Peculiar institution indeed

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Over two-thirds of the countries in the world have abolished capital punishment. One-hundred and forty-one countries. Of course, that doesn’t include us. In America, though, we have 19 abolitionist jurisdictions, with Connecticut being the latest to repeal state-sanctioned murder. Maryland and California aren’t far behind. Yes, I said murder. Premeditated cold-blooded murder. The ultimate denial of human rights. We kill people who kill people to show that killing people is wrong. Even a five-year old understands how illogical this is.

So why do we still do it? In the name of justice? Perhaps more in the name of revenge. Think about it:  revenge is the purest of motives, the strongest of motivators and the most primordial of urges. Do we rape the rapists? Do we beat the assaulters? Why then do we kill the killers? How, in a Draconian and irretrievably broken justice system, can we be sure that the condemned are 100 percent guilty? We are all familiar with the Innocence Project; to date, the group has helped to exonerate 303 people through DNA testing. About 20 of those were on death row. That’s 20 innocent people we almost murdered.

There’s not enough ink for me to cover the cases where a huge balloon of doubt still hangs over the freshly-killed corpses strapped to gurneys in various death chambers. I can’t even think about Troy Davis without getting nauseated. The state of Georgia put him down like an animal despite overwhelming new evidence that he was innocent.

The United States is the one solitary nation among Western democracies to still wield the death penalty as punishment. Yet the facts behind the retention of capital punishment in our nation – and why we still employ such an arguably severe sentence – remain emotionally grounded in political and cultural beliefs. New York University’s legal scholar and sociology professor David Garland sets out to explain the strange morphing of capital punishment, and the even stranger hold it has on America in “Peculiar Institution:  America’s Death Penalty in an Age of Abolition.” Garland presents the case that the nation’s judicial death machine remains racialized and motivated by societal pressure, regardless of the statistical proof that it deters no crime.

Garland’s book is a multilayered, interdisciplinary analysis that explores the evolution of the death penalty across the centuries. His comprehensive look into capital punishment takes readers on a journey that is at times gory, but never departs from the impetus for the transition that the death penalty has undergone. His perspective for analysis ranges from historical to political/legal to cultural.

And Garland’s lengthy pedigree in the arena of research on crime and punishment is worthy of note. The NYU professor of law and sociology penned an entire series of books on punishment and social control spanning from 1985 to 2001. He is also the founding editor of the international interdisciplinary journal “Punishment and Society” (NYU’s The Docket). In this piece, his lens is entirely scholarly, his voice that of a keen observer rather than someone with vested political interest. He is careful to keep his tone amoral, and to not take a stance either for or against capital punishment as an institution; even so, the facts presented make a powerful argument for death penalty opponents.

The author’s premise rests on several points, but primarily on two arguments:  Firstly and most controversially, that the death penalty is racially biased and still whispers of Southern lynch mobs. Garland uses historical trends rather than hard statistics to support this, but paints the picture nonetheless. “In the minds of many people, today’s death penalty – which is more than ever before an institution of the Southern states – carries clear traces of racial lynching and is inextricably linked to the ‘peculiar institution’ of slavery that lies in the root of this blood-stained history” (12). He maintains that capital punishment is firmly grounded in the South’s legacy of racial violence as evidenced by the disproportionate number of black offenders executed, “though the precise relationship is by no means clear” (13).

Secondly, Garland concludes that the death penalty’s evolution from a bloody, public code of revenge to a private spectacle of justice is due to a societal opposition to inflicting barbarism on another human being, and political posturing. And while imposing a death sentence on criminals convicted of the most heinous crimes is still driven by emotion rather than the exalting of sovereign state power, the way it is meted out has everything to do with maintaining a humane standard. America has gone from disemboweling, flaying or burning the guilty to death to a procedure like lethal injection, which more resembles a furtive medical pre-operative practice that gives witnesses less to squirm in their seats about. Even so, there is an air of embarrassment or guilt on those involved in the death process. “The result is that executions often seem on the verge of violating propriety and decency. The all-important sense of decorum at these events is fragile and easily breached – by a nosebleed, trouble finding a vein, an inmate too heavy to be hanged, or an aged inmate who has to be wheeled into the death chamber in a wheelchair” (60).

Garland’s tome positions his well-evidenced arguments in the main room of the scholarly conversation on capital punishment; he clearly tries to impart to the reader that while has no opinion of record, the system remains inexorably tainted. His conclusions are those of merit, and although the discussion on the death penalty itself is not folly, he offers a fresh perspective on why the system morphed from a bloody show of revenge to the instrument it has become in our age, a peculiar institution used for the political and cultural purpose of retribution.

For its solid merits, the text does fall short of examining several considerations married to the tricky subject of capital punishment, namely the ratio of sentences imposed to those actually carried out. Death row inmates on appeal can wait twenty years or better in some cases before ever seeing the chamber. Garland does offer decisions from a bevy of tangled legal precedents, but does not clearly analyze the nonfinancial impact that long, drawn-out capital cases has on the integrity (or lack thereof) of the process itself. The author is also neglectful on exploring the ideological impetus for Furman v. Georgia, one of the most notorious U.S. Supreme Court rulings in the twentieth century, and the one that quite nearly caused complete abolition of capital punishment. While he sees that the decision was likely the justices’ struggle to interpret the U.S. Constitution, he does not acknowledge that the emergency federal and state moratorium on the death penalty was likely a knee-jerk reaction to the racially-fueled culture wars of the time.

The death penalty is no more adapted to suit its own purpose today than it was at its inception, regardless of the procedural protections in place. Garland’s text is fantastically devoid of pontificating, but the deeper nature of the well-evidenced facts presented are troubling. Considering that the scholarly conversation about capital punishment will likely remain controversial, students of criminal justice, those pursuing studies in race, and all members of American society that take part in the process of meting out a death sentence will benefit from reading Garland’s discourse. As he concedes in his conclusion, the conversation is far from over.

Oh, the glamour!

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When I tell people I’m a writer, they always want to know two things: “Oh! Who do you write for and what do you write?”

Well, truthfully, everyone and everything. Oh, that’s so cool! You work for yourself! And I get the look: What a life you must have …

What a life indeed. Oh, the glamour! We’ve all seen those cute little pie chart memes posted that break down what writers actually do with their days. They’re hysterical – and sad – because they nail it. Get the image out of your head of us tappa-tapping with great concentration on our MacBooks, creating the next best seller.

I’m going to break my day down for you. I’m up at 0530, thanks to the dog, and after everyone’s been fed and walked, and the coffee has been brewed, I’m in my office by around 0630 to get serious. And here’s what really happens:

Screwing around online. Googling really stupid things like ‘Game of Thrones’ fan fiction and YouTube-ing Dolph Lundgren. 2 hours gone.

Getting stuck in the weeds of Social Media Land. Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Snapchat, Reddit, LinkedIn, Goodreads, what have you. Don’t even get me started on Pinterest. I browsed crockpot recipes once, looked up, and it was oh, like, next Wednesday. Another 2 hours gone.

Comparing my writing to everyone else’s out there. Deciding I suck, and that no one really likes me, and they never did anyway. 45 minutes.

Having a tantrum. This is when you get an idea, grab at it, lose it, and must throw things at the wall in frustration. Cracked my first iPad that way. 15 minutes.

An accidental Netflix binge. I don’t mean to click on it, it just happens. And pretty soon I’m buried in “Breaking Bad,” “Orange is the New Black,” or “Narcos.” God dammit. 2 to 3 hours.

(Here is where it dawns on me that it’s already the afternoon and I wolf down lunch in 5 minutes. Must not waste time on food.)

Tweaking my website. As if changing the SEO on my landing page will bring in 600% more business. 1 hour.

Starting a blog. Promptly killing it. Start another one. Kill that one, too. Another 90 minutes.

Sneak out to the pool. Just for an hour, to “brainstorm” while plugged into my iPod, listening to Slipknot full blast for inspiration.

Playing with the dog. Hey, he’s 14. He wants to play fetch for an hour? I’m not going to say no.

Realizing on a Thursday that I forgot to read the Sunday Times. Waste an hour rectifying that situation.

Checking back with social media. Just to see what I missed. 1 hour.

Have a panic attack over how much I didn’t get done today. And look at the bills piling up. Medicate self to calm down. 45 minutes.

Build a custom Maserati online. This is best accomplished while having a drink, crying, and swearing to do better tomorrow. 1 hour killed.

Actual writing. 45 minutes of stuff that I’m certain is pure crap, and that the client will hate.

Go to bed. Toss and turn. Get up the next day. Repeat.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Coping: Dark Days, Indeed

Most of you that know me also know that I am coping with the sudden,IMG_0223 recent loss of a dear friend, and the love of my life for 13 years.

His death in December, at only 48 years old, brought me to my knees. There are days when I am unable to cope with even getting out of bed, and other days where I have to set hour by hour goals for myself: Take the dog for a walk. Cook something. Take the garbage out. Write a blog. Anything past that and I crumble.

For the first time in my life, I finally had to admit that I cannot handle something on my own – a mortal sin for us paramedics – and sought out a therapist for grief counseling. Thank God for him. He is kind and gentle and listens, and isn’t afraid to dole out some tough love.

He directed me back to writing everyday … I had let it fall by the wayside when Jimmy passed away. I just didn’t have the juice anymore to put words on paper. I started small, journaling when I could. Some days, it was one sentence, and sometimes that sentence was “Fuck this.” On other occasions it was rambling pages. Sometimes, I’d go back and read what was written, and wonder who in the hell actually penned it. It’s a scary thing, when you don’t recognize yourself.

Along the way, I acquired this book: “The Writer’s Devotional: 365 Inspirational Exercises, Ideas, Tips & Motivations on Writing” by Amy Peters. She’s not kidding with that title, either. There are 365 assignments, lessons and prompts, each one of them fairly unique, quite a feat in a sea of books out there filled with dried out writing prompts.

So far I’ve written the biography of my best friend, read the abbreviated story of George Orwell, learned some editing tips and relished some motivational quotes. My favorite so far is from Ben Stein: “The indispensible first step to getting the things you want out of life is this: decide what you want.”

And it is structured for the days of the week, something I needed so desperately but didn’t know at the time: Mondays, writers on writing. Tuesdays, motivation. Wednesdays, writing class. Thursdays, editing. Fridays, biographies. Saturdays, books to read. Sundays, writing prompts. Amy Peters gives you no days off from tackling those assignments – something I also desperately needed. Some days, it’s the only thing I look forward to. Writing is a largely solitary activity.

So since it is Wednesday, and I am on week 3, today’s writing class has me blogging a 250-word limit on a recently released movie, and to write like I talk. No one is going to read it, so it’s the same theory as dance as if no one is watching. Complete freedom. I haven’t been taken to a movie in a long, long time. So I had to pick one recently released on Netflix. Give it a zippy headline, she advised. So I did: ‘Dolph Lundgren’s pecs steal the show in Kindergarten Cop 2.’ Ah, guilty pleasures.

Kudos, Amy Peters. You have gotten me through some dark days, and I’m sure there are more of those coming. Thanks for your guidance. I’ll keep your book close.

Consider the source

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Since we live in the nanosecond digital age, doing your homework on a subject that you want to write about should be easier than ever, right?

Research is a mere click of the keypad away, thanks to the Information Super Highway and all of its powerful search engines. Type in a keyword or two, and you have yourself a veritable smorgasbord of links to choose from. Wikipedia, so-called experts’ blogs, and promotional advertorial sites are just a few of the things that pop up.

Here’s the problem: it’s murky water out there. Unless you’re quite skilled at separating the credible from the unattributed, there’s no way to tell if the info in front of you is bogus or not. Instead of streamlining the research process, the Internet often gets us tangled in the spider webs.

In my former life, (say, oh, 20 years ago), I was a news reporter. I worked years for daily newspapers, pounding a beat for my stories, and rushing against 5 o’clock deadlines. Back then, research was research, and your details had better be credible. That meant pounding the beat and finding the truest truth.

Newspaper reporters are savvy scrappers by trade. We “save string,” collecting shiny bits of this and that like magpies. We’ve employed a few quick ways to dive deep into a subject we know nothing about to write a clear, concise piece sometimes within minutes.

Mimicking some of these methods can solidify your own research:

Use public documents. Official documents on a wide range of topics can be found on various state and federal government agency sites in PDF form, usually for free download. And they have statistics galore. (A quick note on that: Verify those stats with a couple of other sources.)

Find a local expert. Whatever your piece is on, you can usually open up the phonebook and find a working list of businesses to call or visit. It adds flavor to your writing, and educates you on your subject.

Find a government expert. I once called a contact at the U.S. Food & Drug Administration because a client needed me to do a piece on why you can’t keep soy sauce in the refrigerator.

Go to the library. Seriously. And not the online version, either. Get out of the chair, and go down to the public library, where you will have instant access to clips from papers such as The NY Times, The Washington Post and academic journals on more topics than you can think of.

Chambers of Commerce. You’d be surprised at what they know about their local area, which is pretty much everything.

Above all, stay skeptical. While I’m not suggesting you ditch the online research altogether, I do say dissect that info with a critical eye. If it’s not attributed within a couple of links, don’t risk it. Because of course, if it’s online, it’s true. Right?

I’m Fine: Thirteen Years Gone

Thirteen years ago today, God called back one of the finest men I have ever had the privilege of meeting in this lifetime, or ever will, for the record: my father.

We all have events in our human existence that forever change us, change us in such swift and final ways that we have no words to articulate it to those who have not gone through it.

As such, this was mine. Thirteen years ago today, during a normal tour of duty on the old 589 medic unit, I got that phone call.

The old 589 was running true to form that night, busy even for a Tuesday. My partner and I were piling into the truck to run yet another emergency, this one for chest pain on Grey Eagle Court South (no, I will never forget these seemingly unimportant details), and my cell phone rang as I was pulling my on my seatbelt.

It was Jimmy, my K13, my other half. He wasn’t due in for patrol until 2100, so to hear from him this early meant something very bad had happened.

And he wouldn’t tell me at first. He just told me to come home. I remember every word, every breath, every detail about that very short conversation.

“Something happened to your father.”

Daddy? No, not my Daddy. He was fine. He was 56 years old. Jimmy must have gotten something mixed up.

“What happened?”

“They don’t know. Just come home.”

“Is he dead?”

Jimmy always told me things straight. “Yes.”

Fifteen hundred miles away… hadn’t seen him in four years … hadn’t talked to him since Christmas Day …

“You ok to drive home? I called Sarge and called in.”

“I’m fine.”

I don’t think I did anything on the long drive over the Sunshine Skyway Bridge but concentrate on the lane markers. I called my mother to let her know, but now I don’t remember that part.

When I pulled into our driveway, Jimmy was still in uniform, standing by his SPPD K9 truck, holding a Publix bag in one hand and a box of Land O’Lakes butter in the other. (That Saturday before, I had wanted to make pancakes but we were out of butter. I was pissed at the time. Such a small, inconsequential thing in the universe.)

“I got butter,” was all he said. And I fell to my hands and knees on the pavement and started crying for the first time.

So my Daddy was gone. I was numb through those next few days, even though I had made all of the arrangements. And it was so cold, that kind of unforgiving Rhode Island winter where the wind has teeth, and every breath you take outside is full of needles.

Didn’t I want to put a coat on? People said.

“I’m fine.”

Did I want to say a few words?

“No.”

But I should have. I should have told them all that my father was just a great, genuine guy, hearty stock, neither sinner nor saint, who loved his New England Patriots, his Dunkin’ Donuts coffee, his Saturday afternoon Miller Lites, and me, his only child. He was brilliant musician, painter, photographer. A biker. When he retired, he talked about coming down to Florida to be near me and away from the cold weather

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Just 56 years old. It didn’t make sense that his heart should give out, when his mind and soul had so much left. But does it ever?

The last time I had spoken to him was Christmas Day. I had special ordered his gift, and he still hadn’t gotten it yet. No biggie, he told me. And I had tried to call New Year’s Eve, but got no answer. He used to roll up the rug pretty early, even if that ball was about to drop.

Then, on Jan. 7, 2003, that call: “You need to come home.”

And because fate works the way it does, his Christmas gift came that very day. He never got to see it. I placed it, still wrapped, in his casket and had it buried with him.

Thirteen years ago today, and I can still smell the way the funeral parlor reeked of lilies from someone else’s service. Even now they nauseate me.IMG_8718

Are you ok? People ask.

“I’m fine.”

Thirteen years ago today, and I am still crying like it just happened. I still pick up the phone to tell him things, but he’s not there anymore.

Thirteen years ago today, I learned a couple of very hard lessons, the kind after which you are never the same: Life is very short. Everything is eventual, and everything is inevitable.

I’ll add a postscript to this. Twenty-three days ago, God called back another of the finest men I have ever had the privilege of meeting in this lifetime.

Jimmy was the love of my life, my very best IMG_8538friend, my soul mate. He was 48 years old. His death also brought me to my knees; his Christmas gift also came on the day he died. This combined with Daddy’s anniversary it has created in me a superstorm of grief that I cannot put into words.IMG_8586

People have stopped asking if I’m ok. It’s because I always give them the same answer.

I’m fine.

 

 

Have you Hugged a Spider Yet Today?

20130626-140614.jpg     Dear Arachnophobes:   You hysterical people are giving spiders a bad rap. Lay off them, alright? Your fear is baseless and irrational (I’m going to get some hate emails on that one), and completely Draconian. That’s right; arachnophobia started in the Dark Ages, when spiders were thought of as the culprits behind contaminated food and water. How a sense of urgent danger was associated with spiders and traversed the generations is a mystery.

Researchers postulate that humans are born with a fear of creatures such as spiders (and snakes, etc.); just how an inborn phobia pops up in fetal development though remains unresolved. The academic discipline of evolutionary psychology holds that the fear is easy to acquire because there are poisonous breeds out there. But the ratio of their inane threat to human wellbeing is far smaller than the very real physical threat of debilitating symptoms caused by phobias. Those afflicted (about 6 percent of the population in America) have symptoms ranging from full-blown panic attacks to cardiac events.

All from the sight of a little fuzzy eight-legged guy who just wants to share your spacious home and eat some pesky insects. Like the entire spider condo association in my garage that gobbles up mosquitoes by the bushel. Mosquitos, incidentally, carry and transmit Eastern equine encephalitis, the West Nile virus, malaria and other really nasty diseases. I feel like I should be writing the spiders a check each month. (But then where would they spend it?)

Doctors actually put Arachnophobes on medications like serotonin uptake inhibitors and beta blockers to square away their symptoms, and give them sedatives to calm them down. Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) seems to be the cure of choice, and patients are often treated through something called systematic desensitization, which involves getting up close and personal with our spider friends.

There’s even an iOS app – I shit you not on this, look it up – that uses systematic desensitization and hypnosis to cure arachnophobia. All for $1.99.

Systematic desensitization in vivo shouldn’t be too hard to luck into; our spider friends are everywhere. No matter how well you have fumigated the place, shaken out rugs and cleaned the basement corners, those little extraordinary creatures find a way. It’s estimated that for every acre of space, there are 1 million spiders. For hotter, tropical climates (as in us here in Florida) that number jumps to 3 million. In translation, you’re never more than three feet from one. At any time.

This should comfort everyone. Stay with me on this. Spiders eat more insects than birds and bats combined. Imagine if the spiders were gone; this place would be inhabitable. Love me some spiders!

Love them so much in fact that it is a running joke with anyone who knows me that I refuse to kill spiders and I flip my shit when anyone else does. So people just back off and let me handle it. And I mean handle in the literal sense; I pick them up with my little bare hands and relocate them to wherever they’ll be comfortable. Often times, that’s my garage.

One night I chased a wolf spider (a big sucker, too) around the living room until I was finally able to grab him. My husband watched me from the couch, rum and coke in hand, shaking his head as I brought this guy out to the front landscaping and let him go.

“You bleeding heart liberal,” he said. “Your hippy crunchy-granola spider outreach programs are not working, I hate to tell you.”

By Spider Outreach Program, he means the garage, where vast numbers of daddy longlegs-looking things have built intricate little cities and towns; they hang out all day and night and chit chat and have little spider babies and devour a smorgasbord of bugs. They even eat love bugs.

God, I love my eight-legged brood! To me, they are rare and beautiful. Some of them are as big as my hand, and they flounce around real slowly, on their own schedule, sort of like the egrets that cross the road in packs and stop in the middle, not caring where you need to drive to. They’ll go when they feel like it. They love that garage haven; the ones that accidentally venture into the house stroll around with no regret, checking the place out. And I corral them back up and relocate them to the Spider Outreach Program.

They are literally everywhere, in every inch of space. Sometimes they get into my car and hitch a ride all the way to work, and all the way back home, where I let them out to find their buddies. They make me smile. Call me crazy.

My husband sure does. And he waits until the garage can’t hold any more cities and towns, and he unmercifully – and with great ceremony – takes a huge shop vac and sucks them all up. With glee. He actually whistles a happy little tune to himself.

I have interrupted this massacre twice; once I opened the shop vac and tried to free them before he stopped me. The second time he emptied the canister over the fence before I could get to it. He must enjoy sleeping on the couch (and not getting any ass for a week either). He has vetoed my repeated efforts to get a tarantula. Doesn’t every girl want one?!

Someone somewhere will inevitably fire back at me that we have poisonous spiders around – like black widows and the brown recluse – and goddamn that’s good enough reason right there to stomp all spiders into oblivion.

O.K., I’ll concede that we have some bad guys lurking around out there. I dealt with black widows stowed away in the wood piles growing up in Rhode Island. I tangled with a brown recluse the weekend I moved to Florida in 1999; I still have the scar on my left shoulder. But they don’t seek us out, do they? If you go your way, they go theirs.

Except for that Brazilian wandering spider. He’s just an ass. But I digress.

Popular culture has effectively demonized spiders, cashing in on the public’s irrational fear. I recently watched “Arachnophobia,” the 1990 movie with Jeff Daniels and John Goodman, with my 14-year old stepdaughter. She had her hands over her eyes; I was rooting for the spiders. I rooted for them in “Eight-Legged Freaks” and “Kingdom of the Spiders” too. Well, what the fuck? Freddy and Jason each had their own cheering sections. Even Ted Bundy had supporters. Somebody has to be on the spiders’ side.

Who couldn’t love an extraordinary creature that spins its own beautiful silk? A silk with a tensile strength comparable to high-grade alloy steel (450-1970 MPa), that we cannot reproduce, for all our technology. One species, the Darwin bark spider, manufactures a silk regarded to be 10 times tougher than Kevlar! Suck on that, all you haters!

Tell me you don’t walk up on a gorgeous, intricate orb web, laced with early morning dew, and stop to take in its wonder, its craftsmanship. That little fuzzy eight-legged guy did that whole thing himself. Let’s pause and appreciate it. It’s my version of stopping to smell the roses.

So hang on a minute before you throw a shoe at the next arachnid that happens to stroll through your house. Put the Raid down. Take the clip out of the gun. Think it through. Thank him instead.

Have you hugged a spider yet today?

Words/phrases I never want to hear again 2012

1. Fiscal cliff. And “The Cliff”, “Cliff Crisis” and all other derivatives. Eleventh hour banter and sticking points aside, this is unnecessary drama. Congress is sucking on its own hubris, with President Obama in the middle. We may go over the cliff, but I’m predicting right now that some last minute puppeteer yanks the strings and legislation passes.
2. Trending. Enough. If it’s trending we already fucking know about it. Move on.
3. Hashtag. See #2.
4. Epic Fail. I thought with relief that damnyouautocorrect.com and peopleofwalmart.com had sufficiently put this ridiculous phrase to bed in 2011. Clearly that was an epic fail on my part.
5. Zombie Apocalypse. There’s an apocalypse coming, all right, but the zombies won’t be responsible. They’re too busy screwing each other over the fiscal cliff. We all know the world is going to end because of influenza. Mark my words.
6. Kardashian. I really don’t give a fuck what that tacky family of whores is up to on a daily basis, do any of you? Good. I knew it.
7. At the end of the day. This phrase makes me long for a good string of reduplicative doublets. If you have to throw this phrase in for emphasis in the middle of an argument, you have not a leg to stand on. (** “not a leg to stand on” will be on 2013’s list. I promise.)
8. It is what it is. Of course it is, and it always will be. It’s right up there with “I’m going to be where I’m at” and “Everywhere you go, there you are.”
9. Meh. OK, it conveys a disdainful boredom and a general I-Don’t-Give-A-Fuck feeling. But if you really felt meh about something, you wouldn’t utter it because that IS giving a fuck.
10. Gangnam. Because I don’t get it, that’s why.
11. Occupy “_____”. How about occupy a job and a responsible position in your community?
12. Superstorm Sandy. The Gulf Coast has one word for you northern whiners: “Katrina.”