Michael Jackson’s Defenders

Michael Jackson apparently has a legion of zealous defenders, and they are coming down with a vengeance on social media against the two men — Wade Robson and James Safechuck — who were interviewed extensively in Leaving Neverland. The claim is that those who allege wrongdoing on Jackson’s part are simply exploiting and mischaracterizing behavior that reflected Jackson’s naivete and child-like innocence.

Please. A seven year old taking advantage of the naivete of a 30+ year old man? A child doesn’t lure a man into bed, and then initiate sexual activity. Hurling that accusation is as bad as Jackson’s abuse in the first place.

People refused to see what was right before our eyes when Jackson was flaunting his pedophilia, and a segment of his followers are continuing to explain away his visibly kinky behavior.

Two points in the documentary were most compelling to me. We now know much more about “grooming behavior”, in which pedophiles single out vulnerable children then cultivate not only the child but the family, progressively making deviant behavior feel more normal. That grooming pattern was evident in Jackson’s approach to both boys.

The other is the turnover in the boy at Jackson’s side. Pedophiles apparently have preferences for boys of a certain age, and when their target continues growing and developing, they ditch that child and acquire another at the “right” age. That pattern was also visible in Jackson, who changed boys about once a year.

Interesting to me, the actor Macaulay Culkin was one of Jackson’s boys. Culkin has denied every being sexually abused during his run at Jackson’s side.

The interesting question is what great talent and great deviancy mean for those who love Jackson’s music. I’ve never been an MJ fan, so I haven’t much skin in the game here. But for me, the Ick Factor, and the knowledge that while recording these favorite songs Jackson was also abusing little boys, would make the sound irretrievably tainted.


Leaving Neverland

I was never a fan of Michael Jackson, or the Jackson Five out of which he emerged as the superstar. I wouldn’t have bothered to watch Leaving Neverland, the HBO documentary, except for all the buzz. I did watch the first two hour segment on Sunday night, and it was stomach churning.

Two things struck me. One is that normal parental caution seems to evaporate when celebrity is involved. If you take out the name “Michael Jackson”, what sane parent would let a seven year old boy sleep overnight in the same bed as a 30+ year old man who wanted to be the boy’s “friend”? What parent would willingly be in a different bedroom in another part of the house or even in another building? I suppose it isn’t just celebrity, but also power or status. I imagine the boys that were abused by pedophile priests came from families who were initially proud that their child was the one drawing the favor of “Father So-and-So”.

The second observation is that Michael Jackson’s classic predatory behavior took place in full view of the children’s parents, Jackson’s extensive entourage and his house staff, the entertainment media and the public. On what planet is it normal for a grown man to be constantly trailed by a young boy, holding hands with the boy, dressing the boy in the star’s childhood clothing or a facsimile of the star’s glittering adult outfits, hugging and kissing the boy? Didn’t anyone wonder why these children weren’t in school, playing with other children, going home at night with their families? What in the world did those who watched Michael Jackson think was going on?

Michael Jackson was born in 1958, and died of an overdose in 2009. The two boys profiled in Leaving Neverland were under Jackson’s spell in the 1980’s, and there apparently was a new boy just about every year thereafter. I don’t think it’s enough to say we saw things — or failed to see them — with different eyes back then. I think this story is horrifying.

I suppose I’ll watch Monday night’s segment too, even though the Ick Factor is off the charts. Shame on Michael Jackson, and shame on everyone who covered and is still covering for him. All the talent in the world doesn’t excuse years of sexually assaulting little boys.


Gaga and Bradley Cooper

Social media is abuzz with speculation that Lady Gaga and Bradley Cooper are an item. The buzz exploded after their torrid rendition of the love song Shallow at the Academy Awards.

I don’t follow Lady Gaga and don’t know if she’s usually politic or more candid when responding to that kind of buzz. But apparently someone asked her about her possible relationship with Cooper, and her four word response was like a dash of cold water to the most romantic of her fans.

“It’s called acting, people.”

52 Places for the New York Times

Those of you who read the New York Times may be aware that they send a travel journalist to the top 52 places to visit for that year, and publish weekly travelogs from that person. Here’s the new guy for 2019, Sebastian Modak.


Before you swoon over how wonderful it would be to travel the world on someone else’s dollar, think about being in a new place every week, and having to endure the travel to get from one place to another. This is not an easy job.

Something Modak said rings true for me: you could only do this successfully if you have a fluid sense of “home” and the ability to make yourself comfortable very quickly in new places.

I do feel like I’ve been working toward doing something like this my whole life. I was born in the United States to a Colombian mother and an Indian father, but we left for Hong Kong when I was 2 years old and continued to move every few years. My brothers and I didn’t really grow up with the concept of “home,” because we understood every place was temporary. It made travel the only real constant in our lives. January marks five years in New York City, though, and that puts it in a joint first-place spot for the longest I’ve stayed anywhere — tied with Indonesia and India.

For me, travel is all about immersing yourself in the unfamiliar, and embracing the feeling of humility that comes with that: There’s always something to learn from someone else, from somewhere else. That’s what made me choose a career in multimedia storytelling. I was a Fulbright-mtvU fellow in Botswana, where I spent a year documenting the local hip-hop scene. I was a producer on an MTV series that looked at the role of the arts in protest movements around the world. Most recently, I was an editor and then a staff writer at Condé Nast Traveler, where I was often sent on assignment to find and report stories that resonate with a global and globally curious audience. I think the thread that connects all of these experiences is an insatiable sense of wonder at the world around me.”

When Matt rode his bike across country the year after Jerry died, completing his father’s goal to celebrate the 60th birthday he never reached, Matt called me from a little town in the heartland where his biking group was spending the night. He said, “Mom, do you know there are people who’ve never been more than a half hour from where they were born?” I said I did know that. A job like Modak’s would be torture for such a person, stressful and not fun at all.

I don’t think I’d manage a year of travel very well, although, like Modak, I enjoy travel for the delight of new places and for the experience of finding strangers unexpectedly kind. But I’ll follow his journey, and wish I could also follow his steps.

Trapper John

I’m always fascinated by what people find fascinating — like how to trap and remove wildlife from urban areas. My latest salvo in the battle with the raccoons is Trapper John of Pathfinder Wildlife Services.  Trapper John arrived with a bit of a Crocodile Dundee vibe. While John was examining the yard to see where the raccoons were entering, I was picking his brain — just out of curiosity. According to John, a remote forested area will contain roughly 3 raccoons per square mile. In the city of Seattle, the number is 70-90 per square mile. Food, shelter and water are easy for raccoons to find in the city, and so here they are.

This is the kind of trap John uses, although the trap isn’t placed yet. He put two traps along what he determined were the pathways for the raccoons, and threw marshmallows around.  Inside the trap is food congenial to raccoons. I have to check the traps every 24 hours, per Seattle law. If we catch something, John will come and deal with it. Apparently any number of things, including rats, skunks, and squirrels, might get caught up in my raccoon vendetta. John basically filled me in on everything he knows about raccoons, including how hard they are to catch. He has a three week long process, flat fee, to catch and remove as many as he can.

John promises that we’ll prevail, one way or another. I live in hope.

Remembering Gilda Radner

I was never a fan of SNL, and hadn’t seen much of Gilda Radner’s work. But CNN did a New Year’s day special on her, and promoted the heck out of it — enough to entice me to watch.

Like many other comedians, Radner didn’t become a funny person because her own life had been a hoot. Concerned about her childhood chubbiness, Radner’s mother put her on Dexadrine at the age of ten. Later, Radner would have to be hospitalized for an eating disorder that left her weight dangerously low. Her beloved father died when she was fourteen. As an adult, Radner was in and out of relationships, finally marrying Gene Wilder, with whom she remained until her untimely death from ovarian cancer at age 42. She miscarried the baby they conceived together, and then the discovery of her cancer precluded trying again.

Radner was funny in the iconic mode of Lucille Ball — both highly physical comedians whose bodies and facial expressions and gestures did as much to communicate humor as their words. Radner was not a stand up comic who relied on monologues, like Seinfeld or Rosie O’Donnell. Radner created hilarious characters — Baba Wawa, Roseanne Roseanneadanna, Emily Litella, Lisa Loopner — and she inhabited them even as she spoke of their inhabiting her. She could, she told us as her audience, do anything as long as people were laughing.

I expected that the program might be a collection of her funnier sketches, but instead was touched by the deep dive into the life and early death of someone who was brilliant at her art, and whose work took comedic roles for women a quantum leap forward. Beyond that, she started Gilda’s Clubs, where women with ovarian and other kinds of cancers can receive support.

Radner made a lasting impact, despite her foreshortened years. One of the things I’m aware of as I’ve passed 70 and am headed toward 74 in 2019, is that long life gives lots of chances — for learning, and growth, for experimentation, for healing, for mistakes to be corrected and relationships rewoven, for growing in the appreciation of life’s beauty and preciousness. When you die at 42 you don’t get nearly enough of that, whether you are famous or not. Rest in peace, Gilda Radner.

Nuns with a Gambling Problem

During my years as a consultant, and especially after my first book How Much is Enough? came out, I often got work in church settings — usually on the stewardship side, sometimes working with the lay governing body on leadership. Rarely did the clergy think they needed any help with their own leadership or financial skills. I often brought up the issue of religious bodies having adequate financial controls, because after all, people are people. I got a lot of pushback, under the premise of “but it’s the CHURCH! No one would steal from the church.”


Two nuns in California, the principal and vice principal of St. James Catholic School, are accused of stealing half a million bucks, give or take, from the school budget over a decade. Turns out Sisters Mary Margaret Kreuper and Lana Chang had a gambling problem.  The light fingered ladies, vowed members of the Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondelet, are 77 and 67, respectively. The Order will reimburse the school. The L.A. diocese initially didn’t want to press charges –that old Catholic thing about not causing scandal for the church — but changed their minds when the amount of missing funds came to light. No one knows exactly where the Sisters are now; the Order has them “under supervision” someplace.

Why do people steal from churches? For much the same reason that Willie Sutton said he robbed banks: that’s where the money is. Churches take in Sunday collections, tuition payments for the parish school, large donations to the Bishop’s Annual Fund and the like. And, church accounts are much easier to raid than banks were for Sutton to rob, because churches assume no one will steal from them. Eventually, though, even in the most trusting of settings, somebody notices something.

Honestly, Sisters, did you really think you’d never be caught and have to pay the piper?


Killed by Arrows on a Remote Island

A 26 year old white American missionary was killed on a remote Indian island after trying to  make contact with an ancient tribe living there. He wanted to convert its members to his version of Christianity.

An estimated number of tribe members living on the island is less than 100. The Indian government has attempted to protect them by making the island off limits to visitors, after displays of hostility in the past.

The tribe members who shot arrows to repel the American, John Chau, must be terrified every time someone tries to invade, for whatever purpose.

No one deserves to bleed to death on a remote beach in a hail of arrows. I also understand that for people who belong to religions based on evangelizing,  reaching out to non-believers is central to a lived faith. That said, we have decades of experience in the United States and Canada of the violence done to indigenous people in attempts to convert them to Christian beliefs and Western European culture. For me, it’s no longer tolerable or acceptable to do what Mr. Chau attempted. Not only did he trigger mortal fear in the islanders, leading to the loss of his life, his action has now put other lives in danger as attempts will be made to retrieve his body.

Secure in his faith, I imagine the thought that he was doing violence to the islanders merely by attempting to contact them never entered his mind. I’m shaking my head at the thought of a life lived with that degree of obliviousness.


“Tuning Up” Whitey Bulger

“Tuning up” is the euphemism the Mob uses for beating someone to death.

Whitey Bulger, in case you’re not up to speed on the Irish Mafia in Boston’s  South Side, or didn’t see the 2015 film Black Mass starring Johnny Depp, was the boss of the notorious Winter Hill gang. The Irish Mafia did all the things their counterpart Italian Mob figures did, although there was a twist here: while running the gang Bulger was simultaneously an FBI informant.

His FBI handler tipped him in 1994 that he was going to be arrested, and Bulger fled with his longtime girlfriend, living on the lam until his capture in 2011. He was 81 years old. He was tried, convicted, and sentenced to two life terms in prison. He had just been moved to a U.S. penitentiary in Hazleton, PA, when he was killed in rather brutal fashion by another inmate — “tuned up” as they say. Bulger was 89 years old and in a wheelchair, so not much resistance there. The beating was so harsh and merciless his eyeballs were dislodged.

Normally we’d feel sorry for a defenseless old man beaten badly enough that his eyeballs jumped their sockets, but I don’t know that Bulger had any claim to mercy. Bulger in his day was brutal; he was personally convicted of 19 murders, not to mention what the Winter Hill gang did on his orders. Maybe, when Bulger saw his killer coming at him and knew there was nothing he could do, he  had moments to feel regret.