Tuesday, October 31, 2006

Happy Samhain! Happy All Hollow's Eve!

Hallowe'en is upon us, and for many it is simply a time to hand out candy and recover from whatever holiday parties they attended this past weekend. I wonder how many folks will think about where this tradition came from. Most likely, if you aren't in some Christian sect that forbids the celebration of Halloween, your associations with this day don't progress much further than a love for bite-sized candy bars. But the truth is that the origins of Halloween probably pre-date just about any other holiday that you celebrate (if you aren't Jewish).

To explore the origins of the festival we celebrate on October 31, you need to start with the Celtic Pagans of the region we now know as Ireland. They celebrated a day called Samhain on the full moon closest to November 1st every year. This was the offiicial end of the Harvest season, and time for the people of antiquity to store food for the winter. They would slaughter enough animals to provide sufficient provisions for months. There was always some confusion about how much food was needed, and the ancient druids would seek advice from the spirit world. This time of year was considered propitious for contact between the spiritual and earthly realms. The Celts would engage in divination, make sacrifices to ancestral spirits, and build huge bonfires to ward off the evil ones. If all went well, they could hope for a smooth transition through the difficult part of the yearly cycle.

An interesting role was played by a faerie creature called the "puca" (accent on the "a"). This was a shape-shifter that often appeared as a goat, an eagle or a black horse, with yellow glowing eyes. It would waylay travelers and call to people in their homes, and then snatch them up for a ride on its back. Often the farmers would leave a small portion of the crop in the fields to appease this creature. While this may sound ridiculous to the modern mind, it has left its residue on Celtic culture. Halloween is stil referred to as "Pooky Night" in some parts of Ireland.

When the Romans successfully subjugated the Celts, they merged Samhain with two of their traditional festivals- one of which honored "Pomona", the goddess of fruit trees. This is where the associations with abundance and apples were formed. Since Samhain was a time to prepare for months of scarcity and discomfort, it didn't encourage the sort of indulgence we associate with the harvest festivals of today. This influnce was only incorporated from the Roman traditions.

As Catholicism later gained wide currency, Samhain was confounded with All Saint's Day, and the resulting phenomena gained it's skeleton and skull components. Hallowmas was a time to remember with reverence the lives of the departed saints of Christendom. The reliquaries that venerated the corporeality of the saints lent themselves naturally to the imagery of mortality. It's not altogether clear whether or not the Church was consciously co-opting the pagan observation of Samhain. But whether intentional or not... these historical factors, along with the pervasive influences of commercialism in modern society, form the holiday we now observe as Halloween.

Despite its convoluted and ambiguous beginnings, Halloween seems to be growing in popularity. It is a multi-billion dollar industry, and the kick-off to the holiday buying season. A large majority of the US population participates in some type of Halloween-related activity. Outdoor decorations become larger and gaudier every year. While some conservative Christian groups bemoan its "satanic" influences, most everybody else sees it as harmless, kitschy fun. Even the Mormons have "trunk-or-treating"- whereupon they decorate the back ends of their automobiles, drive to the church parking lot, and share treats and fellowship. And if it's good enough for the Mormons... well, then...

Monday, October 30, 2006

Devil's Night.

Is it Devil's Night? Isn't it the night before Halloween? That's when we always celebrated it growing up. I suppose the fact that it falls on a weeknight this year takes some of the fun out of it. You do know what it is... right? When you get too old to go out trick-or-treating, yet still want to recapture the fun of being outside in the dark night, then you turn to mayhem and mischief. Every locale has its special traditions... some play mailbox baseball... others blanket the town in toilet paper... some throw eggs... some even inexplicably soap cars (which seems more like charity as far as I'm concerned... I imagine some responsible and clever adult thought that one up).

I grew up in Allentown, PA, and it wasn't that great of a place during most of the year. But it had some things to recommend it on Devil's Night. It's a small city of 125,000 unfortunates, with easy access to the Pennsylvania Dutch farming communities that characterized the early history of eastern PA. A little known side story of this Germanic subculture was its preoccupation with superstition and magic. So there is definitely something in the air... a tradition to observe.

In the city itself there is an urban vibe that you can find in many of the rapidly diversifying smaller cities of the region. There are streets with densely packed row homes, block after block. This fact figured strongly in our annual plans in late October. We'd typically begin preparing for our adventure by recruiting whoever had a car to drive us out to the cornfields. The secret was to go out there late enough so we could sneak into the field and snatch a few garbage bags full of corn. Our booty in hand, we'd camp out in one of our secluded haunts... smoke cigarettes, tell stories and shuck that corn. Then we were ready to hit the town.

What we were about was an age-old prank called "tic-tac'ing". If you take a handful of autumn-dried corn, and hurl it against someone's front picture window, it makes a shocking rattle that inevitaby startles whatever inhabitants happen to be sitting in the front room of the house. The idea is to disturb their peace and then flee. We had all types of variations on this practice. If you were very lazy, you'd just take the entire cob and throw it against the screen-door... that was called a "door-knocker".

Lake any other adrenaline-producing game, you had to escalate the danger to continue deriving enjoyment from tic-tac'ing. We had a special place- a walking bridge that connected the local middle school to its fenced-off field. We'd lie on top of the bridge and drop handfuls of corn on the cars passing beneath us. If you hit their windshield just right, you could get them to swerve. The climax of that particular set-up always arrived when we targeted a cop car. Luckily we had the home field advantage and knew where to hide. But that was thrilling.

Right around the age that doing this sort of thing would be considered excessively immature, we took the whole thing to another level. We planned out a maneuver that we lovingly called a "blitzkrieg". The tactic involved getting four fleet-of-foot boys, and arm each with a bag of corn. The goal was to sprint down a long block of houses, and hit every single front window on the street. The more effective and thorough we were, the larger the mob there would be to chase us. And those folks weren't playing. A lot of them were armed.

As we hit subsequent blocks, our anxiety would just start to boil over. My very worst instincts were made manifest. I'd get so keyed up, that I'd finally just heave the entire remainder of my stash (in the bag itself), and it would smash through the corner house window. Then the pursuit was really on. I remember a few guns being pulled out, as people caught up with us in their cars.

Despite the implicit threat of firearms back then, it seems that the 80's were much more innocent years. We never really believed someone would fire at us. Nowadays I wouldn't put it past folks. There's more tension in society today, and people are just looking for an excuse. I haven't heard of anyone tic-tac'ing here in Pittsburgh. Maybe it's because of the inaccessibility of corn crops. Or maybe it's just been taken to a new level, and I wouldn't want to know about it. What seemed like a lark in yesterday's America seems a bit foolhardy now. Ah... nostalgia.

Sunday, October 29, 2006

Suburban Dining in Style.

Tonight M. and I went out to dinner to celebrate our close friend's birthday. We went to a new restaurant located in a a nearby shopping plaza. The name of the place- Walnut Grove- seemed to me to be especially ironic, because there is no grove nor walnut tree within miles of its location. Nonetheless I have stopped looking for a rational reason behind the naming of commercial eateries. Sometimes a business like this will try to incorporate some interior design elements that at least make some minimal effort to justify their title... but not in this case. Evidently it is a takeoff on the location of another establishment owned by the same folks... in a business district with a main throughfare called "Walnut Street". It appears that they are attempting to appeal to a clientele that would make a positive association with that other business district... an inner-city, upper-middle class haven with a certain cache for yuppies.

Anyway... Walnut Grove is like a hundred other places popping up on the fringes of urban areas. Just a hint of minimalist sophistication, coupled with a trendy whitebread vibe, and inflated prices for food with swell names. You can get a basic salad at a basic price, but if you want anything to distinguish it... you pay a few bucks extra for each ingredient. They have a list of accentuation options, so that you can feel like you are blazing your own trail to a discerning palette. Choose the spinach leaves... the chevre or the pea snaps... Go bold! Be your own master! Everything is pan seared... fashionably burnt! Get the "cowboy steak", and show your affinity with our Texan president. Eat simply while surrounding yourself with urbane suburbanites. Grab a fancy martini... get decadent! You're not "vanilla"... you're French Vanilla!

Why does it bother me so much? It's the complete and utter lack of any semblance of authenticity. The chicken salad that I ordered was about the same as a chicken salad at any large franchise. Why didn't I just go to Chili's and pay half the price? Because at Walnut Grove you get waffle fries in the "Pittsburgh Salad". And the honey mustard dressing is spicy. But they are still throwing it over iceberg lettuce. Perhaps I'm being too harsh. The Sauteed Wild mushrooms were good... the artichoke-spinach dip was artichokey. The bathrooms were clean and fashionably uni-sexed. You can sit at the bar and watch the Steeler game on the variety of big-screened televisions, just like anywhere else.

I'm not a foodie, but goddamn... if exceptional prices are being paid, then I want an exceptional experience. I want a first-generation grandmother to waddle out of the kitchen (with an apron stained with cooking grease) and pinch my f'n cheeks. I don't need to hear approval forom the wait staff for my tasteful selections. I want them to tell me what is actually good that day. Because it really shouldn't be the same all the time. The selections should be based on the mood of the chef. I'd like to feel like I got a special invitation to join them in their own little idiosyncratic kingdom. And for god's sake, call the food what it is. I'm not ordering it from a fashion catalogue. I can go to a chain if I want branding.

Having said all that... if you are with the right company, any dining experience is going to be worthwhile. I feel fortunate to have the friends I have. They make up for any material deficiencies I may encounter.

A Night at the Castle.

It's much too late to be writing an entry. Why am I doing this in the middle of the night? It's 3:20AM (taking into account the bonus daylight savings hour). This evening I went right from telling creepy stories at Digging Pitt to driving north for a Halloween party. As we approached our destination, we saw a series of orange flares along the roadside, but there were no cars disabled by the side of the road. I couldn't figure out why there were flares.

When we got to the party, the mystery was solved. A storm had come through immediately before us, and knocked down a power line. We were at the Castle, but there was no electricity. I quickly devised some fictional scenarios. Our host had gone around the bend from living in isolation too long. She intended to lure us one-by-one into the woods, where she would dispatch us and throw us into a shallow pit. Or maybe someone had cut the line intending to do us harm. I imagined fleeting shadows through the trees.

The atmosphere could not have been more appropriate for the weekend before Halloween. The bright colors of the Castle were obscured by shadows and candlelight. Our imaginations ran wild, but we kept quiet... so as not to scare the children. No music and no distraction. We relied on conversation around the fireplace. And beer.

No one really disappeared. The electricity eventually came back on. It took us by surprise. We marvelled at the efficiency of the local utility maintenance services. And then we went around and turned the lights back off. Wouldn't you?

Friday, October 27, 2006

"Creeps I Know" at the Digging Pitt.

Digging Pitt Too Gallery (45th and Plummer Streets in Lawrenceville) is inviting everyone to a storytelling session this saturday at 4PM. It's a good chance to stop in and see the work of McClung, Gonzalez and Sarver- if you haven't yet had the chance. It's also a fine opportunity to share (or listen to) some stories about creeps. I'm certain that each and every one of you could spin a fine yarn about someone or other that has given you a case of the "creepin' willies". Now's your chance to malign them in public!*

As for me, I hope to be there. Of course I will be taking some risks by attending. I'm certain to know some of the people there, and its likely my name would come up in their stories. But because I am proud of who I am, I will stand tall and... never mind. Anyway, I know that it is physically impossible for many to be there, so I thought I'd share some thoughts here:

The given topic opens up a world of possibilities. Perhaps like attracts like, for I have been swarmed by creeps throughout my life. I had an ex-girlfriend that loved LSD because she enjoyed the feeling derived from the ingestion of strychnine. She was a cold fish. Then there was the greenhouse owner who never bathed, and whose miasmic reverberations lingered for minutes after her every passing. She smelled of a hearty mix of fecal matter, b.o., vomit, and dirt... and was rumored to have a bird's nest in her hair. There was the middle-aged woman who allowed her two full-sized rottweillers to attack me on my exit from her store... and then visited me when I got out of the hospital to plead for mercy for her dogs. While we are on the subject, there's the guy I know that rubbed peanut butter on his genitals and solicited our mutual friend's dog to clean him up. And of course we could mention every member of the current presidential administration. But that's too easy.

The creep I have chosen to focus on is much more insidious. When I first met him, he seemed like an alright guy. B. was an ex-marine in his late twenties who was attending the art institute for film. Though he had some abilities in cinematography and editing, he was a terrible screenwriter. My friend J. made an introduction, and I came on to help tweak the script. He had in mind a horror/thriller short, and he intended to shoot parts of it at the abandoned Dixmont Asylum out on route 65. I had wanted to explore those ruins for a couple of years, and this seemed like a good opportunity. Besides, I was marginally employed.

The plot itself should have raised a red flag. The story revolved around an aspiring artist who found his inspiration in the kidnapping, sexual assault and murder of young women. My friend J. was to play the lead, and B. seemed almost obsessive in his direction of the role. The dialogue was terrible, but the more I got to know B., the more it seemd true to his personality. Some people just lack adaptive social sklls. Although extraordinarily polite, B.'s manner was wooden with little warmth. This fact was inreasingly in evidence as B. latched on to us, and insisted we take him to our regular haunts so he could meet women. Invariably, he would order a few shots of whiskey and begin a malicious stream of invective directed at his ex-girlfriend. Sure, it was a night out with the guys... but he often got so extreme and obsessive, that we would slip out of the bar whenever he went to the bathroom. But in his inebriation he wouldn't take the hint, and in his hungover sobriety he wouldn't remember our abandonment of him. This went on for several weeks as we worked on the movie.

We shot scenes of the lead character drugging and subduing women. We showed him tying them up and subjecting them to physical and mental torture... and creatively disposing their bodies. If you subtracted the ridiculous dialogue, the events didn't strain credibility. It was all very well thought out. For the most part, when B. was working on the film he was too preoccupied to act out. Call it sublimation. Through this period, we did our best to help him make his film, and avoided him otherwise.

By the time the shooting was concluded, our resistance to socializing with B. had mellowed... we had let our guard down. I invited B. to a party at my house. Throughout the night he imbibed sangria, and began to get belligerent. He started making lewd comments to the female guests. He was demonstrating no recognition of personal space. Finally he made the mistake of grabbing J.'s girlfriend's breast, and was taken down swiftly (J. is a very big boy). Meanwhile the buddy that B. had brought to the party was heaving a spew of sangria-tinged puke all over the bathroom walls. B. eventually slinked away and, a few days after the fact, tried to apologize for his misbehavior. We were pretty much done with him by this point.

A short time after our last experience with B., we heard a story about him through the grapevine. Evidently he had been out with someone we knew, and B. had gotten drunk and made incriminating comments about himself. He had told our friend that he keeps a bottle of chloroform in his bathroom cabinet for "special dates". Soon after this revelation, B. disappeared, never to be seen again. He was not missed.

* My lawyer advises me not to encourage the use of any proper names. Truth is a defense against slander, but good luck...

Thursday, October 26, 2006

The execution of Jeffrey Lundgren.

This past Tuesday Jeffrey Lundgren was executed by lethal injection in Ohio. Lundgren was a reverend in a splinter group of the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ Latter Day Saints (who are not-quite-Mormons) ... until he forced his own dismissal and formed his own cult. In 1989, he slaughtered five members of a family that he subsequently claimed "seemed to lack adequate faith". He invited them to dinner, and lured them one-by-one to a barn, where they were slaughtered by the shepherd with the assistance of the faithful.

Lundgren, who had been a child loner with a history of cruelty to animals, attended Central Missouri State University for electronics. Despite a four-year stint in the Navy, he had an uneven job history due to reputed irresponsibility. He also had a habit of beating his wife, yet he was asked to joined the RLDS lay priesthood. But Lundgren felt that certain church practices (like allowing women to serve in the clergy) were too liberal. He vested himself with the authority to interpret scripture directly, and proceeded to gather his flock independent of the established temple. As he assumed leadership over a small cult, he became increasingly obsessed with guns and perversity.

What specifically intrigues me about this case was the failure of the convicted to plead insanity. Lundgren claimed that he could feel no remorse for carrying out God's command, and therefore should be spared the death penalty. Surely the belief that God has ordered you to murder your followers is suitable evidence of mental illness (the story of Abraham and Isaac not withstanding). I don't know what kind of lawyer Lundgren retained, but it seems like he missed an obvious opportunity. No doubt there is a tradition of God speaking to his/her/its followers in virtually every religion... but like anything else, faith in this phenomena is a matter of degree.

It's true that Mormonism (like its offshoots) relies on revelatory experience for much of its allure. Any of the church's brethren may receive direct communication from God in the form of visions or commands. That leaves those subordiante to the most senior brethren (especially all women) vulnerable to the dictates and caprice of charismatic or dominant individuals. Of course anyone experiencing "visions" and "hearing voices" is liable to receive the DSM-IV diagnosis of schizophrenia from any competent mental health professional. Additionally, a perspective founded on the belief that you are the physical manifestation of God's Will can be characterized as "delusional thinking".

One tortured appeal for clemency that Lundgren's lawyers did use included their contention that lethal injection constituted "cruel and unusual punishment" because their client was an overweight diabetic. This argument seems rather counterintuitive. It seems obvious that diabetics, through the administration of hypodermically delivered insulin, should be desensitized to needles. That should render the delivery-method "less cruel" and "more usual" than if he didn't have diabetes. Evidently the appeal was based upon the inefficient execution of an intraveneous drug user whose vein collapsed during the execution procedure, causing "excessive" pain. Either way, a particularly conservative appellate court turned him down. Being a fat, insane, God-faring diabetic didn't save Lundgren's life.

Wednesday, October 25, 2006

Jennifer Wynn, "Inside Riker's"

When I picked up Jennifer Wynn's "Inside Riker's", I was under the impression that I was getting a much different book than what I got. There were no stories of the hardscrabble prison life struggles that I expected. This book wasn't going to provide me with a historical framework with which to understand Riker's Island. No stories of daring escapes awaited me. Instead what I read was an examination of the sociological factors that contribute to multiple trips to jail... and a description of a program that attempts to mitigate those factors.

Do you know the difference between a "prison" and a "jail"? It's an important distinction that many are unaware of. "Jail" is where they house those who have been charged with a crime, and are awaiting trial. There are some convicts in jail... those that await transit to prison, and people convicted of misdemeanors... but the vast majority still fall under the quaint formulation of "innocent until proven guilty". That's right. These are primarily the people that cannot afford bail. And because these inmates have no definite prison terms, there are no clear repercussions for misbehavior. They will be incarcerated until their trial, regardless of how they act. This leads to a very unstable environment for guards and inmates both. It has traditionally been one of the toughest places to be incarcerated.

Riker's Island has a population with a racial composition that includes 92% non-white inmates. Is that a reflection of the proportion of non-whites that are arrested in NYC? No it is not. It is a reflection of income disparity and (maybe) bias inherent in the justice system. This is one topic Wynn presents in the book. How does she, as a white woman, begin to undertand how to deal with thess circumstances? She goes into the former inmates' neighborhoods and integrates herself in their lives. She sees firsthand the differences between white and minority neighborhoods, and she works with the realities of the situation. And any time she finds an employer willing to give someone a chance, she grabs it.

Far from being the ivory tower speculations of some distanced academician, this is an examination powered by direct experience with the subject matter. Wynn has earned her stories. She has worked as a Fresh Start writing instructor on Ryker's Island itself, and as a transition counselor for those released from jail. She knows firsthand the many difficulties these individuals face in the process of trying to become "straight" members of society... Obstacles to a socially acceptable lifestyle that may include (among others) lack of support, lack of finances, and health problems.

The vast majority of inmates are at Riker's as a result of their involvement with drugs. Despite the almost obsessive security of the island, there is a black market economy for virtually anything that one can get on the outside. That means that most addicts that enter Riker's come out as addicts. In addition, methadone dosages are provided for heroin-addicts every day of their sentence. Authorities justify this with their assertion that they don't "do detox" at Riker's. They leave it for the outside. Of course this means that addicts are extremely vulnerable to falling into their old habits, and re-establishing the patterns that landed them in jail to begin with.

As if life weren't hard enough at Riker's, every inmate is welcomed with a $150 surcharge when they enter jail. They are required to pay this before they can use the commisary for even the most basic of items. In fact, if they fail to pay this before they are released, then a warrant can be issued for their arrest. That means that some Riker's inmates are incarcerated for their failure to pay the surcharge of their previous term. This policy seems excessively harsh. It's certainly not liable to make up much of the approximately $68,000 spent on each inmate annually (just for comparison's sake, a year of inpatient drug treatment costs about $17,000).

When inmates leave Riker's they are dropped off at a bus stop in Queens at 4AM. They are given the clothes they were wearing when they were initially arrested, and a Metro card worth $4.50- so they can ride the bus to wherever they are spending their first day of freedom. Of course, most of them are returning to nothing. If they were renting, they probably lost their apartment. If they had a job, they most certainly lost it when they went to jail. Their friends and family (if they had any previously) may want to maintain a distance from them. At any rate, they are encouraged not to associate with other criminals... but their comunities were most likely saturated with criminality in the first place, and they are not likely to be accepted elsewhere. They will not receive public assistance for a few weeks, and they will have to survive the interim. If they do settle in, they won't be able to get governmental education grants or bank loans. Most employers will resist hiring them.

So it seems like most factors lead to recidivism. It's not merely a matter of "personal choices" and "accepting consequences". Certainly poor decisions have been made- but incarceration aggravates these consequences. That's what makes programs, such as Wynn writes about, so crucial in rehabilitation. Not only do they work to provide opportunities for ex-inmates... but they work to mimimize the amount of future inmates. You may not consider a success rate of 66% an unqualified success... but compare that to the 75% rate of total Riker's inmates that end up returning to jail. In a nation that incarcerates 2 million of its citizens, we should value any program that demonstrates this level of achievement.

Tuesday, October 24, 2006

Spooky film night: "Messiah of Evil" and "Suspiria".

Last Friday I ventured over to a homebound friend's house, and as requested, brought over a couple of DVDs for us to watch. I decided I'd bring something seasonal, and searched through my horror collection looking for something appropriate to my mood. I have a fairly wide selection from this genre, and tend to focus on the moody and atmospheric rather than the gory and cruel entries that are currently all the rage. I also collect mainly obscure titles that most people haven't seen. After a few minutes of consideration, I made my choices and headed out.

I presented three titles to my friends and they picked Messiah of Evil (evidently alternatively named Dead People). This is a rather hard-to-find-item, and is only available in bargain collections such as the Chilling Classics-50 Movie Pack. The film was made in 1972 by Willard Huyck and Gloria Katz, who went on to write Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. This movie couldn't be further from the noted Harrison Ford vehicle. Made from an extremely low budget, it is an unsettling and creative "zombie" flick with style to burn. A beautiful young woman travels to Point Dune to find her missing father. Dad's beach house is pimpin' in a way that only a 70's pad can be. The walls are notably covered with huge murals of mundane but creepy scenes- such as a mall escalator and a laundromat. They exude an ominous tone. There's something wrong with the little town's inhabitants (big surprise, right?), and our hero and a trio of hipsters are about to discover exactly what gives... Notable scenes include killings in a movie theater and grocery store. There aren't many recognizable faces besides Elisha Cook, Jr., of film noirdom. Memorable characters include a very scary-looking alibino. This is my FAVORITE zombie movie. Not intensely gory... but with style to burn.

We had time for a second movie, and now my friends wanted to see Suspiria (1977). This one they had heard about... it lingers on the periphery of awareness for many film fans. Its director, Dario Argento, is known as the master of "giallo". This Italian genre is characterized by black-gloved murderers, convoluted plots and lush cinematography. Kinda like the American slasher flick, but with style. Of course Suspiria is shot beautifully, with a bright and creepy color palette, and ornate set decorations. It concerns an American dance student who goes overseas to attend a prestigious ballet school. Mysteriously, several students have disappeared. It soon becomes clear that all is "not as it seems". (I know... that's terribly cliched, but giallo is not about compelling plots) The murder scenes in this movie are spellbinding and horrific, but oddly transcendent. In one scene the dripping blood from a hanging victim forms a Jackson Pollock-like masterpiece on the floor below. While elements of the film strain credibility, the beauty of its setpieces have never been matched in the genre. And the soundtrack by 80's electronic band Goblin adds an unrelenting tension to the whole affair. It's pretty clear that John Carpenter (director of Halloween) was impressed by Goblin.

My friends expressed their appreciation for both films. They certainly weren't bored. However, the films didn't elicit the reactions that I would have predicted. The fact that the sound level on the television required absolute silence muted the impact of the experience. When people can make low-level comments at a volume that dwarfs that coming from the speakers, it is too easy to be distracted. Of course, distraction is the nemesis of suspension of disbelief. And without suspension of belief, a horror film quickly turns into a running joke. These particular films are packed with so much atmosphere and tone, that they are probably best viewed in the dark... alone. But even if you are going to watch them in a social environment, they are still interesting enough to hold your attention.

Monday, October 23, 2006

Jeanine Cummins, "A Rip in Heaven".

It seems that my experience with true crime literature has been focused on accounts by journalists, criminals and law enforcement. Jeanine Cummins is the family member of several victims of crime. "A Rip in Heaven" is her "memoir" of events that happened in St. Louis in 1991. Her family was irrevocably changed as her brother Tom was walking with his two cousins Robin and Julie, and they were accosted by four youths, aged 16-23. The girls were raped, and then all three were pushed off a bridge, and fell 50 feet into the Mississippi River. While Tom survived the fall and reported the incident to police, his cousins were missing and presumed dead. This was only the beginning of a tragic saga that would plague an extended family for years.

As Tom Cummins was taken by St. Louis police for witness interrogation, it quickly became evident to his family that he was considered a suspect in his cousins' deaths. It seemed clear to the detectives that Cummins was lying about the events, and he subsequently failed a lie detector test. The horror of his situation is recounted based upon Tom's memories of his interrogation and short incarceration. Although he was initially charged with two cases of murder, the district prosecutor determined that there wasn't sufficient evidence to hold him. Soon after his release, the actual perpetrators were discovered and imprisoned. This criminal party consisted of three African-Americans and one white male- 23-year old Marlin Gray, 19-year old Reginald Clemons, 16-year old Antonio Richardson, and 15-year old Daniel Winfrey. Somehow the police managed to construct a reasonable account of the crime out of the perps' competing testimonies, and it matched Tom's initial testimony.

While the author provides a detailed description of the events immediately surrounding the crime itself, she seeks to balance the story with remembrances of the victims and the aftermath of the incident. Julie and Robin are presented in highly sentimentalized passages that demonstrate how much Jeanine Cummins and her family revere their memories of Julie and Robin. Some of the details get a bit treacly, but I guess this is only to be expected. The tales of how the family pulled together are heartening, while the sufferings that accompanied these events are harrowing- but enlightening. It is clear that the author intends to redress the balance of attention regarding media attention in criminal affairs. It is perhaps insensitive and unfair that the focus is rarely on victims of crimes and their families. Consumers seem much more intrigued by the criminals themselves.

There were a few things that bothered me about Cummins' account of events. It is probably unavoidable, given the nature of the relationship of the author to the material, that she would exhibit some bias. She freely acknowledges this fact in her prologue. However she states certain beliefs as if they were indisputable facts, while in reality there is plenty of evidence to suggest otherwise. One glaring example is her contention that Antonio Richardson is not mentally retarded. This offender was examined by multiple psychiatrists and social workers, before and after the horrible events, and the overriding consensus seems to be that Richardson is (at least) mildly retarded. Besides her emotion, I wonder what Cummins believes qualifies her to make this diagnosis. She doesn't ever claim to have talked to (or even encountered) the man in person. Her motive for doing so is unclear, since she states a conflicted opposition to the death penalty in the afterword.

More bothersome was Cummins conceit that she could realistically imagine the inner states and conversations of the killers, to the extent of writing in third person perspective about events and interactions that she was not privy to. It's disingenuous to adopt such a literary device, and continue to call your work non-fiction. This choice eroded a lot of the credibility I was initially willing to grant her as a peripheral participant of the events she descibes. It's evident that she wants to tell the story of the victims and their family, yet she falls prey to the common blunder of attempting to reconstruct the inner states and motives of the killers. It seems that an effective exploration of the ways crime impacts victims and their faimilies would do best to avoid getting muddled in such speculation. Cummins' choice to approach the material in this way suggests that this book is more about advocacy than objectivity.

Sunday, October 22, 2006

Looking Forward to the Congressional Elections.

If there is one thing that the last six years of the Bush Adminstration's reign has contributed to society, it is surely a major revival of political interest and activity. Political talk and analysis has become ubiquitous, with everyone participating- from the learned pundits to the amatuer observers. The workplace, the bar, the coffeeshop and the internet are buzzing with debate. The tone for this dialogue was set by the president himself, who memorably proclaimed "You are either with us, or against us." Of course he was referring to foreign nationals, but it was only a matter of time before that type of pervasive attitude polarized the American citizenry.

The strategy of taking sides worked beautifully for the Bush administration right through the 2004 presidential election. Karl Rove proved himself to be a master strategist in the poilitics of division. He identified wedge issues, such as abortion and same-sex marriage, to energize a shrill minority that formed an uncritical support base. In the meantime, the administration threw all their energies into tax cuts for a small percentage of the citizenry, and a hyper-aggresive foreign policy that alienated the United States from the rest of the world. The Patriot Act and other policies of dubious constitutional validity contributed to a sense that anyone that did not accept the president's worldview was "the enemy" or "an evil-doer". Attempts were made to paint anyone who wasn't down with the program as "disloyal" or even "treasonous".

In such a climate, the opposition party and the media were so cowed that they generally enabled the executive branch of the government to seize unchecked power over the nation. Anyone who offered even token resistance was labeled as an extremist, or worse. Slowly though, a growing awareness of repeated mistakes and scandals began to erode the public faith in the president and the servile congress. Democrats, made bitter by their disenfranchisement began to go into attack mode, and the media began to hesitantly follow their lead. Former executive staff members and aides started to go public with critical accounts of the way Bush and Co. managed their affairs. As the situation in Iraq steadily grew more unmanageable, and as the economy only seemed to be improving for the wealthiest of Americans, the tide began to turn.

Now we face the 2006 midterm congressional elections. Republican organizers and strategists wring their hands at the plummeting poll numbers of their hopefuls. Prominent figures such as Mark Foley, Tom DeLay, Kenneth Lay, "Scooter" Libby, Bob Ney, Jeffrey Skilling, Jack Abramoff, David Safavian, Randy Cunningham, and Ray Blunt are the vanguard of a growing cast of Republicans poised to experience their downfall as a result of scandal and societal correction. Old school fiscal conservatives become increasingly disenchanted with a presidential administration that has doubled the national debt during the six years that it has held power. Neo-con foreign policy has shown itself to be mired in illusion and abject failure. Even Christian conservatives, who have been remarkably loyal to Bush and co. are beginning to lose their political zeal, as they begin to realize they have been duped by false promises to outlaw abortion and same-sex marriage. The media- which has been intimidated by Bush administration policies and aggression for years- is slowly beginning to perform its function as government watchdog.

The situation in Iraq spirals out of control. Bin Laden remains free five years after 9-11. Erratic gas prices destabilize the economy. Tax policies that aimed to benefit the wealthiest Americans have led to nothing approaching a trickle-down effect for middle-class Americans. Civil rights seem increasingly endangered by legislation and executive policies taht defy the Constitution and international law. North Korea and Iran are engaging in serious misbehaviour, and our dwindling resources seem inadequate to meet their potential threat. The arrogant hubris of our president has alienated the world community to the point that it is going to be difficult to coordinate any response to countries that endanger world security. Border security is imperiled by inaction, and made increasingly complicated by immigration.

Yet despite the dire predicament the ruling party has made for itself and the country, Democrats have no reason to feel justified in their gloating. Their fortunes only appear bright because disgusted voters have no other option to supplant the Republicans... other than throwing their support to the remaining major political party. Democrats have made a muddle out of weak opposition and an undefined agenda. Opponents of the current political power structure have every reason to be optimistic about potential change through the November elections. Meanwhile Democrats, despite their general impotence, look to benefit from the sea change. In a climate characterized by the Bush doctrine... there is no other "us" to ally with.

Saturday, October 21, 2006

Some Thoughts on the PSSA: PA Educational Standards.

I've been doing a lot of thinking recently about the PSSA's (Pennsylvania System of School Assessment) and about the many objections arising from them. These tests are administered every few years to each public school student in the state. They were created in response to the "No Child Left Behind Act" of the federal government. This program is much maligned for several reasons... and I'm going to present my thoughts about some of them:

1. "No Child Left Behind" is an unfunded mandate. - The federal government required states to form standards assessments, and to administer them to all public school students. The costs of testing, preparation, and remediation are assumed by the states and the local school districts. If districts or states refuse to participate, then they lose their federal funding supplements for education. If individual districts do not maintain "Average Yearly Progress (AYP)", they enter a series of successive penalty stages. The federal government has promised to provide support for schools not able to make the required AYP. This support has not been forthcoming.

2. The Average Yearly Progress benchmarks are unrealistic. - By 2014, 100% of public school students will be expected to achieve proficiency on math, reading and writing tests. This includes children with severe learning disabilities- who in many cases are expected to demonstrate proficiency on tests that are many grades above their functional reading ability. There are currently no alternative assessments for this population.

3. If AYP is not met for any particular subgroup, then the entire school district is labeled as having made inadequate progress, regardless of the overall numbers. - If the district has 40 or more students in a subgroup, then the subgroup's progress is considered independently from the rest of the population. Subgroups include the economically disadvantaged, english-as-a-second language students, and learning support students (formerly known as "Special Ed"). Therefore student bodies with large numbers of these students are at an unfair disadvantage. This has actually led to districts pulling kids from learning support programs.

4. Test item variability is unpredictable and extreme.- Many teachers, especially at the elementary level, have complained that test questions have changed radically from year-to-year, requiring significant class time to make adjustments to instruction.

5. Arbitrary and subjective evauation. - Standards assessments contain open-ended test items, and are graded on a rubric including subjective factors, and vague definitions. Tests are graded by two evaluators. If there is a discrepancy on the score, then a third evaluator makes the final decision. Academics, many who have been out of the teaching profession for years, construct the test. Teachers have no input on test construction.

6. Pressure to meet AYP leads to "teaching to the test".- Educators who are already overburdened with crowded classrooms, extensive curricular expectations, onerous regulations and extended education requirements, are expected to adapt strategies specifically aimed at improving standards test scores. Some would assert that such a strategy diverts energies that otherwise could be used to present a student-centered teaching approach that treats each student according to his/her needs and abilities. It is also perceived as a serious obstacle to creative learning.

7. Because of the impossibility of reaching the AYP benchmarks of "No Child Left Behind", public school education will ultimately be discredited through the media. - Whether intentional or not, the practical impossibility of 100% proficiency will lead to the flawed assumption that the nation's public school system is a failure. This will delight critics, who want to privatize education, but will not reflect the challenges faced by educators in an environment of incredible student diversity. Private schools are not required to adminster PSSA's to their student body, and can thus make claims of comparative superiority that can not truly be measured. In addition, private school performance is skewed by the fact that they can exclude students at their discretion. Public schools are mandated to provide education to every student, regardless of student ability or effort.

8. The focus of the PSSA's on reading, writing and math may lead to a diversion of resources away from other subjects. - Because so much rides on student peformance on these skills, some schools (especially on the elementary level) are de-emphasizing social studies, art, music, and languages education (science PSSA's are in the works). While the core subjects being assessed are crucial, a well-rounded and diverse educational experience is both enriching and broadening. Some subject area teachers are being pressured to integrate cross-curricular education in skills they are neither trained in, or qualified to teach.

Despite the many reservations I have with the "No Child Left Behind" Act, it shouldn't be assumed that I am against the identification and/or focus on core standards. I have a problem with the way the program is being implemented. The legislation that inspired this overhaul of our school system was well-intentioned... at least on the part of some lawmakers. It seems clear that others were disingenuous in their support for improving public education. The current administration has been negligent in funding the remediation aspects of the bill.

The outstanding flaw of this legislative approach is its execution. It is constructed in a manner that prioritizes the exposure of assumed flaws in public education. It does nothing to assist educators in the very challenging task of meeting the diverse population of students, or meet the glaring resource deficits that exist. If standards assessments were used to diagnose weaknesses with the intention of helping remediate them with federal funding... then the legislation might be a force for good. Unfortunately the media is complicit with politicians in deceiving the public into believing that a commitment to public education has been made, while exactly the opposite is true.

Friday, October 20, 2006

Bush's Compassionate Conservatism Exposed (Yet Again).

Both NPR and the internet are abuzz with the revelations of former Bush aide David Kuo, and his new book "Tempting Faith: An Inside Story of Political Seduction". As Deputy Director of the Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives, Kuo was increasingly disillusioned by what he saw as a lack of real commitment to Christian charity on the part of the Bush Administration. The Office was set up to steer social service contracts to religious organizations. Obviously this goal attracted criticism from groups dedicated to the preservation of the separation between church and state. But now it appears (not surprisingly to this observer) that it was mostly just a PR-effort to muster the Christian Conservative base.

Basically, funding promises made by Bush (during his various political campaigns) went unfulfilled. He rolled out officials from the faith-based office in key political districts where close races were being waged, and had them speak about his commitment to "compassion". But subsequently the funding for tax relief for charitable donations was lost in the push to repeal the estate-tax (a move that only helped the wealthiest of Americans). Only $500 million of a promised $6.8 Billion ever made it into any form of new "charitable program". But evidently unfulfilled promises were better than nothing for Christian leaders who sought political influence.

This faith-based intiative was obviously concocted by Rove to underscore Dubya's "personal faith"- it was a way to get Christians to identify with Bush in a way they hadn't been able to with any previous president. And it worked. Christian conservatives formed the base for the administration... they were ultimately resposible for tipping the scales toward Bush in his presidential elections... and they overwhelmingly approved of the job he did in office. They continued to offer their support even while they received nothing but lip-service in return. There was no compassion in the neo-con agenda that ultimately directed Bush policy. With a nod and a wink, Bush promised movement in the effort to outlaw abortion. He promised to work towards a constitutional amendment to outlaw gay marriage. But these were never the administration's priorities. They were simply wedge issues, promoted in a cynical attempt to foment political division.

David Kuo, who identifies himself as a Christian Conservative, has an interesting background. Originally he was a liberal pro-life Democrat, who was committed to working to aid the poor. His stance on abortion kept him out of Democratic party politics, and he ended up working for William Bennett and John Ashcroft in the mid-90's. Throughout his career he remained committed to helping those in greatest material need. He belived that he had found a political party that was committed to doing that in a responsible way. But Kuo's not getting much love from his former colleagues anymore. Press Secretary Tony Snow and others deny Kuo's claims. Some are accusing him of timing the release of his book in order to have an effect on the midterm congressional elections. While that may be so, it is fair to ask where Kuo might have learned such a tactic. In fact John Dilulio, the first director of the faith-based office (and Kuo's first boss), cited the politicization of the office as his reason for quitting his position in 2002.

Many suspected that the Bush administration's efforts to appeal to Christian conservatives was simply a cynical strategy to deflect attention from their actual agenda- to extend tax cuts to the wealthy, and muster support for an aggressive foreign policy. The failures of the neocon adventures in modern imperialism have largely distracted the public from holding Bush and company responsible for their neglect of previous domestic promises. While this strategy seemed obvious to many Bush critics, it has largely gone unremarked upon in evangelical circles. One wonders if Bush has made a fatal error in underestimating the expectations of his political base. Perhaps we'll find out for sure this November?

Thursday, October 19, 2006

Teachers With Concealed Weapons?

Wisconsin state Rep. Frank Lassee (R) plans to introduce legislation to allow public school teachers to carry concealed weapons. He claims that Thailand and Israel allow their teachers to do so, and that such a tactic could benefit Wisconsin. Before I begin my exploration of how ridiculous this proposal is, it must be pointed out that Israel DOES NOT allow teachers to carry guns. Either way Lasee's comparison is ludicrous. Exactly what demographic similarities do Wisconsin, Thailand and Israel share?

Lasee is as obviously incapable of assuming the mantle of teacher (especially for geography) as most teachers are of serving as police officers. Of course no one is suggesting that Lasee take up teaching, and Lasee's bill wouldn't require teachers to carry guns. He is only suggesting that teachers assume the roles of enforcement, intimidation, and security. Never fear though- the errant lawmaker would offer extensive training to any school staff willing to pack heat. He never does explain who would be responsible for funding this training. Maybe we can use some of the surplus from the underfunded federal mandate- "No Child Left Behind"? It would give the title of the program a bit of needed credibility.

Of course money is not the only obstacle to the plan. Lasee would have to find an end-run around the nation's eminently reasonable ban on guns on school property. That's a good thing too, because there is no guarantee that every teacher is mentally stable enough to assume the responsibility of carrying a gun. Technically they are likely a much better bet than the general public- they have to get security clearances and background checks to work in the schools- but what level of confidence does such an allowance require? There are occasional stories of teachers losing control and hitting a kid. Slightly more common are threats , explicit and otherwise. What administrators and school boards want to take the risk of certifying the emotional stability of every single one of their employees? It wouldn't be enough to assess employees upon hire... they would have to continually perform evaluations. And what kind of insurance company is going to extend coverage to the gun-totin' school district? (If your answer was "none", then you are the "A" student.)

The objections to this proposal are many and (mostly) obvious. How would the school district ensure that these weapons did not come into the hands of students? The policy might encourage some crazy kid with nothing to lose... to assault the teacher and grab the gun. Given the disorganized mobs in the halls of overcrowded schools, how could we ensure that an innocent bystander is not harmed by an errant bullet? And what type of modeling behavior is a teacher providing by bringing a weapon into school? What does it say about the philosophy of the school?

Finally, anyone who has actually ever been a teacher should know that this idea isn't going to go over well with parents. In many instances, parents don't even trust their children around certain books... let alone guns. Public school employees are constantly inundated by parents who make excuses for their children's behavior. What happens when the teacher blows away their kid? That kind of fear would be the best justification I could devise for home schooling. (**here I've deleted what I originally thought was a fairly witty quip, but have since reconsidered and judged to be insensitive and a bit tasteless) The idea is an abomination.

Wednesday, October 18, 2006

The Fall of Saigon: Lessons of Withdrawal.

I've just completed a book of oral interviews by Ron Steinman called "The Soldier's Story: Vietnam in Their Own Words". Of course, the book is exactly what it sounds like- the memoirs of Vietnam War Vets, put down in the language of these soldiers. It's mostly a collection of stories about tactical maneuvers, harrowing battles, methodology and logistics. The book is the outgrowth of a documentary produced by ABC News for the Learning Channel. It is notable for its lack of political or cultural examination of the war and its participants. The book is broken up into six sections, each featuring a different theater of the war- The Ia Drang Valley, Khe Sanh, The Tet Offensive, The Secret War, The Air War, and the Fall of Saigon. I have a rudimentary base of knowledge about Vietnam, so much of the material presented wasn't really that enlightening. However, I was intrigued by the accounts of the evacuation of the US from Saigon in 1975.

By 1975, the final withdrawal of the American presence in Vietnam surprised virtually no one. It was a shockingly anti-climactic ending to a series of failures, bad decisions, and missed opportunities. This is all rather well-tread ground for historians. But it seems that many of the era's commentators and analysts don't find the actual airlift of April 29-30 all that compelling. That's a shame, from my perspective, because I think that a lot can be learned from a close examination of this significant event.

The climate and mood in Saigon was business-as-usual up through much of the early part of 1975. It seems as if many existed in a state of total denial. The North Vietnamese Army was rapidly approaching the capital (a year ahead of their own expectations), but many in Saigon refused to stop and contemplate the imminence of their downfall. The US government tucked their tail between their legs, and began to quietly evacuate American soldiers, third-party nationals, civilians, South Vietnamese leaders and their families. Concerted effort was directed at making sure these operations didn't cause a wave of panic in the city. There was also some well-grounded fear that ARVN (the South Vietnamese army with whom the US had allied) would react poorly to their abandonment, and strike out against the evacuees and the security force protecting them. Finally, a lot of folks wondered how the North Vietnamese regulars would treat them if they were captured.

In a 24-hour period well over 5000 people were evacuated by helicopter from the grounds of the US embassy. These were the last holdouts of an occupation that had been slowly dwindling since the official withdrawal of the US from the war. The marines in charge of providing security were tense with the expectation that events would spiral into mob threat and danger. A growing number of panicked Vietnamese, fearing retribution from the advancing army, made every effort to convince the retreating Americans to take them along. When pleading and bribes finally failed, they stormed the embassy, making the hasty exit of the last evacuees very treacherous. Even as they left a few hundred would-be refugees, the marines of the security force had the opportunity to consider the unfulfilled promises the US government had made to the people of South Vietnam. In that terrible moment, some took away terrific sadness and shame for their country. But the reality is that this process could have been much worse than it was. Ongoing negotiations with North Vietnam led to terms that allowed US troops to leave the country without obstruction. Had this not been arranged, there might have been a need for an intense military operation (with significant losses to all parties) just to achieve the evacuation itself.

Much has been made of perceived parallels between the Vietnam conflict and the current war in Iraq. The failure to set clear objectives has made it an extremely messy affair. The numbers of entrenched insurgents continues to grow as the Iraqi army demonstrates its inability to control events or provide reasonable security for the country. To many observers, it is clear that the US will eventually have to withdraw from the active prosecution of the war. It is also evident that the Iraqi government is not strong enough to stem the rising dissatisfactions and nascent revolution of the people.

Any evacuation of US personnel will be potentially more thorny than it was in Vietnam. There are multiple reasons for this. For one, there are many more civilian contractors working alongside the US military in Iraq than there were in Vietnam. Additionally, the conflict in Iraq has just as much to do with religious tensions as politics. Surely that is going to fuel the animosity toward the Americans, who will be seen as largely responsible for the horrific situation in Iraq. And significantly, Iraq is bordered by a neighbor (Iran) that may seize the opportunity presented by whatever power vacuum arises as a result of the US departure. Therefore, any withdrawal of forces presents some formidable obstacles to the stabilization of the country. Perhaps the lessons of Vietnam will finally inform our leaders... at this operation's ultimate conclusion. But it will have been too late. Anyone with a clear picture of the lessons we learned in Vietnam could have predicted the situation we now find ourselves in. Our sacrifices may intensify as our involvement comes to an end. But eventually that end must come. It is never too early for proactive negotiations with the parties involved.

If you'd like to learn more about the fall of Saigon, from the people who participated in the evacuation... this is a good link.

Tuesday, October 17, 2006

Halloween- What a Wonderful Time.

In a particularly florid post earlier I commented upon how much I enjoy this time of the year. Sure, I appreciate the Fall- the changing colors, the cool but not unbearable temperatures... and blah, blah, blah. But what makes the season especially interesting is Halloween. This holiday is remarkable, for it retains its favored place in my heart without even offering a day off from work. It has nothing to do with Christianity or nationalism. In fact its roots lie clearly in the pagan harvest tradition. The idea that we would choose to celebrate the things that scare us- witches, ghosts, horror... and yes, death... is remarkable. What is it that is so particularly delicious about the ritualized observation of these creepy things? Obviously there is a countervalent stream of puritanism in the history of our culture that should preclude our enjoyment of such phenomena. Maybe the fact that it is "forbidden" is its greatest allure.

What a strange practice... to dress our children in ghoulish costumes, and send them out onto the streets in the dead of night to knock on the doors of strangers. The fact that many parents allow their kids to eat the offerings that they collect is astounding. It belies the fear and distrust that so many have of the unknown. What is the sacrifice being made, and that not taken? It never occurs to us, when we trick-or-treat in our innocence, to be wary of the extracted gifts of our neighbors. My god, how things have changed.

When I was growing up, I watched some fairly horrific movies. One in particular, called "Terror Train", frightened me and inspired a series of nightmares. The fear became personalized and internal. I swore off that type of film for years, and it was only deep in to my college life that I began watching them again. Slowly, I came to enjoy these experiences. Somehow I was no longer threatened by those depictions of horror... somehow they comforted me. Maybe it was because it wasn't me being victimized. I'd sit in the safety of my home and extract some sort of vicarious thrill. Yet I am not altogether distanced from that darkness. We never are.

Nowadays I sometimes seek out settings that are unsettling. Armed only with my camera and my aesthetics, I enter these places of dark unknown willingly. Once in awhile I discover something unwholesome that chills me for days, weeks or even months. Perhaps it is a reminder of the inescapable isolation and mortality of this existence that sustains me and prompts my return. There is this darkness inside us all, and it makes the light savory. This balance fascinates me. What hidden parts of themselves do people expose unwittingly during this time of the year? What do their masks say about what lies inside? Keep your eyes open, and perhaps you will see.

Monday, October 16, 2006

"Carnivale": The HBO Series.

The obsessive "Carnivale" re-watch has begun. For those of you who missed it, Carnivale was a series on HBO that followed a travelling troupe of carnies through dustbowl-era America. Its creator was Daniel Knauf, and its cast included Michael Anderson (of "Twin Peaks" fame), Nick Stahl ("Bully"), Patrick Bachau, Adrienne Barbeau, Amy Madigan, Clancy Brown ("Highlander", "Bad Boys") and Clea Duvall. Originally it included some genuine human oddities among its cast. The show only aired for two seasons- a total of 24 episodes. Evidently it was too challenging for the ordinary cable consumer. Its complex themes and interactions rewarded the patient viewer, while it's cinematography and set locations entranced the eye. The efforts made to portray this milieu in authentic period detail add much to the show's visual appeal.

I first became aware of the existence of this series through a teaser add in some glossy magazine that I would ordinarily never pick up (although I forget which one). The photography was shot with some type of filter that made it look simultaneously otherworldly and gritty. I mentally registered my interest, and proceeded to forget about it until I saw it on the shelves at a Best Buy. When I re-encountered it, I bought it without checking out any of the reviews, on the strength of its packaging alone. I watched the first season in a marathon of absorption, and then promptly invited a group of friends for a complete repeat viewing. Each episode resulted in almost endless discussion and speculation. Each of us developed particular theories about the meanings implicit in the work. Our timing with Season 1 was excellent, as we finished the DVD set a few weeks before Season 2 was aired.

The plot of Carnivale concerns the intertwining stories of two seemingly unconnected figures. A young escapee from a chain gang (played by talented young actor Nick Stahl) is taken up with the carny folk, and his troubled relationship with the touring performers slowly evolves into a recognition that there are forces working in his life that inextricably tie him to the past, present and future of the carnival. Meanwhile a preacherman reasseses his relationship with his god, and begins to minister to a growing flock of immigrant okies in California. These figures enter into an involved conflict- and pit the freedom and tribal culture of the traveling show against the rigid moralism and authority of "the Church". The absorption into these situations was almost total for me. Pagan mysticism, bible-belt evangelism, millenarianism, outsider communities, secret societies, the occult, carnival ethics, early psychiatric practices, and Mexican lore were component themes that created a rich and fascinating experience.

What made the show particularly intriguing to me was its moral relativity and convoluted reflections of "good" and "evil". The characters were drawn with such depth that their complex agendas and motivations were (initially) almost impenetrable. Very seldomly, in the first season, did the creators provide the audience with easy answers. Unfortunately this would change with the second season. HBO executives were concerned with its relatively low viewership. They felt that events in the show were not being resolved quickly enough, and that people were losing interest. In order for the show to receive an extension, it was required to be dumbed down. The multiple layers of meaning and reference were truncated, and an emphasis on action replaced much of its subtlety. No doubt these changes reflected the needs of the conventional television consumer... but the fans of Carnivale were far from conventional.

The result was a compromise that fully satisfied no one. Fans still loved the show- but many complained that it had lost some of what had made it so extraordinary. The increased audience never materialized, and the show was cancelled after the end of the second season. Daniel Knauf had originally written Carnivale in three chapters- each of which was supposed to be told in two seasons. The conclusion of what was actually aired seemed rushed and offered little in the way of resolution. There were many plot threads and references that were simply discarded, and I was left only to wonder what fascinating stuff I'd never have a chance to see. Knauf expressed his desire to someday complete his story. While modest, Carnivale's fanbase was intelligent and rabid. There were several internet message boards dedicated solely to analyzing the intricacies of the show. Maybe someone... somewhere... will give Knauf an opportunity to finish the story.

Sunday, October 15, 2006

Drawing at The Brillo Box, Pittsburgh.

I would assume that most people in Pittsburgh in the art/music scene already know about the Brillo Box. I feel confident in making this assumption based upon the thick crowds that frequent the place on any given night. Renee and Eric, its owners, moved here a short while ago from New York City and created this venue that effectively enhances the Lawrenceville/Bloomfield area. They both come from artistic backgrounds, and it is clearly evident in its design and offerings.

There's a hip jukebox with all the indie favorites, tasty food with a notably healthy approach, and post-pop art on the walls. For those who appreciate visual stimuli, they screen a variety of offbeat and campy films on a large projection system on the back wall. They have some of the more interesting Pittsburgh bands playing upstairs, and mix in spoken word, dj, dance parties, and other diverse performers and events. And they have a great selection of beers on tap with reasonable prices. If you don't mind densely-packed spaces, then you'll probably find something to enjoy about this bar. That is... unless you are a homophobic philistine.

What you are most likely not aware of is that they are now offering the unique opportunity of live figure drawing. Sure... there are some excellent sessions featuring nudes around town, including Panza Gallery (Millvale- Thursdays at 7PM) and the Brew House (South Side- one Sunday a month at 12:30PM) . But nowhere else will you find women in burlesque costumes. The series is called "Drink and Draw", and will be extended to the public every other Saturday, starting at 6PM. This past Saturday was the first chance, and yours truly was there to enjoy it. The models were beautiful and wore amazing outfits- including garters and stockings, feathers, boas, and high-heeled shoes. The set is lushly decorated with an armoir and red velvet, and the lighting is subdued. Renee was amazingly accomodating to both the models and the artists, and took a sincere interest in everyone's work. Even better, she drew with us!

My personal experience was multi-faceted. It was a challenge to depict the large amount of visual information available in limited blocks of time. More than once, I found myself wishing for just a few minutes more. There were 2-minute, 5-minute, 15-minute and 30-minute poses. With the interaction between the models, and the elaborate costuming, each drawing was uniquely challenging. At the same time, the entire presentation was so lush and intimate that it was almost distracting. I was a bit self-conscious to be the only male participant, but I transcended that consideration rather quickly. On one hand it would be a shame if there wasn't a greatly expanded turnout the next time, but in my own selfish way... I would be quite happy to have the privilege of being part of the exact same grouping in the future. The informality and comfort of the experience were just about perfect.

Huge props are due to Susan Constance for her efforts in organizing and promoting this event.

Saturday, October 14, 2006

An Atypical Attack of Seasonal Melodrama.

It's now mid-October, and we have had our first freeze here in Pennsylvania. It's time to remove the air conditioner and drag out all the layers of clothing that were cast off six months ago. Of course I hate to dwell on the prospect of winter's coming, but the inevitable cycle continues in perpetuity. So what does it mean? Besides all the practical considerations, there are the alterations of mood and mentality that accompany seasonal change. The compulsion to engage with the raucous energy of Spring makes me live an external life. Conversely, the first freezing pangs or autumn remind me that there is a time for introspection.

As the layers are taken up to protect us from the cold, there are parallel social barriers to contend with. The easy affability of the outdoor barbecue is replaced by the cloistered insularity of the potluck. We take pause and measure our resources, before committing to engagement. To some degree our decisions carry a greater weight because our options become limited. Our time spent with others is spent indoors, and that requires a complete absorption into the host's habitat. The neutrality of the outdoors is no longer available. Interaction becomes a much more intimate and personal prospect. For some, that type of intimacy is just too overwhelming. They will spend their time in their own nest, and disappear until March.

I enjoy the window into alternate worlds that visiting other folks' homes provides. I certainly make careful considerations before choosing to venture out, but I usually appreciate the resulting benefits. There's something about the home-field advantage, or lack of it, that intensifies relationships. But I also enjoy spending a lot of time in my own carefully constructed environment. I'll spend a lot of time watching films and reading books in isolation. Whatever weekly routine I can carry through the change in season will provide me with the necessary palliative to cabin fever. I'll make a serious effort to continue these forays, struggling through the icy limbo facing me on the other side of my castle gate. That's how I'll make it through winter. But we aren't there yet, are we?

Fall is a time of transition. Around the end of October we drop our inhibitions and act out our own particular decadences, as we join our circles in ritualized indulgence. We don our masks, and guiltlessly rejoice in the fruits of the summer harvest. For we know that the hard and barren times are approaching. Nature's fierce withholding is nearly upon us. Hopefully we have squirreled away a stash to get us through... but until we have to turn inward, we will celebrate our abundance in fevered recognition of transience and mortality.

Friday, October 13, 2006

PA Senatorial Race Boils Over in Debate.

Things are heating up here in the Keystone State. Yesterday KDKA, a local broadcasting company, aired the first debate between senatorial incumbent Rick Santorum and challenger Bob Casey. I didn't get a chance to hear it live- it was originally recorded during the workday, and played for the public at 7PM last night. I had some drawing to do, and the soundtrack was classical music... evidently it would have been difficult to concentrate if we did listen to the debate. I have heard excerpts from the debate, and it is patently obviously that the gloves came

This political campaign has been spirited from the beginning. Santorum has raised at least $21 million to retain his seat, yet he still trails the challenger by double digits in the polls. There's not much he can point to besides some pork-barrell projects that he has pushed through to garner some modicum of support from his constituents. The truth of the matter is that this is truly a referendum on the direction this country has taken in the last six years. Santorum has been active in the political strategy that has proven to be devastating to the credibility of the leadership of this nation. His relationship with the K Street lobbyists has been well documented. His pandering to the reactionary moralist constituency that he shares with the president has been embarrasing to many in this state. And it's surely refreshing to hear him taken to task by his opponent.

Casey finally brought the type of confrontation that many have been pleading for these oh-so-many years. With a deliberate strategy of provocation, he was able to frustrate Santorum to the extent that the Senator's strenuously repressed madness was exposed for all to see. Today I had the opportunity to listen to the Marty Griffin show on KDKA AM talk radio. This is an unashamedly conservative media outlet, and while Griffin is probably the most moderate personality of the station, he is certainly no progressive. His listeners definitely lean to the conservative side. The general feedback of those who called in today bodes well for Casey supporters. Those who are unwavering loyalists of Santorum can and will not be persuaded otherwise. But there were quite a few who originally were leaning toward the incumbent, that because of the debate, are either going to sit out this election or hold there nose and cast their vote for Casey. There seems to be a general perception that Santorum is crazy and desperate- not a good combination for an elected federal official. I've written before about Santorum's rabid foreign policy agenda- we simply cannot afford to retain him as a high-ranking member of the

I'm not naive about State Treasure Casey. He is not the ideal candidate to represent my interests. He is clearly trading on the name recognition that comes with being the sone of a former governor. Besides his pro-life stance, I know very little about his political beliefs. But we've come to such a desperate situation here in Pennsylvania that we need to throw our support behind the lesser of two evils. Casey very well may end up being completely ineffectual in the Senate. But that is easily preferable to the representation that Santorum had given us over the last 16 years.

Thursday, October 12, 2006

A Game of Tag (Book Survey).

Well... I've been officially called out. Lee over at studio-twenty-three tagged me for participation in a book questionnaire called "The Book Meme". I am assuming that the idea is for me to repond to the questions and then tag some other folks to give their answers. By the way, if you have any questions about memes (such as: "Does the transmission of this survey constitute a "meme"?"), refer to this link. And... (in the interest of self-promotion)... if you are interested, I referred to "memes" in this post.

And on to the questions...

"Journey to the End of the Night" by Louis Ferdinand Celine. It's probably best that I don't delve too deeply into this.

Actually I make a habit of not doing this. In the last 12 years, I haven't re-read a single book. I have, however tried to get through jack Kerouac's "On the Road" three times. I simply can't get into Mexico.

Some kind of survival guide, I would imagine. I guess it would depend upon what the conditions were on that island.

I'd have to say, despite the fact that it might not reflect well upon me, that the above-mentioned book by Celine made me laugh out loud. So did another Celine book- "Death on the Installment Plan". Sounds like a laugh-riot, eh?

Difficult.... hmmm. Did "The Circus Fire" by Stewart O'Nan make me cry. It was tragic. Maybe some sappy pulp by John Irving? For some reason I don't tend to remember the ones that make me weep. Actually, I don't know if graphic novels count, but "Hey,Wait..." by Jason made me cry. Of course this might sound ludicrous if you know that Jason uses cartoon rabbits as characters... but then again, if you know his work- then I know you'll understand.

The Bible. What would that make me? It has certainly had a good shelf-life. I'd love to be quoted 2000 years from now by fanatics. Actually... I just wish that I had written a book. Alas... Maybe some day.

I guess I can't say that I truly wish any book had not been written. Maybe some of the works by the Marquis de Sade? They are pretty much beyond any redemption. But even then... his works help define the margins of human behavior, and so serve a very real purpose.

I make it a point to read one at a time. Now it's Kelleher and Van Nuys, "This is The Zodiac Speaking". Literate "true crime" is a guilty pleasure of mine. Unfortunately this does not quite meet that standard. I'll finish it anyway.

I've had Thomas Pynchon's "Gravity's Rainbow" on my shelf for years, and have never cracked the spine. I'll get around to it, I'm sure. I've also heard that Mary Gaitskill is a good writer. I'll be on the lookout to pick up one of her books.

I'm glad I own McSweeney's #13. I'm saving that. Man.. I have so many books, it's so hard to pick just a few. Definitely all the John Fante books I own.

e.e. cummings... umm.. just kidding. I don't know that there is a book that "MUST BE READ ALOUD". Maybe a bit of Roald Dahl around the campfire? J.P. Donleavy can be fun to read out loud. Hard to decide off the top of my head.

OK... now I guess I have to tag some folks. How about Sus at oranje (if you still read this)... John at the Digging Pitt (go ahead, don't be ashamed...)... dagrims over at "Oh Pun!... Says Me" (time for your monthly post!) and the Sassy Republican (if you ever have time). Chances are that I'm not going to be a big help in spreading this rash.

Jeez, I guess I have to make more blog-friends. Feel free to respond in the comments section if you don't have a blog.

Wednesday, October 11, 2006


Yesterday was the second Tuesday of the month, and that means Film Kitchen at Melwood Filmmakers has once again come and gone. This film series presents local and regional filmmakers and encourages submissions in both video and film. Last night the featured creator was local artist "tENTATIVELY a cONVENIENCE". (Because of the unwieldly pseudonym, he'll be referred to as "tac" for our purposes.)

Born in Baltimore, "tac" is a performance artist, author, and political activist. He has been associated with the Church of the SubGenius, and indeed was the co-director of their third annual convention. Some of his self-descriptions include "psychopathfinder", "practicing promotextual", "sexorcist" and "homonymphomaniac". He has operated under aliases including, but not limited to, "Luther Blisset", "Monty Cantsin", "Karen Eliot" and "anonymous". To judge from his appearance, "tac" has entered middle age... He cultivates a shabby-chic, "Bozo the Clown"-on-casual-day look. It is clear that he is comfortable on-stage.

Last night, "tac" kicked off the program by reading from his new book compilation entitled "Footnotes". The introduction describes how he attributed descriptions for himself and his friend in their high school year book. These consisted of words chosen almost randomly from whatever books were available in their English class, and attached into non-sequiter strings. He proceeded to deconstruct the descriptions, and reconstruct their meanings word-by-word. I found this a bit forced, yet mildly amusing. There were lots of asides as he read, and he remarked that he was afraid of losing his audience. I had to grab a couple of smoke breaks, but I did find him entertaining, and I wanted to see what else he had for us.

Ultimately, people were there for the films. The bulk of his presentation consisted of the 34-minute-long documentary, "B.T.O.U.C.", in which "tac" revisits his younger anarchic days. He and a few friends used to climb down into the Baltimore Subway tunnels, spray-paint the walls, and have parties. The denouement of club activities occurred when "tac" discovered two decapitated dogs along the underground tracks, strung them up by their hindquarters, stuck glowsticks in their anuses, and lit them on fire. This was all in the service of some anti-copyright ritual in response to a tongue-in-cheek Gary Panter comicbook. "tac" capped off the performance by getting naked and swinging the carcasses against his head. Fortuitously, the scene was reported to the police, and "tac" was arrested by the transit cops.

The fallout from his antics was a whole lot of press, which "tac" seemed to revel in. He was convicted on trespassing and other minor crimes, and received a year of probation and a $20 fine for his efforts. But he seemed to gain a lot of respect among Church of the Subgenius members.

"tac" also showed us an excerpt of a party he orchestrated wherein every participant was limited to using a single word throughout the event. He made a 12-minute documentation of the night, and had it presented to a room full of art students. They were asked by their professor to write response papers. They did not know that their reactions would be passed on to the artist. He was initially taken aback by their hostility, but he recovered by using them in a book, along with his commentary on the students' papers. He read us selections from the resulting title- "Reactionary Muddle America". "tac" pulls no punches in assailing the close-mindedness and presumptions of the students.

It seemed to me that "tac" might have been able to anticipate the reception he received from the students. His absurdist, dada-inflected works seem meant to provoke defensive reactions. That's not to say that they can't be enjoyed- but certainly they require a certain lack of formalist expectations. Even within the theatre last night, their was significant attrition. I would estimate that about a third of the audience slipped out. Having noted that fact, I must say that I consider "tac" a local asset. His pranks may not all pan out, but they seem consistently compelling nonetheless. Along with a hint of disgust he reserves for the mainstream arts consumer, he doles out a heaping helping of humor, a bit of self-deprecation, and a rabid appetite for playing with language. I'll be looking forward to his next project.

Tuesday, October 10, 2006

Kelleher and Van Nuys: "This is the Zodiac Speaking"

Having had a taste of serial killer literature (with the Ted Bundy death row interviews), I decided I'd continue a bit with the theme. On my shelf was a book by Michael Kelleher and David Van Nuys called "This is the Zodiac Speaking". I'd always had an interest in learning more about this elusive killer. He took five lives and wounded two others in the San Francisco Bay area in 1969 and 1970. He focused on rapidly-executed attacks on young couples in isolated areas. His style had a paramilitary cast, and his victims were not sexually assulted.

Despite the fact that he enagaed in a correspondance with area newspapers, the Zodiac was never caught. But his series of letters- including threats, cyphers, diagrams, explicit details of the crimes, and a healthy dose of adolescent braggadocio, alarmed the public and stumped investigators. The Zodiac continued to taunt police investigators through these letters. Over a period of several years, he claimed to have killed up to 37 people, but there are a lot of experts (including the authors of this book) who seem to believe he stopped his murderous campaign after the 1970 murder of a Yellow cabdriver.

The Kelleher and Van Nuys book (written in 1997) claims to have a bold new interpretation of the events and writings of the Zodiac. Kelleher and Van Nuys examine the letters written to the San Francisco chronicle (and other papers) line-by-line, and make speculations about the man behind the legend. David Van Nuys is the chair of the Psychology Department at Sonoma State University, and in this capacity was asked to look at the letters, without contextual information or identification, and create a profile of their author.

For the beginning portion of the book, Van Nuys doesn't even know that he is reading the words of the Zodiac. His insights therefore are almost laughably general. As he builds a base of speculation, he begins to form a case that the Zodiac suffered from Dissociative Identity Disorder. The lay reader recognizes this DSM IV diagnosis under the term "split-personality". Understandably, Van Nuys expresses a hesitancy to make such a diagnosis. He had never made a similar one in over twenty years of professional practice. There is quite a lot of controversy about the legitimacy and existence of this particular disorder. Van Nuys claims that he realizes the risk his conclusion poses to his reputation.

I understand Van Nuys' hesitancy. I believe he was correct in his initial impulse to withhold that type of judgement. After all, the evidence is limited... There are the firsthand observations of the Zodiac's surviving victims... Add to that the momentary impressions left on a pair of cops who encountered him in their response to one of his crimes (not realizing until later that he was the man they sought)... And then there are the letters. Other than those letters, there is little in the record to suggest Dissociative Identity Disorder.

For ample reason, there is uncertainty over which of those letters were actually written by the Zodiac. Some of them display multiple spelling and grammatical errors. Others read like routine letters-to-the-editor, with complaints about contemporary film or columnists. Sure these disparities could be the result of some sort of dissociative disorder... but the simpler answer is that they were written by different people. The only proofs given to support the authors' claims of legitimacy are the testimony of a single handwriting analysis "expert" and the beliefs of various criminal investigators. In my mind, the authors fail to substantiate their case. And they repeat themselves... a lot. Many of their claims are baldly stated with the insinuation that they must be taken at their word, yet in a case with as many unanswered questions as this one, that type of uncritical reaction would be folly.

Given that I was largely ignorant of the Zodiac case, I did benefit from the outlines of the events provided. All the correspondance with the public is in there. The details of the crimes are presented. I just felt that the authors were assuming way to many indulgences in forming their conclusions. There were multiple times when their confidence seemed to approach the level of hubris. And yet many of their contentions were not very convincing. Many of their judgements about possible scenarios seemed to be simply arbitrary. Ultimately, I don't understand what they have added to the general understanding of the Zodiac phenomena- and as a summary of pre-existing research, it was merely adequate.

If you want to find out more about the Zodiac killer, this webpage is an excellent resource.

Monday, October 09, 2006

Interview with an Art Teacher - Part 2

Yesterday I posted part 1 of an interview with an anonymous art teacher. It can be found below. Here is the conclusion:

MD: Hold on there... do you really anticipate nation or statewide standards for arts education? I kinda think that they won't be able to find the funds to even develop them. But if they did... what would be the process? Who would be writing those standards, and how would they be assessed? The very subjectivity in the nature of art would seem to prohibit it, don't you think?

CV: Not really, I think its too open ended as a subject, but I've heard that to authenticate the art education experience they would be justified to incorporate art related vocabulary and history as part of the test for "art". Now standarized tests are primarily coming out of Princeton where they supposedly have hand picked "top" educators from diverse backgrounds, but in reality these tests are classist in therir scope from the terminology and wording of the very questions that they build these tests upon. It is proven that students score exeptionally higher after taking test prep classes which in most situations clue the students in on the thinking put in the the questions at hand and the answers they are looking for. Many of the questions are worded in a way that multiple answers could be right, but one is extra right. Or terminology that students from the suburbs or countryside might understand, but city dwelling ones would get thrown for a loop just in the vocabulary used within the context of the question. Its all about trickery and learning "their" way of thinking, which is a bunch of classist bullshit. And yes, MD, the subjectivity of art is lost when you try to pin it down in a bunch of historical facts and personalized ideas. History is written by the ones who win the wars, whether it be in the arts realm or weaponry. What would a history book look like if Native Americans had a say in our "heroes of the past" or look at the times of Van Gogh, he wasn't "realized" until long after his death.

MD: That is horrifying. It completely contradicts the purposes of art. The idea works counter to the history of the development of art. And there is a tie-in too, with the accepted structure and paradigms that seem to be pushed in MFA programs... that's bad enough, but now it's gonna be integrated into arts education for children? Talk about stifling possibility.

CV: And Bingo was his name-o... From my perspective as an art educator dealing with young children it is my sole responsibilty to make that 40 minutes some of the most exciting moments they will experience in the school setting. I'm constantly preoccupied with working out how to inspire atounding creativity and personal decision making/critical thinking within my classes. I want them to follow directions, but also I encourage twists to my lesson plans and their own influx of ideas into whatever we are doing. Thats fine that you followed directions, but how is it YOURS. I want all the projects to look different and I constantly tell them that if adults could recapture the magic of childhood they would, but we rarely can and therefore there is a reason kid art looks like kid art and when adults try to capture that whether its Basquiat or our own Kellstadt their is something magical within it. Something we automatically gravitate towards and want to try to interpret.
I am lucky in the fact that for the most part administrators leave me alone because kids like my classes and we produce good looking art.

MD: Being involved in education, but not arts education... I have always had this idealized vision of the arts teaching position. Those guys always seem to be chillin' in their own private neverland. At least in the high school, art is an elective course. The kids in that room chose to be there. And so they seem much more in their own element. And the art teacher is there with, like, Joy Division quietly streaming through their computer speakers. And they get to come to school in casual wear. Ya know, administrators don't have a freakin' clue what "art is". Generally (I would assume), they'd be keeping their paws off of your instruction. Of course that is what makes the whole "standards debacle" so problematic. The idea that we've come so far in that dirtection is scary. Anyway... I have another question I'm curious about. How does having the position you have in a particular community affect the decisions you make in displaying your personal art? What kind of considerations predominate?

CV: Well... Alot of sexually oriented or graphically dark artwork I've been straying away from not because I don't want to make it, but because I don't want to be associated with it in this small community. For the most part I make whatever I want and am not too concerned with having shows and so forth, so some may say i'm not much of a "real" artist. I don't really feel like I need to make art for any other reason than that I want to frickin' make something, whatever that may be. As an adult (shudder) I feel as though I have to watch my back and not get fired for something avoidable, ie. I wear long sleeves to cover my tats and don't really clue anyone in at work when I may show artwork or have something else going on. I'd like to keep my professional and personal life seperate, but in Pittsburgh is hard. I'm running into kids I teach more and more, but I suppose the kids I may run into at such functions would have pretty cool parents, and maybe not...

MD: Well... not to end the interview on an ominous note, but I read recently about an art teacher who was fired because she posed top-less for a fine art photographer. Of course the administration said she was let go "for performance reasons". Yeah, yeah... you and I know that's not the case. Anyways, thanks for taking the time to do this with me, and maybe we'll continue this conversations some other time.

CV: A real pleasure my friend. Thanks.