I was 11 when my uncle died, unexpectedly, in 1993 at the age of 42 — just a few years older than I am now. I don’t remember much about him, sadly, aside from a couple scattered memories of his zany brilliance.

But I vividly recall the funeral, and how my dad — whom I’d never before seen cry — gripped the lectern as he recounted the countless times that, growing up, his older brother deliberately made him laugh so hard at the dinner table that milk would come out his nose. It was now just another of their many childhood anecdotes that would never again be shared with his co-author.

If I ever appreciated that “Uncle Scott” was my father’s brother, I did so only abstractly; there was no reason to perceive an identity prior to and independent of his primary role in my life. Yet before he was my uncle — and far more importantly — he was my father’s only sibling. And though Dad was already a husband and father of four back in 1993, I imagine the meaning of “family” wasn’t quite the same for him after Scott took off.

I’ve never talked to Dad about his big brother’s passing, and I don’t intend to. That would force me to confront a central anxiety which, thus far, I’ve managed to suppress — even as it simmers beneath the reason I write this column in advance of a holiday you might not be tracking.

Saturday, April 10, is National Siblings Day. The commemoration was conceived in the United States by Claudia Evart to honor the memory of siblings she lost in separate tragic accidents — one of which ripped her 19-year-old big sister, Lisette, from her life when she was 17, and another of which then stole her 36-year-old big brother, Alan, 14 years later, in 1986.

Without warning, Ms. Evart was suddenly rendered an only child, just as my dad would be seven years later. She responded to that crushing heartbreak by dedicating her life to the establishment of a national day to honor siblings.

I empathize with the ferocity of her mission. After all, but for the untimely catastrophes that tear siblings away from people like Ms. Evart and my dad, the bond between brothers and sisters will likely define the longest relationship a person has in his or her lifetime.

So, curious as to the status of her work, last week I fired off a Hail Mary barrage of messages via LinkedIn, Facebook, and email. We finally connected only when Ms. Evart returned the voicemail I left after finding her phone number through the phone book, thereby marking the very last time in human history that anyone will ever again resort to such antiquated lunacy.

And in yet another illustration of how this column practically writes itself, Ms. Evart informed me during our call that she was once a fellow Albanite, having lived right down the road from where you’re reading this column as a student at the State University of New York at Albany. Because of course she was.  (That revelation dropped my jaw, and forthwith justifies Albany’s designation as “Sibling City.”)

In discussing the commemorative day she’d pioneered, Ms. Evart was laser-focused on her unfinished task: securing a Presidential Proclamation from the Biden Administration that would once and for all enshrine formal observation of a National Siblings Day.

It’s the only mountain left to climb. Because since 1995 — and through the auspices of the not-for-profit Siblings Day Foundation she founded to advance her cause — Ms. Evart’s tireless efforts have resulted in the official observance of Siblings Day by 49 of 50 states (California is the lone holdout), as well as celebratory “Presidential Messages” by presidents Clinton, Bush, and Obama.

Unofficially, the day is already societally entrenched. From Facebook newsfeeds to the far-flung corners of Oprah Winfrey’s media empire — to say nothing of “Big GreetingCard,” that most notorious of America’s industrial cabals — April 10 boasts exclusive currency as the day our nation honors siblings.

I asked Ms. Evart what Enterprise readers could do to further the objective she’s been advancing for more than a quarter century. She said that, while the most obvious form of support is tax-deductible donations through www.SiblingsDay.org or SDF’s just-launched GoFundMe initiative, equally helpful are the “it-only-takes-a-minute” public pressure and awareness campaigns that supporters can execute from the comfort of their web browsers and mobile apps.

“Lobby the White House through Twitter,” Ms. Evart instructed, directing me to SDF’s twitter handle and encouraging users to tweet the official “@WhiteHouse” account with pleas for federal recognition of National Siblings Day. “Connect with SDF on Facebook and Instagram, so we can demonstrate this movement’s support.”

She also agreed that asking local, state, and congressional representatives to join her in calling on the Biden Administration to declare April 10 as “National Siblings Day” would significantly enhance the organization’s prospects for success.

“This is a contentious time,” she told me. “Formalizing a day that honors unconditional love [among siblings] and which already exists in practice nationwide would be really meaningful right now. Nearly 80 percent of Americans have at least one sibling — it’s a fundamentally bipartisan issue!”

Ms. Evart’s quest so resonates with me because a federally-recognized day to honor siblings would annually commemorate the most important people in my life. I’m the oldest of four, blessed to have three baby sisters who followed my arrival in rapid succession.

The derivative benefit of my mother’s renowned obsession with babies’ chubby cheekies (four sets in five years) was a brood so close in age that, throughout early adulthood, my sisters and I could roll up to Lark Street’s bars as a motley and self-contained clique.

Years before that, in 2001 — when the four of us were jointly confined for eight hours a day in Voorheesville’s Junior-Senior High School — my weekly responsibilities included flagrantly violating my hall pass to distract Robin and Brenna from the doors of their classrooms, only to then goof off with Caitlin in the percussion section of concert band.

Granted, I spent most of my teen years completely ignoring my siblings, because they were annoying and stupid and dumb and annoying. So adolescence didn’t afford me much perspective to appreciate the development of their identities in live-time. But, in retrospect, I was right there alongside them as they grew into the wonderful women I know today.

From the same parents, we each became our own independent people, while sharing so many threads and eccentricities in common. Even now, our every conversation advances the ongoing inside joke that, in the whole universe, only the four of us know.

While I can’t lay claim to ever making milk involuntarily burst from my siblings’ noses, I’m sure Uncle Scott would’ve nonetheless been proud to watch the nightly sabotage of my parents’ attempts at a civil dinner as I perfected the performance art of making my sisters laugh.

Though the military granted me a title, the honorific of which I’m most proud is “brother.” And in that role, it’s been endlessly rewarding to watch my fellow parental progeny forge their own paths from infant to individual.

Over the last half-decade, I’ve even been promoted to the rank of “Uncle Jiss,” solemnly serving as the same mischievous influence my sisters recall from childhood to my adoring nephews and nieces, whom I’ll forever regard as just free-floating pieces of the siblings I so cherish.

I wonder: How did Ms. Evart convert her pain into inspiration? How did Dad so bravely embrace the unexpected burden of keeping alive the boyhood memories his brother once helped him shoulder? And how will I know true happiness or weather life’s losses without having all my siblings there beside me?

Am I allowed to ask God — softly, subserviently, without making any sudden movements — that my sisters and I be permitted to experience together the many joys and tragedies yet lying in wait?

A tangible example: Long after we’ve said our final goodbyes to our parents, the best of them will still be reflected in my siblings, who radiate my mother’s compassion and my father’s wit. And since it’s in retelling the legends of mum and dad over whiskey that my parents will live on, can I respectfully request that God not take my sisters from me until the bitter end?

The answer, I know, is no. Ms. Evart and my father are testament to life’s sole lesson: Nothing is promised, except that it’ll all be taken away someday.

For Ms. Evart, a National Siblings Day will only ever serve as a memorial — a realization driven home when, at the end of our call, she said: “Be sure to give your sisters a big hug the next time you see them.”

How’s that for sobering? Yes, I have the enviable luxury of hugging my sisters.

So, rather than fear their hypothetical loss, I suppose I should instead count the blessing that, this coming Saturday, I’ll be wishing them “happy Siblings Day” in the group text thread that crackles with life all day every day, while taking a moment to thank God for having already given me so much time with the coolest humans on Earth.

I hereby dedicate this column to the siblings in our midst who’ve lost their own brothers and sisters, be it to death, addiction, mental illness, irreconcilable disagreement, or whatever else obscures that most sacred of bonds.

I honor the self-reliant bravery of those who never had siblings, and who thus met the world each day without the affirming (and often humbling) influence of a person who always had your back while simultaneously pronouncing that tormenting you was their exclusive purview.

I commend my dad for reassembling the shattered pieces of his heart, though one has been missing for nearly 30 years. And I thank my sisters for this anecdote:

I was once at a bar in North Carolina, my confidence flowing as freely as the bourbon which fueled it. I don’t remember exactly what I said through my Casanova haze to the enchanting woman I’d just approached, but the pronounced roll of her eyes suggests it was inordinately witty and brilliant.

“You must have sisters,” she said after a pause, smiling.

“I do have sisters,” I replied, bemused by the non-sequitur. “How’d you know that?”

“Because all boys who hit on women in bars are insufferable,” she said, placing a charitably condescending hand on my cheek. “But at least the ones with sisters know how to do it respectfully.”

It remains, to this day, the nicest compliment I’ve ever received. Although the enchanting woman evidently lacked an appreciation for witty and brilliant overtures, our encounter nonetheless left me beaming. Because even when sauced, somehow I still proudly exuded my sisters’ influence.

And maybe that’s the answer.  Maybe that’s how Claudia Evart persevered, how my Dad managed to navigate his anguish, how I might survive if one of my sisters didn’t. Maybe siblings remain indivisible parts of us, no matter what coast they’re on, whether on the phone or in our dreams, with us in this life or the next.

Maybe that’s how Ms. Evart found the strength to bring her noble advocacy to the doorsteps of yet another presidential administration, or how Dad figured out how to laugh even when the other party to his life’s most hallowed inside jokes was laid to rest in a synagogue cemetery.

Maybe a sibling’s resilience comes from having endured so many squabbles, practical jokes, and efforts to defraud them of their trick-or-treat hauls. Maybe siblings live on so as to ensure that a piece of their departed brothers and sisters do as well.

Whatever the answer, I’m just relieved that I haven’t had to figure it out yet — that, for me, National Siblings Day is a celebration of those still here. I’m sorry the same can’t be said for my dad, to whom I’m just so grateful for his role in creating my sisters.

They’re the greatest gift my parents ever gave me.
 

Captain Jesse Sommer is an active duty Army paratrooper and lifelong resident of Albany County. He welcomes your thoughts at jesse@altamontenterprise.com.

The Emperor has no clothes. But does it matter that he’s naked in public?

As the $1.9 trillion federal stimulus bears down on us, forgive me for saying aloud what you’ve suspected all along. Deep down, you’ve always known that America was never going to repay its $28,000,000,000,000 national debt. Like, when push came to shove, you knew that’d be impossible. And why question yet another stimulus check when there’s such a vital need?

But for those who’ve never considered the breathtaking fraud of our global financial system — or, for those who have considered it and now fear it’s all about to come crashing down — let me explain what’s really going on. Fortunately, your anxiety is misplaced; by the time our national debt becomes something to worry about, you’re going to have a lot more to worry about.

Conjure in your mind that mid-1700s colonial society wherein a farmer seeks to buy a pair of wool socks from the local tailor. The farmer barters for the wool socks with a block of his cheese, and the tailor — who really likes cheese — agrees to the trade. But, there’s a caveat (because there’s always a caveat with tailors, am I right?)

“It takes me more time to make socks than it takes you to make cheese,” the tailor says, pretentiously. “And because it’s more of a hassle for me to obtain wool, spin it to yarn, and expertly weave it into a pair of socks than it is for you to just let some milk curdle, then” — and here the tailor makes his move — “if you want this pair of wool socks, you’ll have to give me two blocks of your cheese.”

“But I haven’t got a second block of cheese,” the farmer protests.

“Oh,” the Tailor replies. “Then you can’t have my socks.”

“But it’s cold outside,” the farmer wails. 

“Tell you what,” the tailor responds, mercifully. “I’ll give you this pair of wool socks now in exchange for a single block of cheese, but — you owe me that second block of cheese within a month.”

The farmer gleefully agrees to his debt-financed part of the deal, walking off with both a pair of wool socks and an obligation to deliver unto the tailor a second block of cheese. Meanwhile, the tailor gets a block of cheese plus an “IOU” good for a second one within 30 days. Transaction complete.

What I’ve just described is the type of transaction that’s defined most of historical commerce (or, so goes the ubiquitous myth). In societies where a money system evolved, those little coins or paper instruments served merely to make more efficient the process of trade. A standardized “worth” to money enabled a transaction’s participants to easily assign a value to goods and services that eliminated the imprecision of on-the-spot bartering. 

So adapting the prior farmer/tailor example, instead of having to equalize the transaction via a promise of later payment, the “inherent” value of the products can be instantaneously reflected in the medium of exchange: The farmer buys a pair of socks from the tailor for $10, and then — separately — sells him a block of cheese for $5. Two transactions, complete. 

But now let’s presume that the farmer has neither cash nor a second block of cheese, yet still really needs those socks. 

“That’s OK,” the tailor says. “Take the $10 socks now, give me your $5 block of cheese, and pay me the remaining $5 later. But for the luxury of paying me later, I’m going to charge you an extra $1 per month until you fully pay me.” The farmer happily obtains his socks, plus a debt — with interest.

That’s how the modern economy works. Soon enough — after a few such transactions — the farmer owes the tailor $28 trillion. 

Now: Let’s examine America’s present-day $28 trillion global debt, because just as the farmer can’t possibly repay his debt, neither can America. And that compels the question of whether the tailor should have expected to be repaid in the first place.

The tailor likes cheese. Like, a lot. And although he wanted to be paid more than the farmer could give him at the time of the transaction, he was nonetheless willing to part with his handcrafted socks for less than their stated value. Sure, he bargained to be paid more later, he expected to be paid more later, yet he still nonetheless agreed to part with his socks in that moment for the price that the farmer could then pay. 

At any time during their several subsequent exchanges, the tailor could have stopped trading pairs of wool socks for blocks of cheese — but his cheese habit compelled him to keep parting with his socks in exchange for whatever cheese the farmer could offer (plus that increasingly suspect promise to pay the balance later). 

So: Was a pair of wool socks truly worth two blocks of cheese, given that the tailor was so consistently willing to part with them — in practice, in that moment — for only one block of cheese?

Unsurprisingly, the farmer eventually comes back and says, “Sorry T, turns out I’m destitute, and thus can’t give you all those second blocks of cheese I previously promised you.”

Whatever. The fact remains that, while the tailor had anticipated receiving the cheese he was rightfully owed, his belly had still been filled with that which had made parting with his socks worth it to him at the time.

Sure, had the tailor known he ultimately wouldn’t be paid the full amount of the debt, maybe he wouldn’t have sold the farmer his wool socks — but that would’ve meant forfeiting access to any cheese at all. And the tailor could not have abided such deprivation.

The reason I’m beating this wearied horse to death is to explain the significance of every single American’s $85,000 share of the national debt — a per-person obligation more than twice the United States median per capita annual income. (Incidentally, that $85K figure factors in all 330 million Americans, be they infants or your lazy deadbeat cousin who has no intention of working a single day his entire life. The share of the national debt for every adult taxpayer? A cool $909,000. Yup.)

Everybody knows America’s debt won’t be repaid, yet nobody seems to care. And the kicker is that it doesn’t matter anyway.

That’s because the myriad transactions that accounted for our present obligation to repay a preposterous number of zeroes were incorrectly valued in the first place. That $28 trillion debt is the outstanding legacy of countless exchanges that already happened.

Two parties to a deal were sufficiently satisfied with their bargain to finalize negotiations and go on their merry ways. Yes, one of those parties foolishly believed she would eventually receive the unpaid balance, in addition to interest payments in the interim. But as the balance sheet shows, that expectation was wrong.

One day the tailor says to the farmer, “If you don’t pay me the blocks of cheese you owe me, I’ll not sell you any more wool socks.”

The farmer — looking sheepish but nonetheless secure in the true dynamic undergirding their negotiations — merely shrugs, and says softly: “But if you don’t give me more socks, my feet will be too cold to make you any cheese at all.” 

Thus, the essential truth: Though the tailor is owed several trillion blocks of cheese, he’d rather have one more block than no more. The terms of the transaction were wrong from the jump.

The tailor had valued his time, labor, and the cost of raw materials to arrive at a price-per-sock-pair that was twice the cost of a block of cheese, but had overlooked one simple criterion that he hadn’t priced into his socks: to wit, that he really, really likes cheese.

So let’s finally kill off this horse (which, to keep things simple, belongs to an unrelated farmer). 

America is the farmer, and the global financial system is the tailor too afraid to permit our fiscal default. Why? Because the worldwide financial system likes our cheese. It needs our cheese.

And though cheese is horrendously unhealthy in the quantities that the world consumes, we just can’t stop. That $28 trillion debt symbolizes the American empire. It’s the price tag of enforcing the integrity of a unified international market, a.k.a., “the cheese.”

Until the world’s creditors — be they China, international financial institutions, Social Security recipients, or domestic mutual fund managers pile-driving money into allegedly safe U.S. Treasury-backed securities — wean themselves from our cheese, America will continue to expand its debt load. And a debt that won’t be repaid is just a meaningless string of zeros on a spreadsheet. 

By the time the world declares that American cheese no longer has any value, the entire construct of money will be meaningless anyway — as portended by a recent article in “The Onion” entitled “U.S. Economy Grinds To Halt As Nation Realizes Money Just A Symbolic, Mutually Shared Illusion.”

So the next time you encounter someone shrieking about a $28 trillion national debt, voice some relaxed skepticism; explain that our debt doesn’t represent what the U.S. owes its creditors so much as it represents the intangible value of outsourcing to America the responsibility for shouldering an integrated global financial system — backed by the all-mighty American dollar. 

(True: Reality does significantly depart from our hypothetical. Because when America stops by to inform the tailor that it can’t deliver all the cheese it owes but regardless still wants more wool socks, it brings along its nuclear arsenal and historical willingness to invade sovereign nations for the sport of it. But for the sake of this column, just shut up already.)

So Uncle Sam might as well keep borrowing money with fevered abandon — shorthand for “print more money,” which I presume entails some dude at the Treasury Department adjusting an Excel document with an extra “0” — while the Nations of Earth remain “involuntarily willing” to let us get away with it. At the end of the day, the real value of our debt is ZERO.

If the world community deigns to change the prevailing status quo — and actually takes responsibility for the excesses of war, environmental devastation, and wholesale socioeconomic inequality — then it need not demand that America repay its debts. Rather, the world (and all of us) must become less reliant on American cheese.

After all, the global economy wouldn’t tolerate America’s debts if it weren’t existentially dependent on the economic activity spurred by manufacturing socks in exchange for cheese. 

Until then, Americans should probably keep one eye fixated on a future after the world wakes up — when our 401Ks are suddenly meaningless and issuing stimulus checks in a crisis is mathematically infeasible. Because last month, the Congressional Budget Office projected that America’s federal debt in 2021 would exceed the size of the entire U.S. economy (i.e., the gross domestic product — a measure of the country’s total goods and services). And someday, it’s at least plausible that two plus two will once again equal four. 

I’m not saying that the global financial system will collapse but, if it doesn’t, then I guess we’re well on our way to finding out what number comes after “trillion.”

In the meantime, let’s just all keep pretending that money has value. Because although the emperor may be mostly naked, those sure are some snazzy wool socks. 

Captain Jesse Sommer is an active duty Army paratrooper and lifelong resident of Albany County. He welcomes your thoughts at jesse@altamontenterprise.com.

The back-to-back traumas of 2021’s first month disabused any hope that the surreal horrors of last year would be neatly exiled to the safer confines of history. Less unique aberration than a preview of what lies ahead in our slog through millennia’s third decade, even 2020 would’ve been hard-pressed to predict the new year’s Capitol siege or a second presidential impeachment. 

Our national politics are completely dysfunctional, the democratic system through which they’ve long been expressed has frayed beyond total disrepair, the stock market has been exposed as a precarious fraud for the 38 millionth time, and America has jumped the shark. This is the new normal. This is who we are. And I was apparently too engrossed by yet another paralyzing TikTok binge to notice the moment we rampaged past the point of no return. 

Welcome to February. If tomorrow I’m accosted by a sentient killer robot newly escaped from some corporate R&D lab, my only question of it will be: “What took you so long?” Here’s my rundown of what January introduced: 

 

— Do you even 25th Amendment, Bro?

Despite your willingness to wax eloquent on the 25th Amendment, we both know neither of us has actually read it. Gimme a sec — OK; just skimmed it. Turns out only its fourth section is germane to recent events, and there’s a gaping ambiguity in it: if the 25th Amendment were ever invoked, who would be commander-in-chief of the armed forces? 

The provision details how the vice president would “assume the powers and duties of the office as Acting President,” how the president then would “resume the powers and duties of his office,” and back-and-forth. But who’s in control of the military during this procedural chaos? Don’t presume it’s so straightforward.

Is it still the president, or does the vice president’s written declaration of the boss’s unsuitability somehow magically inject him/her into the chain of command as “acting” commander-in-chief, too? During such a tense period, which of these two can issue the lawful orders that the Defense Department is beholden to execute, and might carrying them out subject servicemembers to Nuremberg-style liability? 

The relevance of this inquiry is accentuated by jaw-dropping public dicta in The Washington Post on Jan. 3, 2021, by the 10 living former defense secretaries who reminded uniformed personnel that their sacred oath of service is to the Constitution, not to an individual. The necessity of that unprecedented maneuver should horrify you. 

 

— Despite architectural advancements, divided houses still cannot stand

I derive a perverse sense of pride from the fact that the gravest threat facing America is, well, Americans. Unable to dominate us militaristically, economically, culturally, or anything-ly, our most pernicious adversaries finally identified the weapon with which they could destroy us: ourselves.

Using made-in-America social media platforms and integrated network technologies, Russia spent half a decade sewing irreparable discord into the fabric of our national identity via fake news and incendiary partisan rhetoric while concurrently hacking its way into the deepest corners of our business and government sectors.

And we mindlessly swallowed the bait hook-line-and-sinker, retreating into ideological camps demarcated by pink pussy beanies on one side and red MAGA caps on the other. The enemy — gleefully incredulous as we sharpen our knives against each other — now whispers, “Divide and conquer” while we chant “U-S-A! U-S-A!” and crank out an unyielding torrent of progressively idiotic memes. 

Are you equally as appalled by the self-assuredness of a citizen populace whose approach to developing opinions is constrained by whatever information fits in 140 characters? Yes, I’m talking about you.

And I’m talking about me — because I haven’t read a book cover-to-cover since 2006, yet I spend hours a week scrolling through news feeds before publishing a monthly column wherein I convince myself that I know what I’m talking about.

 

— Facial recognition and our digital pocket spies

By the time Big Brother got his act together, all the patents on social control had already been awarded to the masses. Yes, I fully support law enforcement’s phenomenal policework operating hand-in-hand with everyday citizens mining social media accounts to identify the insurrectionists who desecrated the (barely beating) heart of global democracy.

But at least take a second to note the fraught implication of facial recognition technologies, the citizen database we’ve willfully erected on Facebook, and the ubiquitous permeation of video surveillance via our own devices acting in tandem to record and reveal our every move.

The government might mine this data, the corporations might store this data, but we’re the ones producing it — in fervent search of affirmation through clicks, likes, shares, and commercial convenience.

Whether prosecuted in the courts of law or the courts of public opinion, Americans build the case against themselves with every selfie, every tweet, every check-in.  

Only for want of a mirror did George Orwell misapprehend government as the future’s most nightmarish authority. And so it was that riotous conspiracists confident the government is implanting tracking devices into blood streams via the COVID-19 vaccine nonetheless forgot to disable their own phones’ “location data” settings before breaching the Capitol to flash duck-lips for the ‘gram. Faceplant.

 

— Right the wrong: Write the unwritten

Are you kidding me we don’t know for sure whether our nation’s chief executive has the power to pardon himself? Extending the benefit of the doubt to Founding Fathers who hadn’t imagination sufficiently cynical to anticipate something so craven, that still doesn’t explain why the issue hasn’t been addressed in a Justice Department memo as similarly dispositive as the one pronouncing sitting presidents immune from indictment.

Clearly, our government has outlived the days when it could run primarily on norms, traditions, unwritten rules, and shared values. 

Figure it out, someone. From the filibuster, to the pardon, to the release of a candidate’s tax returns, to tabulating Electoral College votes, to God knows what else was done according to handshakes before COVID came along and eviscerated that last symbol of decorum, get it in writing.

Step 1: Hang for 30 minutes in a Constitutional Law class. 

Step 2: Write down every inane hypothetical the sharp-shooting troublemakers pose in a bid to stump the professor. 

Step 3: Answer those supposedly implausible scenarios in a statute somewhere and let the political pundits get back to shrieking about the week’s latest hashtag.

 

— Online gambling, a.k.a. “The Stock Market”

I can’t even right now. I’m sorry, but I just can’t even. We’ll talk about it later.

 

— With age comes wisdom — but, like, to a point

President Joe Biden was first elected to the U.S. Senate at age 29, six years younger than would be legal to serve in the office he now holds. Meanwhile, on Jan. 12, 2021, California Senator Diane Feinstein filed re-election paperwork with the Federal Election Commission in advance of her campaign for a sixth Senate term in 2024 — when she’ll be 91. Ladies and gentlemen, that is demented.

Leaving completely aside the issue of term limits — I said enough on that two years ago when The Altamont Enterprise published my call for a 24-year term limit on all legislative and judicial federal offices — we should be uniformly shocked into a disbelieving silence that there’s a minimum age to run for office, but not a maximum one.

No one whines “ageism” when a coed is carded before buying cigarettes, or — for that matter — in requiring presidential candidates to have been born before 1987. But somehow it’s impolitic to suggest that nonagenarians consider retiring from Congress four decades after first qualifying for AARP membership? There are “Old Men of the Mountain” young enough to be Senator Feinstein’s sons. 

You know what hadn’t been invented in 1933, the year Senator Feinstein was born? Take a look around you: about 90 percent of all that. I apologize for permitting my irritation to get the better of me here, but why give someone the keys to Congress when you wouldn’t hand over keys to the car?

I’m sorry, that was gratuitous. But I wouldn’t have gone there had Senator Feinstein just gracefully bowed out after 30 consecutive years in the chamber. Good lord. Maybe America’s most populous state should finally give the Baby Boomers a chance, am I right? 

 

— The imperiled impotence of implausible impeachments 

When Richard Nixon resigned from office in 1973, he avoided membership in what is, therefore, just a three-person club. Presidential impeachment has occurred just four times in our nation’s history — Andrew Johnson (1868), Bill Clinton (1998), Donald Trump (2020, 2021) — but has resulted in zero Senate convictions.

It never will result in conviction. This month will assuredly unmask impeachment as an utterly toothless charade as insignificant as “governmental censure,” which a quick google search will reveal as even more pointless than you could’ve possibly imagined. (With reference to my above call to formally codify certain protocols of government, censure is one of those things they should actually take off the books.) 

In function, the only utility to impeaching a president at this point is to spice up the American History category in Trivial Pursuit; you’ll never secure accountability against a person whom approximately half the populace perceives as their ideological standard-bearer.

If we can’t even trust a binary to assign gender anymore, why do we still see value in a two-party system? Our government was not forged atop the premise that acknowledging the validity of an opposing team’s argument was tantamount to surrender.

Yet here we are, irreconcilably divided by party because blind rage fuels campaign donations and makes us more susceptible to targeted ads. 

The saddest truth of the Capitol Siege is that the insurrectionists were too late; Congress had already been ransacked by the people we sent there to represent us. But sclerotic paralysis and tribal discord wasn’t their fault; it was ours. We’re the ones who demanded combat over compromise. Own it.

 

— Ain’t no First Amendment in Twitter’s terms of use

In 2021’s first of presumably many “this is why we can’t have nice things” moments, Silicon Valley banned Donald J. Trump from his social media accounts. And, according to research by Zignal Labs, this deplatforming almost immediately resulted in an estimated 73 percent reduction in blatant misinformation. For those of you celebrating this attempt to sanitize the factual record, consider this: You’re next. And my god, you should be.

Last month, The Enterprise published a column wherein I called on local officials to mobilize an effort to do something about Albany’s decrepit Central Warehouse. That conversation immediately migrated to local radio, social media, and email, where it devolved into partisan bickering.

Online, any guess as to how many messages attributed the revolting state of Albany’s Central Warehouse to either Donald Trump or Joe Biden? One out of two. One out of two! Fifty percent of the people who publicly opined on the merits of demolishing the Central Warehouse believed the titular leader of one of the country’s two (relevant) political parties was directly responsible for an otherwise small and unremarkable matter of municipal mismanagement.

Instead of a reasoned analysis of the pros and cons, instead of community discussion about budgets and concerns, I bore witness in real-time to infighting for its own sake, because what used to inspire debate now elicits the only reflex around which we all rally: trolling. 

Welcome to February, where even pessimism is a luxury to which you’re no longer entitled. The order of the day now is pragmatism, and an exploration of what yet can be salvaged. Pick your metaphor: Is America the Central Warehouse, ugly yet enduring? Or is it the coronavirus, lethal yet nearly subjugated? 

Or is there one of you out there who will please, please just email me about a small, simple act of kindness you performed for an American wearing the other team’s beanie, or the other team’s hat?

Because right now I’m going to bed each night believing that the greatest threat to America comes from within, and that Mexico probably wishes it had paid to complete the border wall when it had the chance.

Captain Jesse Sommer is an active duty Army paratrooper and lifelong resident of Albany County. He welcomes your thoughts at .

The Enterprise – Dylan Longton

It’s been a year since the Altamont Enterprise published an op-ed wherein I called for the demolition of Albany’s rotting Central Warehouse. Chronicling the past 40 years of developer misadventures, I argued then that since none of the half-dozen successive owners among whom the so-called “Eyesore” has changed hands had ever lived up to their pledges to renovate, remediate, or rehabilitate the dilapidated structure, it was time for municipal officials to consider a new approach.  

The response to my proposal was overwhelmingly positive — except in the opinion pages of the Times Union, which twice opined in response to suggest a different course. The Feb. 17, 2020 edition recommended using the giant 11-story walls as massive canvases to celebrate upstate New York imagery, thereby exuding “progress and creativity instead of stagnation and decay”, while the March 9, 2020 edition again proposed such murals, this time ignoring that even just preparing the building’s exterior to serve as a canvas — scraping and priming and such — would cost $1 million.  

But after yet another year of trafficking in these and other such unattainable fantasies, the only noteworthy activity at the Big Ugly Eyesore is the fact that — and I can’t believe I’m saying this — IT CAUGHT ON FIRE AGAIN!

Are. You. Kidding. Me? As in 2010, when the Eyesore’s interior was first engulfed in a conflagration for half a week, firefighters responded two days after Thanksgiving to extinguish yet another blaze in what Battalion Chief Geo Henderson told the Times Union was “a very high-risk building for us.”

So what’s the plan, folks? Are we going to ring in each new decade with an anniversary inferno down at the old Central Warehouse?

Is building owner Evan Blum going to financially reimburse the city of Albany for the fire department’s latest response to his failure to secure the property?

And how many times does smoke have to billow from this concrete monstrosity’s windows before it finally falls out of fashion to perennially propose that somebody pick up a paintbrush?

That idea was first advanced back in 2015. Nothing came of it then, nothing came of it last year, nothing will come of it two decades hence when the tired whimsey of murals is recycled yet again.  

But there’s more. When last I endeavored to document the building’s history by chronicling its past owners, I missed several acts in this tragic comedy of errors.   

Fortunately, I came upon intrepid reporting by Carola Von Hoffmannstahl-Solomonoff, a former independent journalist who — via phone — helped me fill in the gaps, to include the fact that I’d omitted Brooklyn developer Joshua Guttman from the owners roster. To save column space, just google the name “Joshua Guttman” and peruse the very first search result, to wit, a Wikipedia entry that understates his role as a “controversial property owner.”  

We need delve no further into Mr. Guttman’s background; our current concern is the latest “controversial property owner” — Mr. Blum — who has littered the past four years with worthless promises to do something, anything with the building he purchased for pennies per square foot in 2017. Like his predecessors, he’s done nothing but breathe life into fanciful pipedreams while evidently endangering the lives of firefighters.  

You know who else is disgusted by the putrefaction of “Blum’s Blight?” As it turns out: Evan Blum. 

“It looks like Albany is decaying with that thing sitting there. If I get the permission, I will immediately eradicate that feeling,” Mr. Blum told the Albany Business Review in December 2017, in what can most charitably be described as a blatant lie. 

Though Mr. Blum has proven unreachable, I tracked down one of his former employees who, while declining to go on the record, nonetheless revealed Mr. Blum’s patternistic signature.

 She pointed me to New London, Connecticut, where — according to The Day newspaper — it was in 2005 that Mr. Blum bought an abandoned building while similarly peddling lofty promises of restoration and commercial activity. Sure enough, it was 12 years later that the city filed suit against him for a decade’s worth of flagrant zoning violations and inactivity. Here’s an illustrative quote from that 2017 article:

Richard Caruso, owner of the nearby Caruso Piano Gallery, said he has no expectations Blum will ever do what he claims. ‘When he first opened, I was tremendously optimistic. But the guy has never done any of the things he’s said he was going to do. At this point in time, I’ve abandoned all hope in him.’ Caruso said the city is as much to blame for not being more diligent in its efforts to press the issue. ‘That’s what your local government is supposed to do, especially if you’re trying to enhance the downtown.’”

How applicably familiar. What would history do without the cut-and-paste function?  

The most promising thing about Mr. Blum is the fact that, according to The New York Times, he faced criminal charges in 2000 for the partial collapse of a building he owned in Manhattan. (Promising, in that maybe such a fate will befall the Central Warehouse.)

Curious about the nature of those reported criminal charges? Put down your drink: reckless endangerment through improper/dangerous renovations, and filing false renovation plans.

This is the guy to whom we’ve entrusted our community interest in rejuvenating the Eyesore? Was even a modicum of due diligence performed by Albany Mayor Kathy Sheehan’s staff before they permitted her to meet with him in 2017 and declare that “the city welcomes his plans”?

Two years later — right on schedule — Mayor Sheehan called Mr. Blum’s persistent lack of progress “incredibly frustrating.” Meanwhile, just across the river in Connecticut, local media were reporting that creditors had foreclosed on two of Mr. Blum’s properties for failure to make mortgage payments.

Taxpayers are functionally subsidizing Mr. Blum’s unconscionable neglect of this menacing public nuisance. It’s time — past time — that we dispense with delusion and knock down the old Central Warehouse.  

 How do we do it? Well, first, we need to correct the record. It’s been said that “[t]o raze the warehouse at this moment, Albany likely would have to seize it by eminent domain in a costly legal battle.” Wrong. That’s a fundamental misstatement of law.  

Pursuant to Article 11, Title 3 of New York’s Real Property Tax Law, when a property owner is delinquent in his taxes, a municipal government may foreclose on the tax lien, obtain title to the property, and then either sell that property at private auction, transfer it to the authorized land bank, or — and I’m extrapolating here — blow it to smithereens. 

Last month, I called several local officials (whose names I’m withholding as they were not previously cleared to speak on behalf of their respective agencies) to find out the total unpaid tax obligation for 143 Montgomery Street. One of them literally just laughed into the phone.  

Because out of 1,241 properties listed on the “Delinquent Tax List” (November 2020 report), the Central Warehouse is the sixth most tax-encumbered property in all of Albany County. And it isn’t even just that Mr. Blum failed to pay the back taxes when he bought the building — it’s that he’s refused to pay any taxes ever since.  

Readers accessing this column online can review the four years’ worth of unpaid school and property taxes that Mr. Blum has amassed since purchasing the building. See for yourselves by consulting Albany’s online property tax and school tax databases (Tax Map Number:  65.20-2-29).

This wouldn’t be a matter of government coercively confiscating private property; it’d be a matter of telling the dude who owns title to 515,512 square feet of crumbling concrete that he’ll not be permitted to disfigure Albany’s horizon while running up half-a-million dollars in debt to our local government.  

What makes Mr. Blum — who, to be precise, owes $472,863.41 in back taxes on the Central Warehouse — so uniquely special as to avoid such consequence? He’s clearly not going to do anything with the building. Albany must. 

“For nearly 20 years, the Central Warehouse has sat in a weird kind of real estate limbo,” a reporter wroteten years ago — in an article quoting a local developer as saying that “[j]ust about every real estate guy has looked at that building at one time or another, but we just couldn’t make it work. The costs were just too great.”  

Notwithstanding, and like so many before them, each of the officials with whom I spoke insistently enumerated the many logistical, financial, and environmental challenges posed by detonating the Eyesore. One of them instead depicted an attractive alternative, in which the building’s exterior could be wrapped with solar panels to power a warehouse poised to meet the ever-increasing demand of online shopping.  

Already possessing train tracks that run directly into its bowels, situated on the banks of a river, and high enough to accommodate a launch pad for an army of aerial delivery drones, the warehouse of this particular fantasy was as inviting as any of the fevered dreams that reality routinely dashes against the rocks. 

And that’s the rub, Albanites: The question is not whether anything can be done with the Central Warehouse, but whether it ever will be. And who wants to take that bet? We agonize over an eyesore that stifles area development and which thereby makes renovating it unappealing, but we fail to appreciate that, when confronted with a chicken-or-the-egg problem, sometimes your best bet is to just give up poultry.  

No one is coming to the rescue. It’s on us to protect our firefighters, cease the public subsidization, and liberate our daily commutes from this humiliating testament to Albany’s apathy. A seizure by tax foreclosure is a legal solution to the issue; it’s one the Albany Common Council should at least evaluate given its recent appetite for the ambitious (to include approving a feasibility study to reconnect Albany to the waterfront by dropping I-787 — a vastly more expensive undertaking).  

With due resolve, our elected leaders could then explore innovative ways of financing demolition and removal, such as issuing municipal bonds or applying for state and federal grants. Albany would likely realize a return on investment when it subsequently sold the newly unencumbered real estate to more practical developers.  

Or it could just leave the debris smoldering in place for all I care — unlike the inescapable Eyesore as it now stands, we wouldn’t be able to see a pile of rubble from the highway. (Though for more on how the debris could be removed and the site then remediated, check out the local media report of my exchange with a reader who expressed such concerns following publication of my column last year.)  

If it were structurally unsound, we would find the money and means to knock it down. Yet because the Eyesore is structurally sound, we’re cool with forever permitting it to be the next fire away from lethal?

 Shhh! If you listen closely, you can almost hear those insufferable law school gunners protesting my proposal whilst stumbling through 1L year: “Albany will never take possession of the Central Warehouse, because then it would be criminally and civilly liable if someone were injured at the site.”

What an unconscionably cynical perspective to attribute to Albany’s city and county officials. There are already people jungle-gyming their way throughout that structure — to include graffiti artists tagging the walls, trespassing adventurers posting their exploits on YouTube, homeless citizens lighting fires inside the building — and our municipal officials are thus already responsible for their welfare, even if legal liability might not technically attach.

Don’t get it twisted: The blood from any death or injury sustained in that building will be on Evan Blum’s hands, as well as those of the county executive, county legislators, Common Council members, and Albany mayor — who’s notably on record saying that the Central Warehouse is “not a safe place be.” 

 On December 21, 2020, Mayor Sheehan announced her intention to serve a previously unanticipated but now inevitable third term. As justification for reneging on a prior pledge to adhere to a two-term limit, she cited projects that “still need her leadership” — to include “the downtown revitalization initiative” and a program to tackle blight in the city. 

Bet.  

I genuinely don’t want the satisfaction of saying “I told you so” another 10 years from now, long after Mr. Blum has surrendered the deed and there’s yet been no progress beyond further deterioration. Albany residents deserve a serious discussion about the Central Warehouse’s fate, not one that gives our imaginations free reign to conjure images of industrial-grade frescoes that, at best, would only invite the same graffiti vandalism that now and forever adorns its walls.  

No more pretending that cosmetically decorating the Eyesore is analogous to Albany’s laudable “Capital Walls” initiative, which beautifies local edifices the interiors of which aren’t prone to cyclic combustion. Refrigerator [building] art will not eliminate the lethal hazards of the Big Ugly Eyesore, nor raise the esteem of our Capital District, nor spur a would-be downtown commercial renaissance. Just stop. Take it down, before it takes down someone else.

A July 6, 2007 Times Union report quotes former Albany Mayor Jerry Jennings as saying of the Central Warehouse: “It’s an eyesore, period …. I’m sick of looking at that building.”  

 That was 13 years ago, in an article which posed what might’ve once been a reasonable question: “Could one of Albany’s ugliest ducklings become a swan?”  

I direct readers’ attention to Exhibit “The Last 30 Years.” The answer, of course, is “no”. 

Captain Jesse Sommer is an active duty paratrooper and lifelong resident of Albany County. He welcomes your thoughts at .

I concede it’s unoriginal for a columnist to publish his holiday list of venerable charities. But since imitating a good idea yet remains the best way to flatter it, this Chanukah/Christmas I’m introducing my own take on what I intend to make an annual feature. Please join me in dedicating a few of your precious holiday dollars to support these worthy nonprofits!

There’s a functionally infinite number of causes which warrant financial backing, so in arriving at this year’s list I first had to pare down by “Category” the organizations to which I’ve donated in the past.  What follows are a few of my favorites with Medical, Occupational, Historical, Environmental, Veteran, and Journalistic missions.

Yet left on the cutting-room floor are countless laudable enterprises tackling hunger, enhancing education, spreading democracy, combating racism, supporting equality, advancing animal rights, reforming prisons, and defending our civil liberties. As such, while I encourage donations to the organizations recognized below, I’ll be equally grateful if my column inspires (reminds!) you to support the charitable causes important to your family.

After all, 2020 will go down in history as the year collectively regarded as the most deranged. So open your hearts — and your wallets — and let’s restore some sanity to this world.

 

Medical

First up is www.RIPMedicalDebt.com, one of the most creatively enterprising 501(c)(3)s out there. As the political effort to repair our nation’s shattered health-care system languishes, RIP Medical Debt has stepped into the void to give donors “the power to eradicate medical debt at pennies on the dollar.”

To date, it’s facilitated forgiveness of over $2.5 billion by leveraging donations to buy those debts from collection agencies (a single dollar can eliminate $100 in delinquent bills!) Founded by two former debt-collection executives, this not-for-profit offers a case study in atoning for capitalism’s excesses by hacking it.

After all, it’s not the quality of medical care in America that’s abysmal, it’s the cost — which is why a third of all Americans are plagued with medical debt. So, if you’re looking to help out your fellow country(wo)man, this may be the most tangible bang for your buck.

Next up are www.SmileTrain.org and www.OperationSmile.org, two organizations that facilitate completely free cleft-repair surgery for sufferers worldwide. A cleft afflicts the lip and roof of the mouth, the sides of which fail to fuse together during fetal development.

It’s a condition particularly prominent in developing countries. But for only $250, you can cover the cost of a full-scale cleft surgery, forever transforming a child’s life. So what’ll it be?  That limited-edition Baby Yoda doll, or an immediate end to one’s ostracizing stigmatization and debilitating physical difficulties eating, breathing, and speaking? You’re tracking that alien baby isn’t actually Yoda, right?

 

Occupational

I once dated a nurse, and thereby came face-to-face with what a terrible human being I was in comparison. She’d been drawn to the profession presumably because it was an effective outlet for her limitless empathy, compassion, and selflessness. 

The risks and demands were high, the pay and hours were lousy, but her personal impact was undeniable.  (At the time, she worked at a needle-exchange and opioid treatment clinic — I know, right?!) All across America, these agents of God’s love have bravely mobilized as humanity’s first line of defense against a fatal worldwide pandemic.

Fortunately, there exist organizations like www.NursesHouse.org, which assists with housing and medical expenses incurred by registered nurses who are seriously ill, injured, disabled, or facing other dire circumstances. 2020 is the Year of the First Responder, so I encourage you to honor the daily sacrifices made by those special men and women who’ve always worn masks without complaint.

And: Are you a nurse in need of even more opportunities to toil in the service of humankind? Then apply for a scholarship at www.OneNurseAtATime.org, which uses financial donations to send nurses across the planet to wherever medical help is desperately needed. (Who are these people?)

 

Historical

Do you fully appreciate what being a New Scot signifies? If you’re not a member of the www.NewScotlandHistoricalAssociation.org, the answer is likely “no,” given that so much of what it means to be a New Scot is wrapped up in the origins of our town and its rich historical landscape.

Since 1975, the New Scotland Historical Association has been a steward of the New Scottish identity, helping to plot a future course by probing, documenting, and honoring its past. For 45 years, the NSHA — a not-for-profit chartered by the New York State Education Department — has operated the New Scotland History Museum (partially comprised of the former one-room New Salem schoolhouse built in 1903) and orchestrated gripping lectures, exhibits, and events to explore upstate New York’s fascinating geography, genealogy, and archeology.

Once a quarter, the NSHA also publishes a newsletter that’s equal parts community bulletin, historical treatise, and call-to-action. Can’t get enough of Yours Truly?  Then consult pages 4 to 5 of The Sentinel’s Winter 2018 edition — available on the NSHA website — where you’ll find familiar prose in an essay entitled “The ‘New Scot.’ Defined: What It Means to Be New Scottish at This Moment in Time and Space” (as edited by my former seventh-grade English teacher, who reprised her role for the occasion as “Mistress of the Unforgiving Red Pen”).

NSHA membership costs as little as $15, and there are lots of ways to volunteer with this pulsing heartbeat of our community.

 

Environmental

I should probably extend honorable mention to www.ASPCA.org, because I’m about to beat this horse to death. Again. For those who weary of my tireless campaign to secure the beatification of Mohawk Hudson Land Conservancy Executive Director Mark King, just skip this section — but be sure to make a quick donation at www.MohawkHudson.org before you do.

Because absent your financial support, the MHLC might never have been able to save the Bender Melon Farm, or Picard’s Grove, or the Heldeberg Workshop summer camp property, or the Lansing Farm, or Locust Knoll, or the more than 3,500 acres of the Helderberg Conservation Corridor, or the blah blah blah at this point even I’m bored by MHLC’s successes.

The point is that MHLC is the vehicle through which Albanites preserve the unrivaled natural beauty of our Capital Region, safeguarding its environment and farmlands from the unfettered development that ever threatens to irrevocably spoil them. Hats off to you, MHLC, for securing so many green pastures — on which frolic the very horses I’ll keep fatally beating as I continue to herald the patriotism of the Mohawk Hudson Land Conservancy.

 

Veteran

The “thanks for [my] service” greetings come from all sides at all hours, and indeed there are scores of organizations that support the veterans whom all soldiers someday become. Yet the rate of suicide among servicemembers and veterans is still estimated to be 50 percent higher than the national average. 

According to the 2019 National Veteran Suicide Prevention Annual Report by the United States Department of Veterans Affairs, 17 veterans committed suicide every day in 2017; to put that in perspective, 17 U.S. servicemembers died in Afghanistan throughout the entire year of 2017.

That’s why www.StopSoldierSuicide.org — which “provides personalized care and continued case management” to servicemembers and veterans in desperate need of mental-health support, housing assistance, and other services — is such a critical player in this space.

So, too, is www.VeteransInc.org, which claims an 85-percent success rate in transitioning veterans out of homelessness. Veterans Inc. is the largest provider of support services to veterans and their families in New England; two years ago, it made headlines for opening the country’s first private in-patient treatment center designed specifically for veterans with substance abuse disorders.

For those of you still seething from the CBS News investigation which uncovered the Wounded Warrior Project’s unconscionably wasteful spending, give these complementary veteran-oriented 501(c)(3)s a look instead.

 

Journalistic

The last organization I’m highlighting isn’t a charity, but it’s no less deserving of your largesse. Because without it, it wouldn’t just be my voice that the community lost — it’d be yours, too. Of course I’m referring to The Altamont Enterprise & Albany County Post, the local media outfit which makes this year’s “Giving Season” installment possible in the first place. The Enterprise has been our hometown’s paper of record for 136 years, and still persists in the face of unrelenting assaults on its survival.

Back in October, The New York Times published a terrifying report about “a fast-growing network of nearly 1,300 websites that aim to fill a void left by vanishing local newspapers across the country.”  The Times claimed that this network, entrenched in all 50 states, was built not on traditional journalism but rather on chilling propaganda by dozens of partisan think tanks, political operatives, and corporations.

Quote the Times: “The sites appear as ordinary local-news outlets, with names like Des Moines Sun, Ann Arbor Times and Empire State Today. They employ simple layouts and articles about local politics, community happenings and sometimes national issues, much like any local newspaper. But behind the scenes, many of the stories are directed by political groups and corporate P.R. firms to promote a ...  candidate or a company, or to smear their rivals.”

As if on cue, within days of that bombshell article, The Times published another devastating report: Salt Lake City was losing both of its major daily print newspapers, in operation for 150 and 170 years.  Consider the lurking digital disinformation poised to take their place in one of America’s major metropolises.

The same fate could befall Albany County, and we won’t appreciate what we have until it’s gone. If we surrender The Altamont Enterprise, we’ll lose the one media outlet that’s for us, by us — binding Rensselaerville, the Hilltowns, Guilderland, New Scotland, and the most intimate corners of Albany-Schenectady-Troy to the common fates and causes of which we’d be oblivious without our County Post.

We’ll lose the one media outlet that’s been awarded the New York Press Association’s Sharon R. Fulmer Award for Community Leadership more times than any other newspaper throughout all of New York State.

And we’ll lose the only independently-owned free press watchdog we can count on to expose breaking news capable of galvanizing our community. Whether it’s the intended shotgun sale of Picard’s Grove in the heart of New Scotland, helping to save a medical practice in the Hilltowns, or giving a girl victimized by her Guilderland teacher a chance to tell  her story, The Altamont Enterprise has time and again courageously wielded grit and sunlight on behalf of the neighborhood its subscriber footprint defines. 

The Enterprise staff works tirelessly to chock each issue full of intrepid reporting, in exercise of the very freedom those soldiers I mentioned pledge to defend.

It’s true I’m often most concerned with how my Enterprise columns appear online. Yet it’s nonetheless vital that the Enterprise’s web edition remain a mere companion to its printed form. Because what makes the Enterprise authentic journalism — what distinguishes it from all the noise online as a credible record — is the fact that you can feel it. You can hold it in your hand. Without a print component, The Enterprise is just a blog.

And blogs make possible the inundation of fake news and political hit pieces, whose shadowy authors are spared the time and expense of ink, paper, and coordinating circulation. Algorithmic bots, Russian trolls, partisan hackers — these dystopian agents exist on social media precisely because such platforms afford misinformation an easy outlet. Not so through the printing press.

It’s because we have the luxury of trusting what lies within these real pages, intended as they are for a geographically aligned community, that there will always be at least one thing on which we can depend: a sense of who our neighbors truly are.

So this holiday season, give the gift of local journalism to one of your neighbors by visiting www.altamontenterprise.com/subscribe. Or, visit www.altamontenterprise.com/contribute to donate to The Altamont Enterprise, in support of its consistently award-winning brand of local news coverage.

That’s all I got, folks!  Have a wonderful holiday season. Stay safe, and thanks so, so much for reading — addressing you from these pages remains my favorite thing.

Captain Jesse Sommer is an active duty Army officer and lifelong resident of Albany County. He welcomes your thoughts at .

Mark King

Edward Hyde Clarke

Much ink will soon be spilled on the United States presidential election and its fallout. So before that cacophony drowns out the local concerns that more directly impact our lives, I’d like to recognize two leaders of a more apolitical sort — a King and a president — to thank them for their selfless service to our collective hometown.

Now join me in a deep breath, Albanites! No matter what, if you’re reading this column, you’re a critical member of the oft-contentious, oft-colorful family of Enterprise subscribers. And if we pledge to follow the examples of Mark King and Edward Hyde Clarke, we’ll be OK.

Without further ado:

Mark King is no stranger to these pages, which last year reported on his role in establishing the Helderberg Conservation Corridor. As the executive director (and one of the founders) of the Mohawk Hudson Land Conservancy, Mark is directly responsible for the environmental conservation of over 12,500 acres of natural, agricultural, and cultural landscapes throughout Albany, Schenectady, and Montgomery counties.

For nearly thirty years, MHLC has protected (and erected) wildlife preserves, sustainable recreational spaces, scenic vistas, and educational programs, all the while shoring up the Capital Region’s natural resources, clean water, clean air, and working landscapes for both farming and forestry. “If my dream came true,” Mark told the Enterprise in May 2019, “I’d like to see a protected path from the Catskills to the Adirondacks.”

Just how many thousands are unwittingly advantaged by his vision and initiative? Always eager to keep tabs on his projects, I emailed Mark when I returned from an overseas deployment. Stressing no urgency to respond, I asked if he’d be so kind “as to clue me in as to where efforts stand vis-à-vis the campaign to save/conserve the Picard property, the Heldeberg Workshop property, and the Bender Melon Farm.”  He replied promptly.

“Picard is in its final stages,” he wrote. “We have prevailed in court and now have the exclusive right to purchase the property as [long] as 80% is conserved ... we should have things finalized in the next couple of weeks if things go as planned. Bender is at an exciting point. Right now we need 162k to close, but only have until Oct. 29th.”

In regards to the historic Bender Melon Farm, The Enterprise reported four weeks ago that MHLC was “$90,000 short of its $1.2 million goal” to buy it; an Oct. 19 post on the MHLC website then announced that it was in need of just $57,000 more. By the time this column goes to press, we’ll have a nail-biting verdict on what Mark called a “make or break month.”

Though I rarely impose on a G-d with more pressing concerns, I make exception now to pray that our town has rallied to manifest this unparalleled community asset — comprised of the Hilton Barn, the Albany County Helderberg-Hudson Rail Trail, and the Bender Melon Farm — which intends to “link communities, history, recreation, and conservation.”

(As an aside, it was the proposed commercial development of the Bender Melon Farm a dozen years ago which first triggered my own penchant for community activism. I’m grateful to MHLC for its stewardship of this issue long after life nudged me towards other pursuits.)

No less impressive are Mark’s efforts pertaining to the 87-acre Picard Grove property, which runs along the base of the Helderberg escarpment in the midst of the Helderberg Conservation Corridor.  After intrepid Enterprise reporting and a rousing editorial raised awareness of the Grove’s recklessly hasty impending below-market-value sale to a developer, the public sprang into action; MHLC gave agency to its voice.

“The deal is not yet sealed,” Mark told the Enterprise in its Sept. 23 edition. “It’s a little bit of a cliffhanger beneath the cliff.” Yet Mark’s team is working steadily towards an outcome that will preserve acreage as integral to our hometown’s identity as the name “New Scotland” itself.

And what of that blissfully serene 250-acre Heldeberg (still inexplicably containing no “R”) Workshop wetland forest where I spent so many of my childhood summers? Something about Board Chairman Alvin Breisch’s announcement that Heldeberg Workshop had “entered into a  partnership with MHLC to permanently protect [its] lands from development” permitted a sigh of relief. As in: “Phew! King is on the case.”

Granted, my praise for Mark is shorthand for the eternally grateful compliments due the other MHLC members who work tirelessly on these endeavors, not to mention the legion of Good Samaritans who open their wallets to fund fulfillment of shared dreams. To borrow a sentiment from news anchor Tom Brokaw’s farewell on Dec. 1, 2004, Mark is “simply the most conspicuous part” of an all-encompassing communal ambition. I wish I could personally thank every spoke in that wheel right now, but Enterprise editor Melissa Hale-Spencer gets rather testy when I approach 2,000 words.

Which is why my commendations to E. Hyde Clarke must be interpreted through the lens of broader praise. For as president of the Upper Washington Avenue Neighborhood Association (UWANA) in the City of Albany’s Twelfth Ward, his role is primarily organizational — representing the will of his community by channeling its energy, aptitudes, and demands in a manner that augments its legal power.

Don’t be fooled by Clarke’s unassuming demeanor; beneath a signature smile and soft-spoken timbre is a tenacious community advocate with a strategic grasp of the legal process. I met Hyde in 2012, at the dawn of his career as a local land-use attorney. As with every recent law-school graduate, I asked him how on earth he could’ve been so masochistically stupid as to become a lawyer.

“I wanted to serve my community,” he said, shrugging.

…. Um, what?

The last eight years offer concrete proof that what might’ve been a cliché is in fact his ethos. Hyde sees the law not as a profession, but as a tool — or, better, one of many arrows in the quiver of community muscle. Nowhere is this more evident than in his role in effectuating UWANA’s firm commitment to its character.

Late last year, Stewart’s Shops Inc., proposed to demolish the abandoned former KeyBank on the corner of Washington and Colvin Avenues, along with two existing multi-family homes, so as to construct a two-story convenience store with gas pumps.

Neighbors opposed to suddenly residing next to a gas station — which would sit directly across the street from a rival gas station and just one block down the road from another — were aghast. Others rather liked the prospect of being within walking distance of award-winning ice cream and milk. As UWANA president, Hyde had the unenviable task of identifying, and then reconciling, many competing interests.

When this process ultimately revealed that most neighbors demanded changes in Stewarts’s application — less demolition, implementation of traffic safety precautions, fewer gas pumps, more accessibility from the sidewalk — Hyde leveraged his legal background to engage at the planning-board level, working to secure his neighbors’ desires while concurrently accommodating the commercial objectives of an interested applicant.

As has repeatedly been the case — from Altamont to Voorheesville to, eventually, the remotest regions of the solar system — Stewarts proved unwilling to make any of the requested changes. This compelled Hyde to articulate the fraught decision that a conditional use permit be denied; on Aug. 25, 2020, the planning board voted down Stewarts’s application.

Hyde was able to influence this process only because so many passionate and knowledgeable advocates lent their voices to pushing back on Stewarts’s application; their activism empowered Hyde to argue for solutions agreeable to all parties.

As Hyde told me, change often forces communities into a position of opposition; their gut reaction is to oppose any variation to an existing way of life. But Hyde saw his role as that of a broker — looking at all sides to extract mutual interests, thereby deriving a balance between permitting development and safeguarding a neighborhood ecosystem.

Yet in the face of Stewarts’s unrelenting and serial intransigence, Hyde realized that the community’s opposition would be vulnerable if expressed as merely that: community opposition. He therefore cleverly pivoted to a different tactic, one that would give his neighbors’ voices the authority of law.

In 2017, the city of Albany passed the Unified Sustainable Development Ordinance (USDO), which zoned the said residential apartments on Washington Avenue as “Mixed Use Neighborhood Commercial” (MU-NC). Arguing that these properties (which had always been residences) were zoned incorrectly — and therefore seemingly permitted a use not in accordance with the character of the neighborhood — Hyde drafted a lengthy “zone change” petition to have the properties rezoned residentially (to wit: R-2).

As Hyde stated: “This is not a Stewart’s issue. It’s a land-use issue. The obstacle to [Stewarts’s] commercial imperative shouldn’t be seen as knee-jerk NIMBY [Not-In-My-Backyard] opposition, but rather as a result of a properly-devised law which would never have permitted such a massive operation in the middle of a close-knit community comprised of young families and seniors.”

In short, Hyde went about endowing the community’s voice with legal legitimacy.

“I don’t want developers to feel that they have to pass some litmus test every time construction is proposed,” Hyde explained in an email. “I want them to adhere to a law that defines how to be a good neighbor, and which then grants them commercial predictability and an easier path to approval. If a non-residential structure is proposed, it should comply with a standard that protects existing property owners. That’ll also ensure [the business] is well-received and supported by its intended patrons.”

I noted that his approach recalled 20th-Century Supreme Court Justice Louis D. Brandeis’s concept of a “lawyer for the situation,” and asked if that was how he perceived his role.

“Sort of,” he wrote back. “We all want to see abandoned buildings reused or redeveloped. But that can’t be the objective in and of itself. Commercial progress has to ‘fit,’ has to enhance a community, not degrade it. I’m ready to help any entrepreneur meet that threshold, if they’re ready to join our neighborhood in good faith.”

I told neither Mr. King nor Mr. Clarke that I’d be highlighting them in my monthly column; they’re both likely mortified that I’ve done so. They don’t seek the limelight, and generally slip into the media’s pages, posts, spots, segments, and broadcasts incident only to their organizational missions.

But that’s precisely the point. They selflessly dedicate themselves to advancing communal causes, representing community concerns, and bettering the lives of both their neighbors and future generations that will unknowingly enjoy the fruits of their labor.

Thank you, guys. You’re two of the many reasons that turning off cable news is so refreshing.  Because in that silence, we have space to note that behind all the competing lawn signs are scores of people who advance our common destinies, bind our families together, and ensure that someone is in charge of serving the robust and delicious Thanksgiving feast over which our beloved yet crazy uncles can spout off.

I sign-off by once more adapting Tom Brokaw’s words to honor these hometown heroes whose examples we’d do well to bear in mind on the eve of a tragically polarizing presidential election. Like Mark and Hyde, may we work together to advance that “vital legacy of common effort to find common ground ... on which to solve our most vexing problems.”

For “they did not give up on the idea that we’re all in this together.”

Captain Jesse Sommer is an Army officer and lifelong resident of Albany County.  His father, Dean Sommer, is a senior partner at Young/Sommer LLC, the law firm where Edward Hyde Clarke works.  Jesse welcomes your thoughts at .

Editor’s Note:  The Enterprise reported earlier this week that Picard’s Grove is now successfully under a conservation easement

 

Location:

This evening we sit on the banks of a something;
the sunset is jealous of the show we perform.
For a thousand years every night have we been here,
a lifetime together only God could have granted
for some charitable act we performed in a past life
when our souls were fused together as one —
before being split so we could search for each other.

You used the right code word, your smile familiar,
I instantly recognized you from afar.
But that terrible journey — behind me at last —
was a habit I knew while this love is so frightening.
For what if I lose you?  Must I find you all over again?
What if in clutching so tight[ly] you slip right through my fingers?

This is the drama that suffocátes me every second,
each moment a blessing that brings me closer to doom.
“Don’t leave me, darling”; is that too much to ask?
Can’t you stop being so selfish and just be immortal?
I had nothing to lose before the day that I met you
but now you’re the one thing I [just] can’t live without.

Thus you’re the death séntence that makes life worth living
and the sweet kiss of death that breathes life into my being.
You tell me not to worry — to enjoy what we have —
while conspiring to steal all the beats of my heart.
You smile and laugh, caress the back of my neck…
I’m just a crime scene covered in your fine fingerprints. 

We gaze across something, to that far off horizon,
the sun setting serenely as it has so many times in our past.
I’ve lived a life by your side — fingérs interlaced,
legs interwoven, arms wrapped together —
and with each step that we take my breath’s drawing quicker
as we approach your inevitable departure.

Love is willing self-torture filled with fearfúl ánticipation 
that one day it’ll be gone, that you’ll not come around,
your absence a weight that’s mortally crushing.
Like that storied tree in the woods, does a sunset exist 
if you’re not by my side to enjoy ít along with me?
An interminable nightmare of loss and nostalgia.

The joy of possession is a paradoxical curse…
for one day it’ll all be surrendered back to the cosmos
and the pain of that cápitulation, of that fateful release,
can barely be worth all that for which I’ll be left yearning.
Infinity’s fleeting, and though love may last forever,
it’s you that I want, always right here beside me.

I say: “Will I be an old man, heart shattered open
on my deathbed, my last breath whispers ‘here we go again’?”
You laugh and you answer: “It’s a privilege to chase me
forever and ever and ever again.”
Infinity’s weary, but I’ve nothing better to do,
yet which part is sadder: the search or the finding?

How dare you make me love you? How dare you make me care?  
How dare you make me vulnerable to all of life’s questions?
I was just minding my business watching shows on TV
until you came along and made each second precious.
Ok, fine, one day I’ll f--- up, or maybe you’ll die,
either way I know I’ll have tó say goodbye.

So I guess I’ll give up — just laugh right along with you 
and just squeeze you tighter, commit each heartbeat to memory.
I’m grateful yet guarded, jealous of my past self
for all of the kisses he received from your lips.
I might as well bask in the moments I’ll miss so insanely
and besides, there’s a sunset that looks pretty tonight.
You say: “The least we can do is give ít a good show.”

September 2016 

Captain Jesse Sommer is an Army officer and lifelong resident of Albany County. 
He welcomes your thoughts at .

 

Maximilien Robespierre and his supporters were executed by guillotine on 28 July 1794.

Are you asking if I support the death penalty, or if I believe in the sovereign state’s right to kill?  Those questions operate in altogether different universes, and I counsel caution in conflating philosophy with procedure.

But you’re right to ask, now that the federal government has resumed executions of federal death row inmates (three last month) previously suspended since 2003. So far this year, the United States and its component states have put 10 people to death; another five will be executed by the end of 2020.

I support state-sanctioned slaying — it’s the foundational premise of my job. Be it the clandestine raid on bin Laden’s compound or the righteous annihilation of those who opposed America’s unyielding advance up Normandy’s banks in 1944, I accept our government’s inherent right to employ deadly force as among the most justifiably self-evident of all societal truths.

But every right is wedded to its own abuse, and eventually breeds excess. That’s why any defense of state lethality is fundamentally tested when applied to the mode of American capital punishment. And since my dad has cornered the market on debating America’s post-Vietnam foreign policy, I’ll focus this discussion on the domestic context, and explain why I don’t support the death penalty — yet.

What proceeds is the perspective of a veterinarian’s son, who was raised vegetarian because “it’s wrong to take innocent life” but who simultaneously learned that there was no injustice in “putting to sleep” a German shepherd after she ripped apart the family goat a second time. (Of the German shepherd, ’twas said: “This world is inconsistent with her nature.”)

And the thesis of this column is that those who seek to abolish the death penalty are as misguided as those who support its current form.

First, on “justification”:  Our essential imperative must be a shared philosophical agreement that, if done justly, the state should have (and reserve unto itself) the right to kill. If you don’t agree with that, then here we must part ways — for my acceptance of state legitimacy requires that it function as an adequate arbiter of justice, and satisfactory dispute resolution necessitates the full array of options.

Because, if the menu of equitable recourses is lacking, vigilantes will just handle it themselves.  Illustrated: It’s not hard to imagine aggrieved parents resorting to their own ingenuity and enterprise to rectify a perceived deficit in justice if a court’s post-conviction treatment of their child’s murderer is too soft.

(Let’s pause to offer the sanctimonious a chance to pronounce that “an eye for an eye leaves the whole world blind.” Now let’s together note the wholesale failing of that cliché’s basic arithmetic, since “an eye for an eye” leads not to blindness, but rather just to poor depth perception.)

Second, on “rationales”: Capital punishment is generally rationalized pursuant to theories of public security and deterrence, punishment and retribution, or — to a tragically lesser extent — “utilitarian mercy.”

My dad likes to say that the death penalty isn’t a deterrent unless applied to jaywalking. What he means is that the threat of execution won’t dissuade someone from committing a violent crime out of passion, despair, callous disregard, fury, or evil. But, if crossing the street could fetch a death sentence, you’d likely be a tad more conscientious about where you stepped off the curb.

Meanwhile, I’ve always been troubled by vengeance as a rationale, as I presume there’s something intrinsically wrong with people who perpetrate wanton violence. Whether it’s rage or hate or desperation or run-of-the-mill-sociopathy, only the maladjusted, abused, or insane generally act on the capacity to commit violent crime — and something about wreaking fatal revenge on such innately broken people seems unsavory.

That discomfort with revenge informs my adherence to the final theory: utilitarian mercy.  Remind me to tell you about the time I contracted COVID-19 in a war zone. For six dreadful days, the coronavirus ravaged my fever-wracked body, yet it was the resulting mandatory quarantine in a tiny windowless room that truly sucked.

By day nine, I was firm in my belief that life in a barren cage with no hope of escape is a greater violation of the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition of cruel and unusual punishment than a swift and painless execution. So, while I sympathize with those who oppose the death penalty because “rotting in prison is worse,” there’s likely a better use of limited state resources than accommodating retributive sadism. To my mind, utilitarian mercy is the only moral and practical rationale for the death penalty.

But if that’s the death penalty’s ethical framework, is there an ethical defense of the alternative, i.e., forever imprisoning a German shepherd who’s exposed her nature as inconsistent with this world, when “elimination” would serve a just punishment while also freeing up cage space? I’ll give you two.

The first acknowledges that the racial inequality of America’s death penalty is so unacceptably heinous that it fails outright the “this is why we can’t have nice things” test.  Roughly 42 percent of the faces on America’s death row are Black — more than three times their proportion of the U.S. population.

The disproportionate tendency of prosecutors to seek — and of juries to impose — the death penalty against black defendants for comparable criminality smacks of ethnic cleansing. (Yeah, I said it.)

What right have we to remove imperfect people from an imperfect world? If you want an impartial capital-punishment regime, roll up your sleeves and fix every other social ill first, starting with socioeconomic and environmental disparities as well as biases in law enforcement. 

The second ethical defense of a life sentence over a death sentence is that forever caging a dangerous German shepherd equips that veterinarian to rectify her mistake if forensic testing later reveals Lily Goat to have been viciously attacked by a different dog.

Earlier, I noted as self-evident that the state should have the right to kill if doing so could be done justly. But putting into practice that abstract philosophical precept is a complex proposition. 

This is where things break down. Because since 1973, 170 prisoners have been fully exonerated of the wrongful convictions that landed them on death row. For perspective, that’s one person spared the ultimate miscarriage of justice for every 10 people who have been executed (1,522 in total) since America’s death penalty was reinstated in 1976. Are you kidding me?

“Existential Proposition 1” must surely be that state execution of the innocent is humankind’s most egregious social sin. “Existential Proposition 2” follows that a single such instance is worse in moral magnitude than a thousand acquittals of the guilty.

Armed with these companion propositions, I thus bequeath unto tomorrow’s legislators five guiding principles with which to erect a just regime for capital punishment:  

FIRST, none shall be executed for nonviolent crimes.

There’s a lot of socially destabilizing behavior out there, but a con man who preys on old women’s bank accounts is best imprisoned, not destroyed. This principle ensures that the (capital) punishment fits the crime, i.e., that one should be denied life only where it intentionally operated to deny another’s.

(Is a co-conspirator who helps devise the fatal plan but doesn’t actually pull the trigger nonetheless guilty of a violent crime? In the interest of time and limited column space: sure.)
 

SECOND, none shall be executed for crimes absent a genuine and knowing admission of guilt — one freely made and restated in court, free from coercion or duress, upon advice by legal counsel.

Whether it’s the notoriety-seeking serial killer who wants attribution for his misdeeds or the genuinely remorseful boyfriend who allowed his murderous jealousy to consume him, this principle is a safeguard guarantee that a perpetrator rationally acknowledges why he’s to be subjected to that most extreme application of state power.

Lacking this awareness or acceptance, the alternative of a (life)long prison sentence will afford plenty of time to come to terms with what’s been done. 
 

— THIRD, none shall be executed for crimes absent corroboration by deoxyribonucleic acid AND the existence of sight-based indicia of unassailable reliability.

This “poison pill” insists on an evidentiary threshold which is, by design, nearly unattainable. If the justice system is to put a dude to death, his culpability must be assured to a mathematical 100 percent.

Fortunately, few violent crimes leave no DNA behind, and much of the recent high-profile violence has been accompanied by that requisite “sight-based indicia or reliability” (e.g., unbiased eyewitness accounts, high-resolution surveillance footage, the first-person camera-phone video with which the perpetrator live-streams his rampage).

If prosecutors can meet this most implausible of evidentiary burdens, perhaps capital punishment is the only proper recourse.
 

— FOURTH, none shall be executed for a crime where there exists a credible rationale for its perpetration.

The wife who kills her husband to spare herself another 15 years of horrific physical abuse, the father who kills his pre-adolescent daughter’s rapist, the sister who kills her brother’s murderer — I mean, there’s murder and then there’s murder, am I right? 

“A Time to Kill” wouldn’t have made the bestseller lists as “A Time to Await Judicial Determination on Defendant’s Third Appeal of the Motion to Stay Proceedings in the Matter of Defendant’s Plea for Rehearing of the Sentencing Case.” 
 

— FIFTH, none shall be put to death except for by well-oiled and industrial-scale guillotine. 

That’s right.  If our society can’t come to grips with the appallingly gruesome messiness of capital execution, then we have no business being in the business. The gas chamber, the electric chair, lethal injection — these are modernity’s innovations to sanitize the experience of punitive state killing, leaving serenely intact the body from which the state has just separated a soul.

And each of these methods has at one time or another gone horrifically awry, presenting a traumatizing spectacle of nightmarishly unconstitutional torment as the dead-man-walked convulses in pain because the toxins missed the vein, or the voltage was wrong, or the nervous system only partially responded to the gas. 

The 21st Century guillotine permits no such mistakes. Advances in machining can independently assemble a self-piloting tractor-trailer without even a millimeter’s deviation in how tightly a rivet is screwed on; if the same technical efficiency is applied to a technologically-perfected guillotine with a blade crafted of the finest Tungsten-Titanium alloy, then the only drawback to this executionary method is society’s “pleasant company” hang-ups.

Quick. Painless. Guaranteed. Theatrical. Certainly, your jaywalking epidemic would be solved.

For the death penalty’s die-hard (pun) supporters, this five-prong approach affords a just and certain resolution to the most egregious violations. And its restrictions don’t limit the broader application of justice; where the death penalty is unavailable because these criteria aren’t met, there still exists a whole slew of draconian measures by which to punish offenders (e.g., life imprisonment). 

For capital punishment’s bleeding-heart (pun) opponents, my approach resolves the core concerns of systemic failure and irreversible mistake; capital punishment would be applied sparingly, rarely, and only when guilt was corroborated, acknowledged, and indefensible.

True: faulty science, biased testimony, false accusations, and — that most monstrous of sins — prosecutorial misconduct will always present the peril of a wrongful conviction, but a death sentence for a crime “beyond all doubt” won’t be an option for convictions attained merely “beyond all reasonable doubt”.

Yes: There are scores of moving accounts of redemption, where the embittered and testosterone-fueled former victim of child abuse kills in his 20s, only to embark post-conviction on a journey of self-discovery through the prison library, emerging as a remorseful pacifist who even obtained his law degree.

So? A silenced victim deserves better than to serve as her killer’s ticket to enlightenment; her life was worth more than that anecdotal reference in the feel-good Dateline special on her murderer’s rehabilitation.

I don’t care what wisdom Nidal Hasan learns behind bars, or what penitence Timothy McVeigh might’ve shown had that meal not been his last. Neither Dylan Roof’s nor Dzhokhar Tsarnaev’s guilt is in doubt.

I’m unpersuaded that the Golden State Killer is too old for death (like, what?). When it comes to avowed monsters like these, I’m less Samuel Jackson’s “yes they deserve to die and I hope they burn in hell,” and more “you don’t have to go home, but you can’t stay here.”

Except that: My philosophical commitment to capital punishment withers before ever-present societal injustice and the inescapable Truth that every one of us is complicit if the state takes an innocent life. Ergo, I ferociously oppose the death penalty until we as a species are mature enough to handle it. 

But someday, those Five Principles could sustain a system where the death penalty isn’t a recourse at all unless it’s the first recourse. And in that far away future, where an accused (1) acknowledges his guilt of (2) a violent crime that’s (3) beyond any doubt by virtue of irrefutably corroborative evidence and (4) for which there’s no reasonable justification, I’ll support the (5) expedient option that delivers both justice and the mercy of instantaneous escape from a world inconsistent with his nature. 

For a capital punishment that spares the wrongfully accused while delivering the quick and painless passing of the rightfully accused, let’s turn for inspiration to that other lady of justice — the Queen of Hearts — as she triumphantly bellows “off with his” etc. etc. and all that.

Does that answer your question? 
****

Captain Jesse Sommer is a lifelong resident of Albany County, currently deployed to Afghanistan with the U.S. Army’s 7th Special Forces Group (Airborne).  He welcomes your thoughts at .

I was perusing the Enterprise website from Iraq in the fall of 2017 — one month after a solider in my unit had been killed by an enemy Improvised Explosive Device — when I encountered Rose Schneider’s Nov. 2, 2017 article about a Confederate flag flying in the yard of a Berne residence, per request of the teenager who lived there.

His mother had told the reporter that he’d “been upset about Confederate statues being torn down” in the wake of the Charlottesville fiasco earlier that year — acts that she depicted as “destroying history” — and had further characterized her son’s public display of the Confederate flag as his “right to say ‘heritage, not hate’.”

Writing as I am on the Fourth of July, overseas in a country in the midst of its own civil war, it seems important to acknowledge that America’s War of Independence secured that Berne teen’s right to say whatever he wants.

But it’s equally important to acknowledge that the significance of Independence Day — as breathtakingly portrayed in Frederick Douglass’s 1852 speech “What to the Slave is the Fourth of July” — is subject to interpretation depending on the historical legacy that informs one’s American identity.

Like, I can understand harboring an embittered resentment if the heroes annually lionized on this day had similarly subjugated my ancestors to the nightmarish horrors of lifelong labor, torture, and chains. After all, it’s 2020, yet I still expect an apology from Egypt’s pharaohs. Can you imagine if, on Passover, someone told me to “get over it?”

Unsurprisingly, reactions to Schneider’s article in the following weeks indicted the Berne teenager for being racist. And, while I understood those sentiments, I suspected he’d simply been confused, however grossly. It was hard to imagine a neighbor’s heart harboring hate.

You can be insensitive, historically ignorant, and needlessly inflammatory without overtly hating someone for the color of their skin. And, in fairness, some people are simply unaware that the preservation of human slavery was identified as the justification for secession in each and every Declaration of Secession authored by the Confederate States. (That young Berne resident may be unclear as to what the Confederate flag represents, but Confederates in 1861 certainly weren’t.) 

 Some people may not know that the claim the Civil War was fought over “states’ rights” is a deliberate fraud; in fact, it was the Southern states that appealed to the federal government to enforce the return from the North of those desperate humans who’d escaped their bondage.  Many Northern states had passed state laws extending safety and refuge to escaped slaves (who awaited lashes and physical mutilation if returned to their owners), but the South adamantly opposed states’ rights when the benefits thereof didn’t inure to slavers.

And, some people haven’t taken time to consider that, in flying the Confederate flag, they share association with nearly every white supremacist militia in America. The Fourth of July is as good a time as any to take stock of the company you keep, and whether it says anything about you.

The online version of this column embeds links to West Point’s Colonel Ty Seidule’s irrebuttable explanation of whether the Civil War was fought over slavery (spoiler: it was) or John Oliver’s intimate look at slavery as the exclusive cause of secession.

Or, google the dates that the various Confederate statues were erected in America, and the identities of their proponents; it’s hard to straight-facedly argue that Charlottesville’s Robert E. Lee Monument — installed in 1924, fifty-nine years after his surrender — is intended to broadly honor Southern heritage, as opposed to that highly specific aspect of it which entailed the enslavement of human beings.

Yet that’s precisely what some people do argue, seduced as they are by the cynically self-serving architects of “Lost Cause” historical revisionism. And I therefore presume that lots of folks are mystified by: Mississippi’s decision to become the latest and final state to remove Confederate symbology from its state flag; or the decision by the U.S. Marine Corps, U.S. Navy, U.S. Forces Korea, and NASCAR to prohibit display of the Confederate flag; or the full-scale removal of Confederate statues in Richmond, Virginia (former heart of the Confederacy).

So on this Independence Day — and just in case the intervening three years haven’t afforded that Berne teen (perhaps now in his early 20s) the wisdom to which he didn’t have access when he first flew the Confederate flag — I want to explain why Confederate symbols so offend me personally. Because there’s nothing more American than making it all about me.

To begin with, what’s known today as the “Confederate flag” is not, in fact, the official flag of the Confederacy. That flag — the “Stars and Bars” — is an unimaginative budget rip-off of Old Glory’s stars and stripes. Meanwhile, the flag that caused so much consternation in a Berne yard three years ago derives from the battle flag of the Army of Northern Virginia, known today as the Confederate Battle Flag. It is, in short, the flag of General Robert E. Lee.

No discussion of the Confederate flag is complete without reference to Lee — the man complicit in the deaths of more U.S. soldiers than anyone else in human history. (And when I say “U.S. soldier,” I’m referencing those who fought for the United States, not against it; who fought to preserve the Union, as opposed to tear it asunder in order to maintain the right to rip apart Black families at the auction block.)

Indeed, there isn’t much that separates Robert E. Lee from Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, former leader of the Islamic State. They both caused the death of American soldiers; they both owned slaves; they both were vanquished by the United States; and they both had beards.

Yes, I’m being deliberately incendiary to make a point; of course there were stark differences between Lee and al-Baghdadi. For example, al-Baghdadi never swore an oath to defend the Constitution, his forces took longer than four years to defeat, and whereas al-Baghdadi was a foreign enemy against whom American soldiers swear to defend the Constitution, Robert E. Lee was a domestic one.

“I do solemnly swear that I will support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic; that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same; that I take this obligation freely, without any mental reservation or purpose of evasion; and that I will well and faithfully discharge the duties of the office on which I am about to enter. So help me God.”

That’s the oath of commissioned officers. Today, an Army officer who follows in Lee’s footsteps by breaking his or her oath to the Nation (and God) would be tried for mutiny and sedition — a violation of Article 94 of the Uniform Code of Military Justice, the maximum punishment for which is death. The Army takes its oaths seriously.

Robert E. Lee, however, did not take his oaths seriously. He first swore an oath of allegiance upon graduating from the U.S. Military Academy at West Point in 1829 and being commissioned as a second lieutenant; he then swore another oath of allegiance upon his appointment as lieutenant colonel of the Second Cavalry in 1855. 

Yet when the South seceded from the Union in 1861, Robert E. Lee flouted his oaths, turned his back on the United States, and applied his elite military training against even his former soldiers in a bid to keep his several slaves in bondage.

Those are the irrefutable facts; I serve my country in defense of your right to deny them. But spare us both the indignity of contorting logic and history to suggest that Robert E. Lee is worthy of memorialization. 

We don’t “remember history” by erecting monuments to that other notorious slaver, Adolf Hitler, and we need not expend oxygen discussing whether removal of Robert E. Lee statues erases history.

History happened; it can’t be destroyed. It can only be forgotten (by people who don’t read) or reinterpreted (by people who read Facebook).

If a statue really is the only way you can orient yourself in the linear progression of time, here’s a compromise: Let’s modify the offending “Emancipation Memorial” statue by substituting the Black slave on bended knee beneath Abraham Lincoln’s paternalistically outstretched hand with a subjugated Robert E. Lee in the same posture, evoking the latter’s gratitude to our 16th president for mercifully declining to court-martial him for treason.

Or we can replace the many statues of Robert E. Lee standing proud in military uniform with ones of him in a nightgown on his deathbed, contemplating the awkward conversation awaiting him when St. Peter scrutinizes the oaths he betrayed and the blood of four-hundred-thousand American soldiers still dripping from his hands.

Why subject Robert E. Lee to such dishonorable treatment? Because his Army service was, by literal definition, dishonorable. That’s the legal characterization of treason; the Confederate flag is its shorthand.

Given the American South’s rich and expansive history, it’s hard to understand why anyone would celebrate with Lee’s flag a heritage focused solely on a specific four-year period comprised of the South’s twin shames: slavery, and unqualified military defeat.

Treason-apologists claim the Confederate flag represents the “rebel spirit.” Nonsense.

A conductor on the Underground Railroad better typifies the rebel spirit than the sulking slavers who took up arms against their countrymen merely because they preferred not to plant their own crops. And don’t even get me started on how reverence for the antebellum South is an affront to all red-blooded American farmers whose soil is tilled with their own blood, sweat, and tears.

In 2017, my fellow soldier’s remains were draped in the same flag as were the remains of the two soldiers in my current unit who were killed this past February, just six weeks after we arrived in Afghanistan.

That flag was the American flag, which represents the freedom of all human beings; the fallen were American soldiers, like the ones Robert E. Lee martyred on a Gettysburg battlefield; my comrades’ remains were transported by C-130 back to an America that Robert E. Lee endeavored to destroy.

And the promise of today — Independence Day — means something uniquely special in spite of Robert E. Lee.

I said some pretty crazy [censored] when I was a teenager, so I can forgive a neighbor possessed of the attention-seeking contrarianism that defines adolescence. But what of the adults who would stand arm-in-arm with Lee beneath that Confederate flag? Do they lay claim to today’s fireworks?

True: That Berne teen has every right to personally redefine the Confederate flag’s significance, and to give it some personally-contrived meaning divorced from its origins as the flag that flew in triumph over the graves of real patriots.

But so, too, do I have every right to view that decision with disappointment. For there’s no defensible justification for flying colors that rallied traitors to the cause of killing United States soldiers.

I followed in the footsteps of those fallen young men — heroes who fulfilled their oaths to the Constitution, who gave their lives in defense of our country — so as to advance a cause that the Confederacy sought to deny: freedom.

Their uniforms were blue, whereas mine is camouflage — but both serve the colors of the only flag, for all the faults of its history, that’s worth saluting in the perennial struggle for liberty.

This is the second time I’ll return home with fewer soldiers in my unit than when we deployed.  Through their ultimate sacrifice, their names join a venerable roster of those who gave their lives for a star-spangled banner that yet waves o’er the land of the free, irrespective of creed or color.  Their memory is the everlasting legacy of Independence Day.

So God bless the American soldier who lays his life down for his country; it is your place in history that I honor. And may God have mercy on Robert E. Lee. He is not my heritage, and his is not my flag.

Captain Jesse Sommer is a lifelong resident of Albany County, currently deployed to Afghanistan with the U.S. Army’s 7th Special Forces Group (Airborne). He welcomes your thoughts at [email protected].

— Photo from Jesse Sommer

Lather lesson: Jesse and his dad.

Thirteen months ago, The Enterprise published a column I’d dedicated to my mum on the occasion of Mother’s Day. And when I didn’t follow it up in June with a Father’s Day column, a reader emailed to express disappointment. “I hoped you might share some of your dad’s influence as well,” she wrote. 

It hadn’t even occurred to me to do so. Father’s Day always struck me as the obligatory counterpart to its May-based companion, and that’s how lots of Americans viewed the holiday throughout the first half of the 20th Century’s efforts to formally establish it. The parental roles are just eminently different in the recognition they warrant; motherhood is something to celebrate, while fatherhood is something to expect. Right?

That attitude probably derives from the language itself. After all, the infinitive verb “to mother” means “to nurture” and “care for,” while “to father” means, well, something else entirely. It’s that borderline unprintable definition unsuitable for a family newspaper that for most of recorded history encapsulated a father’s primary role. No wonder that so many, for so long, conceived of fatherhood as a duty to be performed rather than a sacrifice worthy of admiration.

But in observing the influence of my brothers-in-law on the development of my nieces and nephews over the past year, I’ve had occasion to reconsider my own dad’s role in my life. And on this Father’s Day, I’d like to reinterpret what “to father” means to my sisters and me.    

Because it’s probably most accurate to say that “to father” is to make the world’s best sandwiches, and its best soups, from what you’ve grown in its best garden. It means building your kids a tree fort that operates as both a castle and a pirate ship, and then telling tall tales of the heroes who sword fight on its ramparts and rafters.

It’s to inexhaustibly demand that your children turn off the lights, turn down the thermostat, and turn the other cheek in the face of schoolyard bullies. But it also means telling your 10-year-old son to toughen up, to “mentally adjust yourself,” and to “put up your dukes” when there are no cheeks left to turn.

“To father” means racing home from work and changing into the team jersey so you can coach your son’s Kiwanis sports teams, even when he isn’t any good on baseball or soccer fields — just as it means taking it in stride when he knocks out your front tooth in a notorious wrestling match because his proper place is on the mats.

It means sitting with your 6-year-old son on the first day of summer camp when he’s shy to the point of terror, telling him it’s OK to cry, and waiting with him while he does. And it means intuiting when it’s time to leave after you drop him off at college 12 years later, as the confidence you’ve instilled in him over the intervening decade fuels him forth into a new social unknown without even a backwards glance.

Recently, I asked my sisters what “to father” meant to them. Ever the narcissist, I was surprised to learn about all the custom-tailored parenting of which I’d been oblivious. For example, it turns out that “to father” means holding your daughter’s hand and squeezing it three times to silently say “I love you” when she’s a sad little 5-year-old. And it means editing her work product 29 years later when, at 34, she still asks for feedback before a big presentation. 

“To father” means helping your daughter calm her debilitating childhood migraines with gentle visualization exercises, and coaxing her through panic attacks by massaging her back and asking her to describe which birds she hears singing until the calm returns. It means teaching your daughters the “Girl Power!” rallying cry, and supporting them in becoming archaeologists, lawyers, doctors, and eventually mothers. Then, when life doesn’t go according to plan, “to father” means reaching out to catch your daughter when her dreams fall apart and life crashes down all around her.  

“When I felt stupid in math, Dad told me it was OK to be smart about other things,” Caitlin told me. “He introduced me to an entire library of philosophy, history, and English, all of which shaped my understanding of the cosmos.”

“He supported my decision to go to law school and encouraged me to stick with it when I questioned why I went,” Robin said. “He’s my biggest champion and best friend. He loves my baby girls and protects them so fiercely.” 

“Mom made the idea of becoming a doctor attainable,” Brenna wrote me, “but Dad was my motivation for being the best at it. He’s proof that, if you dedicate yourself to making the world around you just a teeny bit better, you can find the space to be your weird little self.” Word. 

There are other definitions of “to father” that bespeak phenomena of which my sisters and I were once unaware amidst the illusion of safety and stability that Dad so fervently guarded. He might not even realize that my sisters and I know that “to father” means having always dreamt of opening a little bookstore in Vermont, only to wake up one day to realize that you’re sharing a home with four babies under the age of 6, and thus dutifully trudging through three decades of 60-hour workweeks driven by a frantic desperation to provide for your kids.

He may not be aware that my sisters and I know that “to father” is to lie awake in bed after you’ve lost your job and don’t know how you’ll ever support that family of six, only to take a monumental risk — and ultimately build a thriving business which now, in turn, supports the livelihoods of coworkers he regards as his second family.

But, at its core, “to father” probably most closely means “to teach” — to teach your children how to laugh at themselves and enjoy life’s inexorable nonsense. It’s to teach them how to fire a gun, to chop firewood, and to shake hands like you mean it. “To father” is to teach your son how to ride a bike, and then some years later how to drive a car — twice equipping him with the freedom to set out on his own even when Mom wants to keep her baby right at home.  

An aside: Soon after I learned to drive, I deemed it my duty as a big brother to pass that precious knowledge onto my 12-year-old sister. Taking advantage of our rural backcountry roads and a late afternoon when Mom and Dad were nowhere to be found, I adjusted the driver’s seat so Brenna’s tiny legs could reach the pedals. Her command of the clutch was impressively innate.  But as she piloted us back into the driveway, we realized we’d been caught. There was Dad, at the fence, watching his pre-adolescent daughter shift into neutral. From shotgun, I pulled the emergency brake and prepared to face the music. We took a deep breath and, exiting the car, confronted Dad’s raised eyebrow.

“I’m not sure your mom would approve of that,” he said, clearly unsure of what proper parenting protocol now dictated. Then he walked off, and my sister and I were silent. She turned to me.  “Ever get the sense that Dad’s just winging it?” she asked.

Yup. All the time. You know who else did? Dad. As we were growing up, he would so often proclaim, “I have no idea what I’m doing” that it practically became his battle cry, accompanied as it was by helpless flailing whenever Mom’s out-of-town trips stranded him with the kids. Yet it was in those moments that Dad bequeathed unto us the ancient arts of subversion and stealth, as together we would all seditiously devour illicit sugar cereals and the contraband Nintendo gaming system he rented from Blockbuster. 

Because Dad was skeptical of any authority, even his own. That’s an ethos he wears on his shoulders (literally, as his fiery red shoulder-length mane enters its fifth unabashed decade). And while “mothering” may entail imparting unparalleled literary skills through a robust regime of bedtime stories, “fathering” is to spin your children into a frenzy of giggles by taking extreme artistic license with the children’s books you deem in need of narrator intervention. Where else does a child develop the absurdist sense of humor necessary to endure life’s unrelenting tragedies? 

My father’s politics were the most unique and defining aspect of his parenthood. Seemingly divergent perspectives weren’t contradictory — they were just Dad. For example, he viewed paying taxes as the highest of patriotic privileges, but was leery of a strong central government.  He believed the posted speed limit was sacrosanct, but that the proper scheduling of certain controlled substances was up for debate.

He taught my sisters and me to honor the police, despite a worldview forged by the civil rights movement. He’s been an avowed conscientious objector since his Vietnam-era antiwar activism, but was never prouder of me than when I commissioned in the Army. He staunchly supported Obamacare, but largely out of a principled conservative ethos that everyone should have to pay their fair share (“why should I foot the ER bill for someone too irresponsible to carry health insurance?”). Vegetarianism was his core moral philosophy, and something he made cool before it was cool.  

While it’s true that whatever intellect I possess is likely an inheritance from my mother, it’s the charm, wit, and work ethic I get from Dad that ever gave it any agency. Yet despite his limitless charisma, he’s always been intensely private. Which is why the accompanying photo prominently featuring his nipple likely embarrasses him, as did my school suspensions and adolescent run-ins with law enforcement. Have I mentioned that “to father” is to forgive?

Of the many undeserved societal privileges that Providence afforded me, the most fundamental was that my dad was always around. I never had to question it. He might’ve worked long hours and on weekends, yet somehow, even now, Dad’s always just there.

Morbid though it may be, I often contemplate life when he’s gone. Like, even as a child, I knew that Dad just didn’t have a sufficiently refined taste for macaroni art; only Mom could properly appreciate the nuanced subtlety of finger-paintings worthy of the fridge. But nowadays, I can’t help but wonder: If Dad isn’t around to witness all that he’s set me up to accomplish, what’s the point? 

I guess the answer can be divined from yet another definition: “To father” is to instill in your kids a robust ethical framework that guides them long after you’re gone. And though Dad has never cared much about legacy, being a legacy of which he’d be proud is one way to ensure he remains forever present in my life.   

In the last half-decade, the phrase “to father” has taken on a new connotation — expanding to encompass what it means “to grandfather.” Yet notwithstanding that evolution, there’s one meaning that remains the same as it ever was: “To father” is to be my single biggest inspiration for who and what I am. 

Despite my dad’s nearly infinite supply of daily mistakes, perhaps one reason I’ve shied away from having kids myself is the fact that I couldn’t possibly be half the father my father was. No child deserves anything less. So Happy Father’s Day, Deano. Thanks for literally everything.

Captain Jesse Sommer is a lifelong resident of Albany County, currently deployed to Afghanistan with the U.S. Army’s 7th Special Forces Group (Airborne). He welcomes your thoughts at .

 

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