art, humor and people, the affable man from Pontiac, Michigan, known as “Frenchie” would surely have basked in our sunny, late-summer weather and made the day even brighter for the friendly crowd.  His travel budget would never have allowed the trip, but something more profound kept the homeless Frenchie from joining us: he died two weeks ago, after a few kids on a lark (or as a gang initiation) severely beat him. (see a news video from tv20Detroit, Aug. 26, 2008)  As The Oakland Press, which had employed him in its packaging department, reported:

“The 61-year-old was hospitalized and underwent brain surgery after a POH Regional Medical Center security guard found him on the ground, bleeding from the head Aug. 21 in an alley near the hospital’s day care facility.

“Three teenage boys — two 14-year-olds and a 15-year-old — are accused of attacking Hamilton and three others on separate days in the downtown area.”

update (Oct. 29, 2009): See “Mich. teen guilty in beating death of homeless man” (Associated Press, Oct. 29, 2009). Dontez Tillman and Thomas McCloud, both 15 years old, have been found guilty in Frenchie’s death and (unless pardoned by the Governor) will spend the rest of their lives in prison.

Frenchie didn’t merely miss our Stockade Art Show.  Researching this piece, I discovered a sad coincidence:  Wilford Hamilton died a week before the gallery MOCA DC opened its Homeless Art Project in cooperation with the National Coalition for the Homeless. The exhibit, which runs from September 5 to September 27, 2008, features “an extensive body of art depicting actual homeless Americans in their surroundings on the street. Other art, from homeless artists who reside on the streets or in homeless shelters within the city, will also be on display,” along with a variety of sketches of the homeless, essays and other items relevant to the issues of homelessness.  The Gallery and the Coalition say:

“The project has several objectives, chief of which is to highlight the plight of America’s growing homeless population.”

In addition to the show, artists affiliated with the gallery have committed to a post-exhibit project to provide art instruction to the homeless on an ongoing basis. If you’d like to see the Homeless Art exhibit, MOCA DC is located at 1054 31st St NW, Canal Square, in the heart of Georgetown, and is open Wed – Sat, 1 – 6 pm.

storm warning
the watercolorist works
in shades of grey

… by Tom Painting – The Heron’s Nest

Meanwhile, in Pontiac, there’s been an outpouring of affection and grief over the death of this gentle man “known for his friendliness and signature beret,” and a Michigan friend wrote last week to tell me about the story. For more press coverage see “Pontiac teens facing charges in killing: 4 people attacked, 1 man dead after spree, police say” (Free Press, Aug. 26, 2008); and “3 middle schoolers accused of killing, beating” (Associated Press/, 8/26/2008). [update (October 22, 2008): see “teens face life in fatal beating,” Detroit News, Oct. 16, 2008]

Shaun Byron of The Oakland Press has done several articles about Frenchie. In addition to two linked above, last Friday she wrote the touching “Friends of ‘Frenchie’ raise funds for funeral” (September 5, 2008). The one that should make us all come to attention, however, is the piece “Attacks on homeless rise: 2 Pontiac men among recent victims” (September 3, 2008).  You see, Frenchie was very much an individual, but his beating and death are far from unique.

against the tombstone
with the faded name
homeless man rests

………….. by George Swede – Almost Unseen (2000)

Over the past couple of years, Frenchie’s friends in Pontiac — like myself — probably heard about the rash of attacks on the homeless that has spread across our nation since the start of the Millennium.  We mostly clucked our tongues and went on with our lives, when we saw news reports such as these:

It took the violent, senseless death of a homeless person who had touched our lives in a positive way to make us pause and seriously consider the horror of gangs of juveniles targeting some of our nation’s most vulnerable people (who are often in poor health and by definition without a private sanctuary and a secure door to lock out danger).  Frenchie was no anonymous, throwaway person — not just a nuisance or the source of indifference, shame or fear, who we’d rather keep off our minds.  As the Oakland Press put it:

“His death saddened many people who knew him or called him friend.  Many people said they knew him as a harmless man and talented artist who had fallen on hard times and was living on the streets.”

“The death and hospitalization of two homeless men who were savagely beaten in downtown Pontiac has unnerved many who wonder what possible motive someone would have for the vicious attacks.”

Upon reflection, the people of Pontiac — and all of us — need to realize that “The slaying of 61-year-old Wilford ‘Frenchie’ Hamilton, as well as the attack [that same week on another] homeless man, could be an example of a chilling national trend of assaults on the homeless by young people.”  The readily-ignored statistics suddenly seem relevant to those who knew Frenchie.  For example, as the Oakland Press explained:

  • A 2006 report by the National Coalition for the Homeless found there were 142 attacks against homeless people that year. Of these assaults, 20 resulted in death. . . There were 60 such attacks reported in 1999, the year in which the coalition began to study the problem.
  • Overwhelmingly, 88 percent of the attackers were 25 or younger and 95 percent were male. No less than 68 percent of those accused and convicted in the attacks were between the ages of 13 and 19. And,
  • Assaults on the destitute also are occurring more frequently in smaller communities than the large cities on the East and West coasts, where they had been most common during the 1980s.

For the newest info and survey data from the National Coalition on the Homeless, see their Fact Sheet (June 2008).

Similar acts of violence have probably occured throughout human history, but the rapid rise of the phenomenon in our “civilized” nation calls for intelligent reflection and action. No one knows for sure why so many American kids are choosing to assault the homeless.  However, OP says that “state law enforcement agencies investigating other assaults on the homeless believe the attacks are spurred by parents’ negative views of the homeless, which are then passed on to their children.”  In addition, homeless advocates point to the popularity of “Bumfights,” a video series created in 2001 that features homeless people battering one another for money.  One online retailer of Bumfights Vol. 1 called it “The World’s Fastest Selling Independent DVD.”  NCH blames “negative stereotypes reinforced by the media and intolerant people.”

The Gang here at f/k/a urge all those who want to learn more about this scourge and possible solutions to read the Coalition’s latest report: Hate, Violence, and Death on Main Street USA: A Report on Hate Crimes And Violence Against People Experiencing Homelessness, 2007.  To start doing something about it, see the web page “Stop Hate-Motivated Violence Against Homeless People” from the Coalition.  You’ll find a Position Statement that says:

“It is time for us to demonstrate that we will not tolerate intimidation of our homeless neighbors. We must act now before the situation worsens. The solution is threefold – tracking the problem in cooperation with local law  enforcement, building education programs that prevent the problem before it occurs, and including homeless status in hate crimes statutes. We owe it to our homeless neighbors, many of whom have served their communities and their nation, to make their safety a priority.”

first frost
a homeless man appears
in the new development

. . . . . by Yu Chang, from Upstate Dim Sum

Of course, there are no easy solutions.  But we won’t find them without looking and making a commitment to act and advocate.  If you like your information in blog-post form, visit the 13th juror, by poverty lawyer and law professor Jacqueline Dowd.  She’s active in Project Homeless Connect and has been closely covering a homeless homicide case in Florida lately.

. . . This posting was inspired by Wilford “Frenchie” Hamilton, and the love and affection for him shown by his many friends and acquaintances.  I hope we’ll think of Frenchie to help counter negative stereotypes about the homeless and to help motivate meaningful action that will put an end to the trend that resulted in his meaningless death.  I sure hope Frenchie would have liked many of the poems I’ve gathered in his memory in this posting, by our Honored Guest Poets. (you’ll find more in our earlier post today “thinking about the homeless“)

p.s. We made a TinyURL to use if you want to share this posting:

update (Nov. 20, 2008): For more details about the life of Frenchie Hamilton, see “Family: Man’s death ends haunting past” (The Oakland Express, November 10, 2008), which is based on an interview with his sister-in-law, Laura Hamilton.

last call
the pitch black night
he staggers into

winter solstice
the holiday lights
in a skid row bar

two bits
the homeless man tips
an imaginary hat

two bits
the homeless man tips
an imaginary hat

………… by Ed Markowski

after the storm
he is rich in umbrellas–
the homeless man

… by Barry George – WHA; Point Judith Light (Fall 1998)

moving day–
warm rain
on cardboard

.. by Alice Frampton – New Resonance 3 & The Heron’s Nest (2002)

now with homeless eyes
I see it…
blossoming spring

in autumn wind
a homeless crow
is blown

…………. by Issa, translated by David G. Lanoue


bus station hobo—
four plastic seats
and a tabloid pillow

on each dawn-frosted bench—
a full sleeping bag

a young cop rousts
the trestle couple—
cooing pigeons

in my pupils—
the mattress
in the storefront window

snores from the dumpster
at Executive Suites

dreaming of Dickens
on an empty belly—
one more vagabond

– “The Unmade Bed,” a rengay by David Giacalone (#1) & CarrieAnn Thunell (#2), in Lynx XXII:3 (October 2007)

after the quake
a hobo
directing traffic

… by Michael Dylan Welch – from Open Window

homeless at Trailways
no ticket
or bed

… by dagosan

happy hour
the bartender cashes
my disability check

skid row
on every bar napkin
a light hearted joke

christmas eve
homeless men crouch
at the back of the manger

………… by Ed Markowski

– self-portrait by Wilford “Frenchie” Hamilton (May 2008); via Oakland Press

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