Living Large for Less on X-Mas

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These were my child’s gifts under the tree Christmas morning.  I didn’t bother taking a sea of gifts pic because everything looks much more impressive wrapped.

My kid typically gets one big gift from his grandparents and another from his great-grandmother while Santa and I provide the rest.  The trick is to get a bunch of things they’re going to need anyway and then wait until Christmas to give it to them.  Take advantage of sales, dollar deals (socks and bath supplies), and the Scholastic catalogs from school.  I’ll typically keep some closet space year-round just to stock up for Christmas and his birthday, which conveniently fall six months apart.

This also saves me from having to do very much shopping around Christmas.  We’ve been reusing most of the same gift bags for the past 3 or 4 years.  (Tissue paper, bows, and gift wrap can be had for pennies after Christmas and/or New Year’s.)

What you see below is about a dozen or so individually-wrapped (mostly soft-cover) books, new socks and undies, a couple of every-day outfits, a new winter coat, hats and mittens, fun character body washes and bubble baths, basic arts & crafts supplies such as Play-Doh and markers (we’ll see how long those last), a few toys, and a bunch of other things I would have given him even if it hadn’t been Christmas.

Kids love Christmas, and kids love opening presents on Christmas.  Some kids (like mine) enjoy the unwrapping part most of all.  It’s totally possible to give them a ton of gifts to open without worrying about spoiling them or draining your bank account dry.

A Sword is A Sword

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I grew up playing with all sorts of toy weapons — air rifles, phasers, nerf bows, plastic nunchucks and swords — and I love ’em to death.  But I don’t want my kid playing with toy guns until I’m confident he understand the difference between a real gun and a fake one.

My son and I play with swords instead of guns.  Last count, he had twelve of them.  My rule with these is “it’s not a sword unless it is a sword.”  A sword is a sword; a stick is not a sword.  I don’t want my kid picking up sticks on the playground and whacking his friends with them, and when he gets older I most certainly do not want him picking up other objects — say, a poptart — and declaring it to be a gun. That sort of crap is liable to get my kid expelled and my ass busted on suspicion of being some sort of arms dealer.

Kids and Internet

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I think the Internet can be an incredible learning tool for kids, provided the parents show some responsibility by monitoring how their children are spending their time and encouraging them to take advantage of all the resources that are out there instead of rotting their brains away on social media.  (Remember when it was all about rotting your brain away with TV?)

My four year old keeps a online journal.  It’s totally anonymous (he goes by a handle), blocked from search engines, and free of geographical information — apart from the fact that he resides in a suburb of North America.  We don’t post photographs of him or anyone else we know.  It’s loads of fun, lets family and friends keep up with what he’s doing, and in the nine months since we began blogging together, his language skills have improved tremendously.  He dictates and I type, though I sometimes have to prompt him with open-ended questions.  Any comments he receives on posts need to be approved before they show up.

We love the games on the Disney Junior and Spout websites, which offer excellent practice in fine-motor planning (he’s dyspraxic, just like his mommy), and we also play a fair amount of Club Penguin.  We watch videos on YouTube (mostly music videos and science programs) and belong to several educational websites, such as PebbleGo and Early World of Learning (which is awesome).  Oh, and then there’s the Neopets.

So yeah, tons of fun and educational things for kids — or to do with your kids — if you know where to look.

Wrongful Conviction and Imprisonment

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Nothing, and I do mean nothing infuriates me more that wrongful convictions.  Whether we’re talking about false allegations of child abuse, murder, or rape, innocent people are being locked away for years — sometimes decades — for crimes they did not commit.  Families are severed, lives are destroyed, and people are being hung out to dry by the very system that was supposed to protect them.  There can be no greater injustice than that.

While the American code of justice demands that the accused be considered innocent unless (or “until”) proven guilty (the presumption of innocence is inherently flawed, but I’ll leave that alone for now), criminal cases involving children and/or highly sensitive issues (such as sexual assault) become so emotionally charged that it is virtually impossible for the accused to receive a fair trial.  As I’ve said before, moral outrage interferes with justice.  And crimes against women and children never fail to evoke a powerful emotional response which threatens to overshadow all evidence and objectivity.  Feelings are substituted for facts, and the burden of proof shifts away from the Prosecution and onto the Defense.  Justice is sacrificed for the sake of vengeance.  In a nutshell, if the crime of which someone is accused involves children and/or rape, they are virtually guaranteed to be denied their right to fair trial.

Yes, I would rather see ten possible baby rapists go free than a single innocent person convicted.

The question is, who should ultimately be held liable for wrongful convictions?  I think the answer to that is quite obvious: whichever parties were responsible for the miscarriage of justice.

A Virginia man spent 27 years behind bars for multiple rapes he did not commit.  These convictions were based solely on eye-witness testimony — that of his alleged victims.  It all began when a woman who claimed to have been raped days before spotted him at a grocery store and alerted police that she recognized her assailant.  Police brought him in, and he was soon “identified” as the attacker of four other women.  (Another of his alleged victims realized she was mistaken after the conviction.)  Now, by no means am I suggesting that rape victims ought to bear the burden of proving their own cases in a court of law, but given the horrific consequences of false rape accusations, they do bear the responsibility of being certain whom they are accusing.  Also, as The Forensic Examiner points out, “Although it may not be ‘politically correct’ to question the veracity of a women’s complaint of rape, failing to consider the accuser may be intentionally lying effectively eradicates the presumption of innocence.”  In this case, the witnesses are clearly responsible — along with the juries which convicted him on the basis of their testimony.  What it ultimately came down to was Mr. Haynesworth’s word against each of theirs, and the juries chose to convict an 18-year-old black man on the legal basis of he-said-she-said.  Unfortunately, you cannot actually sue a jury, and I’m going to assume that it’s faux pas to sue a rape victim, because it appears this gentleman has yet to file any litigation.  (Instead, he settled for a mail-room job from Cuccinelli .)

Just last year, Alton Logan ended up settling with the Chicago Police Department for $10.2 million after having spent 26 years behind bars for a murder.  While it’s difficult to put a monetary value on half a life spent behind bars, I’d say Logan’s lawsuit was appropriate, considering the Chicago Police had concealed evidence which would have exonerated him.  But far more reprehensible was the conduct of defense attorneys Dale Coventry and Jamie Kunz, who knew their client was the real murderer, yet kept this knowledge a secret for 26 years.  Why, then, were they not also sued?  Because they were “legally bound” to do so.

More and more cases of Shaken Baby Syndrome are being re-opened as the integrity of this “condition” is called into question.  (One blogger has liken this “legal diagnosis” to the Satantic daycare sex-abuse scandal mentioned above.)  It’s a valid comparison, really — in both cases, convictions have been based on dubious medical evidence from poorly qualified professionals, as well as on the moral outrage of the jury.  And whatever happened to the “reasonable doubt” clause?  When key witnesses are discredited, diagnoses are questioned, and medical professionals are called to testify outside their area of expertise, you have to wonder whether the jury fully grasps its own purpose.  In wrongful convictions of Shaken Baby Syndrome, as with the ritual Satanic abuse case, I would hold the juries squarely at fault.  But again, you cannot actually sue a jury.

Look, I get that there are reasons for judicial immunity.  It protects both judges and juries from harassment by way of frivolous lawsuit and is intended to keep them objective in their rulings.  At the same time, however, judicial immunity protects them from being held accountable for the ill consequences of their decisions.  When a practice designed to promote objectivity is having the opposite effect, the question of, “Why are we still doing this?” must necessarily be raised.

It’s one thing for circuit judges to be protected by judicial immunity; as professional jurors, they are held accountable by other measures, such re-election or the potential for impeachment and removal from office.  Juries, on the other hand, enjoy their immunity without any of these safeguards in place.  True, they are only there to serve for a single trial, but if anything, I would expect this to make them even more flippant in their decisions.  Compared to judges, juries demonstrate far less foresight and concern over the consequences of their verdicts — and what they might mean for the defendant.  At the end of the day, they’ll go home to their crockpots and ESPN, while the defendant rots in prison for the rest of his life for a crime he appears to have committed.  (The judge, at least, is back on the bench by Monday morning.)

Am I rallying against the use of juries in our judicial system? HELL, no — I’m rallying against irresponsible jurors.

I stand in favor of abolishing judicial immunity for both juries and judges in cases of wrongful conviction — but with some limitations.  Obviously, the “wrongfulness” would first need to be established and the conviction reversed (I mean, how many people in prison are claiming to be innocent?) and another hearing would have to be held (hopefully at the bench!) to determine whether in fact the jury and/or judge were liable, and if so, by what degree.  Then, and only then, would this open them up to civil litigation and/or penalties.

I also want there to be stiffer penalties for false accusation.  When you have women like Crystal Magum being spared charges of filing a false police report, perjury, and obstruction of justice, what kind of message does this send out to would-be accusers?

There also needs to be better accountability for the individual investigators and their superiors.  While I like to think that police corruption is a statistical rarity, it does happen, and not enough appropriate measures (emphasis on ‘appropriate’) are taken.  For instance, it took the city of Chicago nearly thirty years and $56.25 million to finally do something about former police commander Jon Burge.

Convictions based on expert or medical testimony (such as Shaken Baby Syndrome or rape/molestation claims) need to re-examine both the source of the evidence (e.g., a doctor’s credentials and credibility), as well as the integrity of the evidence itself.  Has the doctor who examined the child been trained in pediatrics?  Did the emergency room doctor fully explain “Shaken Baby Syndrome” to the jury or even consider alternative diagnoses?  Is he accustomed to establishing other modi operandi besides SBS?

Now obviously, this isn’t a one-stop, cure-all solution to preventing any new wrongful convictions, nor does this offer sufficient recompense to those who have suffered wrongful imprisonment.  (How can that be compensated?)  But it does provide a starting point for judicial improvement.  Ultimately though, what it comes down to is better accountability within the justice system.  Because even in light of the vast improvements in forensics and genetic technology, it is left to the police to collect the evidence, the DA to make the case, and the judge and jury to determine the defendant’s future.  Objectivity must be paramount, a guilty verdict should not be presumed, and someone needs to be watching the Watchmen.

Specifications for Packing My Child’s Lunch

My son’s grandmother did me the favor packing his lunch the other day.  (In a nutshell, I’m sick.)  All she required of me was his Monsters University lunch bag/box/whatever you want to call it (it’s one of those insulated softies), and I ended up throwing in a box of V8 Fusion.  My mother was doing me a favor, so I wasn’t about to lecture her on the specifications of packing my preschooler’s lunch.

I go all out with my kid’s lunches.  I like to be creative and make things fun.  Bagged lunches can be boring, so I like to include variety.  I also like to zazz things up with fun character or holiday-themed paper products (plate and napkin), colorful zip-lock bags (available at Target), and character-themed tupperware containers.  I’ll periodically rotate in special food themes –– “China food” or “Mexico food,” or even “spooky food,” and on the rare occasions that I throw it a dessert, I’ll find some way to make it literacy based.  (This used to be a major hobby of mine.)

I also make a point of including “love notes” in his lunches.   Even on the day that Grandma packed it for me, I made a point of slipping a little heart-shaped sticky note into his lunch box with an excuse explanation as to why everything looked so dull different.  (Wasn’t it NICE of Grandma to pack your lunch today?)

I’ll scribble down a few sentences worth of well-wishes, interesting facts, useful information, or suggest social prompts.  Some notes will have it all.  And every note contains an integrated “sight word”, which I also make a point of S-P-E-L-L-I-N-G O-U-T. It sounds crazy, but the kid loves it, and his teachers find it adorable.  (There are only six other kids in his classroom, so they can afford to give him a little extra attention.)

So this got me thinking… what if I had left my mother an exacting set of instructions on how to prepare and pack my child’s lunch?  There are plenty of parents out there who obsess over what they feed their kids, and god help you if you accidentally feed them inorganic produce.  Some insist artificial dyes were responsible for their children’s behavior problems; others seek to “cure” their kids of autism Jenny McCarthy style (which evidently involves removing gluten and casein from their diets).  More still have taken it upon themselves to “diagnose” their poor kids with multiple food allergies and intolerances before subjecting them to rigorous dietary restrictions.  I can only imagine the enormity of the written instructions these parents must leave their child care providers, who may not even be able to make the distinction between quinoa and couscous.

Grandma ended up sending the boy in with beans, spaghetti, and the V8 juice I’d given her.  Not quite the lunch I would have packed, but certainly delicious and nutritious enough to keep my child satiated and content.

But if I had left her a list of specifications for packing my kid’s lunch, here’s what it would have looked like:

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