Thursday, May 31, 2007

Reagan Babies.

It was inevitable. Eventually a new cohort was bound to come along and form an identity to supplant the "X Generation". My age group will no longer set the hippest trends in popular culture. It happens to everyone in turn. It is time for us to assume the mantle of adulthood, and let someone else play for awhile. Ladies and Gentlemen... meet the... "Y Generation"?

That moniker is at once unfortunate (for those tagged with it) and a testament to the cultural hegemony of the X Generation. What is it about us that led to such an indelible generational identity? Maybe it's just a function of the times that nurtured us. But I've commented profusely on my fellow X'ers, and in the meantime given short shrift to the young un's. Who exactly are these new people clogging the arteries of society? They were born beginning sometime in the mid-80's, and the last of them came in the 90's. Many of them are offspring of the baby Boomer Generation, and so have been referred to as Echo Boomers. The other name I've heard regularly attributed to this group is the "Millenial Generation"- which is just as vague and nondescript as its more common alternative. I personally like the idea of calling them Reagan Babies (which reminds me of Jerry's Kids).

I was listening to NPR yesterday morning, and heard some troubling commentary about these most recent additions to the workforce. Apparently they expect a lot of praise from their employers. Because of the nature of their childhood, these folks expect to be coddled. These were the kids who all got a prize no matter how well they performed. They believed it when the adults told them that everyone is "special". They consider self-esteem to be a quality of paramount importance- above ability, effort or intent. This perspective has been taken to heart in some places. I listened with a sense of skepticism, as the NPR segment described a boss that puts on an awards ceremony at the start of every day at the office. While we X'ers would roll our eyes and sleepwalk through such proceedings, these kids have come to feel entitled to this kind of reassurance.

I've seen this in my professional life. No matter what a kid's behavior is like, his/her parents feel a need to second guess every other form of authority. I've heard the exact same excuses from mothers and fathers as I've heard from their children.You don't have to look too far to discover the origination of a teen's personality. Just call home. In talking to these parents, one would think that they honestly believe their offspring to be infallible. I hate to fall back on the cliche, but when I was a kid my folks expected me to respect my elders. Nowadays you have to negotiate to get any problems resolved. These young bucks expect to be treated as equals without demonstrating any merit. The Boomer sense of entitlement has been passed right along to their spawn.

I've got a proposal for a more descriptive nickname for these prats. Instead of the "Y Generation", why don't we call them "Generation Whine"? That would be much more appropriate.

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Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Prairie Madness?!

I've recently come across mention of a strange malaise called "prairie madness". Evidently in the late 1800's and early 1900's, Americans moving west would sometimes be driven insane simply by living in a wide-open expanse. The specific cause of the insanity seems debatable. Some people attributed it to the sound of the endlessly shrieking wind moving unobstructed over the land. Others speculated that it was the desolation and loneliness of living so far from any neighbors. There are even folks who claim that humans naturally prefer interrupted visas (sightlines). Apparently outdoor enclosures are vital to the perceived security of a city or town. The wide open skies and distant horizons of the prairie must have made its inhabitants feel (at the very least) very insubstantial. Additionally I would imagine that the imminent prospect of destruction as evidenced by quickly-approaching storms might also play a role in causing an intense fear that could lead to mental breakdown.

A lot has been said about the beauty of the topography in Pittsburgh. Maybe the reason that people seem to be drawn to this city is the multitude of tree-lined hills that contain all of the separate neighborhoods. The amount of information to visually process is limited by all of the features- both natural and man-made. There's a certain coziness inherent in that idea, as if one's neighborhood is a log cabin with a roaring fire. Then again, maybe that's why folks in this town can be so damned insulatory. It makes for a type of peculiar, site-specific fragmentation. But I can't say for sure whether or not there is a lower incidence of mental disorder here.

Perhaps what's most interesting about the "prairie madness" phenomena is the idea that mental illness can be caused by the characteristics of the space where one lives, rather than through a genetic component or interactions with others. When tracing madness to an environmental context, analysts usually concern themselves with the chemicals or other substances that one consumes. Can the features of the land cause mass psychosis? Is it the reason that so many of the nation's serial killers were born in the flatlands of the Midwest? There's no doubt that specific formations and other characteristics of terrain commonly evoke specific emotions. That's plainly evident in depictions of nature in art and literature. But insanity lies in a separate dimension of experience.

There are specific names for phobias associated with natural environments. "Thallasaphobia" is the morbid fear of the sea. "Kenophobia" refers to the fear of voids or empty spaces. "Anemaphobia" is the fear of air drafts or wind. "Auroraphobia" is the fear of the Northern Lights. "Dendrophobia" is the fear of trees. And of course, fear of open spaces is subsumed under the umbrella of "Agoraphobia". A phobia can cause severe anxiety, diorientation, panic attacks, and/or an overstimulated nervous system. The display of such symptoms could easily be interpreted as madness.

If I was forced to make a definitive speculation about "prairie madness", I would be inclined to say that there was no specific biochemical trigger for the condition. I would guess that whatever physical signs were manifested were the result of individually-based psychological trauma(s). Yet it seems that certain people are more susceptible to severe anxiety reactions than others, irrespective of the external situations that they find themselves in. If that is truly the case- we may someday look toward genetic predisposition for the cause of generalized phobic behavior. "Prairie madness" was endemic to a time in our history when pseudoscience provided flawed explanations for many afflictions. It's difficult in retrospect to isolate the causes of the phenomenon- if it even existed apart from some ill-defined cluster of behaviors.

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Tuesday, May 29, 2007

The Pinkertons.

They were hired by private corporations and the government for security, law enforcement and espionage. They have taken up arms against the American people, killing more than a few. They were founded and led by reactionary, ultraconservative men. They've infiltrated lawful assemblies of US citizens. They had the first database of information relating to criminals and suspects across this nation. Who were they? The FBI? The CIA? The United States Military? Halliburton? Blackwater? Nope... none of the above. They were the Pinkerton National Detective Agency. And I was once their employee.

It's ironic that I worked for a company that was widely despised in Pittsburgh. It was the summer after my freshman year at Pitt, and I needed some spending cash. During those long, hot months I was tasked with protecting a Daytimers factory and a water treatment plant (read the details here). That was before I had come around to embracing Western Pennsylvania as my new hometown. I didn't know much of the local history, and I wasn't really all that interested in learning about it. My high school in Allentown certainly never taught us about the labor conflict at the Carnegie Steel Mill in Homestead, PA, nor the Pinkerton thugs who came to wage war with union workers.

Andrew Carnegie was off in Scotland when Henry Clay Frick employed the Pinkerton "detectives" to provide security for the scab replacements filling in for striking steelworkers. When the groups clashed, men on both sides were injured and even killed. Despite the fact that the Pinkertons were eventually turned away, the state militia was called in and the strike was broken. This was both a temporary setback and a longtime rallying cry for the labor movement. The legacy of the events in Homestead still informs the mindset and politics of the region. This bit of history is now a source of pride for many in Pittsburgh (at least for people who have made it a point to learn about the past).

Before the Pinkertons came to Frick's aide, they were already an established presence in the national scene. Formed by Allan Pinkerton in 1851, they were initially used by business leaders to maintain more control over their employees. The company's motto was "We Never Sleep", and their logo was an all-seeing eye. In fact that symbol is the origination of the term "private eye". They first gained national exposure when they were contracted as bodyguards for President-Elect Abraham Lincoln. Through that work the firm made crucial contacts with political elites and the military establishment.

After the Civil War the Pinkertons gained further fame through providing security for the all-powerful railroad conglomerates. They were primarily tasked with tracking down train robbers, many of whom formed notorious Western outlaw gangs. The company operated branches in most of the growing Western cities- including Spokane, Omaha, and Denver. In the 1870's they were given a Department of Justice contract to investigate and prosecute federal crime (they would continue to serve in this role until the formation of the FBI in 1908). Meanwhile the Spanish Government hired them to quash a democratic revolution in Cuba. The early decades of the Twentieth Century saw them once again focused on corporate espionage and anti-union activities.

At the peak of their power the Pinkerton National Detective Agency had more agents than the US Army had soldiers. This prompted the state of Ohio to outlaw the company because of the fear that they constituted a private militia, or were simply mercenaries. They became widely known as the enemy of working people and reformers. It wasn't until the Wagner Act (1937) and the LaFollete Commitee (1937) heralded a change in employee relations that the Pinkertons began their transition to the relatively innocuous private security company that I worked for in the early 1990's. Yet they have continued to dabble in industrial security and electronic surveillance. They also provide consulting services for governmental security personnel.

In the wake of the Bush Administration and the Patriot Act, the Pinkertons have been overshadowed by more insidious private corporations immersed in crowd control, weapons systems, espionage, counterinsurgency, tracking, enforcement, surveillance and even warfare in Iraq. But the Pinkerton National Detective Agency is the father of them all.

For detailed information regarding the Pinkerton's... click HERE.

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Monday, May 28, 2007

Hard-Earned Maturity Tempered by Lingering Youth.

It's strange how the passage of time gets revealed as we age. When I was in my twenties I remember hearing older friends and family members discuss aging. I guess I believed that I could understand it in some abstract way. But really I was only fooling myself. Now I'm in my thirties and I'm beginning to get a concrete sense of what they were talking about. I'm just going to assume that I have no clue what living through my forties, fifties, etc. is going to be like. It's mere folly to believe that I can truly empathize (about age-related topics) with my elders. Of course there is an ever-increasing mass of people that I can empathize with based upon having had personal experience of living through my 36 years. Mostly I sit bemused through their observations as they struggle through their youth.

Last night I had a palpable lesson in aging. I still enjoy going out to a bar and having a few drinks and conversations with friends. But the establishments I choose to frequent are substantially different from what I would have chosen in my twenties. I don't want to be around loud music and horny post-adolescents. I prefer mellow lighting and a clean environment. Instead of pounding ten Pabst Blue Ribbons, I sit and sip on a few craft beers (umm... most of the time). I'm generally not interested in meeting anyone new. It's enough to meet up with people I've known for years. I like to develop the bar staff into casual acquaintances that I can chat with while I'm waiting for whomever to show up and join me. It's relaxing and mildly stimulating, and usually all I have the energy for. I absolutely abhor crowded spaces, and I choose not to remain if there is no seating available.

So basically I pick a few spots that I'm comfortable with, and stick to them. Anyway- last night I ran into a younger couple who I have recently befriended. I enjoy their perspectives and always make it a point to join them for awhile whenever I see them. They've been together for a bit over a year, and are very relaxed and open among others. They will often go off by themselves and make the rounds with their respective friends- there is no hint of jealousy or possessiveness between them. So I found myself sitting and chatting with the girlfriend for an extended period of time. She (let's call her E1) is especially amiable and cheery, with an inviting manner. We were sitting next to each other at a table, obviously engaged in conversation. A short, swarthy, and squat bar patron (with some sort of wireless receiver for his cellphone implanted in his ear) stood by the empty table adjacent to us, and pretended to look at a painting on the wall. I noticed him directing leering glances at E1 for some time. She eventually looked over, and he made a gesture with his hand- a "come here" motion with his fingers. E1 is almost excessively courteous and she obliged. I kept an eye on the guy, and watched as she disengaged from his talk, and came back to sit down again. He had ostensibly called her over to get her opinion about the painting.

But after she resumed her place at our table, this cretin remained standing about two feet from us... staring at her with a suggestive smile on his face. He kept making that same motion with his fingers as she tried to ignore his presence. Her expression told me that she was getting increasingly uncomfortable. He glanced at me, the creepy smile lingering, and I glared back at him. After ten more seconds with no change in the situation, I asked him what he wanted. I could see him mouthing words, but I really wasn't trying to hear them. I kept repeating, "What?... What?"- my voice rising and my face growing more angry. Then he clearly said, "Go Fuck Yourself!" I paused for a moment, not breaking eye contact. I could feel the blood rush to my chest, warming me with a cocktail of adrenalin and testosterone. I replied slowly and evenly, "Go... fuck... myself... huh?" He said, "Yeah." I scowled at him, and he walked away backwards trying to maintain eye contact, until he reached a barstool. I tried to relax and maintain self-control. E1 attempted to stimulate a conversation to distract my focus. But all I could think about was hitting him.

The cretin kept looking at me from his place at the bar, and I was about to boil over. At that moment the doorman stepped up, and I pointed out the wannabe predator and said, "If that idiot keeps looking at me, I'm going to take a shot at him." The doorman (who I know and have developed a cordial interaction with) had seen the entire incident, and he went over to resolve the situation. Shortly he returned and told me that the creep wouldn't look at me anymore, and I shouldn't look at him, and everything would be "cool". I directed the doorman's attention back to the cretin, who was still posturing with his own hard stare. That was it. The guy got ushered out of the bar, and I was left to slowly calm down. I thanked the staff, and tried to resume what had been an enjoyable evening.

Now here's the thing... I was most frustrated by the fact that I didn't simply beat that guy to a pulp immediately after he challenged me. I had about an entire foot and 75 pounds on him. He was stupid, drunk and out of shape. But I let him escape without serious consequences. That would have NEVER happened in my twenties. Granted most of my fights back then resulted from my efforts on behalf of my friends... never from some retard's attempt to call me out. I had a difficult time processing yesterday's events. I couldn't believe that a guy that slight dared to start that crap with me. I was amazed that he would be so disrespectful with a woman who could have been MY girlfriend or wife. I definitely do not look like an easy target. But yet it happened. And my adversary walked away unharmed.

I know that many people would assure me that I did the right thing. Deep down I know my decisions were a sign of maturity. I am a married homeowner with a good career that could be ruined if I hurt someone in a bar, or had criminal charges brought against me. It would have been the depth of folly to retaliate physically when there really was no genuine threat posed to myself or a friend. I've reached the age of emotional restraint. I acted methodically, rather than impulsively, and imposed the best possible resolution to the situation. Yet it still bothers me. I had a hard time letting go of my anger, even after it was all over. It's a great illustration of the growth and wisdom that I have left to attain.

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Sunday, May 27, 2007

My fascination with our "throwaway" culture.

I assume that just about everyone I know has heard of the Confucian curse- "May you live in interesting times." Regardless, I believe that this wish has been fulfilled. We contend with global warming, a looming oil crisis, bad government, a general rise in fundamentalism, nuclear proliferation, economic globalization, etc. There are certainly plenty of bleak indicators to worry us. Writing about these challenges could keep me busy for the rest of my natural life. Fortunately there is at least one offsetting benefit that our contemporary life offers us- something that can help distract us from the malaise of our modern times. We have an unprecedented access to just about anything ever recorded. This includes music, film, news, television, internet sites, literature, and art. In a very short period of time, we can locate the particular piece of media that we desire. Modes of communication have multiplied and accelerated.

I think that this only truly hit me when I discovered Never before had it been so easy to locate and/or discover any of the endless creations of man- whether the work in question was primarily characterized as information, education or entertainment. It was an astounding expansion of availability to the minds of our contemporaries, as well as those in our recent past. Many people alive today have never known a time before CDs, videos, PC's, DVD's and the multitude of other recording devices. They can't remember a time of limited choice. Although I am by no means an old man, there was a time in my youth when people relied on the rather limited and arbitrary collections of local libraries. That's not necessary today. I also remember television before the spread of cable. Home viewers had to settle for whatever was being offered on network television. That sounds incredibly quaint now that we have ON Demand.

Nowadays the only restrictions we face are imposed by our own financial resources. We choose from the vast number of media platforms based upon what we can afford. I don't have any fancy cable. I have a dial-up internet connection. But I can still get the items I want delivered to my home within a reasonable period of time, and I own the devices necessary to enjoy them. That's a far cry from 200 years ago. Back then wars were needlessly extended due to the slow pace of communication. People actually relied on horses to deliver the mail. On the other hand, we can conceivably learn what happens in any part of the world in as short of a period as it takes to transmit digital data via satellite. We are still adjusting to the ramifications of this Information Age. It's easy to feel overwhelmed.

But there's a more relaxed, almost atavistic way to deal with all of this. For as long as there has been a settled human population, people have used the marketplace for the exchange of ideas, as well as other types of consumables. And here I'm talking about the most organic and loosely organized marketplace- the "swap meet" or peddler's fare. At these gatherings, ordinary f0lks gather to participate in the immediate and most localized of economies. They are not restricted by the conventions of corporate sales. Here we can discover the cast-off detritus of media platforms that are no longer in fashion. The progress of technology is so swift that the recordings of yesterday's formats (8-track and cassette tapes, VHS, vinyl records, laserdiscs) can be had for almost nothing. What better and more economical way is there to take stock of where we've been?

While it's true that the elements of local taste and a dose of random chance define the available selection at such markets, the experience of shopping in such places can be akin to a treasure hunt. If you can transcend the strange sort of technological bias we have become accustomed to (arising from new gadgets that make us turn our nose up at the grainy quality of analog recordings), you can discover gems that you were never even aware of. If you can open yourself to the serendipity of "fate", and engage this most disorganized of marketplace- you can avoid the varying degrees of marketing manipulation that define our throwaway corporate culture. It's a fascinating exploration that rewards the seeker with a unique sociological perspective and a wealth of insights about our postmodern age. And it might even put that old Confucian curse in a new light.

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Saturday, May 26, 2007

"Many are the afflictions of the righteous."

As I was driving into work the other day I made a point of checking out the quote on the road sign in front of the prefabricated metal Baptist Church that I have to pass every morning. It read, "Many are the afflictions of the righteous." One can only assume that the warning is continued for opposing traffic. I guess I could make a point of checking it out, but I'm fairly sure of what it says on the other side. These people are eminently predictable. The quote is from Psalm 34:19. It reads:

"Many are the afflictions of the righteous: but the LORD delivereth him out of them all."

First of all, I'm not a real big fan of philosophical and/or spiritual soundbytes. Any idea winnowed down enough to be represented by a series of interchangeable plastic letters is probably too generalized to be of much use. The second thing that bothers me about this is the assumed authority of the source. Just because a group of people believe that their god dictated these words, does not make them special to anyone else. Yet they are being thrust into our consciousness- along with the ubiquitous pleas to consume, the political brainwashing, and a multitude of other control mechanisms disguised as helpful information.

But I struggle to get past these initial objections- just so I can objectively parse this specific message. What meaning lies behind these words? If I restrict my examination to just what I've seen, without assuming the quote's completion... the interpretation is easier. The "righteous" are afflicted. I can agree with that. People who revel in their own beliefs, considering themselves and their opinions unassailable, suffer under the weight of their own ego. How do I know this? I have sometimes lapsed into a condition of self-righteousness, and in the process I have shamed myself.

But I know there are others with a more virulent case than mine. There are some that don't even know that they are afflicted. Instead of realizing their hubris for what it is, they walk through life mistaking a disease for empowerment. They feel vested by a higher authority to have things their own way. And it's not enough to contain their beliefs to themselves, but they feel compelled to impose them on everybody else. Other symptoms too may arise from being "righteous". Those suffering from this malady have used it to justify their greed, violence, selfishness, condemnation, intolerance, and repression. Given this formidable list- it may actually be an understatement to say that the righteous suffer many afflictions. Are they therefore to be pitied? Well... not exactly.

Surely some among the righteous can take heart if they consider the entirety of Psalm 34. Because despite the pain and suffering the righteous may visit upon others, "the Lord" is said to be available to deliver them from their afflictions (or from the consequences of their afflictions?). This seems like a pretty good deal. Under those conditions,who wouldn't want to be among the "righteous"? Of course, this is all predicated upon the assumption that "the Lord" is planning to deliver the righteous to a nice place, like... for instance... heaven. There they will find streets paved with gold (and evidently more road signs with cool messages), and angels flying around. The rub is that the righteous will cease to be "righteous", because they will have no one there to look down upon anymore. They'll have to peer back at us mere Earth-dwellers. No matter... at least there will be more prefab metal available here on Earth..

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Friday, May 25, 2007

Joseph L. Mankiewicz, "No Way Out" (1950)

For some reason, when I saw the Fox Noir release of No Way Out (1950), I thought that it was the original source for the 1987 movie with Kevin Costner. That turned out to be wildly off-base. It's unfortunate that a mediocre action flick by Roger Donaldson was able to steal the thunder from the classic Joseph L. Mankiewicz film. No doubt most modern film viewers haven't even heard of the latter. Starring Richard Widmark and Sidney Poitier, the 1950 film was a socially progressive, riveting, character-based thriller.

With even a cursory understanding of pre-civil rights era social politics, a viewer might expect that the idea of an African-American doctor treating white patients would be beyond controversial. This is indeed the case as Dr. Luther Brooks (Poitier), after completing his internship, finds himself stationed in the prison ward of a county hospital. There the Biddle brothers are wheeled in for emergency care- both with leg wounds incurred while they were plying their stick-up trade. For some reason one is far worse off than the other, despite the similarity of their injuries. Brooks quickly ascertains that Johnnie Biddle is suffering from a pre-existing malady, and moves quickly to address the problem. When he is unsuccessful, and Johnnie dies- Ray Biddle (played by Widmark) blames the death on Brooks. Ray is an inveterate racist, and vows to take revenge.

Fortunately for Dr. Brooks, he has a support system. Dr. Worden (played by Stephen McNally), the head physician at the hospital, has committed himself to seeing that Brooks negotiates the many challenges of being a pioneer. In addition Brooks has a supportive (if weary) family, including a long-suffering but loving wife. Finally, Brooks will find an unlikely ally in Johnnie Biddle's estranged wife. But that won't happen before Ray Biddle sets in motion a plan of mayhem that results in full-blown race riots.

Remarkably, Mankiewicz was able to make an issue film without completely vilifying its characters (other than the fanatically-bigoted Ray Biddle). I was especially struck by the the hardheaded realism displayed in a conversation between Dr. Worden and the executive administrator of the hospital. The theme of integration is examined in admirably complex terms. Almost sixty years later, film-goers can only hope for a treatment of race relations as intelligent as this one. The director was able to portray the dynamics that keep segregated sections of the lower classes fighting against each other. Meanwhile the flavor of the inner city is dramatically accentuated by the exceptional cinematography of Milton Krasner.

Ultimately the viewer is going to be most struck by the amazing performances of the diametrically opposed leads. Poitier is able to contain both strains of insecurity and quietly-borne nobility simultaneously. The true depths of his pain and inner conflict are notably exposed in his last line of the film (which I choose not to disclose here). This final reveal is so gut-wrenchingly telling that it will surely linger in your head. At the same time, nobody can overshadow Richard Widmark. He is so much fun to watch that it doesn't matter that he's gone completely over-the-top. No one could have played this role like Widmark. His performance alone would justify watching this film. But there are plenty of reasons for multiple viewings.

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Thursday, May 24, 2007

The JFK Assasination... Again?

When I was a kid I never was much of a reader. Of course I picked up and digested comic books quite often. I also remember enjoying a pulpy series of novels about Vietnam called the Chopper series. My literary life was indeed severely limited by my own choice. Instead I was physically active- pretty much the opposite of the way I am now. But I do remember being so captivated by a certain subject in ninth grade that I actually spent time in my high school library of my own volition. It was then that I discovered the Kennedy assassination conspiracy.

It should have been predictable that I was drawn to such macabre material. Even then I was enthralled with subjects of mystery. There were some surefire ways of getting my attention- all you had to do was bring up the Bermuda Triangle, Bigfoot, the Loch Ness Monster, ghosts or alien abductions. All these. of course, were phenomena that were outside the purview of the natural sciences. As I've mentioned before, I was not the kind of kid that was drawn to the conventional authority opinion about life. The stranger the better- I wanted to make up my own mind about things.

So I have a vivid memory of poring over trade paperbacks, examining photos of head wounds, eyewitness testimony, and diagrams reconstructing Dealey Plaza and the Book Depository. I was obsessed with enigmatic terms associated with the case- the Grassy Knoll and the Zapruder Film. I read all I could find about the "lone gunman", and delved into the mystery of the "multiple Oswalds". I was fascinated by Jack Ruby, who forever sealed the secret that Lee Harvey Oswald harbored. Somehow I though that if I could just read emough about it, I could find the missing piece, and forever end the rampant confusion as to the true nature of what happened in Dallas. I would identify the escaped killers- whether it be the CIA, the Mafia, the Russians, or Cuban exiles.

As time went on, I eventually got caught up in other things. But every once in awhile I would return to the JFK enigma. In 1991, when I was in college, speculation exploded through pop culture, as controversial director Oliver Stone released his movie JFK. The country once again became divided over the true import of the tragedy. Many were comfortable with the establishment version of the Warren Commission. Meanwhile many viewers were convinced that there must be something else to discover about the events. Others (like me) experienced a reawakening of interest in the whole story. For many who weren't even alive in 1963, it was an exciting time. Stone rallied the voices of an increasing number who wanted more answers. But the media and the government branded the director a delusional loony-toon, and excoriated him on national television. Somehow the term "conspiracy" started sounding like something only a paranoid schizophrenic would believe in. In fact it is still used in politics to silence dissenters, no matter the issue.

But listening to Fresh Air on NPR today, I got the impression that we may be revisiting the JFK assassination yet again. The guest was founder David Talbot. He is releasing a book called Brothers: The Hidden History of the Kennedy Years, and it is likely to cause more discomfort to the establishment. Apparently he has found ample evidence that Robert Kennedy himself never believed in the "Lone Nut" theory, even though he publicly supported the findings of the Warren Commission. Talbot says that the younger Kennedy actually began his own campaign of investigation to find the truth. The plan was to run for the presidency and put the full weight of the executive department behind exposing the plot. Evidently RFK believed that the federal government was divided during the administration of his sibling, and that a conspiracy was hatched that included the Mafia and highly-placed CIA operatives who were mortified by JFK's "abandonment" of Cuba.

There will be many who discount the new revelations with the admonition that dredging up the controversy once again will have a negative effect on the nation and its government. While this is potentially true, I think it's imperative to seek out the authentic history of these formative events. The subsequent direction and development of the country may be better understood through a clean lens. The only reason to bury new information is to hide from our reality. Obviously the final chapter of JFK's killing has not yet been written.

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Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Ann Rule, "The Stranger Beside Me" (1989 ed.)

The events surrounding the writing of The Stranger Beside Me would be almost completely unbelievable if they appeared on a television drama. As it is, author Ann Rule probably couldn't have made them up. Rule was a policewoman and writer of detective stories before she ever worked the late shift at a crisis center alongside one of the most notorious American serial killers of all time. She developed a friendship with the charming and attractive man that sat next to her in her office. Had she known about the secret activities of the only other person in the building on those working nights, she may well have refused to come back.

Over a period of years Ann Rule maintained a friendship with Ted Bundy. At the time, no one would guess that Bundy was capable of the horrifying crimes he would later be put to death for. He was a rising star of the Republican Party in Washington state. He had a degree in psychology and was about to pursue a law degree. All indications pointed to a bright future for the brilliant young man. But it was not to be. In the final days before he was executed, Bundy confessed to murdering thirty women, many of which he also raped- both before and after they were dead. The identities of ten of those were never discovered. Many authorities think that there were many more victims. Rule herself came to believe that Bundy had killed over 100. It was fortunate for Rule that she didn't fit Bundy's target profile. She was over a decade older than her friend, and lacked the beautiful vulnerability that Bundy searched for.

From Rule's account, it is not surprising that so many people believed in Bundy's innocence- even after he had been convicted of abduction and murder. He forever changed the science of criminal profiling. Although he was an illegitimate child, he claimed to have had a normal and relatively pleasant upbringing. Bundy had no serious criminal record as an adolescent. He had several normal heterosexual relationships, and was engaged to be married to two different women. He once saved a young child from drowning. Even the governor of Washington trusted him enough to employ him as one of his closest aides. Many who knew him considered him a perfect example of the "rags-to-riches"- Horatio Alger story. Yet there is some suspicion that Bundy took his first victim at age 16. The killer himself traces his first kidnapping attempt to 1969, when he was 23 years old.

As the authorities finally caught up to Ted Bundy, Ann Rule was working on her first full-length book, investigating the mysterious disappearances and murders of young women in the Seattle/Tacoma area. Little did she know how close she was to the story. She soon found herself in a peculiarly awkward position. Did she owe her loyalties to her accused friend, or would she be able to find the objectivity to complete her book? Rule and Bundy maintained a written and phone correspondence for over a decade after he was imprisoned. As more information about Bundy's crimes surfaced... as the evidence against him slowly accumulated into a mountain- Rule began to feel that Bundy was indeed guilty. The inner conflict over her friend's culpability is a subject that threads throughout the entire book.

The Stranger Beside Me is of substantial size. It includes background information about Bundy's early life. Rule describes her interaction with Bundy, but she also spends a lot of time outlining what is known about each victim and the crimes themselves. Much of the book describes the experiences Bundy had in various jails. There are accounts of the two successful escapes Bundy made in the West. After his second flight, Bundy traveled to Florida and resumed his campaign of horror. Rule follows his story right through the Chi Omega rampage, and the very last abduction and murder he would commit. Finally a large portion of the original edition was dedicated to the subsequent trials in Florida, and Bundy's legal maneuvers to prolong his life in the face of the death penalty. The 1989 edition that I read included several add-ons that brought the reader up to speed on Bundy's ultimate fate. The last update recounts his confession and execution.

It's fascinating to see the slow transition in Rule's position regarding Bundy's guilt. His power of persuasion was so advanced that the author couldn't accept the reality of the situation. This is understandable in light of recent research regarding psychopathy. Analysts that were charged with examining Bundy's mental state concluded that he had antisocial personality disorder. He was competent enough to represent himself in court, but lacked normal human empathy and compassion. Having recently dealt with an individual with this disorder (though one not nearly as talented or intelligent as Bundy), I can understand why so many people were taken in by his mask.

For more on Ted Bundy, refer to this earlier post.

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Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Another Reason to Despise Dog Owners.

I've written before on this blog about how satisfied I am with the neighborhood I live in. Sure we have some grumpy-assed neighbors, but they generally keep to themselves and we pretend not to notice each other. However, over the last couple of weeks we did experience a singularly unpleasant phenomenon. One lazy weekend morning I was lounging on my front porch taking in a cigarette. I had my shoes off and my feet propped up on the metal railing, and I was feeling pretty carefree. That's when I noticed some foreign objects placed in a row in front of a big planter we have propped against the base of the porch along the sidewalk.

Upon closer inspection it was easy to identify the little round balls as dog shit. Curiously they seem to have been hand-placed by size, from largest to smallest. I seriously considered leaving the tableau there as a sign of someone's neglect for the neighborhood. Everyone on my street knows we don't own dogs. In fact I had cleaned our kitty litter boxes earlier in the morning, and had scant desire to deal with another animal's fecal droppings. But it was smack dab in the center of our rather narrow sidewalk, and I wanted even less to see some unwary walker smashing it and creating a long smudge of smelly streaks. So I pushed aside my distaste, and grabbed the broom. Luckily the stool was dry and I was able to sweep it out into the street. There was no way I was going to pick it up. Anyway, street cleaning is back, and so I knew that mess would be gone soon. Having done what little I could, I went inside to relax. I pushed the incident out of my mind.

However the next morning I was greeted with a replica of the previous day's scene. It was as if I had actually traveled back in time. It was an identical setup in the exact same location. This made me truly unhappy. I was less patient in sweeping the shit away this time around. And it turned out to be a more recent deposit, as it was quite soft and bright inside. This left track marks, and the smell wafted its way immediately into my nostrils. I told M. about what had happened, and she agreed to hose off the sidewalk for me. I was beside myself with hatred for humanity.

In the next week and a half, we were revisited by the perpetrator several additional times. We had even scrubbed the walk with bleach and detergent, hoping it would mask whatever scent the outlaw dog was attracted to. But it didn't stop the foul behavior. I couldn't conceive of how the pet's keeper could rationalize letting his mutt void itself right there in the middle of a high traffic area. Surely they could have found a less obtrusive spot. And how could a person justify not cleaning up after their dog? I wished with all my heart that I could catch the pair in the act. I fantasized about tailing them home, and coming back later with some special deliveries of my own. We figured out that this was happening sometime in the early morning, and neither of us had the time or energy for a stakeout. I resolved to find some way to stop this pattern.

I started my exploration with an intensive internet search. I was looking for something I could put down that would make the dog want to keep moving. Not surprisingly, many of the hints and suggestions that I could find were posted by dog lovers with the intention of advising dog owners. But they were my enemy, so I spent little time on those sites. I needed to find someone as pissed off as I was. If you spend enough time doing research, you can invariably find a fellow traveler. Most of the hints I discovered were posted by people who needed to keep dogs off of their front lawns. But I couldn't use pellets or motion-activated sprinkler systems on my sidewalk. I had to keep looking for the answer. A few folks were frustrated enough to recommend ground meat laced with antifreeze. That only seemed right to me if I could be assured that the dog's owner would eat it. I knew that it wasn't really the dog's fault. Dogs are just fucking stupid- that's all. It's the masters that are ultimately responsible for the misdeeds of their pets. Yet it was illuminating to see how many people harbor resentment against canines due to the inconsideration of so many of their "keepers".

My chosen solution seems to have worked so far. I poured half a bottle of concentrated bleach around the scene of the crime. I also moved the planter to the side of the house. Now I can only wait and see if I have permanently disrupted the dog's habits. We have also decided to post a sign that requests firmly (and politely) that dog owners respect the neighborhood by cleaning up after their dogs. The next step is to lay down a lot of rock salt on the walk. Apparently that dries out their paws until they crack and bleed. I would rather not be forced to take that measure. If you are reading this, and you love dogs... for the love of god, please be considerate of others in your community.

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Monday, May 21, 2007

A Spring Spirit Enhancer.

It's rare to experience a truly crappy spring weekend. The sun is shining, the weather is pleasantly warm, and the flora and fauna had returned. A natural burst of energy typically expands throughout the people, and the mood is generally relaxed. It takes some seriously negative events to put the damper on a Saturday under these conditions. Well... the last few days have been tough. But I'm not going to go into any specifics here on this blog- instead I'll focus on the lighter side. If it had not been for the proliferation of yard sales, this past weekend might have been unrelentingly dark for me.

Spring cleaning is upon the community. Time to jettison some of the unnecessary accumulation from around your house, and hopefully get a little cash to replace it with junk to get rid of next year. Church rummage sales, weekly markets, huge swap meets, and garage sales dot the calendar in May. And if you are in a buying mood, the search for your own personal treasures is stimulatingly pleasing. Perhaps you'll find that needlepoint owl portrait you've been coveting. Maybe there is a secondhand tennis trophy with your little one's name plastered on it. Or is it that VHS copy of Over the Top that you've been trying to track down? Somewhere in the city it could be waiting amidst piles of worthless junk... waiting for you to come along and transport it to its new home.

One thing you have to do is get up early to get the good stuff. Don't go to the after-hours club the night before, and stumble out of bed at noon with a hangover... it will be too late. The smart shoppers set their alarms for 7AM. Grab a pair of sanitary gloves and put on your orthopedic shoes and prepare to shop 'til you drop. Do so with the righteous awareness that your behavior runs counter to the wasteful habits of the typical American consumer. You are recycling. You are resourceful. You are creative enough to come up with a use for that "Welcome to Enchanting Erie!" candy dish. Others may turn their noses up at the sight of a Lite Brite (tm) without any of the little bulbs. But not you. Some day you may be able to use it.

Don't forget it's the people that really matter. It's your chance to engage your distant neighbors. They want to talk to you. Even if you don't want a pack of generic-brand, size D batteries... make them an offer. Haggling is a venerable tradition among the peasant class across the years and in every nation. Just because that dreamcatcher spent the last fifteen years acquiring a nicotine patina in a trailer park off of route 51 doesn't mean it's not a genuine piece of contemporary folk art. You may not expect it, but be damn sure the next passerby is going to recognize the collectible status of that Purple Monchichi. 'Oh so soft and cuddle-ly'

Just because that guy behind the table has half a mouthful of creamed-corn-colored teeth doesn't mean his unopened 50-cent toothbrushes from Maylasia aren't a steal. And who's to say that someone isn't poring through the Ebay listings right now looking for the December, 1979 issue of Big Butt magazine? Have you ever considered the increase in value that 1982 rookie card of Sid Bream could bring if he hits 50 homers this year? I bet you haven't. And with the rash of summer superhero blockbusters right around the corner, there could be a resurgence of interest in the New Mutants. Grab up all them copies!

When you are ready to get back into your car and make a getaway with all your booty, be sure not to neglect your stomach. That hot dog might be shriveled and a bit green, but it benefits the Beaver County Chamber of Commerce. The fig and cheese homemade pies are only a week old. And those "beef" sticks haven't left the basement freezer since the start of hunting (um... roadkill) season. Spend that extra buck and wash the vittles down with all four flavors of Value Time soda pop- Grape, Dr. Pizzaz, Bubble Wash, and Red. Mmmm.... refreshing, flood that finger dust right down into your gullet. Don't hit no seniors on your way out of the parking lot!

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Sunday, May 20, 2007

Desperation in the Desert.

Ok... here's the situation: You have decided to take a cross country road trip with a close friend. You have made it half way across the broad expanse of the nation, and you realize you are well ahead of your schedule. You decide to act on a recommendation offered by a relative- take a look at Carlsbad Caverns. By the time you arrive at the national park that surrounds the attraction, it is too late for you to take the tour. Part of your pre-trip plans included spending some nights out underneath the starry skies, roughing it. You decide to take an evening walk down into Rattlesnake Canyon and pitch a tent for the night. Although you have gathered some rudimentary camping supplies, you aren't planning on spending a lot of time in the Canyon, and so you figure that the 80 ounces of water and Gatorade you pack will be plenty.

When you awake early the next morning, having used up all but a pint of your water, you gather your gear and start your hike back to your car. However as the sun rises and brings its brutal desert heat, you have difficulty finding your way back out the way you had entered the evening before. You climb a rise, but see nothing that looks like civilization. Now you have expended the remainder of your water, and you are no closer to getting out. A whole afternoon is spent before you resign yourselves to spending another night in the park.

Luckily you had been required to fill out forms for a camping permit, and despite the fact that the ranger that collected your information seemed like a greenhorn, you have confidence that park staff will realize that you were due a day earlier and soon come to look for you. At this point your strength has been sapped, and you are starting to become dehydrated. For the last twenty-four hours, you have relied solely on the nourishment of under-ripe prickly pears. After three days in the heat, you are beginning to get desperate. Your companion is getting progressively weaker, and is retching bile that you have to clear from his mouth with your own hand. You decide that getting fined for arson is preferable to perishing of thirst, and so you break the rules to start a signal fire. Disconcertingly, the smoke barely reaches the top of the canyon. You are slowly losing all hope.

On the fourth day, it is clear that you are not going to be rescued. It's extremely difficult to witness your friend going through the slow excruciating process of dying. In desperation, he turns to you and requests that you bury your pocketknife in his chest, thus ending his misery. At first you refuse, but he manages to bring forth the words around his swollen tongue and out of his dryly- cracked mouth. He looks at you pleadingly, and begs you to end his suffering- "Put your knife through my chest." What do you do?

Perhaps you do as Raffi Kodikian did under these circumstances in the summer of 1999- you commit an act that you've never even imagined you'd be asked to perform... a mercy-killing. Can you conceive of the weight of your guilt when you are discovered by a ranger only hours after you've taken your best friend's life? And later, after an hour in the hospital, you are charged with the murder of your friend. Kodikian faced life imprisonment (or worse) for his actions. Despite the fact that his friends, and even the family of the deceased David Coughlin, never doubted his intentions... there was media speculation that Kodikian had other motives for his "crime". His lawyers knew he had no recourse to a temporary insanity charge in New Mexico, so they had to come up with an alternative defense.

These events are recounted in detail in Jason Kersten's Journal of the Dead (2003). No stone is left unturned in the examination of the case- the history of friendship that Kodikian and Coughlin shared, a travel journal providing crucial evidence, and the resulting trial itself. While the amount of true insight contained in the book seems a bit thin to justify its moderate length- it is still an interesting read. I think it's inevitable that the reader will ask him/herself how (s)he would have acted in the circumstances that confronted Raffi Kodikian. At the same time, it's natural to question the way society views and casts judgment in such a situation. Providing Kodikian's account of his time in that canyon is true- is it justifiable to bring murder charges against him? How can we construct laws that fairly deal with such an improbable eventuality? And what do our conclusions say about ourselves?

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Saturday, May 19, 2007

Alfonso Cuaron, "Children of Men" (2006)

I'm generally not fond of science fiction movies. Perhaps that's because I have a limited sense of what the genre entails. I've always associated sci-fi films with space ships, aliens, and "gee whiz" technical gadgets. In other words, my mind immediately flashes scenes from Star Trek. No thanks... really, you can keep it. But once in awhile I'll catch a flick which transcends that limited conception. Such is the case with Alfonso Cuaron's Children of Men. Not only did I enjoy this film, but I think it's one of the best from the year 2006.

Children of Men takes place in the near future- 2027. It begins with the death of the world's youngest human- an 18-year old man named Diego. That's how the viewer learns the underlying premise of the movie. Women have become infertile worldwide. The Earth is rejecting the species, and as a result society is falling apart everywhere. Clive Owen plays Theo (the lead character), who finds himself embroiled in an underground plot to help a band of rebel immigrants operate in England. The nation is besieged by the disenfranchised of the world (referred to as "Fugis"), and much effort is expended keeping them contained to refugee camps. The level of barbarity in every facet of life is striking. We can only speculate on the converging catastrophes that have caused the current level of disorder. But authorities have clearly resigned themselves to curtailing civil rights to protect what's left of the status quo.

Theo finds himself in the role of protector for a woman who has miraculously become pregnant. His job is to smuggle her out of the country, and link up with a shadowy organization called the "Human Project". Rumors suggest that this group is working to halt the extinction of the human race. Meanwhile, it appears that there is a conspiratorial plot to use the imminent birth as a rallying cry for a revolution. Theo is clearly jaded about the state of the world, and has very few people he can trust to assist him in his adopted mission. The storyline concerns itself with his struggle to do something noble and heroic.

But this is somehow not what Children of Men is really about. Instead it is an allegory about the madness and futility demonstrated by human beings. Their priorities are out of whack, and people are experiencing the consequences of the neglect of their own biosystem. This is made evident through the wealth of background imagery that Cuaron (whose debut feature was Y Tu Mama Tambien) has skillfully integrated into his film. We see scenes of savagery, destruction, and horror. But the camera never brings these elements to the foreground, but instead slowly pans across the devastation without obvious comment. This transforms what could have been a ho-hum, action-packed tale of dystopia into a multi-leveled exploration of the various impacts of human behavior. But what is particularly frightening about the film is that it is completely believable. It is a warning of things to come, and because of its poetic genius, it's much more effective than any other I have seen.

The cinematography is simply breathtaking. The acting is professionally competent across the board. And the writing is remarkably unobtrusive for a science fiction film. The interactions of the players are convincing enough to erode the inevitable distance we experience when watching this type of movie. We recognize ourselves in the characters, and can place ourselves in the setting. This is why I consider this an amazing directorial achievement. Watch it as soon as possible. And be sure to check out the extras, which include interviews with celebrity-philosopher Slavoj Zizek and Naomi Klein.

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Friday, May 18, 2007

Victor Hassine, "Life Without Parole" (2nd Ed. -1999)

Why did I pick up inmate Victor Hassine's Life Without Parole: Living in Prison Today? I'm always interested in hearing firsthand accounts of what it's like to be locked up. I'm also fascinated by any account of the choices people make when they are in a crisis situation. I think it's fair to say that being incarcerated is akin to being in a "crisis situation". The rules are obviously different behind bars as opposed to being out on the streets. The prisoner is surrounded by those who chose to break society's laws. To survive and keep one's dignity, it's important to project an image of strength. Whether or not the authors of such books relate the unmitigated truth, the reader experiences the flavor of an extreme and foreign environment. These works are rarely ever boring.

Hassine's book is especially interesting because he is serving a life term without the possibility of parole in the Pennsylvania state prison system. Since 1981, he has tried to make a home at SCI-Graterford (outside Philadelphia) and SCI- Pittsburgh (also referred to as Western Penitentiary). Additionally he has lived at SCI-Camp Hill and SCI-Rockview (his most current residence). Therefore he has substantial experience with the specific conditions of punitive institutions in the state where I live. Aside from convicted cop killer Mumia Abu-Jamal (currently held at SCI-Greene in Waynesburg), I know of no other contemporary inmates in Pennsylvania that have authored books.

Victor Hassine's story is an unusual one, as far as criminals are concerned. He is a naturalized citizen and originally from Egypt. He grew up Jewish in Trenton, NJ. In 1980 he graduated from New York Law School. Shortly after finishing his degree, he was accused and convicted of hiring a hitman to kill a man over a drug dispute. The victim survived, but in the process an innocent man died. With no prior record to speak of, Hassine entered the correctional system with a large amount of fear. As a naive "fish" he had no choice but to quickly learn how to survive in his new environment.

Life Without Parole begins with a chapter entitled "How I became a Convict". Hassine doesn't dwell on the actions that caused him to end up in prison, but rather describes in detail how he was processed, classified and integrated into the general population. He outlines his initial feelings and his strategy for protecting himself. Being neither wholly black nor white, there were no easy affiliations for him to make. Early on he pissed away a prized job working as a clerk in the Major's office- all because he was tempted by a freshly cooked contraband hamburger. After a period of time trying to insulate himself with books and painting in his cell, he was convinced by an "old head" (wise inmate) that he needed to engage the life he could not escape. Apparently being a loner with lots of possessions in prison is a recipe for victimization. (Hassine cautions that a new inmate is especially vulnerable because he is prone to sleeping through the morning, while the doors of his cell remains unlocked. This makes him a target for rape, theft, or other forms of brutalization by prison predators.)

As the months passed by, Hassine's observations about his fellow inmates, his captors, and the system began to coalesce. He started recording his thoughts and ideas on paper, and eventually he collected them into Life Without Parole. It is divided into three sections: "Prison Life", "Interviews", and "Op Ed". In the second part, Hassine gives some of his fellow convicts the opportunity to tell their stories. Through these segments Hassine explores issues such as sexual victimization, AIDS, medication as a means of control, the changing nature of solitary confinement, and the conflict between "old heads" and the new arbitrarily-violent inmates who have nothing to lose. Perhaps the most affecting story is related by Hassine himself- he recounts his role as a witness to a particularly savage incident during a riot at Western Penitentiary.

In the "Op Ed" chapters, Hassine seizes the opportunity to address what he sees as the biggest challenges facing prison administrators today. He identifies overcrowding as the most significant problem in contemporary prisons. He believes that every other difficulty can ultimately be traced back to this factor. Rape comes in a multitude of forms, but is made much easier by doubling the occupancy of cells originally designed to house one inmate. The relationship between prisoners and guards is steadily deteriorating as tired and frustrated guards pull overtime shifts to compensate for staffing shortages. Staffs are losing control of the prisons, as they exhaust their limited resources in just trying to meet the basic needs of those incarcerated. There is no longer any money available for rehabilitation or treatment of criminals. And Hassine maintains that this situation is like a "runaway train". The consequences of overcrowded prisons will eventually spill out into the society-at-large.

Although Life Without Parole is a slim volume, and its authorial voice often comes across as surprisingly detached, it is not without its merits. Those looking for a book that combines personal anecdotes with a touch of academia will be pleased and edified by Hassine's writing style. (Evidently Life Without Parole is being used as a college text in Criminology courses- a fact which explains the multiple editions and the $42.95 price) Additionally, Pennsylvania residents will find the local associations meaningful. I recommend it with mild reservations.

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Thursday, May 17, 2007

Peter Watkins, "Punishment Park" (1971).

Who knew that a fictional documentary examining reactionary politics during the Vietnam War would hold so much relevance in our contemporary era? Well... not many people had a chance to see Punishment Park over the last serveral decades. There is a lot of speculation that the film was somehow banned from public broadcast, but it's difficult to verify that claim. It's more likely that the film was buried due to the fact that its director (Peter Watkins) was British. It would have been one thing for an American citizen to make a movie with such a bold political statement, but its altogether different when it is commentary from the outside.

Punishment Park takes place during a vaguely speculative crisis during the Nixon administration. The sitting president has expanded the war and declared a state of emergency, which allows the regime to imprison political dissidents without a jury trial or any of the other quaint Constitutional rights that US citizens are supposed to be entitled to. Those found to be guilty in the eyes of a civilian review panel are given lengthy sentences of imprisonment. They are also given an alternative- they can spend a few days in "Punishment Park". This option consists of a large hilly expanse in the desert region of Southern California. The task of the condemned is to traverse a grueling 50-mile expanse while attempting to evade representatives of several law enforcement agencies (the National Guard, federal marshals, and police). They are to do so without the aid of food and water. Their goal is to reach an American flag at the end of the course without being caught. If they are successful, they are supposed to be released from custody. Otherwise they will be returned to serve out their sentences. This ordeal is supposed to serve as a both a deterrent to others thinking about opposing government policy, and as a creative solution to overcrowded prisons. Additionally it provides authorities with an excellent training exercise in the apprehension of "radical elements" of the citizenry.

The proceedings are filmed by several European film crews who were invited to document all of this (presumably) because the administration wanted to demonstrate their humanity (or maybe efficiency) to the rest of the world. It's actually inconceivable that anyone outside of the official participants would be allowed to witness any of it. Other than this unlikely factor, the film is shot in a remarkably realistic manner. While the pursuit of the dissidents makes up a large portion of the picture, Watkins also chooses to supplement that footage with coverage of a sample disciplinary trial. The accused are brought in front of a "kangaroo court" consisting of "esteemed and respectable" members of the community. These include (among others) a Congressman, a home-maker/organizer of a "silent majority" morals group, a union leader, and a sociology professor. The trial scenes are characterized by polemical exchanges featuring the reactionary brand of conservative viewpoints of those who sit in judgment of their fellow Americans. Meanwhile the defendents try to explain their respective philosophies to the singleminded panel. There is a defense lawyer who genuinely attempts to add a measure of reason to the exchange, but he is largely discounted and/or ignored.

Meanwhile we slowly become aware that the Punishment Park challenge is rigged in the favor of the authorities. A promised oasis of water fails to materialize at the midpoint, and when the fugitives begin to resist participation, they are systematically captured and executed. It is difficult to determine what the original intention of the exercise was, because the cops and soldiers become emotionally incensed when they lose one of their number. Indeed even if no violence had been initiated on the prisoners' behalf, there is little chance that anyone could have actually reached the final objective in the scorching temperatures of the desert. But when a small group does actually approach the end, they discover an unanticipated fate.

The straightforward camerawork and amateur performances of the players serve the intended realism of the film. While there are some lingering questions- for example, why don't the foreign filmmakers help the fugitives?- the entire story plays out in a convincing manner. Maybe there was a time in America when such repression of civil rights was inconceivable... but in the wake of 9-11 and the "War on Terror", the message of this film becomes increasingly relevant. The political polarization depicted in the rigged "trials" can be found in the mediasphere today. I have no doubt that contemporaries can be found to enact the roles in a real-life scenario based upon Punishment Park. That makes watching this film truly frightening.

Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Nuel Emmons, "Manson in His Own Words" (1986).

Considering my fascination with the dark side of the human psyche, one might suppose that I had studied the case of Charlie Manson. Until this past week I hadn't. Sure, I was familiar with the basic facts of his crimes. But there was always so much sensationalism surrounding "the Manson Family" that I was simply discouraged from reading about him. For all intents and purposes I considered him a piker when it came to being "evil". Indeed there has never been any conclusive evidence that he killed anyone with his own hands. From all accounts Manson gave the orders to have people murdered, but it was his followers that committed the deeds. Why was it then, that so many people looked up to him as some kind of counterculture hero? I always suspected that it had something to do with the way the media mythologized him. It turns out that my intuition was most likely correct.

Certainly I've been aware of Vincent Bugliosi's true crime classic pulp- Helter Skelter (1974). He was the D.A. who prosecuted Manson, and his book became the accepted authority on the Tate-Labianca murders. He painted Manson as a messianic figure of true evil, and claimed that he ruled over his "family" of 25-35 young men and women with absolute power. Manson's motive was said to be to provoke a race war, wherein black people would prove triumphant against the white race. After that, the Manson Family was to come out of their desert hiding place and seize power over all creation. All this was said to be inspired by the Beatles- and this contention was the source of Bugliosi's title. In the wake of the trial and the release of Helter Skelter, Manson was branded "the most dangerous man alive". And the only reason that he was alive was that he and his followers had their death sentences commuted when the state of California outlawed the death penalty.

Well then... was all of this true? They made a movie out of Bugliosi's account... so many assumed that it was beyond reproach. I'd probabably accept the story unquestioned had I not found a copy of Nuel Emmons Manson in His Own Words: The Shocking Confessions of the Most Dangerous Man Alive (1986). When I saw it on the racks of the discount bookstore I was shocked. I didn't even know that such a book existed. I decided to plunge in, and I finished it in about 48 hours. It's a fascinating and well-written work. Emmons originally met Manson in the late 50's as they were incarcerated together at both Terminal Island and McNeil Island . In 1979, Emmons once again initiated contact with his fellow inmate, and convinced him to participate in setting the record straight. Over many visits spanning a period of years, Emmons took down Manson's story of his childhood, his many prison sentences, the formation of the "family" (which Manson refers to as the "circle"), and the infamous crimes.

Before Charlie Manson went through his final trial, he had spent over half of his life behind bars. In Manson in His Own Words, the man himself is quoted describing himself as follows- "I ain't never been anything but a half-assed thief who didn't know how to steal without getting caught." He was abandoned as a child, and spent his early years being shipped around from relatives to strangers. He had a terrible awakening to the worst life had to offer when he was placed in a home for juvenile delinquents. In and out of jail for years, he spent time as a hustler, a fugitive, a burglar, a pimp and an amateur musician. He fathered two children and was abandoned by several women. During the late 60's he established himself in California during the height of the flower-power era.

It was during this time he began to assemble a group of wayward young adults- mostly women who he slept with. He bought a van, and then a school bus, and traveled around with his companions... taking drugs, playing music and having lots of sex. When his little community got too large for the road, he established a home at the Spahn Movie Ranch (near Los Angeles). He spent time with a large cast of characters including bikers, heads, freaks, celebrities and drifters. Eventually he formed contacts with Brian Wilson of the Beach Boys, and some other L.A. entertainment contacts. He worked on his music with the goal of breaking into stardom. There's some reason to believe that success was in his grasp. He was even recorded by music industry insiders.

Eventually things began to turn bad for the "family". Running out of funds, they turned to selling drugs in order to raise money. This fateful decison initiated a chain of events that resulted in paranoia, dissent, and increasing violence. As things turned from bad to worse, Manson tried to reassert his hold over the flock. But his promising music career took a nosedive, and things became progressively desperate. It was during this time that the murders occurred. Manson's retelling of that time comes off as straightforward and reasonably honest. He makes no excuses for the crimes, but points out that members of his "family" offered their ideas and acted on their own volition as well as his instructions. While he says he felt responsibility for the well-being of his "kids", he vehemently denies having any supernatural control over them. The weight of leadership corrupted him, and things got out of hand. Even while in prison, people increasingly looked toward him for guidance. To this day fanatical supplicants offer to do his bidding from afar.

Manson in His Own Words is almost entirely convincing. The raving madman that he portrays for the perpetuation of the myth that the media has created is wholly absent from this book. He is self-deprecating, and demonstrates ample insight into his life and circumstances. A lot of his commentary on his interactions with society make sense. This book seems to explain much of the mystery behind the Manson phenomena. It reads as if Emmons got the true story. But the puzzle remains. Manson himself has denied authorship of Manson in His Own Words. What does that mean? Perhaps he has something to gain by keeping the mythical Manson alive and free? I guess it's up to the reader to decide.

Tuesday, May 15, 2007

Pittsburgh Money Woes?

So Pittsburgh is once again embroiled in efforts to figure a way out of its budget crunch. If there is one consistent concern among inhabitants of America's Most Livable City, it is the state of its finances. New mayor Luke Ravenstahl claims that we will have a $57 million dollar surplus for the 2007 fiscal year, but many believe he is just blowing smoke. The truth is that the city has been in a state of financial distress since the American steel empire declined, and no one is going to be able to escape that legacy without providing irrefutable proof that we have resolved our money problems.

It's only been a few years since city fathers pronounced our city bankrupt. We were awarded junk-bond status in 2003. Cutting civil service positions seemed to be the answer back then. Our city employed more policemen per capita than any city of similar size. Trash collection was inefficient. Suggested solutions to save money included privatizing the EMS, or merging them with the fire bureau. Much of the blame for the budget deficit was laid at the feet of the unions that represented workers in the public sector. But at the same time a study found that 17 of the largest corporate employers and 30% of all city property had tax-exempt status. Instead of directing their attentions toward these inequities, city managers decided to increase the tax on alcohol purchased in the city. Consolidation of services and new taxes went some way toward alleviating the situation.

But we are still not totally in the clear. So what steps can be taken to put us in a better financial position? Some are calling for tax revenues from the huge non-profit organizations that seem to grow without limits. They pay neither property, nor payroll, nor business privilege taxes. Yet they seem to be almost omnipotent. The universities and the healthcare organizations are certainly thriving in the 'Burgh. But at the same time, they create many thousands of jobs. There are observers who believe that we could stifle job growth in the non-profit sector by increasing its tax burden. That's a major obstacle, because the shortfall of quality jobs probably outweighs budget woes in the minds of many city residents. In the past, non-profits have been asked to voluntarily contribute millions of dollars to city coffers. Ravenstahl has actually worked such speculative donations into future budgets. This may explain how he arrives at the unlikely conclusion that we will have a surplus in the coming year.

Meanwhile, many who have made the commitment to live within the city would like to see commuter or higher parking taxes. Unfortunately the city is run by politicians that seem more concerned with how the suburbanites view them than the city residents who elected them to their positions. Luke Ravenstahl's bid for power included appeals to reduce the parking tax. He is a friend of sprawl and white flight. But this is part of a larger trend throughout our nation. People move out of the city to avoid paying taxes- yet they still depend on the city infrastructure and benefit from the many amenities that they no longer support. It's a travesty, but this segment of the population has a lot of political influence, so little ever changes.

One such suburbanite/pundit (AM talk radio hack Fred Honsberger) suggests instituting a 25% tax on pornography. He posits the theory that the area can generate millions of dollars through such a measure. This sounds a lot like the previous tax on alcohol that was also supposed to be "the answer" to city debt. It's an idea that may sound good in the cloistered channels of conservative talk, but I don't foresee it making much of a real difference. Bus routes are being curtailed. Citypark pools remain unfilled during the summer. Our streets are plagued with potholes. At the same time the Pittsburgh Public Schools are underfunded. And people complain about relatively high inner city property taxes. But instead of coming up with some substantial plan, Ravenstahl talks of "donations" and Honsberger speaks of "porn". What we really need is a leader who is going to put the interests of city residents above that of corporations, suburbanites, and outsiders.

Monday, May 14, 2007

Goin' Up the River.

I would like to believe that it's not so odd for a young American male to have given a lot of thought to incarceration. I certainly had reason to consider how I would face jail time, and maybe even a short stay in prison. Sometimes I take a few moments to pause and appreciate just how lucky I have been to have a spot-clean record. The most serious thing I have ever been charged with is "disorderly conduct", which was merely a summary offense. For that I spent ten minutes telling a sob story to a policeman from the back of a cruiser. It was embarrassing, but carried no weight of serious consequence.

Truth be told, there are a number of things that could have landed me in the hoosegow. Before you reel in shock, keep in mind that an involvement in a barfight can evolve into an assault charge. Remember too that it only takes a couple of drinks to qualify you for a D.U.I. and a weekend in lockup. And that's not to mention the number of occasions I was with friends who were actively flouting the law... or the times I was made an unwilling accesory by simply listening to an alcohol-induced confession. When you break it all down, life as an American male can be a perilous journey. "There but for the grace of God....", if you believe in all of that. Or maybe I really am careful.

Anyway, watching that DVD set of OZ has me thinking about all of this again. It's likely now that I will avoid ever having to become an inmate. My testosterone levels are staadily dropping, and the common vices no longer interests me. But one can never know for sure. Bad situations don't confine themselves to your life schedule. Perhaps we are never totally in the clear. It's also true that there are people in our nation's correctional institutions that are truly innocent of the crimes with which they've been charged. That reality makes us all potential victims of circumstance.

So it's natural for me to wonder what type of strategy I would adopt if I had to enter a facility like the "Emerald City" cell block in OZ. I know from my readings that I would like to "do my own time". That requires asking for no favors and minding one's own business. I wouldn't ask anybody why they were there. I wouldn't initiate any eye contact. And I wouldn't start a conversation with anyone. But on the other side, I wouldn't want to give the impression that I thought I was better than anyone else- because that could be misconstrued as a challenge. It's enough to be an older white man among a teeming mass of young minority bucks, without setting myself up for any additional trouble.

I have a few skills that might be useful in prison. I have writing and drawing skills. I could probably offer them in exchange for the bare necessities. Maybe they would earn me a modicum of respect. I could make greeting cards for the other inmates. I could write letters for them to their loved ones. I'm fairly well-read and I could make a transition to prison law. Hanging out in the prison library reasearching the finer points of our "justice system" would likely be a reasonably safe place for me.

I'd also have the advantage of friends and relatives who would be willing to deposit regular amounts of cash on my books to be used for commisary. I'm thrifty, and I'm sure I could make the best use of those resources. Little things we take for granted on the side go a long way in that environment.

One thing I'd try hard not to do is get close to anyone too fast. I'd want to remain detached until I understood the web of interactions and alliances of my surroundings. If I had to serve a long term though, I would probably have to develop a few allies. That would take a lot of careful and thoughtful maneuvering. I'd want to avoid getting ensnared in the power dynamics of prison life, but who knows if I'd be able to protect myself without assistance? If I saw trouble coming, I'd likely have to "bite the bullet" and associate myself with one of the groups of white inmates. It would be distasteful to join the Aryan Brotherhood or the Bikers, but as a last resort it could be necessary to form a loose affiliation. Otherwise I'd just have to get myself in protective custody for the duration.

Christ, what a bleak prospect! This train of thought is an effective reminder to do everything I can to avoid ever having to serve time. And who says punisment is not a deterrent? There's surely no way to accurately assess the amount of people that have abstained from crime for fear of landing in jail or prison.

Sunday, May 13, 2007

Borat, Cohen and Charles.

Who the hell is Larry Charles? That's a fair question, I guess. He's a fairly successful television director whose credits include Seinfeld and Curb Your Enthusiasm. Most people couldn't name more than a couple TV directors- they are unheralded compared to their cousins in the film industry. Usually the creator of a TV series is the one who gets the credit for being the artist on the production. When it comes to movies, however, directors are given ownership of the success of the product. That's not the case with Larry Charles. And while it's true that Charles has only directed two films (the first one being an art-house documentary about Bob Dylan)... it was a pretty big hit. It generated a lot of controversy, and garnered critical and commercial acclaim. But the main man associated with Borat! Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan (2006) is (appropriately, I would think) Sascha Baron Cohen. After all, it was Cohen who created and starred in The Ali G Show, with a trio of iconic characters that included "Borat".

For those few of you who don't know Borat, he is a fictional Kazakhstani television personality (played by Cohen) that traveled throughout the USA, meeting and interviewing real Americans. The genius of Borat, and indeed all of the Ali G Show, was the mix of character-based comedy with reality television. No one that was filmed on the show (besides Cohen) was in on the joke. The fun was in seeing how people reacted to a man from a foreign country that they knew nothing about. Through their interaction with Borat, these folks would often expose their naivete, jingoism, intolerance, bigotry, sincerity and/or innocence. Often times they would reveal shockingly crude or inensitive beliefs. The gullibility and lack of cultural sophistication apparent in their responses is at the same time hilarious and frightening. It's an expose of American attitudes, and for that very reason it is alternatively illuminating or offensive, depending upon your view of the United States.

The feature film starring Borat continues the joke. It's hard to believe that there were still so many dupes after the original television airings and the DVD releases of both seasons of the Ali G Show. I guess that's indicative of just how cloistered the mainsteam entertainment consumer is in this country. The original series (which aired on HBO) was not a huge hit, and thus went unnoticed across much of the nation. Evidently the average American was too busy watching FOXNews, American Idol, and the NASCAR circuit. For that reason Cohen could come back to the US, and travel mostly through the Southern states, and be unrecognized. This feat really does confirm many of the sterotypes of Southern ignorance. They are presented unadulterated in their conservative fundamentalist glory. Borat sits at society dinners, attends the rodeo, patronizes gun shops, and gets saved at a Pentacostal Church. All along the way, red-blooded American citizens are outed in their beliefs. Often while watching Borat, I puzzled over how Cohen was able to evoke such a pure reflection of the deepest essence of our neighbors and fellow countrymen. It's not a very flattering picture of the state of the nation.

Perhaps that's why Cohen is now being sued by some of his unsuspecting subjects. Two college students from the University of South Carolina didn't appreciate the way they came off in their time with Borat. But one might ask why they allowed themselves to be filmed making drunken and insulting comments about women and minorities. One also might wonder why they signed legal waivers and consent forms allowing the filmmakers to use the footage. If they are unable to recognize themselves in the movie... then they would be better off spending their time and money examining themselves with a good therapist. It's not like Cohen only picks on easy targets either- he goes after politicians, professionals, feminists and New Yorkers. He even puts himself through some serious discomfort when a naked wrestling match results in an obese man's ass and balls resting on his chin. So I have a hard time feeling sorry for anybody in this movie.

As far as Larry Charles is concerned, I can't even imagine what his job might have been like. I would assume that Cohen was only accompanied by a film crew while on his adventure. The supervising presence of a director would surely have given the game away. It's also difficult to figure out what is real and what is staged in the movie. Surely they didn't really try to forcibly abduct Pamela Anderson from a public signing without giving her advanced notice. Such blurring of lines has elicited some criticism, but for me it made the entire project more fascinating. These days we could all use some practice in discriminating reality from manipulation. In our postmodern world there are enough warped mirrors for all the funhouses on the midway.

Saturday, May 12, 2007

My Acute Case of Lethologica.

As you might expect from someone that likes to read and write, I take a lot of pleasure in words. When I was just a little kid and I wanted to know what a certain word meant, I would usually just ask my parents. Almost invariably I was told to "look it up". I can't tell you how annoying I found that response. I found all kinds of rationale to justify not consulting the dictionary. I didn't feel like getting up. I just wanted to know how people used the word- not the technical definition. Or my folks simply didn't know, and they were attempting to mask their ignorance. The truth is that I was just a contrary child. The last thing I wanted to do was what I was told to do. So my vocabulary remained pretty limited until I got to college, and had no one to tell me the "right" thing to do.

I still remain fairly independent. Some people are born with an orientation that allows them to learn from others' experience. For the most part I have always needed to learn for myself. Maybe that reflects an inherent mistrust of humanity.... and maybe that's not something I need to analyze too deeply. I do know I could be wealthier and healthier if I just accepted conventional wisdom. But that's not my path in life. Yet I have adopted some beneficial habits. I finally did make it a point to look up words in the dictionary. I even underlined the essence of their definitions, and checked them off so I could review them as I searched for the next word. As a result my verbal test scores on the GRE were much higher than when I took the SAT (for whatever that matters). More importantly, I began to cultivate a reception of pleasure from language. I've learned that there are many more insidious addictions available.

Once in awhile I get blindsided by a novel word used in the course of informal conversation. It's almost as if I actually experience a resulting electrical charge that reverberates throughout my brain, and I get a little surge of adrenalin. Such was the case this past Thursday night. My friend was describing one of the models scheduled on the calendar. He used this unfamiliar word, and I asked him for the definition. Instead of telling me to "look it up", he satisfied my immediate curiosity right then and there. But consequently I can't recall it. I know it is a foreign word that I had never heard before. However it's a descriptor for a specific and narrow sensory experience I've thought about often. I'm paraphrasing here, but as far as I can remember- It refers to the signs of one's life as manifested by the shape and marks of the body and/or face.... as if you could read an individual's history through the lines on his/her face. Some people have this quality in great abundance, and others almost appear to be a "blank slate". Examples of historical figures with a lot of it might include Charles Bukowski, William Burroughs, Harry Dean Stanton and Nancy Reagan.

Well, I have to say that I love the idea that there is a single word to describe this phenomena. But since I want to repeat this word in the future, it really bothers me that I can't regenerate it in my head. Initially I didn't think this would be a problem because I have the phone number of the person who uttered the word. Unfortunately he's not picking up. Luckily he does read this blog, and he'll probably read this and resolve my frustration. But I really don't want to wait for that. It's like being unable to come up with the title for a song you've been involuntarily humming for weeks. I thought I'd be able to (maybe) locate the word via a Google search, but I haven't had any luck with that. Have YOU ever tried to use a reverse dictionary without a precise definition?

*Incidentally, the obscure word "lethologica" refers to my immediate experience.- the condition of not being able to remember a word I want to use.

Friday, May 11, 2007

Marty Griffin, Beatrice Longo, and Public Prayer.

I've already made it clear that I dislike talk radio host Marty Griffin. If you don't remember why, feel free to check out my previous post. I'm not looking to rehash those issues. Suffice it to say, I consider him a douchebag. But yet I still listen to him every day during my lunch hour. "Keep you friends close, and your enemies closer"- or so they say. I like to know what these jerks are saying. So today I got a real blood rush as the subject of public prayer was brought up. No... this didn't concern prayer in school. That subject is tired. The conflict this time has to do with a local community city council meeting that is introduced with a spoken prayer.

Apparently Beatrice Longo is unhappy with having to listen to the sort of religious recitation that passes for non-sectarian in McKeesport, PA. Longo is an attorney, and identifies herself as a Christian- but she objects to the form of prayer practiced in the name of her local government. Apparently it is always performed by a group of Christian ministers who invoke the name of their Lord Jesus Christ. Her point is that a non-denominational prayer would be acceptable, but she finds mention of a specific God unacceptable. She believes that such publicly delivered prayers should be applicable to people of all religious faiths. As she so succinctly puts it- "I don't understand why this is such a hard concept to understand."

Obviously Ms. Longo doesn't listen to Marty Griffin's show. His callers had a field day excoriating her today. And Griffin was equally (or more) vehement about the issue. He simply doesn't understand how anyone could have a problem with public prayer. One brave listener called to voice the opposing viewpoint, making the very reasonable assertion that no one is truly limited by the separation of church and state. He pointed out that anybody is free to make their own private prayer before or after council meetings. Instead of addressing the caller's logic, Griffin simply shouted him down. He kept shouting, "What are you scared of?", as if making an implicit condemnation of the caller's state of grace.

Subsequent members of "Marty's Army" weighed in with their comments, none of which truly addressed the constitutionality of the issue. Someone voiced his contention that if only all gatherings were preceded by prayer, then society's problems would be solved. Another suggested that anyone that takes offense should just come into the meetings late, so as to avoid having to hear the offending words. One caller attempted to tie the situation into the First Amendment by asserting that the constitutional framers included "freedom of religion" to enable citizens to practice their worship when and wherever they so choose. But most legal scholars and supreme court decisions reinforce the accomodationist interpretation of the "Establishment Clause"- no particular religion is to be given preference by a government body. It only takes a bit of historical research to come to the conclusion that the founding fathers didn't want a repeat of the conflict between the Church of England and its dissentors. Certainly they didn't intend for certain adherents to be "more equal" in their rights to worship.

To me this is simply a matter of common sense and pragmatics. I have yet to hear a compelling reason why prayer should be included in governmental meetings. What purpose could it possibly serve? The moral authority of any particular governmental body rests in the respective Constitution(s) of the locality in which it resides. That should be enough legitimacy. Why add an extra layer of assumed authority that by its very nature is deeply personal? What does it add or subtract from the proceedings? The anwer to that specific question is determined by individual faith alone. It is essentially un-American and anti-democratic to govern according to faith. Sure you could try to be all-inclusive by using words that are so general that they apply to all philosophies. But what's the point?

In McKeesport, the city council meetings already get kicked off with the Pledge of Allegiance and a moment of silence. Isn't the Pledge sufficient for setting a tone of adherence to shared values? We've already got the perfectly unnecessary mention of God in that oath. Must we construct an estimation of what some subjectively view as universally representative? I'm sure that within the confines of McKeesport there are atheists, agnostics, Muslims, Jews, satanists, Buddhists, etc. Don't they deserve the right to feel equal under the law? The moment of silence is already going over the line. However, I'm willing to make that concession for the sake of the fundamentalists among us. But it's a slippery slope. I certainly don't want to empower those in society that would like to see Biblical law instituted across the nation. Make no mistake- there are many Americans that would like to see that happen.

Thursday, May 10, 2007

OZ: The HBO Series.

Given my rather intense interest in the sociology of prison life, it's amazing that it's taken me this long to engage the HBO series OZ. Maybe it is because after six full seasons, the series is completed. It's nice to know that I can purchase the entire world of the show in a self-contained set of discs. That's not the way it's going to be though. Last weekend at a church rummage sale out in the sticks, I found the third season DVD set for $15. I had some reservations about jumping into the middle of the story, but I figured that I couldn't pass up such a great deal. It was an ideal chance to determine whether or not the show is a worthwhile investment. Not too long ago I had the opportunity to buy four seasons all together at Half Priced Books at a reduced rate, but I passed on it. Now I'm reconsidering the wisdom of that decision. sells the individual seasons for more than $30 each, and the entire collection for $208.

Having watched 6 of the 8 episodes in Season 3, I'm already pretty sure that I'm going to purchase the rest. While OZ is certainly a sensationalized take on contemporary maximum-security American prisons, it contains enough recognizable truth to keep me engaged. All the standard cliches associated with incarceration are jam-packed into every episode- extreme and sudden violence, homosexual rape, drug abuse, crooked guards, solitary confinement, smuggling, race conflict, and lots of trash-talking. The typiical ethnographic breakdowns are in evidence. Inmates find their places within the enclosed system. There are the skinheads, black Muslims, Latinos, homeboy gangsters, the mafia, the Christians, and the fags. A lot of the fun of watching OZ over time is found in the shifting alliances between the groups. Just as in the larger society, continual negotiations determine the quality of order the inmates experience in their day-to-day existences. Within the routines of an intensely controlled life, much can change in an instant. There are indeed rules, but among a population selected for their breaking of laws- there's a generous serving of fluidity. "Honor among thieves" is mostly just a myth.

Despite my abbreviated experience with OZ, I already feel confident making some generalizations. It seems that the prison staff provides a great deal of the continuity. In almost every episode some inmate is getting wacked. It's quite difficult to predict what the hierarchy among the prisoners is going to be, even over a short period of time. But Tim McManus (the staff captain- played by Terry Kinney), Leo Glynn (the warden- played by Ernie Hudson), Sister Peter Marie Reimondo (the nun counselor- played by Rita Moreno), and Gloria Nathan (the head of medicine- played Lauren Velez) provide an element of stability. Of course even the stalwart employees ride the roller coaster of fortune within this institution.

For me the inmates themselves are much more compelling. Naturally there are a lot of tough guys in this environment. Each gang has their particular leaders jockeying for position. But the most intriguing characters for me are the ones that defy categorization, and refuse to be limited to any particular subgroup. Ryan and Cyril O'Reily (Dean and Scott William Winters respectively) are two Irish brothers who seem to get their hands in as many pies as possible. Chris Keller (Christopher Meloni) walks the fine line between being the master manipulator and a stand-up guy. Tobias Beecher (Lee Tergeson) is a wolf-in-sheep's clothing. Simon Adibisi (Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje) is the archetype of the lone crafty warrior. Kareem Said (Eemon Walker) is a man of God, struggling with his spiritual imperfections. Underestimating any of these folks is an often fatal mistake. On the other side of things is Vernon Schillinger (J.K. Simmons), radiating palpable menace- he is the wizened white supremacist. Even though we know exactly where he stands, he's capable of a surprise or two.

Of course emotionality is a sign of weakness in this particular context. But a drama would be sterile without vulnerability and ambiguity- so the creators of OZ grab every opportunity to portray such elements. Somehow they manage to make even the vilest of men into fully-fleshed humans. This is a strength of the show that only occasionally descends into soap-operish melodrama. In the real world, life in a prison like the Oswald Correctional Facility would likely be a drone of boredom punctuated by startling moments of violent clarity. But who would watch that? When I catch myself wondering whether OZ is an accurate representation of life in prison, I make a note to suspend my disbelief and enjoy the ride.

That being said, I do have one major objection to the show. Every episode I've watched so far has been introduced by a wheelchair-bound inmate named Augustus Hill (Harold Perrineau). He is set in a surreal series of vignettes that attempt to build allegories on which to hang the events of each particular episode. Along the way the show is interrupted by these segments, with often cheesily-written and presented commentary referring to the story arc. This device not only disrupts the flow, but also counteracts the gritty realism of OZ. Happily, this unfortunate misstep is a small price to pay for the sheer testosterone-laden entertainment of the show.