Monday, June 01, 2015

Big Sign that I've Been Into the Belly of the Beast, or, A Visit to the Hummingbirds' Nest

When asked to comment on being married to a Bryn Mawr woman, E.B. White observed nearly 60 years ago that the "sensations of a Bryn Mawr husband are by their very nature private." If prudent, I would agree, but as E.B. also wrote, "a prudent male wouldn’t have married a Bryn Mawr girl in the first place."

So I am compelled to share some thoughts as a thank you to my lovely wife and her fellow Mawrtyrs for the glimpse this weekend at their experience, at the bolt of fabric unfurling the cloth from which they're all cut. I now know my wife—a woman I know better than any other human on the planet—even better, and I feel as though I've known her Bryn Mawr classmates for years.

Allow me to turn again to E.B. as a jumping-off point; indulge me a couple excerpts from his 1956 essay, "Call Me Ishmael: Or, How I Feel About Being Married to a Bryn Mawr Graduate" (Bryn Mawr Alumnae Bulletin, Summer 1956):

What is there about these women that makes them so dangerous, so tempting? Why, it is Bryn Mawr. As they grow in years, they grow in light. As their minds and hearts expand, their deeds become more formidable, their connections more significant, their husbands more startled and delighted. I gazed on Pembroke West only once in my life, but I knew instinctively that I was looking at a pile that was to touch me far more deeply than the Taj Mahal or the George Washington Bridge.
. . .
You ask me how I feel to have undertaken this union. I feel fine. But I have not recovered from my initial surprise, nor have I found any explanation for my undeserved good fortune. I once held a live hummingbird in my hand. I once married a Bryn Mawr girl. To a large extent they are twin experiences.

This weekend, I visited Bryn Mawr's campus—the nest, the home of the hummingbirds—with the chicks all grown come back, reunited. They'd returned not to roost, although some perhaps had, or will, but rather to buzz their hummingbird buzz. I've held the hummingbird in my hands. I married the Bryn Mawr girl. Every day, she constantly startles and delights. But before Saturday, I'd never visited the nest, never seen where these hummingbirds buzz together. I'm certain they all buzzed before they arrived at Bryn Mawr, and I've seen mine buzz daily for a decade since she spread her wings. But back at Bryn Mawr, they buzz all at once, and there they learned their buzz changes the world.

In the Rockefeller living room—yes, living room, so very Hogwarts, as is fitting for a campus that not only recalls the fictional school but hums with a certain magic all its own—they reconnected and recollected. Amidst a sea of friends and memories, family all, out of the blue, over the buzz suddenly sounds a sprinkling of brightly cheered ancient Greek phrases, ending in the oft-echoed "Bryn Mawr, Bryn Mawr, Bryn Mawr!" Perplexing yet pleasing to the unfamiliar ear, uniting and uplifting to the Mawrtyrs, who even after years away still have years of practice.

In the early afternoon, after quieter lunch conversations concluded, with plates pushed aside and ice cream sandwiches eaten, the din rose again to a crescendo. And my light bulb blinked on: this din is no mere ruckus but rather hundreds of lovely, independent hummingbirds, returned to the nest from across the ages, 5, 10, 70 years on, sharing with one another, and their lucky guests, how they're changing the world day by day. Or rather, to borrow a phrase from Anne Lamott, bird by bird. And the hummingbirds' buzz builds. And builds. And builds.

Buzz on Mawrtyrs, buzz on. Holler when you need a hand from the husbands (and wives). Until then, we Bryn Mawr spouses will enjoy being always startled and delighted.

Monday, November 01, 2010

Big Sign That You Should Get Out Your Vote!

NEW YORK, Nov. 1 — Friends and fellow citizens, please vote tomorrow, Tues., Nov. 2, 2010. It's important, I promise.

Check your registration and polling place here:

Cast your ballot.

Report any problems by calling 866-OUR-VOTE or at or via Twitter using hashtags #EP[your state]-ZIP Code (e.g., for Times Square, Manhattan, New York #EPNY-10036] and #EP2010 (instructions here:

Polls in New York State are open from 6:00 a.m. to 9:00 p.m.

Post your 2010 voting stories in the comments.

Monday, August 30, 2010

Big Apple Musing: Big Sign that it's a Terrible Day for a Bike Ride (TERRIBLE!)

NEW YORK, Aug. 29 — A scene (and yes, he was making a scene) in Riverside Park, West 91st Street and Riverside Drive, 3:40 p.m.

Young girl, maybe 10 years old, rides a bike south on the park-side sidewalk of Riverside Drive, 10 or 15 yards ahead of a mother and son, also with bikes. They’re walking, not riding. Girl is maybe the daughter/sister. Her eagerness for a ride—on her bike and out in front—plus a lack of any other supervision in sight, says yes, definitely. This is Eager Sister’s ride.

But her brother is protesting.

“This was a terrible idea! A TERRIBLE! IDEA!” he wails, bringing up the rear, just behind Mom. Mom ignores the rant as tears stream down his freckled face, red hair matted under a blue bike helmet.

“Do you want to ride now?” Mom asks, not even a whisp of frustration in her tone. Clearly, this behavior is nothing unusual from her baby boy, Angry the Red.

“NO!!!” Angry retorts, drawing out the “oh” sound so it’s crystal clear to Mom that riding would only make things worse. Why in the world, his tone asks, would an 8-year-old boy want to ride a bike when he could be inside playing Wii?

“It’s TOO”—sob—“HOT!”—sob—“for a bike ride! It was a terrible, TERRIBLE! idea to go for a bike ride TODAAAAYYYY!”

It must have been Eager Sister’s idea. No way Angry’s buying what she’s selling. Ninety degrees, breezy, cloudless sky of brilliant Columbia blue. End of summer perfection on the Upper West Side.

But without a doubt, a terrible, TERRIBLE! day for a bike ride.

Friday, October 16, 2009

Are Torturers Above the Law? Or Can They Be Sued?

By Brendon Fleming

[Cross-posted from Our Rights, Our Future, the blog of the National Campaign to Restore Civil Rights]

TortureNearly 20 years ago, Ali Samantar left his native Somalia, then a country tumbling deeper and deeper into chaos. After years as a general in the Somali army, as defense minister, and finally as prime minister, Samantar fled Somalia and eventually settled in Virginia. His past, however, eventually found him in the United States.

In 2004, a group of Somalis sued Samantar in federal court in Virginia, alleging that Somali agents under Samantar’s control had tortured them and committed other human rights abuses against them in the 1980s and early 1990s, before Samantar fled the country. Those suing wanted to see Samantar held responsible for the torture and abuses, asking he pay them monetary damages.

After five years winding its way through the federal courts, the U.S. Supreme Court will now hear the case. At the core of Samantar v. Yousuf, is the issue whether or not Samantar is immune, as a former official of a foreign government, from being sued in the United States for alleged human rights abuses that occurred on his watch in Somalia in the 1980s. The suit claims Samantar and those in his command were responsible for killings, rapes, and torture—including waterboarding.

The plaintiffs, five Somali survivors of torture, sued Samantar under the Alien Tort Statute and the Torture Victim Protection Act. The Alien Tort Statute (ATS), a federal law that has been on the books since 1789, allows non-citizens to sue their abusers in federal court for human rights abuses that violate international law. The Torture Victim Protection Act of 1991 (TVPA) allows victims of torture carried out by agents of a non-U.S. government to sue their torturers for monetary damages in federal court. The ATS and the TVPA are doors into U.S. courts for victims of torture and human rights abuses suffered abroad, at the hands of despots and tyrants. The laws allow a day in court for victims who might otherwise never have one in the United States, in their home countries, or anywhere else.

But the Supreme Court could close those doors, at least to some plaintiffs, with this case, depending on its reading of the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act (FSIA). The FSIA is a law that governs when and how foreign countries may be sued in American courts. FSIA makes foreign countries immune from certain lawsuits. In this case, the Court will decide whether the ATS or TVPA allow lawsuits against foreign officials—individuals with state power, rather than merely a state itself—for alleged human rights abuses committed in their official capacity. Put another way, the Court will decide whether FSIA immunity extends to individuals acting as officials for foreign governments, including former officials, or whether it only immunizes foreign states themselves and their government agencies.

The Supreme Court must decide which is right: allowing the case against Samantar to proceed under the ATS and TVPA, thereby giving the victims of alleged torture their day in court, or using a federal law that was designed to facilitate diplomacy by protecting foreign governments instead to protect an alleged torturer and perpetrator of vast human rights abuses.

The ATS and the TVPA are important because they are an acknowledgment by the United States of the existence and enforceability of international human rights law. They recognize that some abuses are so flagrant that they violate the norms and rules accepted by the international community as the law of nations—international law. Allowing a suit such as this one, against Samantar, would be a significant step forward for the international rule of law—a resounding statement that individuals who torture for their governments or take official action that violates international human rights norms cannot hide behind their government’s immunity.

If the Supreme Court allows the case to proceed, a lower federal court could then determine that Samantar is liable for the alleged abuses, an outcome that the plaintiffs and many Somalis would no doubt applaud. But a court could instead, based on testimony and evidence, find him not liable, which would likely disappoint many who already believe Samantar is responsible for the abuses. As important as the outcome of the case is, it is equally important to allow the court to hear the case through to completion, without cloaking it with official immunity and stopping it in its tracks.

Somalia has been without a stable functioning government since 1991, when its government collapsed and Samantar fled. Regardless, U.S. courts can and should still provide a day in court for these Somali survivors.

(Photo by Javier Kohen.)

Permalink from Our Rights, Our Future.

Saturday, August 29, 2009

Remembering Sen. Ted Kennedy: Big Sign that friendship and political civility help us all

ROCHESTER, N.Y., Aug. 29 — As the dignitaries, friends, and Kennedy family members gathered today in Boston for the funeral mass of Sen. Ted Kennedy, the liberal lion of the U.S. Senate who died this week, CNN video from Our Lady of Perpetual Help Basilica, prior to the service, reminded the world of what may have been Sen. Kennedy’s greatest quality, not only as a legislator, but as a man: he was a friend.

The scene, as shown through CNN’s camera lenses:

In an empty pew almost an hour before the service, Senate rivals Sen. Chris Dodd, the Democrat from Connecticut, and Sen. John McCain, the Republican from Arizona, deep in discussion, smiles and camaraderie broadcast to the world.

As the service draws nearer, Vice President Joe Biden turns around in his seat, chatting to a smiling former President George W. Bush. Moments later, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and former President Bill Clinton sit down beside Bush and his wife, former First Lady Laura Bush. The shot cuts away to the arrival of President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama, and then back to Hillary and W., turned toward one another, all smiles, chatting away.

The leaders gathered in Boston are, of course, some of the most partisan players in modern American democracy, and Sen. Kennedy long held a place at the same table. The politics of healthcare reform have seized the summer, and they will seek out September, but today, the politicos and partisans pause, remembering and sharing the friendship and civility that Sen. Kennedy brought to the issues, along with his passion.

Coverage throughout the week has noted repeatedly how Sen. Kennedy touched so many lives through his legislation and through his willingness to reach out — to his Senate colleagues across the aisle, to his constituents and average Americans, and even to his enemies.

He was a masterful legislator and politician in large part because he liked and respected his colleagues, regardless of whether they shared his ideology and convictions. Consequently, his fellow senators, the rest of the Washington elite, and many (if not most) Americans liked and respected him, even when they disagreed with him.

Such humanity is sadly too often missing now from the Senate and our harsh, hard-edged politics. But today in Boston, friendship, or at least civility, and a great love for Teddy, rules the day, and I pray that it continues upon the political scene’s return to Washington.

As we go forward, let Teddy’s memory guide our leaders toward legislation to complete what he called the cause of his life, healthcare for all, and other critical legislation, using his lessons of friendship and civility, not as a crutch, but as an inspiration for and engine to drive reform and recognize our collective humanity.

We miss you, Teddy. May you rest in peace.