You can read their thoughts on the Non Fiction Author Association website.
You can read their thoughts on the Non Fiction Author Association website.
Both sides of the argument make strong points. By going to Cuba he helps normalize relations, which can lead to the ability of the US to have more influence on Cuba. On the other hand, by going to Cuba he does give some legitimacy to the Castro regime, with its horrific record on human rights. What to do do? As a former law professor would often say, pretending to pull out his few remaining hairs, “Gawd these are tough issues!”
Yes, I think President Obama was right. To paraphrase the president’s line, if you’re doing something for 50 years and it still isn’t working, what makes you think continuing that policy will accomplish anything? At least going to Cuba is “giving peace a chance,” even if does lend legitimacy to Raul Castro and company for the short term.
I’m assuming Fidel is near death. And Raul is no spring chicken. There will be replacements in the next few years. Yes, those replacements will have been previously selected and are unlikely to be advocating any changes in Cuba’s human rights policies. But they will be new people in new circumstances and US policies may be able to affect them, even it is in the unfortunate (for this question) Spanish phrase, “poco a poco,” little by little.
And look at what actually happened. Raul Castro said, “show me the names!” Unfortunately the reporters weren’t prepared for that. But they’ll be back. And lists of names will be widely publicized. And the Cuban people saw President speak for human rights right in Raul’s face. Raul Castro isn’t going to release human rights prisoners, or change government tactics, immediately. But the duplicity of his stance will be obvious and will inexorably become a topic of conversation in Cuba, a conversation heaping more sarcasm and disgust on the regime.
I salute President Obama while recognizing human rights workers, and all of us, must keep up the pressure on Cuba.
Elsewhere on this website, you’ll find a link to my interview with Jennifer J. Rose, who runs the “Red Shoes Are Better Than Bacon” blog. It turns out that Jennifer is also a former lawyer, which explains many of her perceptive questions about leaving, and coming back to, the practice of law. She also had other perceptive questions about the book. Jennifer’s name seemed familiar and I learned that she was the editor of a legal journal I read when I was practicing law. Small world. And now she herself has left the practice of law and she’s living in Mexico! I thought you might be interested in seeing the interview here.
1. It would be too easy to reflect on how law school prepared you to do human rights work as a missioner. How did practicing law prepare you for this experience?
You’re right—law practice, as opposed to law school, was what really prepared me for human rights work. But the answer goes back to law school. At first, I had no desire to be a practicing lawyer. Before law school, I’d been a social worker and mental health administrator and saw myself getting a law degree and then going to a policy role in either a state government or the federal government, such as a Department of Mental Health. But when I took Evidence in law school, our excellent professor really made everything come alive. He kept saying: “You’re the lawyer. How are you going to make your case?” The more he focused on the practicalities of being an advocate, the more I began thinking, Hey, I really like this stuff. I want to be a trial lawyer.
Then, when I actually was a lawyer, I was always struggling with that same question—how am I going to prove up my case? I learned to focus on the building blocks of case preparation and the many traps for the unwary. It so happened I had some early controversial cases. One was pro bono for a whistleblower who was fired by a city government after challenging the unfair way a city was running its parole and probations programs. I could see very quickly the case wouldn’t be won on “legal” reasons—I had to make the commissioners mad about what the administrator had done to my client after the extraordinary things she had done for the city. Later, I heard an experienced litigator say it more precisely: “You have to build up enough facts to piss off a judge!” All of that led to my focus on developing a case based on real-life outrage (or at least real life understanding) but, of course, with solid legal theory behind it.
In the big case in my book, against Victor, our agency’s Peruvian attorney, I couldn’t be an attorney for Victor as I wasn’t licensed to practice law in Peru. But that didn’t bother me because I knew we had to build a public relations case that would put pressure on the local and national prosecutors who were going after Victor. I focused on working with human rights organizations around the world, explaining why the case was an effort to stop legitimate human rights legal advocacy and asking the organizations to pressure the Peruvian government to drop its case. At the same time, I had to be careful not to have the organizations go too far. The Peruvian president at the time, Alberto Fujimori, basically had declared himself dictator and had rammed through his hand-picked Congress a wildly overbroad “assisting and abetting terrorism” law. The law was blatantly unconstitutional in the opinion of all the Peruvian lawyers I knew who’d studied it. Yet I knew that if the human rights agencies argued that point, it would just make the prosecutors defensive and might make them feel they had to go forward to show they weren’t anti-Fujimori. So I asked them to focus on the specific facts in the case that made the prosecution improper and not on the numerous defects of the new anti-terrorism law.
2. You went back to practicing law, first with legal aid, and then back to BigLaw, representing hospitals and health care providers, pursuing Medicare/Medicaid reimbursement appeals, performing internal fraud and abuse investigations, and representing professionals whose licenses were at risk. What did your sojourn in human rights bring to what some might call going over to the Dark Side?
Let me tell you a little about my background. I was never a careerist determined to work at a big law firm, say like the take-no-prisoners firms shown in the movies The Verdict and A Civil Action. There really are litigators who just want to strap on the jackboots and fight it out, regardless of the issues, but that’s not me. I just happened to stumble into a niche in which I could represent clients—in this case hospitals and health care professionals—against the overwhelming might of the federal and state governments. And I found I could be successful. In my case that went to the US Supreme Court, there were two of us attorneys for the hospital against more than twenty different attorneys for the US government! My dad always told me—“You always root for the underdog,” not as a compliment, and it’s true. I always wanted to fight against injustice and that has been the defining characteristic of my career.
After law school and a judicial clerkship, I actually would have liked to be a trial attorney for the Justice Department as long as I wouldn’t have to work on politically objectionable (to me) cases and if I could’ve made enough money to pay off my student debts. But you don’t get to choose your cases and I couldn’t have afforded it unless I lived somewhere with several roommates, which by then I was too old for. I wanted to develop solid legal skills and I went with the firm that offered the best training program. Yes, it was a big-name firm but here were all these newly minted attorneys coming in buying their new BMWs and renting fancy apartments while I was driving a ten year old VW beetle and renting a modest apartment. I paid my debts and saved for a down payment for a house, which took many years. But I was proud that I never sold out. I never represented employers against employees (or anybody against “the little guy”), I never represented the tobacco companies (and my firm had numerous opportunities for advancement if you did that) and I never represented causes I didn’t believe in. If I thought a case was morally wrong, I either bowed out or, later when I was a partner, actually told the client why I couldn’t do what they wanted, losing an important client along the way. I was lucky in that no one ever pressured me to work for a client or cause I objected to.
After my human rights work in Peru, I knew I wouldn’t be able to get a job in my former specialization—because I had no “book of business” to deliver to a firm—and I did work for legal aid, which I generally enjoyed. But there were lots of internal politics and bureaucratic hassles. It just so happened that a former client tracked me down and asked me to represent his hospital system in disputes with the government. That brought me back into private practice (a mid-size firm, not really BigLaw) but not at all to the Dark Side. I’m not a right-winger but I do have strong feelings about the government abusing its authority. I even had to explain to a bureaucrat once why he couldn’t just do anything he wanted and why de had to follow “due process of law.” I had to explain that was an important part of our Constitution. His bosses had never explained that!
As you’ll see in my book, I couldn’t really get that many human rights cases in Peru because the agency administrator never really wanted me to come to her agency, even though our Peruvian attorney really supported me. That never was an issue in private practice. The big issue in private practice is, how much money did you bring in the door, not even, how good a lawyer are you. I don’t defend that at all. I think the private practice of law has lost its moorings and it really isn’t a profession (or, as they said in the old days, a “learned profession”) any more. But going back into private practice was so freeing, so exhilarating after all the internal problems at my human rights agency and then at legal aid. I could just concentrate on my cases and clients and I loved doing that, although I quickly reverted back to my workaholic ways.
3. You battled The Shining Path, the Fujimori Administration, the Peruvian Army, and the Catholic Church. Let’s not talk about how all of these experiences made you a better person. What did these experiences do to make you a better and more effective lawyer?
In Peru, I used my legal skills in non-courtroom settings, which forced me to combine legal skills with human relations skills. Before going to Peru, for numerous years I was immersed in the world of law, as a law student, as a clerk for a judge, and as a practicing lawyer. I tried to keep myself grounded by doing pro bono work, by getting involved in politics, and by still being a Grateful Dead fan. But little by little you become immersed in the world of law and most of your friends are in that world also. When I joined a mission program to do human rights work, I learned by accident that people who didn’t even know me were threatened by me because I was “a lawyer”—spoken like it was a dirty word. What? Threatened by little ol me? That had never occurred to me.
I’ve always had sort of an inferiority complex. As a lawyer I can be tough and aggressive. But when it’s “just me,” I tend to be shy and retiring. When I saw there was this reaction against me, this unknown person, I became even more shy and retiring, just to make sure that no one was threatened by me. In hindsight this may have been ineffective by keeping people from getting to know me, the real me. So after all these battles you mention, when I came back I tried to make a point of not being threatening to people but at the same time of trying to reveal myself more. I also tried to engage more with my law firm, joining committees, that type of thing. Marketing is a big thing with private firms and I think my focus on being more engaging may have helped me be more effective in marketing.
Strictly in terms of legal cases, I have to say my Peru experience didn’t help that much as I wasn’t “practicing law” there. But I knew that going in, so it didn’t come as a surprise. The big thing I noticed back in practice was that opposing attorneys seemed so personally hostile, as opposed to the professionalism I’d usually encountered before. Maybe that hostility was there before and I just never noticed it, as fish don’t notice the water. Or maybe it was a sign of changing times. But after a while it became so annoying, dealing with rudeness, sarcasm, especially, but not always, among younger lawyers. What was really frustrating was seeing attorneys lie and cheat, which I hadn’t seen before. Not saying it never happened but I just had never seen it. I tend to attribute this to the increasing focus by firms solely on “billable hours” as opposed to professional skills, leading to a lack of standards, a lack of ethics, and a “get away with whatever you can” mentality.
4. I don’t think I’ve ever met a lawyer who has hit the 10-year mark who hasn’t wanted to get out, if only for a respite. Those I’ve known who’ve gone off to do volunteer work seem to drop off the face of the earth. What advice do you have for those contemplating following in your footsteps?
That’s a big one. There are so many different angles. First, there are lots of practical considerations, especially money. You’ll have to build up a nest egg to cover your US expenses that don’t stop when you go overseas. (If you own a house, for example, as I did). And then you’ll need money for your re-entry time—which might be long—between when you come back and when you get a job. As well as extra expenses that your small personal allowance from your volunteer organization probably won’t cover. For example, I wanted to send out a newsletter and had to dig into my savings for the related expenses. (Actually, now in internet days, that would be a lot easier.)
Examine your motivations. There’s nothing wrong with having mixed motives—I think we all do—but it’s important to be aware of them. Do you really need to live overseas or can you find other things to do living in the US, where you know the situation and the language? There are so many little things that may become big things because we just don’t understand the culture.
Specifically for lawyers, we know what “due diligence” means—checking things out in detail. Inquire, in detail, about everything. The training program. What happens if you’re assigned somewhere you don’t want to go, or that doesn’t want you. Even in nonprofit and religious organizations, there can be many turf battles and you may unexpectedly be put right in the middle of someone’s turf.
Again for lawyers, question people in the organization very specifically on whether the organization has had lawyers before, how many, what did they do, and, as discussed above, whether people might be threatened just by someone being a lawyer. And, of course, not stop there. Try to contact former volunteers, especially lawyers and see if they’ll talk candidly about their experiences.
For non-lawyers, I have the same advice except, of course, not focusing on lawyers who have been volunteers. In an ideal world, I’d encourage asking for a specific written description of what the organization envisions as your job duties and negotiating that description to be as specific as possible. Realistically, however, most human rights or other organizations that use volunteers will be reluctant to give such a description. Most of the time, they just don’t know. So, the bottom line is what Joseph Campbell said: “Follow your bliss.” Do your due diligence as well as you can, knowing that what happens later may turn out to be a crapshoot. That, after all, is the way of all life.
Finally, be open to the unexpected. Maybe you’ll decide to live there permanently. Unexpected opportunities may arise. Or maybe you’ll decide this just isn’t for you. Who knows? Again, isn’t that the way of all life?
5. You’ve obviously transitioned from human rights back to life as a practicing, now retired, lawyer in Sacramento. What stumbling blocks did you encounter upon your return? What would you have done differently?
Re-entry is a major problem. First, you have reverse culture shock. This can be far more severe than you might think it will because you don’t realize how your attitudes and thinking have been affected until you actually get back. In my case, I had to get some medical problems cleared up so that actually ended up being a good thing because it gave me the time and space to re-acculturate. Also, I used the time to send out lots of resumes.
I knew it would be hard to find a job on my return and it was. Private firms wouldn’t have been interested because I didn’t have a book of business to deliver. I wanted to work for a human rights agency but those jobs are extremely scarce and everything seems to depend on having connections, which I didn’t have. The Peruvian attorney I’d worked with wrote a glowing letter of reference but he didn’t have any US connections. And the higher ups in my religious organization didn’t have any human rights connections and also many of the leaders had changed and many didn’t even know the work I did. When I was a humble human rights worker, I wasn’t shouting, “look at this, look at that,” regarding my accomplishments and it didn’t dawn on me until too late that when I got back to the States, it would’ve greatly helped to have a person in the program with some human rights connections who could act as an advocate for me. In hindsight, I could have tried to establish a re-entry plan early on and to push the organization for some early guarantees that they would help me when it came time to leave. But, again, probably most organizations won’t be willing to make commitments like that.
I had several months of unemployment, sending my resume to legal aid clinics all over the US. I was just about ready to give up and consider going back to school in social work to update my credentials but, even then, with all the changes I’d made, I feared no social work agency might want me. Luckily, I just happened to get a job offer with legal aid in Sacramento of all places.
I’m not sure what I’d have done differently—maybe if I knew how hard it would be to come back, I never would have left—but my advice to others (lawyers or nonlawyers) is to realize this will be a serious problem and to explore future job possibilities as an ongoing activity rather than wait until you come back.
6. You lived at the poverty level while in Bolivia and Peru. Would your lot have been more bearable, would you have been more effective, if you’d raised your standard of living to, say, middle class.
Definitely not! First, it was important to me for the spirituality changes I was trying to make. I write in the book of what the director of our language school called the “stripping effect” of a new language, a new culture, and a new, much lower, standard of living. I experienced that stripping effect in many ways and I think it really helped me grow as a person. Also, if I would have done this, it would have marginated me from the rest of the volunteers in my religious community. They already saw me as “different” because I was a lawyer and if I’d lived a more middle class lifestyle (from my own money), they would just have seen that as putting on airs. Nor would it have made me more effective in my work.
I could have used some help in finding a place to live, but I was able to afford a decent place, nothing fancy. I really had no need of a car as buses and vans were convenient.
I did think of buying a laptop, they were just coming out then, but I decided to buy a portable manual typewriter—almost the exact same kind as I’d used in college over 30 years earlier!—precisely for the purpose of staying within a poverty lifestyle. In hindsight, a laptop would have made many reports and newsletters much easier and that is one thing I’d do differently. But otherwise, I found living poorly to free me in many ways.
7. It was really about the women, wasn’t it? In your book, there emerge two strong and very different women who drew you in, guiding your experience—Stephanie and Bella. Stephanie pushed you into volunteering, and Bella got you through the experience. Would you have survived long enough to write this book and be where you are today were it not for Stephanie and Bella?
Very perceptive! Yes, Stephanie and Bella are wonderful women. Alas, as you know from the book, Stephanie died even before I went to Peru. It wasn’t that she pushed me into volunteering, it was that her example made me want to volunteer. I just can’t say enough about her. And, spoiler alert, Bella became the great love of my life. She is so wonderful and it’s such fun to see her now as a grandmother! I was also profoundly influenced by María Elena Moyano, who I write about in the book. She was a strong leader in Peru who was horrifically assassinated for defying the Shining Path and organizing women. (Alas, there’s also a strong nun in the book who, let’s say, is about the exact opposite of Stephanie.)
There are also some men in the book who really influenced me: Archbishop Oscar Romero and Thomas Merton (as heroic, mythical figures I’d read about) and Larry Castagnola, an activist priest in Sacramento who became a good friend and—another spoiler alert—later married Bella and me!
No, I don’t think I would have volunteered without the example of Stephanie and yes, Bella definitely got me through the many turbulent episodes in the book. We had some dramatic ups and downs but it all ended wonderfully.
One thing I write about in the book are the many class and hierarchical issues in the religious world between priests (all male, of course) and women (both nuns and lays). Even putting aside the issue of women priests (when will the Church wake up?), women are always assigned subordinate roles to priests, even when women are really developing and implementing important projects. Unfortunately, this leads to separateness and hostility. The nuns live in their own world and have little interaction with priests or male lays. The women lays are more integrated with the male lays but many of them have become quite hostile, and who can blame them? This was probably the biggest surprise to me—the serious tensions between men and women in my very own religious organization.
8. Who should read your book?
I wrote Troubled Mission for any readers who’ve ever thought of changing their lives, of throwing everything overboard and starting over. I wanted to put the reader in my shoes: what made me even think about such an idea and then, step by step, inexorably, what happened. I tried to show the reality of being a lay volunteer in a religious organization, the good and the bad, including my many imperfections, my “dark nights of the soul,” and the many strange situations I got myself into.
Readers interested in living in a country besieged by terrorism will, I think, be absorbed by what happened in Peru, the horrific violence as well as a democracy that turned into a dictatorship before my very eyes. And readers who wonder how people can survive the worst conditions of barbarity and totalitarianism will see and feel the real issues that bring out character, or not.
Readers who savor words and enjoy complications should read this book, as opposed to readers who want to rush to find out “who done it” and nothing more. Above all, readers seeking to appreciate the human spirit should read this book.
At the blog, “A Literary Vacation,” aliteraryvacationinterview.blogspot.com, there’s an edited interview with me about Troubled Mission and about writing. I thought you might be interested in the longer, unedited, version, which follows. (Somehow, the second part of the interview got into bold-face type. I’ve tried to get rid of that but haven’t figured out hhow to yet. I hope it’s not too distracting.
Q. To start off with, please tell us a little about your book, Troubled Mission: Fighting for Love, Spirituality, and Human Rights in Violence-Ridden Peru.
A. Troubled Mission is my true—and I hope inspirational—story of what it’s like to try to change your life in very fundamental ways, dealing with the important “big issues” of life we all face: love, spirituality, and what is the essence of who we are, in my case my desire to do human rights work. I try to place the reader directly in my shoes and see directly through my eyes: what I wanted to do, the problems I encountered, how I tried to overcome those problems, and also the desperate situation of Peru during the time I was there, the violence from both the terrorists and the Peruvian government, the repression, poverty, and disease, and somehow despite all that the incredible character and resilience of the Peruvian people. I use a “flat” chronological style, showing what happened, in order to draw the reader in as opposed to trying to paint a picture essentially forcing my conclusions on the reader.
The first question, of course, is why would a successful, middle-aged attorney want to give up a comfortable life style in the US—I lived, and still do, in Sacramento, California—to live in reduced circumstances in Peru, to seek to develop a deeper spirituality, and to work for human rights in what could be a very dangerous situation. I show how this wasn’t an impulsive act just to seek adventure nor was it based on the feeling that there was something wrong with my life. Rather, the desire came as a result of becoming immersed in the Peruvian society as the result of an intensive study tour. Also, I describe how I met Bella, the woman who would change my life, a vibrant Peruvian teacher. While I easily could have tried to develop a relationship with her while continuing to be a lawyer in the US, I am candid that she certainly was a factor in my decision.
Then I show the reality. What’s it like to join a mission order, especially when I wasn’t a terribly religious person to begin with. I make it clear I wasn’t a saint—I was unmarried and very open to relationships with women—and I didn’t want to proselytize or try to get people to go to church. What’s the training program like, what was the mixture of other candidates to be missioners? What were some of the conflicts and issues that arose, as well as some of the deeply moving experiences? What was it like to go to language school where I was the odd man out—one of the few lay people and the only one from my religious order? And how did I stumble into the heart of the drug capital of the world and what was it like there. Then what was it like in Peru, including the big differences between life in Lima, a big city in many ways like any in the US but with much worse problems, and life in the rural altiplano, the high altitude area dominated by indigenous races and belief systems centered around the earth and reciprocity?
Now I get into the “what happened,” not as a history but as an involved observer who at times simply could not believe what was happening. The brutal terrorist assassinations. The horrific government overreactions. The strong popular, meaning “of the people,” organizations. The president overnight becoming a dictator! What is it like to see that? To see a censored newspaper? To see troops attacking lawfully elected senators. To hear a popular radio announcer, host of a nationwide interview program, say, “I’d like to continue my program but there are soldiers in the studio who won’t let me?” Imagine. We have serious problems but we’ve never had anything like that in the US.
Finally, there were two situations in which I was heavily involved. In one, terrorists attacked Alta Perla, a nearby town, killing police and civilians, and I was one of a group of church workers asked to be of assistance. The director of my human rights agency made it clear she didn’t want me to go, although she wouldn’t stop me. Then the Army tried to keep us out of the town. Here I was, in conflict not only with the terrorists but with the Army and even my own agency director. It was there I came to grips with the visceral reality of violent death, in helping to prepare for burial the ravaged body of Dioncia, a pregnant campesina woman. I also describe the effect of the attack on the town and the townspeople.
Then there was the world of working in a human rights agency in a foreign country. The conflicts within organizations and between organizations. The worlds of religious organizations, and of human rights organizations, aren’t at a higher plane of values than other organizations—they have turf wars, political battles, and interpersonal conflicts just like all other organizations. Also, there are vital issues of the role of women versus the role of men, in a variety of circumstances.
Suddenly, for the first time ever, the Peruvian government tried to prosecute a Peruvian human right attorney for doing lawful human rights work, for doing his job. That attorney just happened to be our attorney, Victor, who by now had become my friend. I rushed into an intense campaign to fight for him and the book describes the details of that fight, which would become a landmark case in Peru.
My goal is to have the reader keenly feel these experiences along with me, feel the reality of living in Peru in this situation, all the while feeling my struggle with the ups and downs of a relationship with Bella, and feeling my struggle to achieve a life of more spirituality.
Q. There are a lot of heavy, shocking themes running through the book, made all the more terrifying for the reader given that this is your true story. Do you ever sit back and think, “Wow, I can’t believe I survived that?” Are there any particular moments or memories that still haunt you today?
Yeah, there were so many things that could have gone wrong in a hurry I do wonder how I survived. One thing is that, as a tall gringo, I tended to stand out in any setting, even public transportation. Street crime was very bad during that time and I’m still amazed I wasn’t mugged or worse. I never felt targeted by either the military or the terrorists but then I suppose if you were targeted you wouldn’t be aware of it. I tried to always be alert, even to the point of walking down the middle of the street if there were suspicious characters around.
Many memories haunt me, especially the terrorist attack at Alta Perla and helping prepare Dioncia’s body for burial. Her body had been horribly torn apart by the terrorist bombs. I’d never seen such a horribly mutilated body and it was all I could do to keep myself together. I later had PTSD type reactions and for a long time I wondered if I could be intimate with a woman without seeing in my mind her body ripped open and all of her internal organs visible and gouged out. Eventually, I did become able to compartmentalize that and I am able to appreciate the beauty of all people I deal with, including a satisfying intimacy with my wife. In a way, maybe that horrible incident has even helped me—to really and vividly understand, not just intellectually, which I already knew, that everything can be over, or horribly changed, in an instant and all that we really have is our spirit, our essence.
Q. I’m not as aware
of all the many political, social, and spiritual conflicts going on in Peru, but it does seem now that there might be some similarities with issues (even if not as extreme) we are facing here in America. Are there any similarities you particularly notice?
Yes indeed. Sometimes I feel like shouting: “Don’t you see what this,” the particular incident, “will lead to?” I realize terrorism and illegal immigration are problems but the current push by some is a dangerous overreaction. And often we don’t even recognize the problem.
In many ways, our society is already in a police state and most of us don’t realize it, or don’t realize how serious it can be. When traveling, I saw once how the Border Patrol literally takes control of US cities near the border, in this case, Douglas, Arizona. Many dismiss the NSA and other electronic surveillance as something that, “doesn’t affect me if I haven’t done anything wrong.” That is SO short sighted and fails to realize all the real problems of a total surveillance state. And the recent “reforms” of the NSA aren’t real reforms at all.
I see in the current support for certain politicians the same attitudes I saw in Peru—“the problems are so bad we have to do something and so what if we violate the Constitution.” Often we forget how important it is to have the rule of law and how that, often—not always—distinguishes us for the better from other countries. One example is that we don’t realize how close we are to censorship, especially self-censorship to avoid confrontations with the governmental. To be trite, we can’t throw out the baby with the bath water!
Every day in the news there are more examples.
Q. With all the themes running through Troubled Mission, is there any point or points that you most hope readers take away from the reading?
There are three main themes weaving through the book: First, seeking and testing love, is it for real, can we trust each other, are we fully compatible? Second, fighting for spirituality. And I mean a fight. We have to dig into our real self, our essence, our spirit, and to do that means digging through the layers of the exterior self that we put on to mask our insecurities from others and from ourselves. Finally, there is the fight for human rights, in this case the fight to prevent the Peruvian government from imprisoning a Peruvian attorney who did nothing wrong—he did his job as a human rights attorney and he did it lawfully. The consequences could be dire and the story is very up and down.
For all of these themes, what I want the reader to take away is that we must confront the issues head-on. The first two themes are timeless and relate to the human condition, any time any where. The human rights theme is more location-specific and time-specific. Most of us, thankfully, won’t be involved in a human rights struggle. But we will be involved in struggles for love, for spirituality. And we will be involved in struggles relating to what we choose to do with our lives.
In a real way, the book is inspirational. The reader can see how these themes are inter-related and how we need deep honesty and authenticity to confront these challenges.
Q. What does a typical day (if there is one) look like for you? How do you balance writing and the rest of your life?
I wish I could say I’m one of these writers who gets up at 4 a.m. and writes for several hours in peace and quiet. Unfortunately, even when I get up at my usual time, say, between 7 and 8, I just don’t feel like writing. After breakfast, I might keep reading whatever book I was reading the night before or even work on the stack of bills always on my desk. Even on good days, I usually don’t start writing before 10 or 11 in the morning.
Three days a week I have to drive across town for my physical therapy and workout program in the afternoon. On these days, I don’t assign myself any writing goals. That’s also when I try to schedule my routine appointments. Two days a week I try to keep clear just for writing. Not that I always succeed. On these days I do have a goal of getting at least a thousand words down on paper, actually, in the “cloud” nowadays. I’m not fussy about this. I don’t require that they be polished sentences at all. If I get a thousand words and know that I’ll have to cut the majority of them I still feel I’ve accomplished my goal. Then I have the freedom to just keep writing as much as I can after that, knowing that’s it’s all “free money’ in a way, it’s all gravy. Sometimes this is where I hit my stride and I really feel I’m writing creatively and “in the zone.”
Now those are “original writing” days. I also spend countless days editing and revising, often far more than I did writing the first draft. I probably edit and revise more than some other authors because of my prior legal career. Editing and revising is just a way of life that’s been burned into me. Also, I tend to get much more accomplished on these days because I have a text in front of me. I may change it all around but at least I have a jumping-off point. It’s not like staring at a blank page.
For relaxation, I may watch a movie or something else on TV. I’m not a big fan of TV but I’m not a saint—I can get sucked into shows, especially dramatic series. I must have watched The Sopranos and The Wire ten times and if a TV channel repeats them now for the nth time, I’d probably get sucked in again and watch it all over again. I’m also a news junkie, especially during election season. When I’m watching a program or a movie on TV, I always have a pen and notebook nearby and I often write notes to myself for future use. Not notes from what I’m watching but just thoughts that occur to me. Finally, I always like to read something page-turning before going to sleep. I’ve recently discovered Joseph Kanon’s series on intrigues of the post-World War II world and they’re great for night time reading.
I shouldn’t admit it but I’m kind of a hermit and a homebody. Also, I’m at an age where I’ve had “the talk” with my dermatologist and I have to stay out of the sun as much as possible. On some weekends we have get-togethers with my extended family—two step-daughters, one step-son, and my five grandkids, and some friends. I’m generally not big on going out to eat just to try out a new restaurant. And my days of going out to bars are long over.
Music has always been an important part of my life. I discovered the Grateful Dead late, after law school, and I’m still a hard-core Deadhead. And paradoxically I’ve become an opera buff, particularly the operas of Richard Wagner. No, it’s not because we have the same last name and no, I don’t think we’re related. I’ll now think nothing of traveling to Europe for one of his cycles of The Ring, a series of four connected operas. It gets to be an expensive hobby!
Q. Are you a big fan of using social media to promote your writing or to interact with readers? How do you prefer to promote your writing?
My publicist is going to hate me for saying this but I’m a real troglodyte with social media. I do have a web site, http.//johnpwagner.com, but I’m not nearly as active on it as I should be. The reason is I feel my first priority is to work on whatever book I’m writing (I’m now in the middle of my second book and plan at least two more after that–“if God wishes” as they say in Spanish). After doing that all day I don’t have much interest or energy for going back to the computer. I need to get some more blog posts out there and I promise I’ll try to do that. As for the rest of it, I don’t know how to and I don’t really care to spend my time on Facebook or Twitter or Snap Chat or whatever else is available. I’d love to but I just don’t have the time. Now that I’m retired, I realize I only have so much time left and I want to focus on my writing. I’ve gotten to be an ol’ curmudgeon who wants to write and hope that reviews on Amazon and elsewhere will help an audience find me. I know, I know, this is so old school. At least I’m not using pencil and paper!
Q. Finally, I’ve noticed that many writers are also big readers. Have you read anything worth reading recently?
Yes, I’m a voracious reader, a habit I picked up from my mom. I have a wide range of interests. Some of my all-time faves are: Joseph Heller’s Catch 22; all the books of John LeCarré, who I think is unfairly stereotyped as a “spy novelist” and actually is one of the greatest writers of his time, period; everything by the wild and crazy inventor of “gonzo,” Hunter S. Thompson; the poems of Paul Celan and Sharon Doubiago, who are completely different from each other but amazing poets; the works, depressing as they are, of French writer Michel Houellebecq; and what to me is the all time classic of how life can completely change, minute-by-minute, step by step, Fatelessness by Imre Kertész.
Some interesting books I’ve been reading, or re-reading lately include: Edie Meidav’s Crawl Space, a true masterpiece dealing with memory and history; Michael Ignatieff’s political memoir, Fire and Ashes, which really pushes beyond the usual politician’s pat answers and struggles for a deep honesty; and Hilary Mantel’s unheralded A Change of Climate, which appeals to me much more than her recent best-selling bloody historical novels, which I haven’t read. And, as I’ve mentioned, I’ve recently discovered Joseph Kanon who may be the “new” John Le Carré for me. I also like the World War II novels of Alan Furst.
Recently I stumbled onto Wolfgang Herrndorf’s Why We Took The Car, which is actually considered YA literature. It’s very well written, hilarious, and profoundly insightful on coming of age issues in contemporary Germany. Finally, at this exact moment I’m re-reading one of my favorite books of various analytical pieces on Elvis Presley, Kevin Quain’s The Elvis Reader. There are so many more books I like, and new books I want to read, I could go on and on.
Recently several human rights groups have documented that the US State Department has upgraded the status of some countries, notably Malaysia and Cuba, regarding human trafficking in order to improve diplomatic relations with those countries. 1 Human trafficking, which is modern day slavery, is the illegal buying and selling of people, typically for forced labor or forced prostitution. According to Reuters, some diplomats privately say that human rights workers are naive “purists” and should recognize that diplomatic interests properly outweigh human rights interests.
I’m not an expert on the countries involved or on the State Department reports involved, but I write to say it is vitally important to tell the truth about human rights and not to falsify official reports about human rights in order to achieve diplomatic goals.
Human rights workers are rarely “purists.” They fight a lonely battle, often knowing there is little they can do in the offending country and knowing that “good” countries such as the US often will choose to elevate diplomatic goals over human rights goals. That is a fact of life. But when we make such choices, we must do so knowingly, with our eyes open, and not falsify reports or documents in order to sanitize our decisions.
Our official reports must have credibility. The whole point of preparing Trafficking In Persons (TIP) reports—or, for that matter, any human rights reports—is to provide a solid basis for analyzing the problem and identifying the countries involved: the countries who either turn a blind eye to trafficking or, worse, just refuse to do anything about it. Once the US is known to “cook the books” on the TIP reports, it loses its moral authority.
Moral authority is, after all, the primary focus in the world of human rights. President Obama, as well as prior presidents, has promised that the US will lead the fight against human rights violations. Yes, yes, we all know the US is not going to declare war on a country because of its terrible human rights record. The real power in human rights is the power to embarrass, to shame. Once TIP reports became known as being accurate, and once it became known that human rights would be a part of the US’s diplomatic calculations, countries tried to avoid being shamed. Two examples, according to Reuters, are that Switzerland closed legal loopholes allowing child prostitution and that the Dominican Republic began more aggressive prosecution of child trafficking, resulting in greatly increased numbers of convictions.
But the reverse is true as well. Once TIP reports are known as being fudged, they will lose their credibility, and thus their power to shame. Offender countries can simply deny the problem, saying the US TIP reports are known not to be credible.
The so-called “realists,” who say the US should attempt to achieve only its own interests and not try to fight human rights abuses in other countries, are flatly wrong. Trafficking in other countries does involve US interests. Child prostitutes and forced laborers are often smuggled into the US. Then, we not only have the duty to be concerned, we have the law enforcement imperative to prosecute the violators and the social imperative to help the victims.
In addition, most of us in the US have no idea how officials in other countries view with alarm the prospect of reports being written to US authorities. When I was a human rights worker in Peru, I asked our Peruvian attorney at my small human rights agency what I could really do. Yes, I was a lawyer in the US but of course I couldn’t practice law in Peru. He told me not only were there many things I could do, but also that my status often could be more important than being a Peruvian attorney. “If you are in a meeting with us and the military,” he said, “the very fact that you’re a North American” human rights worker “might have a restraining effect on” the military. “Even if you don’t ‘do’ anything.” Also, he said, the military and other authorities would be very concerned about any reports I might write. This prediction was later borne out when he himself was improperly charged by the Peruvian government with “aiding and abetting terrorism” for his lawful work as a human rights attorney. I led an international protest effort by human rights groups around the world and the government dropped the charges. Human rights leaders later said this stopped the Peruvian government in its tracks from going after human rights workers.
In the case of Cuba, the US has the goals of ending the embargo, opening the US embassy in Havana, re-establishing diplomatic relationships, and gradually improving trade relationships. I happen to support those goals. But we should not achieve these goals by “upgrading” Cuba’s notoriously horrific human rights record. We may say we will improve relations but we must emphasize we are doing so despite Cuba’s human rights record—and not say we may do so because it’s human rights record has “improved.”
In the case of Malaysia, where dozens of mass graves of migrants have been discovered just this year and where forced labor is common, the US wants to facilitate the Trans-Pacific Partnership with Malaysia and eleven other countries in Southeast Asia. In this case, I’m not sure I support the TPP. I admit I just don’t know enough about it. But even if we decide to improve relations with Malaysia for the TPP, we should not do so at the expense of accurately reporting—and denouncing—its human rights record. We must tell the truth about human rights.
I can’t believe there are no protests against the currently running Geico Insurance TV “torture” ad, which treats torture as normal, as acceptable business as usual. We don’t see torture because the theme of the ad is that all workers, even torturers, will play instead of “work” when the boss isn’t around. But the ad clearly treats torture as something acceptable. As such, it is an outrage.
The Ad Itself
In a medieval torture chamber, we see the boss of a group of tough-looking supposed torturers. The torturers have a prisoner tied to a large table. The boss asks what progress they are making with the prisoner and the torturers reply that the prisoner will soon tell them everything. They display vicious-looking weapons. But once the boss and his flunkies leave, the torturers turn the table over and we see the table is actually a ping-pong table, with the prisoner tied in the middle as a net. The theme of the ad is that goofing off at work, even work as torturing, is “what you do” and somehow you should decide to switch to Geico if you want to save money.
Ha! Ha! Ha! Torturers who goof off. How funny!
What’s Going On In The Ad?
Forget whether Geico is a good insurance company or whether you’ll really save the amount Geico claims you’ll save. I have no idea and no opinion.
What’s happening in our society when a major company decides it will be good for business to have a commercial portraying torture as normal, as a usual and customary part of society, as something to be accepted? Sure, we don’t really see torture in the ad. I can imagine the ad managers pitching the ad to Geico said something like, “See, when we say, ‘it’s what you do,’ why this even applies to people we usually don’t have a high opinion of. Who could be worse than torturers. So, this is satire, get it? The ad says even the worst people will goof off when their boss isn’t around because ‘it’s what you do’ and we want people to think getting Geico insurance ‘is what you do.’”
But the hidden message is, had the scene with the boss had the ad gone on a few seconds more with the boss present, the torturers would indeed have started torturing their prisoner. After all, that was their job. And doing your job is “what you do” when the boss is present.
Suppose we change the scene to Dachau or Auschwitz. The boss comes by and the workers say, “Yes, we’re definitely making progress with the prisoners.” Then the boss leaves and the workers take Jews off an incoming train to be spectators while they play soccer. No mistreatment of anybody. The workers are goofing off. Still so funny? How long could this go on before the workers decided they’d better get some work done and get going with their job of funneling the Jews into the “shower” rooms? Sure, we wouldn’t actually see any Jews being killed but wouldn’t that be the implied premise of the ad.
Not only does the Geico ad treat torture as a normal and acceptable part of society but it comes at a time in our country when we are engaged in a major and consequential debate about what actions our country, a democratic republic with a constitution that explicitly prohibits “cruel and unusual punishment,” may engage in against “suspected terrorists.” I write this shortly after the first, raucous, Republican debate of 2016, in which more than one candidate made it clear they believed the country could do anything the military wanted to against suspected terrorists. We are supposed to be a country of “rule of law,” but no candidate raised our Constitution (or anything else) as a protection against torture.
In my opinion, the ad is clearly not neutral on this issue—it expresses no moral disapproval whatsoever. The ad comes down squarely on the side of the argument that human rights are irrelevant—“we should do whatever the military decides is necessary to suspected terrorists.” And who is a “suspected terrorist?” It’s always vague and it’s usually people we don’t like.
Why No Protests?
Is this what our society has come to? Making fun of prisoners being tortured? Suppose we brought Abu Ghraib into the scenario. “Hey, let’s goof off from putting the prisoners in humiliating sexual positions and threatening them with dogs for a little while once the boss leaves.” Still funny?
I searched on Google and could find no protests of this ad. I can’t believe it. Well, I protest. Shame on you Geico!
I recently opened the latest issue of Opera News and was shocked to read that Margaret Juntwait had died. What? She was in the prime of her life (58). How could that have happened? (Alas, it happened because of ovarian cancer, which we must find a way to cure.)
I felt like I literally “heard” Margaret grow up on the radio—doing the Saturday morning (at least for those of us in California it began in the morning) Live From the Met broadcasts of the Metropolitan Opera in New York City since 2004. At first, I was not enthralled. When she took over from Peter Allen, it seemed to me she was just reading a script. I found it a little uncomfortable to listen to. But then an amazing transformation began. After the first season or so, little by little, week by week, she seemed to develop her own voice. I’m sure she still had a script, or at least an outline, but more and more it sounded like she was sitting there, in a wonderful seat at the Met, talking with (not, “to”) us, her listener friends, not pontificating but helping us notice interesting aspects of that week’s opera. Just sharing her thoughts, no big deal.
It got to the point where her voice and her comments seemed completely fluid, knowledgeable, and spontaneous. Luckily, as time went on, I had cars that came with SIRIUS radio and I was able to hear her Met broadcasts on some weekday evenings, while driving home from work, in addition to the regular Saturday performances. That was always an extra treat. Over time, she seemed to be a friend sharing her knowledgeable thoughts in an amiable, relaxed manner.
At the same time as Margaret was “growing up” (to me at least) on the radio, I had become a fan of Richard Wagner’s four-part “Ring Cycle” and had begun traveling in the US and Europe for opera in general and especially to see various Ring performances. In early 2013, I was in Frankfurt, where it was bitter cold, attending that city’s opera company’s innovative Ring production. During one of the intermissions, I found myself in the food area next to a vivacious and interesting woman. We began chatting about the production. We each first made it clear we were married so there was no hidden agenda—it was just a wonderful conversation about Wagner in general, the Frankfurt production, and a bit about our lives. We conversed about a range of issues and finally we talked about what we each did. From her knowledge of opera, I expected her to say she had some affiliation with an opera or arts association but I was blown away when she told me her name. Here she was, “the” Margaret Juntwait, whom I felt I gotten to know via the radio, talking with me. I almost fell over. And not only was I talking with her but she seemed to be enjoying our talk and learning about my work (healthcare law) as well as hearing my unlettered opinions! I expected that, at any moment, someone from the Met would come and take her to meet someone more interesting but it never happened.
Although vivacious and beautiful, she was not arrogant or patronizing. She was so friendly and so approachable. She told me she was here with her husband and her Met team and, when I asked, she told me a bit about her work-a-day world preparing her shows. She was nothing like the divas I’ve heard about or the “operaistas” I’ve met in various Wagner Societies who let you know they’re doing you a favor by even saying “hello.” To the contrary, Margaret seemed a friendly, knowledgeable, expert interested in talking about anything: yes, opera of course, but also life in general. I became tongue-tied as soon as she said her name but she quickly had me talking again, asking about my work and my family. Of course she was a professional interviewer by now, but at no time did I feel that she was “doing her interview thing” to get through a long intermission with this guy she happened to get stuck next to.
I told her how I thought she’d developed more and more confidence each year and how I so looked forward to each show. And I couldn’t believe that she actually seemed interested in whatever I was babbling about. Maybe she was just being nice. But I remember how she seemed so genuine, friendly, and down-to-earth.
After that, sometimes when I heard her on the radio, I thought: I should send her an email about how I liked this or that show, and why. (Not that I had her email address.) But I never did, thinking, oh, sure, she was nice to me during an intermission but she wouldn’t be interested in hearing from the likes of me about her show. Or, I thought, she’d think I wanted something. Maybe so but who knows? I’m glad I had those few moments with her. I’m glad I told her how much I’d come to appreciate her shows. But I’m sorry I never sent her an email now and again when I felt something she said had truly moved me. I didn’t want to be a bother but maybe she would have liked to know how her work affected at least this fan.
It’s cliché but it’s true: death don’t have no mercy. Soon the Met will be starting a new season. Margaret Juntwait should be there, helping all of us appreciate it better. But she won’t. I’ll treasure the few minutes I had with her.
In the middle of my career as a lawyer–a career i enjoyed very much–I decided to “give up everything” to do human rights work in violence-ridden Peru, a country being ripped to shreds by two terrorist groups and by “counter-terrorism” violence from the security and police forces. Whatever led me to do this?
Recently I came across copies of my newsletter of that time to friends and family: ¿Quien Sabe? (Who Knows?)–John Wagner’s Newsletter From Peru, the first issue of which addressed that question. I remember writing that newsletter, pre-internet, on a beat up manual typewriter and sending it to a friend in Sacramento who kindly made copies and mailed them for me. The following summarizes my thoughts at the time.
I knew i couldn’t act as an official “lawyer” in Peru but I hoped to act as an informal advocate and to assist persons and families who’d suffered human rights violations. To use a religious cliché, just as St. Paul had an epiphany in which he was knocked off his horse, I took a study tour of Peru that caused me to question every aspect of my life. I came into direct contact with the poverty of the Third World and I also came into contact with people doing very meaningful things to help those people.
I felt the most important thing was not on any “results” I might obtain but that I wanted to strip myself of the trap of possessions, running for success, materialism, workaholism, and then rewarding myself for those things by, yes, more possessions–the endless cycle of self-ism as Buddhists might say.
I interviewed with several well-known human rights agencies but, in a surprise to my nicely-developed ego, they weren’t interested in successful lawyers in mid-career seeking to change their lives. They were suspicious of people they hadn’t trained and most human rights jobs went to prior interns at those agencies.
I had been a Catholic, although not active, and sought out Catholic organizations having overseas placements. It took a while but I finally found a progressive Catholic order that promised me a human rights job in Peru. I was worried that I might not be Catholic enough for the order but to my surprise, it was focused not pushing any given doctrine but focused on accompanying poor and oppressed persons in the third world. I wrote in my newsletter:
I view a religion as a community in which members not only have the right but the responsibility to express their views and engage in dialogue with each other. But I realize that: (a) there are still many problems within the Church, including hierarchy, sexism, paternalism, etc., and (b) no religion has a corner on “the” truth, all religions are not merely dealing with “inner” beliefs but are political and institutional forces replete with bureaucracies, turf-battles, organizational dynamics, etc.
Little did I know how prophetic those words would be. I also wrote:
The biggest question, of course, is why go overseas when there are so many problems right here in the US? If I want to work with the poor, why not work for a Legal Services program here where I already know the language and can utilize my skills? There’s no easy answer as that is what i would have sought had this program not worked out. There are many terrific people doing wonderful work in such programs. But to some extent what I want is the “stripping away” effect and the transformational effect of coming to grips with a new language and culture. In some ways it’s actually easier to seek a transformation by changing cultures at the same time. Corny as it sounds, I guess it boils down to my feeling on the Peru study tour that, “Why are you not here?”
Looking back on it, i really nailed the issues. In some ways, I got exactly what I was seeking in my placement in Peru and in other ways, my efforts completely failed.
John Wagner’s memoir is, TROUBLED MISSION: Fighting For Love, Spirituality, and Human Rights in Violence-Ridden Peru (Kelly House), coming out in the fall, 2015.
Advance readers of my memoir, TROUBLED MISSION: Fighting For Love, Spirituality, and Human Rights in Violence-Ridden Peru, have asked a question about word usage: the difference between “missionary” and “missioner.”
There’s a great world of difference, although dictionaries tend to equate the two words as synonyms of each other. In one sense, the words are synonyms: they refer to members of religious communities in the US who go to work overseas. But that’s where the similarity ends.
To modern “missioners,” the word “missionary” is old-fashioned, referring to members of a religious group seeking to proselytize, to convert others, typically in underdeveloped countries, to the “missionary’s” faith. Old-school “missionaries” spoke of “converting the heathens” and of “bringing” the unchurched to God. There are still many religions attempting to do this.
More contemporary views of mission, on the other hand, use the word “missioner” in deliberate contrast to the word, “missionary.” Holders of these views believe the people they work with and for are already with God, as they believe all people are, and don’t need to be “brought” anywhere. Rather than seeing their role as converting the unchurched, they see their role as “accompanying” those in need, typically, the poor, the marginated and the victims of oppression and repression. Rather than seeing themselves on a “higher” spiritual level than those they are working with, they see themselves as equal and as using their skills and talents to help the victims of injustice.
The use of the word, “missionary” connotes imposition–forcing or “persuading” people to change beliefs and religions in the quest for a better life after death. The use of the word, “missioner” connotes servant leadership–working with victimized persons to help them develop skills and abilities to live better lives in this life, on this earth.
So far, the nuanced differences between these similar words haven’t made it to the dictionaries or even Wikipedia. But ask any “missioner,” and you’ll get a lengthy and detailed discussion!
John Wagner’s memoir, TROUBLED MISSION: Fighting for Love, Spirituality, and Human Rights In Violence-Ridden Peru (Kelly House) will be coming out fall, 2015.