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  • September 21, 2018

    My Pal Lash: Fighting Crime One Taco at a Time


    It turns out that my pal, Larry “Lash” LaRue, who died last November, was ahead of his time. I already knew that, but a recent article I read reminded me that Mr. LaRue knew way back when, what social scientists are just figuring out now.

    In the 1960s, when Larry was working his way through Long Beach State, he had a gig as the overnight guy at Taco Bell in Long Beach. On the wall behind him was a clock imbedded inside a giant Mexican sunburst.

    Late one night, this young kid comes up with a gun, sticks it through the window, and demands all the money. Instead of giving him the cash, Larry whispers to the kid to put the gun down out of sight. “There’s a camera hidden in the clock,” Larry tells him, “just act normal.” The kid looks scared, then says, “OK” and puts the gun down.

    Then Larry in a loud voice says, “Yes Sir, two bean burritos and a taco,” speaking for the benefit of the make-believe camera.

    He puts the order in the bag, gives it to the would-be robber, then tells the kid to take off before they both get caught. The kid runs off with his bag of fast food, and Larry calls the police.

    It turns out that Larry’s dad, Al LaRue, was a lieutenant on the Long Beach Police Department at the time. His dad was irate. How stupid are you, he wanted to know. You risk your life for a couple of hundred bucks that doesn’t even belong to you?  Are you insane?

    But Larry wasn’t insane. He just didn’t want to get the kid in trouble over a couple of hundred bucks in the Taco Bell register.

    The Taco Bell robbery story all happened before I knew Larry, but he told about that night on several occasions when we were out drinking, and I laughed every time. Because it was funny and because that’s the kind of guy Larry was.

    Now, 50 years later I read a story on Zocalo by sociology professor Anne Nassauer. The professor writes that social scientists are using closed circuit TV recordings of robberies and other events to discover what makes people act the way they do. Setting up social experiments with human subjects in a lab or doing a survey is always limited by the awareness of the subjects that they are part of a test. And because they are aware, they consciously or unconsciously act as the think they should act.

    But on closed-circuit TV, you get a picture of the subjects who are part of a real-life experience rather than a closely controlled experiment. And with the ubiquitous presence of surveillance cameras, there is lots of material to choose from with a wide range of cultures and nationalities. It turns out that most of us follow scripts during encounters with other folks.

    “How are you,” somebody says to you.

    “I’m good,” you say, even though you may have a toothache and your wife just filed for divorce. “And how about you?”

    “I’m doing just fine,” the other person says. “Have a great day.”

    “You too,” you answer.

    It’s a script, and with some variation, most of us follow it dozens of times a day. It turns out to be the same thing with robberies.

    The robber brandishes a gun, bursts into the store, and shouts in an angry voice, “Give me all the money!”

    And the clerk? He or she puts their hands up, and turns over the cash.

    It’s all part of a script. But it turns out, that’s not the way it always goes. In about a third of robberies, the victim does not follow the script. And when he or she goes off script, it throws the entire robbery dynamic out of sync – kind of like when an actor unexpectedly starts to ad lib in a play.

    Sometimes, the clerk doesn’t put up his hands. Sometimes the clerk reaches under the counter, pulls out his or her own gun, and shoots back. Sometimes the clerk is fed up with people just marching in and demanding money and tells the robber to get lost.

    Here’s the Zocalo account of a robbery caught on video in Riverbank, California.

    ‘Two robbers enter the Circle T Market in Riverbank. One carries a large assault rifle, an AK-47. Upon seeing them, the clerk behind the counter puts his hands up. Yet the elderly store owner finds the weapon absurdly big and casually walks up to the robbers, laughing. His shoulders are relaxed and he points the palms of his hands up as if asking them whether they are serious. Both perpetrators are startled upon seeing the elderly man laughing at them. One runs away, while the one with the AK-47 freezes, is tackled, and is later arrested by police. They had robbed numerous stores before.”

    Which brings us back to the robbery at Taco Bell so many years ago. It doesn’t always work out as well as one might hope. The young robber could have shot my friend Larry LaRue and killed him before Larry and I ever met. That could have happened, but it didn’t.

    It could be that the young robber took the lesson to heart, gave up his plan to be a criminal, and lived a happy and productive life. We would all like to believe that, but it is almost certainly not what really happened. And that’s OK.

    Larry did his best for the kid, because that’s the kind of guy Larry was. And maybe in the end that is all that really counts.

    George Lee Cunningham

    Do you have a dissenting opinion or any opinion at all on the subject? Contact me at george@georgeleecunningham.com and let me know. Meanwhile, you can always subscribe and get an email reminder of blog postings. Your name will not be shared and you may cancel at any time.


    A place to share some sounds of beauty, inspiration, and life. Sometimes when words are not enough and we feel like a little calm and order in our life we listen to music without words. The nice thing about instrumentals is that you can supply your own feelings to the music. All three of our selections have lyrics to go with them, but sometimes for us, words merely detract from the music. Today we give you both versions, with and without music, so you can make your own decision. The first song, Chandelier by the Brooklyn Duo is an instrumental. The second version, with vocals, is by singer and writer Sia. The second song, Clocks is done as an instrumental by the Dallas String Quartet and with lyrics by Coldplay. The third song – Beethoven’s 5 Secrets – is a combination of Beethoven and the OneRepublic song Secret. Again we have it with lyrics and without. Click on the name of the piece to get a video or more information.

    – Chandelier as instrumental Artist: Brooklyn Duo; Writers: Jesse Shatkin & Sia Furler

    I’m gonna swing from the chandelier, from the chandelier
    I’m gonna live like tomorrow doesn’t exist
    Like it doesn’t exist
    I’m gonna fly like a bird through the night, feel my tears as they dry
    I’m gonna swing from the chandelier, from the chandelier

    – Chandelier with lyrics Artist: Sia


    – Clocks as instrumental Artists: Dallas String Quartet; Writers: Guy Rupert Berryman, Jonathan Mark Buckland, William Champion, and Christopher Anthony John Martin

    Confusion that never stops
    The closing walls and the ticking clocks gonna
    Come back and take you home
    I could not stop, that you now know, singing

    Come out upon my seas
    Cursed missed opportunities am I
    A part of the cure
    Or am I part of the disease, singing

    – Clocks with lyrics Group: Coldplay


    – Beethoven’s 5 Secrets Artists: The Piano Guys – OneRepublic Writer: Ludwig von Beethoven, Ryan Tedder

    Tell me what you want to hear
    Something that will light those ears
    Sick of all the insincere
    I’m gonna give all my secrets away
    This time, don’t need another perfect lie
    Don’t care if critics ever jump in line
    I’m gonna give all my secrets away

    – Beethoven’s 5 Secrets with Lyrics Artists: The Piano Guys – OneRepublic with Singers Tiffany Alvord; Writer Ryan Tedder

    – Secrets Group: OneRepublic, Writer and singer: Ryan Tedder


  • August 12, 2018

    How Do Environmentalists Sue A Forest?

    CORONA, CALIFORNIA AUGUST 2018 — Photo by Carmela Cunningham

    California natives are found of describing the four seasons as fire, mudslides, drought, and earthquake.

    That, of course, is more whimsical than real, but California is an extreme state and the weather is no exception. And it does somewhat tie together. A rainy winter, causes the brush to grow thicker which means when the drought rolls around, there is more dried-out wild vegetation to burn. On the other hand, the authorities also warn that a drier winter means the underbrush will be even drier than usual, which means that the fire season will still be bad. There is no winning. When the vegetation burns away it leaves the hillsides bare, which means that when the rains return there will be massive mudslides.

    Earthquakes are the outlier in all this. They can happen anytime in the year and they always exacerbate whatever widespread disaster is taking place at the time.

    I think there should be another disaster season in California – the whacky-politician season. California left alone is the most beautiful state in the nation. When politicians and political activists get involved, the entire state turns into a giant refried mess.

    What brings this to mind is that this is the fire season in California. The hills are burning away and the haze and ash hangs in the sky like a post-apocalyptic preview for the end-times.

    Welcome to the Golden State.

    As it turns out, the last week of forest fire in Northern California alone has put more pollution in the air than an entire year of automobiles and trucks state-wide. That fire, although huge and expected to burn for weeks to come, is only one of several forest fires in the state so far this year.

    And that’s not the worst of it. Pollution from cars and trucks has been studied to death and even exaggerated in order to support expensive and onerous air-control regulations that add to the cost of cars, trucks, and fuel. The pollution from forest fires has not undergone the same level of scrutiny. Each different species of trees that burn put a different mix of particulate matter into the air, a mix whose health effect is little understood.

    RIVERSIDE, CALIFORNIA AUGUST 2018 — Photo by Carmela Cunningham

    A secondary effect is how forest fires set back efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, particularly carbon dioxide that is thought to be a major factor in global warming. Living trees soak up carbon dioxide and release oxygen into the air. Burning trees release the carbon dioxide they absorbed over the years back into the air in sudden and massive amounts. No matter where you stand on global warming, California summers do appear to be getting hotter and the climate getting dryer.

    But global warming is not the only reason for the increase in massive wild fires and maybe not even the primary one.

    Former California Republican Assemblyman Chuck DeVore recalls forest product industry folks telling him in 2005 how difficult and expensive it was to do business in California. Over the ensuing years, the California timber industry shrank to less than half of what it formerly was.

    The shortfall in timber was made up by wood imports from other countries. As the forestry industry declined, undergrowth in the forests was no longer being cleared and sick and dying trees no longer being removed. The environmental maintenance once performed by the timber companies was no longer taking place.

    One result has been the intensity and frequency of fires has increased. All the burning underbrush and dead trees, which act as kindling, results in a fire that becomes so hot that it sterilizes the soil and makes it difficult for the forest to recover.

    Eight months ago, the U.S. Forest Service and Cal Fire issued a joint warning that 129 million trees have died on 8.9 million acres in California because of years of drought and an infestation of bark beetles. The problem is that the Forest Service is spending so much money on fire suppression that there is less available each year for reforestation, removal of dead trees, and watershed management.

    BANNING, CALIFORNIA AFTERNOON SUN, AUGUST 2018 –Photo by George Cunningham

    Spending more money of forestry – clearing out the undergrowth and taking out dead trees, would do more to reduce pollution than declaring war on refineries that supply the gasoline and diesel fuel we use in our cars and in the trucks that companies use to deliver the goods we need to market.

    And it would create jobs. The underbrush and dead trees could be buried in a landfill, where they would decompose and eventually create methane that could at some point be drawn off and used as fuel, or they could be burned in an incinerator with scrubbers that would remove most of the pollution. Neither of those solutions is perfect, but in the real world, perfect is an ideal, not a reality.

    It seems like common sense, but this is California, where common sense is not as common as one might think.

    George Lee Cunningham

    Do you have a dissenting opinion or any opinion at all on the subject? Contact me at george@georgeleecunningham.com and let me know. Meanwhile, you can always subscribe and get an email reminder of blog postings. Your name will not be shared and you may cancel at any time.

  • August 11, 2018


    A place to share some words of beauty, inspiration, and life. It’s the fire season in California and today’s lyrics are all about burning. Burning with desire, burning with lust, burning with passion. The first song, by June Carter, was inspired by Johnny Cash. The two had an affair, while he was still married to another woman and the father of four children. But love conquers all, or is it just lust? The second song by the “Killer,” Jerry Lee Lewis is a song of passion, desire, and full-speed-ahead joy. And the last by Jim Morrison of the Doors, includes both lyrics and a poem that makes you remember just how silly the ’60s were and makes you wish – just a little – that you had never given up on recreational drugs. Click on the name of the piece to get a video or more information.

    Love is a burnin’ thing
    And it makes a fiery ring
    Bound by wild desire
    I fell into a ring of fire
    I fell into a burnin’ ring of fire
    I went down, down, down
    And the flames went higher
    And it burns, burns, burns
    The ring of fire, the ring of fire

     – Ring of Fire Singer: June Carter; Songwriters: June Carter & Merle Kilgore

    You shake my nerves and you rattle my brain
    Too much love drives a man insane
    You broke my will, oh what a thrill
    Goodness gracious great balls of fire

    I learned to love all of Hollywood money
    You came along and you moved me honey
    I changed my mind, looking fine
    Goodness gracious great balls of fire

     – Great Balls of Fire Singer: Jerry Lee Lewis; Songwriters: Jack Hammer & Otis Blackwell

    The time to hesitate is through,
    No time to wallow in the mire,
    Try now we can only lose,
    And our love become a funeral pyre.
    Come on, baby, light my fire,
    Come on, baby, light my fire.
    Try to set the night on fire. Yeah!

    PLUS “Graveyard Poem”

    It was the greatest night of my life.
    Although I still had not found a wife
    I had my friends
    Right there beside me.
    We were close together.
    We tripped the wall and we scaled the graveyard
    Ancient shapes were all around us.
    The wet dew felt fresh beside the fog.
    Two made love in an ancient spot
    One chased a rabbit into the dark
    A girl got drunk and balled the dead
    And I gave empty sermons to my head.
    Cemetery, cool and quiet
    Hate to leave your sacred lay
    Dread the milky coming of the day.

    – Light my Fire/Graveyard Poem Singer/Group: Jim Morrison, The Doors; Songwriters: John Densmore, Jim Morrison, Robby Krieger & Ray Manzarek

  • July 31, 2018



    In the old days, if you screwed up your life, you could always pack up, move on, and start over. But those days are gone.

    We live in an age, when every time you ever messed up – from skipping school in seventh grade to exposing yourself on Spring Break – has become part of your permanent record. All those acts, great and small, noble and pathetic, will be following you around for the rest of your life, no matter where you go or what you do.

    What brings this to mind is that my wife Carmela has just begun working with women prisoners. To get the job as an unpaid volunteer, she had to go through days of filling out forms about our finances, her work history, any criminal record, and any involvement with illicit drugs whether it resulted in an arrest or not. It was six months before she was deemed worthy of becoming part of the Facility’s Re-entry program, and before she got her pass, she also had to sign a waiver that stated in case she was taken hostage, no deals would be made for her release.

    Admittedly, the chances of that are slim – Carmela will not be working with hard-core felons – but the act of signing such acknowledgement emphasizes that what she is doing is serious and includes some personal risk.

    She begins this effort even though she has been warned by some smart law enforcement people that she will be wasting her time.

    The common cop wisdom is this:

    There is little you can do for these people – they are not only lost, they are too lazy or stupid to ever change. That may in fact be true. “Common wisdom” is common wisdom because most of the time it is correct. And cops, unlike most of us, work around low-level criminals every day, so they know first-hand the sort of people with whom Carmela will be dealing.

    But there is a self-fulfilling element to all this. If everybody agrees that there is no redemption for the folks in jail – and FBI statistics tend to reinforce that view – then the common wisdom becomes a self-fulfilling prophesy.

    If you start out with the attitude that people are going to screw up, then the probability that they will becomes overwhelming.

    The problem is that many criminals think that once they’ve served their time, they have paid their debt to society, but that’s not true. Serving your time is one thing. Being forgiven by other people – even people you may have victimized – is different. Criminals don’t win back their reputation by serving time. In fact, their reputation is probably worse than when they were sent away, just from the fact that now they are ex-cons – state-certified bad people.

    Try getting a job with that hanging over your head.

    The problem is if nobody forgives them, they will never be able to rejoin society and lead an honest and productive life. Carmela is going to be helping women prisoners learn the skills – and hopefully acquire the attitude – to prepare to look for work when they are released. She also hopes to give them a little encouragement that life can get better if they are willing to put in the effort needed to turn their lives around.

    If they are unable or unwilling to put in that effort, then there really is no hope for them. And since most of the women she has met in jail are mothers, and a few are pregnant, the tragedy of their lives is passed along from one generation to another.

    The challenge for the ex-prisoners is to convince people who have already made up their minds about them to reconsider. They need to acknowledge that they were wrong and ask society to forgive them. Anybody who has ever been through a 12-step program understands how important it is to accept responsibility and be willing to make amends.

    Most of the prisoners probably will not, but some of them may – and those are the folks that Carmela hopes to help.

    George Lee Cunningham

    Do you have a dissenting opinion or any opinion at all on the subject? Contact me at george@georgeleecunningham.com and let me know. Meanwhile, you can always subscribe and get an email reminder of blog postings. Your name will not be shared and you may cancel at any time.