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What’s the Worst Thing That Can Happen When a Boy Plays With a Toy Gun?

If you watched any part of the recent 24-hour A Christmas Story marathon, you might think you know the answer. The classic holiday film features a white boy named Ralphie who desperately wants to find a Red Ryder Carbine Action 200-shot Range Model air rifle under the Christmas tree. Much to his dismay, everyone with whom he shares this heartfelt wish (his mother, his teacher, even a department store Santa) rejects the toy as too dangerous. “You’ll shoot your eye out!” they proclaim.

But the story of Tamir Rice tells us that the “worst thing” that can happen, actually, is being mistaken for a criminal who is brandishing a real gun, and being killed by police who shoot first and ask questions later.

Last week, a grand jury in Cleveland declined to press charges against the officer who shot and killed Tamir. Timothy J. McGinty, the prosecutor in the case, said the boy’s death was “horrible, unfortunate, and regrettable. But it was not, by the laws that bind us, a crime.”

Perhaps McGinty’s statement is actually the “worst thing,” for it did nothing to assure parents that any black boy playing with any toy gun couldn’t reasonably expect the same fatal outcome. He reported that the officer who shot Tamir had reason to fear for his life, implying that the fatal shooting was merely an unfortunate consequence of Tamir’s own actions. Actions identical to those of Ralphie in A Christmas Story. Each boy was playing with a toy.

Several recent news reports confirm that the worst consequence for any particular behavior may depend upon the skin color of the one doing the behaving.

Sandra Bland (African American) allegedly changed lanes without signaling, which didn’t result in anyone being harmed. She was arrested and jailed, then mysteriously ended up dead in her cell. The officers involved claim she killed herself, but her family doesn’t believe it. A grand jury declined to indict anyone.

Eric Garner (African American) allegedly sold individual cigarettes on the street, which didn’t result in anyone being harmed. A video recording clearly shows him being choked to death by a police officer and his death was ruled a homicide. Again, a grand jury declined to indict anyone.

Meanwhile, a white male named Ethan Couch drove drunk and killed four people, then pled guilty to four counts of manslaughter (Tamir Rice, Sandra Bland, and Eric Garner never went to court or entered pleas – they didn’t live long enough to do so). But Ethan was sentenced to 10 years probation and no jail time. Now that he’s been apprehended for apparently violating probation, maybe he’ll face real consequences. He will probably survive.

These news snippets are selective, but they highlight a painful truth that is undeniable to all but the most blind. While America has spent the last century desegregating our institutions, giving all Americans access to the same rights and privileges, the criminal justice system is a stubborn holdout and still has a long way to go. As long as it’s not working for each and every one of us, it’s not working at all.

With that in mind, what’s the worst that can happen when a boy plays with a toy gun? For now, unfortunately, that depends on the color of the boy’s skin. America can celebrate progress when a boy like Tamir wants to play with such a toy, and his mother’s only warning is “You’ll shoot your eye out!”

Laura posing with a friend while training on Heartbreak Hill

Marathon Tips From the Masses

On November 11, 2013, I was accepted as a member of the Trinity Boston Foundation Marathon Team.  On November 12, I began interrogating every marathoner I knew.  “Give me a running tip.” “What’s the one thing you wish someone had told you when you were training?” “What’s the best advice you ever got?”

As I quickly discovered, people who are crazy enough to run marathons are also incredibly generous about guiding novice runners like me.  I made my goals clear upfront: I want to stay healthy, I want to finish the whole 26.2 miles (preferably while remaining vertical), and I don’t want to come in last. Thanks to the following tips, I think I’ll be three for three on April 21.

JeffGordonWinner1. Just say no to all the free stuff.  I expect many temptations at the pre-race expo, where samples of sports drinks, gel packs, and energy bars will be thrust at me. I pledge to resist the siren call of free stuff. According to my sources, trying ANYTHING new on race day is as stupid as Jeff Gordon deciding moments before the Daytona 500* to swap out his Chevy for a Prius. I heard horror stories of well-intentioned spectators giving runners free bananas which are greedily consumed at mile 18 but make an unwelcome reappearance at mile 20.  No, thanks.

2. Stretch like Elastigirl.  Channel her stretchiness because what the heck – you’re already wearing tights.  Stretch even when you don’t feel like it.  Even when you’re busy. Even when your moans and groans make the rest of your family wonder out loud why you’re even doing this if it makes you so unhappy! (Answer: because you’re crazy).

3. Never skip recovery days. Most marathon training plans include a couple of recovery days each week, and those can be hard to stick to when you’re feeling invincible (which is how I feel for that brief moment when the soreness from my last run wears off but before I remember that hundreds of runners will cross the finish line before I pass the half-way mark). Running is like fine wine: more is not always better.

Marathon runners4. Don’t get your feet wet. It’s a rookie mistake to run through the cool spray of hoses on a hot marathon day.  Getting soaked while running a race is a temporary pleasure you’ll soon regret, because you just created a blister factory in your shoes.

5. Wear wool socks. Speaking of what’s in your shoes, it turns out the cotton athletic socks I’ve been wearing my whole life are all wrong for distance running. I balked at spending $16 for a pair of SmartWool socks, but now admit they have kind of changed my life. Everyone in my family is getting them for Christmas next year.

6. Body Glide is the best product ever invented.  I’ve been running casually for over 25 years and never had a problem with chaffing (what a horrible word – I will never again be able to say “chaffing dish**” without cringing).  Somehow, repetitive motions that don’t bother you at all for the first hour of running can become downright painful by the third hour. I would shower with Body Glide if it came in a liquid form. Whoever invented it deserves a lifetime supply of SmartWool socks.

ChocolateMilkforAthletes7. Chocolate milk makes an excellent recovery drink. I heard this particular gem again and again and was glad to try it. To me, Gatorade is something you dump on a football coach after a big victory or give to kids who can’t stop puking. Chocolate milk is a happy drink and you can drink it straight from the little cardboard cartons.  Bliss.

8. Eat carbs with reckless abandon.  You know what tastes great with chocolate milk?  Bread, bagels, pasta, rice, and more pasta. Muscles need carbs for energy – not protein, not fat, and certainly not kale.  This is my favorite piece of advice ever.  I might even stick with it after the marathon.

9. Run the mile you’re in. Most running advice pertains to what’s happening below the neck, but this one is all mental. Instead of letting your mind perform a continuous loop of depressing calculations (“2 miles down, only 24.2 miles to go!”), be present in each mile. If mile 6 feels yucky, hold out hope for mile 8. When mile 13 kicks your ass, do not fret about half-way points or notice the inviting patch of grass beckoning you to lie down for just a few minutes. Run one more mile.  And then run one more.  At mile 25, you are allowed to do the math.


10. Wear your name. Let the marathon crowds be your Twelfth Man. My name will be plastered across my front and back (not down your arm with a Sharpie, because I’m told that will sweat off by mile 7).  I plan to run this marathon to a soundtrack of “Go, Laura!” “Keep it up, Laura!” “Looking good, Laura!” (I didn’t say the Twelfth Man would always tell the truth – sometimes motivation comes in the form a little white lie).

When I cross the finish line one month from today (hopefully uninjured, vertical, and NOT last), I’ll have the masses to thank.  To those who gave me this advice, I am incredibly grateful.  To those who will come out to watch the Boston Marathon, I can’t wait to see you along the course. I hope you’ll give me a high five, or a cool drink, or encouraging words.

But please – no bananas.

*For my Boston readers: “NASCAR” is a popular sporting event in the southern United States in which brave men (and a few very brave women) see how many advertisements they can fit on an average sized automobile, and then how fast that automobile can go around and around for as long as you still have beer in your RV.

**For my Boston readers: a “chaffing dish” is what holds the hot crab dip at a bridal shower luncheon or a nice cocktail party in a Southern home.  It’ll be next to the biscuits.  At a NASCAR event, a disposable foil pan and a can of Sterno may masquerade as a “chaffing dish” for the melted Velveeta (served with Ritz crackers).

nascar 2

Does the “War on Poverty” Have An Exit Strategy?

Thanks to a military-like bombardment of media stories about the War on Poverty, I am 110% aware that we just marked 50 years since President Lyndon Johnson fired the first shot in this conflict, during his State of Union address on January 8, 1964.

Public reaction to this half-century milestone has been mixed. called the war “a total failure,” while Fox News declared that “victory is nowhere in sight.”

New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof , however, thinks we’re making progress.

The Huffington Post lauded the programs and services created by Johnson’s Office of Economic Opportunity (OEO) and offered the early declining poverty rates from 1964 (19%) to 1973 (10.1%) as proof that we were in fact winning.

Then there’s U.S. Congressman Danny K. Davis.  The legislator announced on his website that he is “celebrating” this 50th anniversary, which seems to me an odd choice of words but it’s been brain-numbingly cold in his home district this week so I’ll assume he missed the last few words in the official dictionary definition (“To observe a day or event with respect, festivity, or rejoicing.”).   

Whatever your political inclinations and subsequent interpretation of the facts, no one pretends the war is over.  Many of the major weapons in this conflict (such as Head Start, Medicare, and Job Corps) are still around, and probably will be for the next 50 years.

Do we even have an exit strategy?

The answer is no, and to think one exists is naively optimistic.

America is a pretty special country, but to believe we could eliminate poverty was pretty audacious.  We picked capitalism as our economic system, and capitalism creates winners and losers.  It doesn’t claim to lift all boats.

What about other options? Communism looked great on paper but in reality, its approach to poverty was like that of a fussy child toward his vegetables: spread it around enough so no one really notices that it’s all still there. I will not eat Socialism would never work in the U.S. because we like our personal stuff too much – where else could a show like Hoarders run for six seasons?

I think we’re stuck with poverty for the long haul.  Instead of searching for an elusive exit strategy (or claiming victory or defeat), we should approach the engagement more like a peacekeeping mission.  It’s time to put down our weapons, roll up our sleeves, and get to work.  We can live with poverty if we do a few things right.

Soup-Kitchens-During-The-Great-DepressionShore up that safety net.

It’s not ideal to live hand-to-mouth, to rely on subsidized housing, or to wear second-hand clothes.  But people can live with that.  They can’t live with hunger, exposure, or untreated diseases.  A civilized society needs to make the basics accessible.  Period.


Think of the children.

Poverty can’t be permanent.  Kids with very limited means need to be able to reach the rungs of the ladder that will allow them to climb out of poverty.  Day care, education, recreation, mentoring, enrichment – our poor kids deserve the very best we have to offer so they won’t grow up to be poor.war-on-poverty

Get rid of poverty clusters.

If you’re poor, you need social, professional, and spiritual connections to raise yourself. And yet most poor people live in neighborhoods full of other poor people.  They only know other poor people, and their kids go to school with mostly poor kids.  It’s a depressing geographic picture and not easy to fix, but we should all be trying.  And on that note…

Try more stuff.

sole train 2We haven’t figured out how to successfully raise people out of poverty, so there is endless opportunity to experiment.  The answer probably lies in a thousand small things rather than one big thing…so let’s try something new every day (internships, counseling, early intervention, special education, etc.) and grow the portfolio of useful tools.

Celebrate generosity and innovation.

Poverty of wallet doesn’t mean poverty of spirit.  What can we learn from the poor who are winning their personal battles and finding opportunity and success?  What about those families who work together to realize their shared dreams?  Family Independence Initiative gets this and the philosophy can’t grow fast enough.

The poor will always be with us. Fifty years from now, I hope we’re not still pointing fingers at each other, but rather opening our helping hands towards those in need.


The Truth About Non-Essential Employees

One of my favorite radio programs put a caller on-air who had this to say about the current government shutdown: “So if the government can function without non-essential employees, why are they on the payroll to begin with?”

This is but one of many, MANY examples of how seemingly normal Americans (even those with the wherewithal to listen to NPR and call in to a show with comments) are surprisingly, depressingly stupid.  Exhibit A is Jimmy Kimmel’s recent segment interviewing people on the streets of Los Angeles to gauge their support for Obamacare or the Affordable Care Act (spoiler alert: Obamacare and the Affordable Care Act are the same thing, which none of the respondents knew despite having strong opinions about which was better and why).

“Non-essential” is an unfortunate and misleading description of employees whose temporary absence from work doesn’t result in immediate chaos or danger.  I got the inside scoop the shutdown from a friend of mine who is a scientist at the National Institutes of Health.  Technically, she’s non-essential.


While she and her PhD colleagues sit at home catching up on crossword puzzles and laundry, essential employees like laboratory technicians are making sure millions of dollars and years of research aren’t wasted.  They “feed cell lines” (I’m not a scientist so I imagine them dropping little mini sandwiches into test tubes, but the reality is probably somewhat different).  They take care of the mice.  They maintain all the living, evolving aspects of the lab until the scientists come back.

No actual science is happening, despite the dedicated work of the essential employees.  Our tax dollars are still being spent, but they are only maintaining a massive, complex operation that’s accomplishing nothing.

Sound familiar, Congress? (By the way, they’ve classified themselves as “essential.”)

But I digress.  Back to who’s essential and who’s not – this question comes down to a matter of perspective and timing.

Let’s use McDonald’s as an example.  If that company faced a shutdown, which employees would be essential?


For the first 8 hours or so, the cooks and cashiers matter most.  Without them, McDonald’s can’t deliver its most basic services.  The entire corporate office could probably go dark for a few hours and nobody in the drive-through line would be the wiser.  Does that mean the suits in Oak Brook, Illinois are non-essential?

Not exactly.

Eventually the stores would run out ketchup and napkins, and somebody in procurement would need to order more.  The logistics team would have to make sure milk was delivered.  Someone in the legal department would have to respond to complaints about too-hot coffee. And so on.

Likewise in the NIH.  The “essential” employees may be enough for now, but the entire mission of the organization has been put on hold.  What’s essential in the short term is not the same as what’s essential in the long term.

Perhaps this concept is too challenging for some Americans to grasp.  If so, it joins a long list of other thought nuggets that seem obvious to me but are far from universal (climate change is a thing, evolution is established science, what “fair and balanced” actually means).

Today’s “non-essential” employees become more essential by the day, as federal government agencies around the country tread water.  I want the NIH to fund important scientific research and find cures for diseases. I don’t want it to be an expensive hotel for mice.

As a rule, all employees are essential eventually.

So to the caller who thought non-essential employees are non-essential forever – I hope we can at least agree that as this shutdown continues, two things are clear:

First, Congress classified itself incorrectly.

Second, they may be the exception to the rule.

 house chamber