Wednesday, October 31, 2007

An Atypical Halloween.

It's officially Halloween... my favorite holiday of the entire year. This go around has not been nearly as enjoyable as years past. Part of the reason is that it falls in the middle of the week, and there's no clear weekend nights for the usual festivities. It seems the confusion about scheduling has made some people just give up, instead of planning parties. On an individual level, this year is clearly different because I am in the midst of an ugly labor conflict. That has put a damper on my spirits. We were explicitly told not to wear costumes out on the picket lines, for somewhat obvious reasons. The exact wording was, "This is not the time for "Holloweird". I'll admit that I was mildly offended by the disparaging connotations delivered by this cute little nickname.

Halloween simply doesn't get as much respect out there in the conservative exurbs as it does in the city. Areas with large populations of Christian conservatives are often quite hostile to the idea of celebrating the darker corners of life. In those parts witches represent Satan, and the typical traditions are insidious reminders of the world's pagan past. While it is certainly true that this time of year was honored with pagan festivals (refer to last year's Oct 31st post), the modern commercialization of Halloween has virtually nothing to do with age-old religions. It's merely a time to don silly costumes and gorge on candy (not that there's anything especially wrong with that).

But while much of the countryside may be rabidly anti-Halloween, when you run across a rural group that does enjoy the time of year- they tend to "do it up right". Perhaps the best time I've ever had at a Halloween attraction occurred in the general area of the school district where I now teach. It was advertised as a "haunted hayride", and I have to say that it truly delivered the goods. It was "not for kids". The tractor pulled us through the woods, past creepy fire-lit vignettes with live actors. Periodically monsters would jump out from the darkness of the trees and jump up on the flatbed. There was the sense all around us that we were being stalked by shadowy figures. The atmosphere was eerily effective. When we later reached a moonlit cornfield, we were surprised at a hidden clearing where hordes of zombies commenced to pursue us for a few hundred yards.

When the tractor eventually pulled up at a collection of connected barn-like structures, many of us thought our journey was over. Instead we entered a gloomy haunted house with more gory scenes set up in each room. The live actors were seriously unnerving, and attention was paid to every detail for maximum fright. As we meandered through, we continually expected the end to be around the next corner, or through the closest door. Finally we were told to exit through a crawl space, and we prepared to step out onto the fresh air of the night. Instead we were made to crawl around a hay-bale maze with many dead ends. It was naturally pitch black, and my companion began to show signs of acute claustrophobia. Her anxiety reached a fever pitch and started to wear on me as we got more and more frustrated and lost. Finally we were rescued by two giggling six year-olds who were joyously running through with flashlights.

Later on we decompressed at a trailer park bash, where we listened to heavy metal and passed around mason jars full of moonshine. Hooligans in flannel shirts pissed in the bonfire and looked for opportunities to get into meaningless scraps. It was a good ol' time. Nowadays I'm much more mature and adult-like. Tonight M. and I decided to avoid Trick or Treat, and went out to grab Mexican food. Our street seems to go to great lengths to get into the family spirit of Halloween. People put up elaborate decorations and pass out great amounts of candy. Teenagers that are way past the age to reasonably expect free sweets sullenly approach with their hands out. Even with our trip out to dinner, we probably saved about $25 by skipping out on the festivities. Next year we will probably be more sentimental with a kid in tow. I guess we'll have to wait and see.

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Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Robert Aldrich, "Kiss Me Deadly" (1955)

Director Robert Aldrich is famous for having made a number of classics, including The Dirty Dozen (1967), Flight of the Phoenix (1965), What Ever happened to Baby Jane (1962), and The Longest Yard (1974). Born in Rhode Island in 1918, he was the first cousin of former Vice President Nelson Rockefeller. He was known to be rare auteur among filmmakers working in the Hollywood studio system. Despite working in many genres, he was always able to stamp his distinctive mark upon the work. In my opinion there's no better example of this unique facility than Kiss Me Deadly, a late-period film noir starring Ralph Meeker.

While the movie is based upon a story by famous pot-boiler mystery writer Mickey Spillane, Kiss Me Deadly takes the character of private dick Mike Hammer, and adds new hues to his legend. By the time the film was created, the flatfoot detective had been notably portrayed by Biff Elliot in I, the Jury (1953). Later on, actors as diverse as Robert Bray, Stacey Keach, Armand Assante and Spillane himself played the role. Hammer was originally written as a brutally violent, misogynistic, and opportunistic man. While other directors seemed to sand out some of Hammer's rough edges, Aldrich made sure to depict him as Spillane had intended. He's the kind of guy that Dashiell Hammet and Raymond Chandler would have avoided portraying as the "hero".

Meeker seems tailor made for the role. His vaguely thuggish appearance and generally cynical attitude make the events of Kiss Me Deadly seem quite convincing despite the sometimes outlandish plot. While we are used to seeing the flawed protagonist gumshoe in the noir genre, we rarely see anyone quite as unredeemed as this version of Mike Hammer. He basically pimps out a girl that adores him in order to blackmail a series of cheating spouses. He's seemingly willing to sell out any loyalty to advance his own underhanded purposes. Unlike more representative anti-heroes within the genre, Hammer's not even very particularly complex or subtle in his tactics. Throughout the course of the story we see him murder several men without hesitation or reflection. At other times he simply employs violent tactics and threats to get the information he needs. Most notably he has nothing but contempt for law enforcement. Instead of half-heartedly assisting the authorities, he both actively undermines them, and inadvertently mucks up their operations.

Yet at the same time Aldrich's Hammer seems to be a genuine man of the people. It is clear that he extends his social network beyond the conventional parameters of the time. He has associations from multiple minority groups that make us a bit forgiving of his manipulative ways. But through these connections we get an exposure to a fairly wide spectrum of the criminal L.A. underworld. There are crooked boxing promoters, apparently strung-out wenches, garden variety thugs, and wickedly colorful mafioso types. In fact some of the latter group (Paul Stewart and Jack Elam) would look completely at home on an episode of The Sopranos. Even Hammer's cop acquaintance (played by Wesley Addy) looks like he's no stranger to the demimonde.

This entire collection of folks is tied together by the search for an unidentified object of great value. The irony is that so many of the players in this gritty drama experience a range of harsh treatments in the service and pursuit of the unknown. Despite the fact that the most vicious injuries are delivered off screen, we are left with no doubt about the horrific sufferings that are visited upon them. Even without explicit violence, we are left with the impression that Aldrich has pulled no punches in the telling of this story. When we finally discover what everyone has been fighting over, it comes as a complete surprise (which I won't ruin here). Kiss Me Deadly is very much a statement on the contemporary concerns of the period during which the film was made. There is an obvious allegory that becomes clearly drawn by the final scene. And the finale is truly striking.

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Monday, October 29, 2007

Whose Schadenfreude is the best Schadenfreude?

Last night I had two disparate conversations linked together by the suggestion of Schadenfreude. Are you familiar with the word? It is (rather obviously) a word derived from the German language, and Wikipedia notes that it has no direct English equivalent. It means 'pleasure taken from someone else's misfortune'. Interestingly, the aforementioned online encyclopedia does mention an obscure English word that comes close to conveying a similar meaning- epicaricacy. The Greek roots of that word include components indicating joy, upon and evil. I actually find it a bit surprising that a corollary in the American language hasn't risen to popular usage. I have no doubt that most people in this country have either experienced the concept or seen it vividly displayed by others.

The idea occurred to me after someone took offense to a particular recommendation I made for YouTube night. I have sent about 75 clips to the moderator of the event, and many of them have been played in my presence. Each time I send a list of links, I include a note or two to explain what my feelings are about each item. I always expect that she will use her own discretion in choosing the ones she includes in her programs. I would have understood if she had omitted the one that drew controversy last night. I included it in a previous post with the disclaimer that it is very disturbing. In fact one reader commented that he agreed with that assessment, and another regular visitor to this blog mentioned that he had heeded my warning and bypassed it altogether. (If you really want to view it, click this link)

Basically the clip features a young person with what appears to be extreme anorexia, dressed up in a lingerie and leg-warmers, carrying an umbrella and tap dancing without any musical accompaniment. She/he has an extremely bizarre appearance and (toward the end of the video) stares directly into the camera. Her/his gaze implicates the viewer in the production and dissemination of the spectacle. It is really quite inexplicable and unlike anything I have seen previously. The only thing I can really compare it to is something out of Tod Browning's Freaks. That was a film released in the 1930's that spawned a rash of criticism that destroyed the career of the promising director. It contained a cast of actual sideshow "freaks" with extreme deformities. As you are no doubt aware, carnivals in the first half of the 20th century often traveled with attractions featuring such human oddities. The exhibition of such people has been labeled as exploitation as long as the practice has been in existence.

So it is no surprise that I was confronted by an appalled viewer after the the clip was shown last night. He wanted to know why I was laughing while it was playing. While I can't explain why it is so, I often tend to have this reaction when I am watching something that makes me extremely uncomfortable. The sheer madness of such subject matter has a strange effect on me. In this specific case, I certainly take no joy in the plight of the featured star. It is definitely not an example of Schadenfreude. There is something truly horrifying about the production of this video. Yet I am fascinated nonetheless. I tried to explain this to the young man who was offended that I would expose others to this sight. He wanted to know what my intention was when I decided to pass it along. I responded honestly that I am attracted to the most extreme in human behavior, and feel that it's important not to turn my head away from it. I understand that others might be affected in other ways... but I don't think that is a reason not to share it.

Somehow that young man believed that I had some perverse intention in recommending the clip. I wasn't sure what he was accusing me of, but his questions did make me second guess why I had brought it to anyone else's attention. Maybe I did so in order to observe other people's reactions to it. And perhaps there is a certain element of Schadenfreude in that? On the other hand, maybe it was just so unspeakably odd that I felt justified in my curiosity. I did expect that including it in my list would generate feedback. Sometimes it seems that it takes something this extreme to wake people out of their stupor and make them confront tough realities. I couldn't help but wonder how my youthful and sensitive challenger feels about the current obsessions of the fashion industry, and the way they have sold unhealthy body forms as the culmination of "ideal beauty". Does his indignation rise to that particular spectacle?

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Sunday, October 28, 2007

Coming Soon.

One of the things that I've made an effort to avoid writing about is the quickly approaching fatherhood that awaits me in a few short months. Part of the reason I've held off in commenting in detail is that one never knows what's going to happen during pregnancy. The last thing I wanted was to get too worked up about the prospect of a child, only to be later devastated by some complication. As time goes on though, it looks more and more like a sure thing. Another equally compelling reason to keep mum on the issue is that children are a bit like farts. While we may be fascinated by the babies we make, very few others want to be bothered, and a sizable minority would like to avoid them altogether. I was never very interested in the subject of newborn humans, and generally found them boring when I encountered them. It's not that I never felt like patting their little heads, but I definitely didn't want to get any of their fluids on me.

I'm hoping to remember just how boring I found the talk concerning other people's kids. I suppose this very post is undermining that purpose. I'd rather not get into the habit of reporting all the mundane little progressions that my little tyke displays. Let's face it- they don't really have anything good to say until they are about 3 years old. And even then it's mostly incongruities that we are looking for. I'm sure that the first time my little whelp lets out a string of obscenities, I'm going to be necessarily tempted to transcribe them for a general audience. Still I could do a pretty convincing job of improvisation, and none would be the wiser.

The reason I'm even mentioning any of this is because there are a bunch of couples among my friends who have recently given birth, or are preparing to do so in the near future. If my little corner of the world is any indication, we are experiencing another baby boom. Certainly there are many unfortunate aspects to a reality in which we increase the world's population. I've even considered whether or not it is even a moral act to bring another child into this mess.Yet it seems like a foregone conclusion- this is (after all) what humans do. While that's not necessarily sufficient justification, it serves for most. So here we are, me and my friends, spitting out these flesh packets of sheer dependency. I've gotten a glimpse of the next 18 years of my life. My social circle is soon to adopt an overwhelming topic of conversation... child-rearing. We'll entertain ourselves with cute stories, and second guess each other's parenting methods. Sound like a blast to you?

Generally I've tried to get away from any kind of speculation about how my life is about to change. Couldn't it be possible that the people that warn me that my individuality is now in indefinite suspension are overreacting? Why must I live my life through this new being? Isn't it possible that some crucial balance exists, whereby I can continue to follow my passions while still being a responsible father? Am I going to have the time to pursue some of the things I consider indispensable? You'd be surprised at how many folks are ready to write me off completely. It's as if they expect me to suddenly adopt baby talk as my primary language. I'm reasonably sure that I'm still going to be enthralled by the darker corners of life. I expect to strive for a happy medium.

When I look around me and see what other people with kids do with whatever spare time they have, I am heartened by the implied possibility. There are actively-working artists who have both jobs and children to take care of. Others still find plenty of time to devote to interests as demanding as bad television, sports fandom and golf. I realize something is going to have to give. I don't need to be going out as often as I do. Maybe I could spend less time wasting my energy online. No matter what, I don't think that ceding my outlets of self-expression will be good for me or the baby. The last thing a growing child needs is to be around constantly frustrated parents. At the same time, I realize that being responsible for another person's life is going to expand my emotional depth and maturity. Perhaps my artwork and writings will reflect that. If not, at least I have a substantial backlog of experience and product to fall back on.


Saturday, October 27, 2007

California Wildfires.

The most current tragedy to hit the American media is the collection of wildfires burning out of control in Southern California. Reportedly 2300 structures have already been destroyed. In addition, the disaster has claimed 11 lives. I have heard estimates of amounts exceeding $1 billion in damages. If you do the math, it's not difficult to figure out that these were some very expensive houses burning down. Perhaps that's why so much media attention seems to be focused on the event.

I can't help but compare this to the federal response in the Katrina disaster. Bush seems to be falling all over himself to reassure the uber-rich denizens of the red counties of Southern Cal. In fact I have no doubt that the president will promptly deliver the relief he has promised to his political constituents. I also expect the insurance companies to make every effort to protect the interests of their wealthiest clients, and in turn pass the cost on to the masses. What I'm not holding my breath for is calls from the wing-nuts of AM radio to question the wisdom of building elaborate mansions in such a historically disastrous area. Just five years ago the predictable area wildfires were responsible for $2 billion in damages and 18 deaths. No one blamed the victims. Three years later, legions of kool-aid drinkers excused FEMA, Bush and his cronies when they failed to help the poor folks of New Orleans. They pointed out that the unfortunates deserved what they got for not having the wherewithal to evacuate. They criticized the intention to rebuild a city that is notorious for its liberal culture. Perhaps we should let them off the hook for the hypocrisy they are displaying now. After all, can we really expect consistency and rationality from that camp?

No one in the mainstream media is likely to bring up the fact that over-development and uncontrolled construction keeps Southern California in an annual cycle of peril. This is one of the few remaining strengths in the American manufacturing sector- new housing starts. How dare anyone stand in the way of the vicissitudes of the "free market"? Shame on anybody that blames human economic initiative for the destruction brought about by "acts of God". It's un-American not to have sympathy for the highest financial classes of our nation. If we hold them to account for anything, it is surely the result of petty "class envy". So let's all agree that if anyone deserves help from the federal government- it's the super-rich minority. And let's obfuscate the true causes of the wildfires, in the hope that they can be used to some obscure political advantage.

Speculation on right wing radio revolves around the sources of the fires. Firefighters and law enforcement investigators believe that some of the blazes were started by arsonists. What reasons people could have for provoking these conflagrations remains unclear. But the most nutty of conservatives have identified the usual suspects- "terrorists". This article is typical. Reportedly (in 2003) some Arab detainee spoke of plans to set off a series of forest fires in the area. Statements by certain fire-fighting personnel have "fueled the fire" (so to speak). It's been said that whoever started the blazes "knew what they were doing", as the initial flames traveled three miles in less than twenty minutes. No doubt it's the insidious Islamic fundamentalists who alone would have such knowledge of arson strategy. After all, they have a wealth of experience setting fires in the vast forestlands of the Middle East.

What better use could this tragedy present than an opportunity for ratcheting up the suspicions and paranoia of the heartland? Obviously the shadowy enemies have their hands in all sorts of mayhem. After all- wasn't it those sophisticated Islamicists that spread terror throughout the nation by sending anthrax to the mainstream media and Democratic lawmakers in the wake of 9-11? (No, my mistake... it actually turned out to be radical right wing Americans). Yet these "conservatives" have seemed to take a page out of the play-book of the conspiracy nuts- a group that they have never shrunk away from accusing of rampant idiocy when they didn't like the selection of targets. Of course they will be empowered to further their crusade with irresponsible accusations. Other suspects considered include environmentalists and Mexican "illegals" (notice any pattern here?). No matter who turns up to accept the blame, pundits like Boortz and Savage will claim that the American government would never reveal plots that could endanger "homeland security". And so the circle is completed, and the truth obscured.

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Friday, October 26, 2007

Time to Give it a Rest?

I may have just ended my recent phase of reading serial killer books. As I've mentioned on the blog now and again, I've spent much of this year intermittently reading non-fiction about some of the most heinous and dark members of the human species. I'd be lying of I didn't admit that I found much of the stuff I learned compelling, and that I received a certain jolt from wrapping my head around these pattern criminals. I've often said that I don't believe in the concept of "evil', and I wanted to test just how far my convictions extended. If there is any behavior that can be characterized in that way, I would have to nominate sadistic sexual predation and murder. Yet there is something so perverse about people that engage in these practices that I'm tempted to conclude that their actions have more to do with mental illness than any inversion of contemporary morality. Understandably most folks don't have space within their psychic schema to incorporate necrophilia, cannibalism, mutilation and dismemberment.

It makes sense that the vast majority of the population will go their entire lives without feeling a desire to study serial killing in any detail. The real-life stories of these perps transcend the offhand ruminations of the typical member of society. Even with a full imagination and the bleakest intentions, there is much I would have never thought of had I not read the historical accounts of the actions of some of these individuals. Jeffrey Dahmer is an illustrative example- in an attempt to create zombie partners for his twisted sex life, he drilled holes in the skulls of his victims and poured boiling water and acid in the openings. Furthermore, in the months before he was caught (while his compulsions were accelerating), he began to build an altar with reconstructed skeletons using bones from the young men he killed. The purpose of this mad construction was to harness energy to use ritualistically in controlling future victims.

There is no doubt in my mind that Dahmer was legally insane. While it's true that he was able to hold down jobs while in the midst of his madness, I don't think its a stretch to assume there was something inherently abnormal in his psychology. You'd only do the type of things that he did if you believed they would actually work. My reading of the secret hobbies of other serial killers further reinforces my viewpoint that the word "evil" is both imprecise and irrelevant when trying to explain the activities of these people. Such a categorization fails to provide the insights necessary to investigate, understand or prevent such extreme actions. After all, why bother examining these phenomena if we are going to lump them in with other more prosaic practices that we have either considered or engaged in? If, on the other hand, we intend to cite them as a benchmark for the limits of human behavior- then such a label as 'evil" becomes meaningless. If it requires such extreme examples to call ourselves "good" in comparison, then we might need to re-evaluate our entire conception of morality. This is a scale for a very small minority.

At any time in America, there may be several dozen active serial killers. (Please note that the definition of such a criminal is limited to someone who kills three or more victims, with a "cool-off" period between killings) This thought may be frightening until you consider the vast population of our nation. Truly you have a much greater chance of dying in a car accident, or while crossing the street, then becoming the victim of a future Ted Bundy. If you are neither a prostitute or a promiscuous gay male, your odds of avoiding such a fate improve even further. Yet with the extent to which serial killers have become part of our modern popular entertainment, it's easy to believe that these shadowy figures lurk on the periphery of our everyday lives. Such a belief is obviously magnified when one becomes obsessed with the burgeoning literature of multiple murderers.

So after concluding Harold Schechter's The Serial Killer Files, I have decided to give the subject matter a break for awhile. This encyclopedic compendium of mayhem and monsters overwhelms the reader with historical details and profiles of some of the most dangerous humans to stalk the planet. It is a wealth of information, and disputes many of the assumptions prevalent in our society. Serial killers have existed throughout history- the current rash in activity is not unprecedented, as many of our most strident cultural warriors would have you believe. Reading Schechter's work is truly enlightening, if a bit overwhelming. At the same time- because the book is structured into chapters detailing factors such as motive, methodology, definitions, and profiling- The Serial Killer Files can be annoyingly redundant in its repeated mention of specific criminals and crimes. It's one thing to have one's head filled with the most prominent serial killers like Ted Bundy, John Wayne Gacy and Charles Manson... and it's entirely different to be familiar with the lives of Herbert Mullin, Joel Rifkin and Peter Sutcliffe. When one can recognize these obscure figures as if they were the lineup of this year's World Series championship team- it might be time to step away from the blood puddles.

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Thursday, October 25, 2007

Report From the Line. Part 4

Almost two weeks have passed since the strike began, and while discussion is heating up in the community, negotiations have completely stopped. Personally I would like to see both sides sitting down across from each other 24-7, but I realize that most of the major players have full-time jobs and families to support. Despite claims that they would like to see teachers back in the classrooms, school board members don't seem to display the type of imminence that one might expect. Perhaps that is because the politics of this particular conflict extend past the local level. Is it a coincidence that the local state representative initiated a proposal to ban school strikes the very day this one started? Some parents have consistently accused the teachers of "holding the students hostage"... I wonder if they ever considered that the board is trying to make a larger political point.

I do know for a fact that other districts throughout Pennsylvania are watching this situation closely. Negotiations in M.'s district were reported to be progressing quickly until my own school's strike began. Board members from the two areas have reportedly consulted with each other, and now the talks have stalled in both places. The local news media is alert to the fact that there could be widespread ramifications based upon what happens as the weeks pass by. No one wants to go through the type of upheaval that a school strike causes, with the exception of those wanting to push a broader political perspective. Parents do not want to make alternative arrangements for daycare for their children. Kids enjoy the break at first, but quickly tire of the lack of structure. Meanwhile every teacher I know laments the fact that they are trading their vacation days for shifts walking on the picket lines. But in a district as conservative as the one I teach in, tax dollars are always dispensed grudgingly.

The current news is that a local radio station has decided to hold a town hall meeting to help resolve the issue. I actually believe that these folks would like to contribute to a solution. The problem is that one of the morning commentators has continually stoked resentments by staking out a rabidly anti-teacher position. It's going to be hard for union leaders to trust that promises of a "fair and balanced" (a phrase with extremely negative associations, by the way) forum will be honored. In the defense of the station, the moderator has attempted to take a middle-of-the-road position on the issues. Meanwhile the school board's members have not agreed to participate. They would like their divisive lead negotiator to represent their side. In fact, when asked by a district parent whether or not he would appear at the event, the school board president replied that he would not do so because he didn't feel qualified to represent the board's position. If not him, then who?

Another notable item was the release of an e-mail communication between a board member and the administration. In this missive, the extremely recalcitrant board member (Mr. A.) referred to district teachers as "incompetent" and "deadwood", and suggested that he would never want his children to be around such staff. Incidentally this concern has never presented a real problem, considering Mr. A. sends his kids to private schools, instead of the public institution he pretends to represent. He further called for the board to cast "crumbs" to the most senior teachers in the district, who under the board's "last, best proposal" would receive what amounts to a decrease in standard of living, rather than a raise. This point has been a major stumbling block throughout contract negotiations. Thankfully the letter and its public reception has caused Mr. A. to remove his name from the upcoming ballot for the November elections. However he remains completely unapologetic, and stands by the sentiment expressed in the document.

One can only hope there is movement toward reconciliation soon. The last proposal was extended by the union side in August, and there has not been a change from the Board's stance since then. Negotiation requires each side to make counter-proposals aimed at eventual compromise. The union has stated repeatedly that they will be willing to change their offer, but it won't negotiate against itself. Unless the board decides to reconsider its immobility, this strike will certainly continue until we are mandated by the state to return to school.


Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Personal YouTube Night. Vol 2

There's not a whole lot new in my world today, so I figured I'd post some more YouTube favorites from the vault. I didn't get any responses about the last batch, but if you read this and have any personal selections to send along- please don't hesitate to do so.

1. Let's start out with a very subtle one. This starts out looking like any other nonsensical submission, with a couple of youths kicking a soccer ball around. The quality is poor, and it doesn't look like anything much happens. Maybe it's that lo-fi quality that makes the surprise effective for me. I have no idea whether this is a snippet from a genuine home video, or some deliberate foolishness. The reactions seem genuine enough. I guess there is no way to find out, but I enjoy the mystery. Don't blink, or you will miss it.

Watch the Video

2. Everyone seems to have a deep yearning to film their kids for posterity. I understand the desire. On the other hand, such videos on YouTube usually leave a lot to be desired. This little girl is especially cute, and appears to have gotten off on the right track in her education. Naturally some viewers interpret this as exploitation, but I have to say that I didn't see this one coming- even with the title.

Watch the Video

3. Now that the comic relief is out of the way, we can get back to the usual creep fest. Do you ever wonder what happens to a nation's people if you drop a couple of atomic bombs on them? Well, if the Japanese are any guide- they end up liking perverted cartoons, Elvis and Michael Jackson. At the same time they show dark undercurrents that are much more sinister. This video is illustrative of this tendency. (Actually, to be honest, I can't tell you for sure whether this originates from Japan or another Asian country. I'll just have to take the word of whomever posted it.)

Watch the Video

4. Speaking of scary monsters... this next entry documents an earlier moment in a particularly malevolent creature's career. It's not something you'll likely see on mainstream media nowadays, but it's incredibly prescient. If this guy would have been around to share this sentiment a couple of years ago, then we likely wouldn't be in the quagmire we are in now. How long must we wait for the time traveling technology that was promised us by the likes of H.G. Wells, Robert Heinlein and L. Ron Hubbard?

Watch the Video

5. This is quite possibly the most disturbing thing I have ever seen. Is it just another sad case of exploitation? Is this what social workers mean when they speak of a "least restrictive environment"? Or is this not at all what it seems? My suggestion is that before viewing this you consider whether or not there are limits to the kinds of imagery that you can expose yourself to, while at the same time expecting to sleep peacefully through your nights. If you think I am kidding- I assure you that I'm not.

Watch the Video

6. I've always had a special fascination with cemeteries. For one thing the reverence for the preservation of dead bodies seems both absurd and wasteful. Some of the most prime urban real estate is occupied by burial grounds. But there are certain stately cemeteries that I can respect and enjoy from an aesthetic standpoint. Allegheny Cemetery is an especially remarkable one in Pittsburgh. In this clip you can get an atmospheric glimpse of a spooky resting place in Mexico. The only caveat is that some of its inhabitants don't look so refreshed, even with all rest they've received. I want to be cremated when I die. I'm totally serious.

Watch the Video

7. Take a visual tour around a modern ghost city. No, this isn't in the American West... but rather in the former Soviet Union. The Chernobyl disaster was one of the most extremely obfuscated events in modern history. When it originally happened, no one outside of the Ukraine had an idea just how serious it had been. In the service of YouTube-style glasnost, I include this examination of its current state. I don't know how this was filmed, or what type of health precautions the camera operator took before going in. I will say that it is eerie.

Watch the Video

8. To give you a bit of a preview for what I have in store for the next installment of Personal YouTube Night, I've included this little odd ditty... brought to you by the creators of HR Pufnstuf- Sid and Marty Croft. If you are of a certain age, you no doubt will recall the hallucinogenic and slightly creepy shenanigans of the progenitors of today's innocuous (and not so much) life-sized "furries". Enjoy this... because they will only get weirder in my next post.

Watch the Video


Tuesday, October 23, 2007

A Definite Lack of Resolution.

I find it extraordinarily odd that we humans crave resolution so intensely despite the fact that the closest we can ever really get to it in this existence is death. This yearning appears most obvious in our approach to entertainment. There seems to be an American trait that causes viewers to become distraught when the stories told to them aren't fully resolved by their conclusions. How does the urge to find out what happens next transform into a compulsion to arrive at the final destination? M. and I completed season 2 of Lost tonight. We watched 47 episodes in less than two weeks. Considering each segment was more than 40 minutes long, that marathon is rather remarkable. Of course there is much more to come. Season 3 will be released on December 11th, and I'm certain we'll be continuing our obsession shortly after that.

Tonight I read that there will be six seasons of Lost released. We won't know all the answers until several years from now, and that suits me just fine. Sure... tonight's viewing left us with an entirely new set of questions. Although I experienced a moment or two of deep dissatisfaction, I'm comfortable with living with the mystery. This isn't the first time that we've left off a series on an unfinished note. My favorite show of all time was Daniel Knauf's Carnivale. HBO prematurely canceled that after two seasons. It was initially intended to run to six seasons, and the series finale was a major cliffhanger. The property is still owned by HBO, so even if Knauf wanted to finish the story- he couldn't do it. He claims that he would rather leave it upended than try to wrap up the intricate plot in a miniseries or graphic novel. I've come to peace with that decision in the years since Carnivale's demise.

Meanwhile M. and I watched the first four seasons of OZ earlier this year. We've got two more waiting for us on my Amazon wish list, and although I've been tempted a few times to purchase them, I feel good knowing that they are waiting for us sometime down the road. Years ago we watched the first few episodes of Twin Peaks and then faded out. I still intend to see that in its entirety. In addition I have the second season of Lars Von Trier's The Kingdom shrink-wrapped on my shelf. We'll get around to that too. I want to watch the 60's era British series The Prisoner some day. I'm always looking out for other intriguing titles that promise unseen imaginary worlds. I'd probably need several lifetimes to watch everything that's worthwhile. And there's always new stuff being made. So there's really no hurry. It makes more sense to sit back once in awhile and enjoy the journey.

It's too bad I can't fully embrace that perspective in the events of my life outside entertainment. I'd give a lot right now to see the end of the strike I'm currently embroiled in. But eventually there will be a new contract for us. It may even take several years before it happens, but eventually it's inevitable. Several years after that we will be in another contract negotiations. There will always be a "yet to be decided" situation. Hell, I've got a kid on the way that I hope outlives me. Preferably I'll never see his end. Yet still I'll be looking forward to some imaginary time where everything will be solved and I'll be able to put my feet up and sit back without a care. It's humorous that when I was young I thought there would come a time when I was fully actualized. I guess I pictured some plateau where I would finally find myself and "just be".

Adult onset has removed such naive hopes from my dreams. I'm not looking for any particular ending, happy or otherwise. It's enough just to manage the constant stream of things as they present themselves. I've actually begun to enjoy the simple pleasure of having something to look forward to. It's a weird dislocation in a society that is increasingly millenarian. Yesterday on the line I met a woman that believed that we are in the biblical "end-times". She advised me to read Revelations. While many people I know would have immediately felt the compulsion to move away from her as quickly as possible, I felt inspired to get to the root of what she was saying. Unfortunately her conception turned out to be merely a vague manifestation of the common desire for resolution. It seems like so many of our contemporaries have their eyes on a finish line as an escape from the present. That's too bad. I, for one, would like to prolong the mystery of life.


Monday, October 22, 2007

Report From the Line. Part 3

Today I found myself back on the picket line for the start of a brand new week. I volunteered to go to the alternate site where I went last Tuesday. It was just too boring and discouraging at my assigned site. I'd much rather engage the passing traffic, regardless of the prevailing reaction of the community. There are still more encouraging displays than otherwise. A lot of people will honk as they pass and give us the thumbs up. The negative feedback is also intensifying, and more people are screaming out of their windows as they pass. As the days pass, and people feel more and more inconvenienced, I expect it to get worse. But for now it is OK. The only time I get upset is when someone yells "Get a real job!" That's one we have heard repeatedly from a "gentleman" in a BMW. It's almost as if he needs a replacement for his missing illegal immigrant maid.

It doesn't take a lot of work to find the folks that are truly against us. All I have to do is Google the strike, I can find message boards with frustrated people railing against teachers. I'm not sure where the angry sentiment comes from, but I can certainly speculate. There are a whole lot of folks out there that believe that they are self-made, and therefore resent whenever they perceive others as being "given" what they don't deserve. These are the people that were apparently self-taught. They will go to any lengths to ensure that they don't spend a single dime on the public welfare. Many of them still believe that everybody has an equal chance at getting rich, and that poor people deserve their lot in life. It's the prevailing mythology in the United States- the lore of self-reliance and the "free market". The cream rises to the top. At least that's the way they see it.

Others are products of private schools and would like to see public education disbanded. They fail to see that whatever remnants of a middle class are left in this society are still around primarily because of public schools. We teachers give many kids their only chance in life. That's a sad reality, but the truth nonetheless. Yet most people never make this connection. Many in the community I teach in moved there specifically to avoid the problems of the less fortunate. They pay less taxes and escape the social concerns of the city. Why should they be concerned about others? That defeats the purpose of leaving in the first place. And then these same people have the nerve to call teachers selfish for valuing their own labor. It smacks of hypocrisy and extreme self-interest to me. However when the schools attract others to the district, you will never hear them complain about the increase in their property values.

Critics of the teacher unions want to compare us to employees in the private sector. They say that workers rarely get annual raises or decent health plans. Teacher salaries are printed in the newspaper to be used as fodder for their arguments. But somehow we never find out how much these critics make, or what the perks of their jobs are. We never hear what they do. I think it should be incumbent upon them to explain the services that they provide to society. If we are going to compare teachers to middle management in (for example) financial corporations, then we should all be honest and forthcoming. How do we all benefit from the work that they do? How important are they to the functioning and future of our community? Are they indispensable? Would we be worse off if they disappeared? It seems that values have been turned backwards when we suggest that striking teachers should "Get a real job!"

Another popular idea concerns how easy teachers have it. They work a seven-and-a-half hour day with prep periods! They have summers off! Of course the requirements of the job extend past 40 hours per week. Certainly teachers must continue a process of lifelong education that encroaches upon their vacation. Don't forget that the teacher contract is 187 days long, and that's exactly what they are paid for.

In order to illustrate just how easy teachers have it- let's continue our comparison to the private sector. Picture a manager that is directly responsible for 120-150 people. He/she must spend 40 minutes each and every workday in the supervision of their training... in face-to-face interaction with each and every one of them. Add in such factors as a general reluctance to be managed, and a lack of socialization and maturity. Clearly some of the manager's charges are developmentally and/or emotionally disabled. These are people with the most basic of skills that will be expected (without exception) to achieve at a proficient level. None of them can be fired or transferred elsewhere. The manager is personally accountable for the security and well-being of everyone at all times. Aside from the training and supervision, the manager is wholly responsible for the evaluation and reporting of each individual's progress. And there are twice as many people who consider themselves to be the manager's "employers", who watch their every move... just waiting for them to slip up and do something to offend them. What do you think such a corporate manager would demand in compensation?


Sunday, October 21, 2007

Personal YouTube NIght.

The Steelers are like a festering infection in this town. Whenever they are playing it seems like the entire town shuts down to focus on the game. It's bad enough that employees all over the city dress up in black-and-gold for casual Fridays. Even on the picket line we were encouraged to wear "the colors", as if they represented some sort of true unity we could all rally behind. It's completely pathetic, and it disgusts me to no end. Just try to go out for a drink at a place that isn't tuned in to this bread-and-circuses bullshit. I was all excited for YouTube night over at the Brillo, and what do you know... they've canceled the fun and replaced it with this pedestrian crap. This is at a bar that's perhaps the most artsy place in all of Pittsburgh... Sunday is vegetarian dinner night, for god's sake. Couldn't there just be one single sanctuary in all of the city? Why would you want to go to the Brillo to watch football? Teabags is right across the street for that.

So in lieu of a couple of hours of creative enjoyment, I've decided to come home. I'll have my own damn personal YouTube night... turn you on to a few of my favorites:

1. We'll start off with a bit of politics. I'm sure you are aware of the multiple public figures that have run afoul of morality and the law over the last few years. This video puts everything together in a nice, little package. Want to know where to start the clean-up of America? (This is a couple of months old, so some of the more prominent recent additions are omitted).

Watch the Video

2. Now with that out of the way... we can get to a little spooky fun. Did you ever see Wonder Showzen? I blogged about it months ago. It's kind of a twisted version of Sesame Street. It aired on MTV 2 a couple of years ago, and you could actually receive it by antennae around these parts. It turns out that they had a dark and eerie side too.

Watch the Video

3. Everyone who's ever seen Crispin Hellion Glover in a movie knows that he is a bit unconventional. Even if you are unfamiliar with his name, you've no doubt seen him in the Back to the Future movies or Charlie's Angels. But unless you already love him, you probably don't know just how offbeat he can get. This should give you some indication of what he doesn't share with Hollywood...

Watch the Video

4. Gary Busey is another very strange man that you've watched in numerous films throughout the years. Once again, you probably have no idea just how "out there" he is in real life. I'm not sure what explains the behavior he displays outside the realm of fiction. He did have a famous motorcycle accident in the late 1980's. Since then I'm told he's learned to wear his helmet. Yet all appearances suggest that the damage has already been done. See what happens when two unsuspecting men from Sweden journey to his turf for an interview (talk about home field advantage!)...

Watch the Video

5. Remember those goofy conspiracy lists that analyzed the numerology and other odd coincidences between Lincoln and Kennedy? I suppose if you look hard enough you can impose connections upon the most radically different phenomena. Often such lists have more to do with the creativity of the observer than any inherent synergy between events. This one starts out silly, but stick with it. It get a bit chilling towards the end. And the selection of background music is inspired. (PS: "George W. Bush" also has 11 letters- I don't know how they missed that one)

Watch the Video

6. Back in the day, there was a man of the sideshow circuit who went under the moniker "Pop-eye". I'm sure that name elicits certain automatic associations, but probably nothink like this...

Watch the Video

7. Just in time for Halloween- here's a short film documenting what was once one of the creepiest sites in the Greater Pittsburgh area. Dixmont was a mental asylum built in the late 1800's, and only abandoned in the 1980's. I've been fascinated with the place for years, and it's a shame that I never grabbed the opportunity to document it with photography. I have had some strange experiences there. Now it's gone forever. A Walmart was supposed to be built on the site, but a series of landslides ensured that the acreage will never be despoiled by such crass development. Here's some news coverage reporting on the odd circumstances of the property.

Watch the Video

8. Before I conclude this, I figured I'd give you another taste of the haunted season. Many people are fascinated by tales of odd creatures, but few ever have direct experience with them. Perhaps the uninitiated are the truly lucky ones. Here's your chance to learn about an incident involving two unfortunates that ran into the "unexplained".

Watch the Video

Perhaps I'll compile a few more posts of favorite YouTube videos. If you enjoy these, let me know.


Saturday, October 20, 2007

What is an Occupation?

As I continue to watch the second season of Lost, I'm reminded of a basic human fact- people need something to do. If they don't have an obvious task to complete, they will seek something else. It's striking just how often you see characters in a television show mucking things up out of sheer boredom. It's easy to observe from the outside, and to predict the trouble down the line. We are tempted to revel in our own objectivity and superiority, believing that we would act better in similar circumstances. Most likely that's not true... at all. It wouldn't be true if we were on television. And it wouldn't be true in our own lives. For the most part we can't leave well enough alone. If left to our own devices, we will create our own drama.

We are warned about this in oral folklore tradition, in children's books, and holy texts- "Curiosity killed the cat", the damned monkey always finds trouble when he fails to mind the man with the yellow hat, and Adam and Eve got expelled from paradise for their transgressions. Why can't we let well enough alone? Perhaps it has something to do with the size and complexity of our brains. Maybe we are too self-conscious? Or maybe we just have too much time on our hands. Ever since the invention of agriculture and the surplus of food, we have been making things complicated for ourselves. The smartest of men are often the most to blame.

It could be that free will inevitably produces chaos and entropy. If we are kept busy with foraging and hunting, sleeping and eating, finding shelter and voiding our bowels... when will we find the opportunity to create additional problems for ourselves? I'm pretty damned sure that the majority of Americans would turn sour if they worked a 30-hour work week. It takes the discipline to impose a self-created structure so as not to go bad during large blocks of free time. Compounding the problem is the fact that we have poor examples to follow. Surf the internet porn sites or go to a casino of you want positive evidence of what I'm talking about. We'd have a leg up on our addictions if we merely had the ability to manage our extra time wisely.

All of this becomes especially poignant while walking the picket lines. Union workers are asked only to demonstrate by walking a circle in a circumscribed plot of ground. Doing this for hours can be quite maddening. Naturally this is where many of the most destructive and insidious rumors and resentments are formed. The mind is free to wander, and do the devil's business. After the first half hour or so, you've exhausted all the innocuous topics of conversation. At that point anything is fair game. The alternative is to keep to yourself and let whatever transient concern occupy you to the point of obsession. It's not mentally healthy. Four hour confined strolls are quite illuminating. Imagine what living through a long prison term is like. Is it any wonder why incarceration often transforms into criminal graduate school? The wisest leaders control minds by deciding what their followers are to do.

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Friday, October 19, 2007

Fall 2007 Downtown Gallery Crawl.

After a fairly odd week, its end comes as a welcome haven. This evening I plan to go downtown and see what the Cultural Trust is passing for art this season. It's unusual for a gallery crawl to occur mid-month, and the upside of this scheduling is that the event doesn't conflict with any other major art openings. So even if I am disappointed with whatever is featured, at least I won't have the sense that I am missing something somewhere else in the city. Being in the city at 6PM tonight is the obvious option for followers of the local arts scene. Hopefully this time around will be more impressive than the last few crawls.

Pittsburgh is in the midst of an atypical cultural visitation, as artists and performers from Australia are in town to share their special gifts with the Western hemisphere. Tonight at SPACE Gallery they are presenting paintings by the aboriginal inhabitants of Utopia- desert dwellers northeast of a town named Alice Springs. While the presented work is characterized as "contemporary cutting-edge", it describes the relationship between ancestral spirits, dreams, and the development of the land itself.

Meanwhile, Wood Street Galleries features the video and installation works of an additional six Aussie artists. Commenting on issues both specific to their home country, and broader phenomena that affects us all, the assembled creators all have something to say about identity "across cultures and times". Their message should resonate with a city's population that is desperately seeking to reconcile a proud past with an uncertain future.

Local artist Chris Lisowski and Buffalo-based Tullis Johnson are rolling out a large-scale installation piece at 707 Penn Avenue. SONAR explores the phenomena of whales becoming stranded on our borders with the sea. Testing of military-based applied sound technology presents a significant threat to the ongoing survival of animal species which have thrived in their vast natural habitat for millions of years. Environmentally conscious and interactive (as Lisowski's creations typically are), this show should be worth visiting. It includes sound components, paintings, and a 23-foot model of a beached whale. Bring the kids!

Finally I want to mention John Eastman's First Avenue Sculpture Exhibit. For the first time artists have seized the downtown banks of the Monongahela River (along the Eliza Furnace Trail), and installed a series of indoor and outdoor works. Individual pieces by noted locals Bob Ziller, Jen Bechak and James Shipman will be among the highlights. Granted this exhibition is a fairly substantial walk from the usual gallery crawl venues, but I think it will be worth wearing your most comfortable shoes. Along with the art on display, the location promises food, drink and live music. The reception runs from 6-10PM, but the work will be up until December 14th.

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Thursday, October 18, 2007

Report From the Line. Part 2

Today was much like yesterday in that there were periodic rain showers making everyone a bit uncomfortable at the picket sites. We had a visit from some "higher-ups" in the state union. They wanted to address a few of the issues we've been having with the media, specifically a certain local AM radio pundit that's full of shit. One would expect a certain level of misrepresentation from someone who has been clear in his animosity toward public education. He's a product of the private schools and (like many of them) would like to see all places of learning privatized. Of course he has seized every possible opportunity to rile up the community, while at the same time accusing the union of throwing fuel on the fire every time it takes a stand.

We have several coaches who have decided to cross the picket line. There are eight that want to continue to "serve the kids" by continuing games and practices during the strike. A few of them have even had the gall to show up on the lines and march with the rest of us. Naturally that has created a lot of animosity. By doing this they are playing both sides against the middle. They don't want to face alienation from the peers with whom they will eventually return to the classrooms. But at the same time they want to score points with the parents of the players and the team boosters. Their actions send a bad messages and undermine the union. For one thing it's a clear statement that they value athletics over education. In a district such as this, an inordinate amount of focus is already on sports. Many will accept the inconveniences of shifting the schedule to accommodate a strike, yet God help anyone that stands in the way of that red-blooded American past-time of football. Perhaps there would be more pressure on the board to get this thing settled if these double agents would just stay home and let the adults iron this out.

Why should student athletes be catered to anyway? Wouldn't the funds used for stadiums be better put to use by earmarking them for educational purposes? The aforementioned pundit (who I'll refer to here as MG) has made a hero out of the head coach of the gridiron. This Mr. B. has allowed himself to be exploited by the anti-union cause. As if this weren't enough insult, he is participating in the worst type of moral grandstanding in the public eye. He's had the nerve to imply that he cares more about the kids than the striking teachers do, and has stated that he would break into the school tomorrow to teach class if that were possible. Still he insists he is not trying to make an anti-union statement. Meanwhile he quietly collects his portion of the $8K the district shells out for his "leadership service". While he has refused to give a live interview on the radio, he evidently had no qualms about talking with MG for "about an hour or so". So now he's managed to transform his image from the guy who cares more about football to the poster child for the union-busters. In his own words, MG "loves the guy."

There will be ramifications for these individuals. Most likely there will be a few former fans that look cross-eyed at the new "big-man-on-campus". In the meantime the issue is getting heated on the lines. Now the coaches who haven't crossed the line want to be paid off. They believe that a portion of the union dues paid by all teachers should be used to compensate for the supplemental income they are losing during the strike. My opinion is that their requests expose them for what they are... self-serving prima donnas. Everyone on the line is making a sacrifice. The checks for their main source of income are going to be withheld. Everyone of us knew that this would be the case. They need to carry their own loads just like the rest of us. Should I demand funds to make up for whatever art I don't make or sell because I'm losing my vacation days? I don't think so. Cry me a river, tough guy.

Someone actually had the nerve to suggest we take up a collection for the "union-loyal" coaches. They might as well pass me right by, because they are getting no sympathy from me, let alone money. That cause simply serves as a source of distraction and dissension. In fact we spent a good twenty minutes talking about this non-issue with the union "bigwigs" who deigned to visit us out in the field. After promises that they would join us on our march (that of course never happened), they beat a hasty retreat. I wanted to ask them to elaborate on their new "media policy". Supposedly they are not dealing with the media anymore. From my observation they weren't doing anything useful before. We are clearly losing the P.R. battle, despite the fact that the majority honk and wave at us as they pass by the lines. They seem hapless, even on a superficial and personal level. Why would they send a fat guy in an ill-fitting suit to inspire confidence and give us a pep talk? I wonder when the last time he actually had to march was.


Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Report From the Line.

So I've decided it's futile to stem the tide. Given that less than 12% of the American workforce is part of a labor union, I feel that fewer and fewer people are ever going to have the experience that I'm going through now. Ultimately it seems like I'm going to someday regret not putting any words down about what is happening. My main concern is that no one stumble upon this forum and make me some part of a specific public debate. The best way to minimize that riskt is just to avoid all references to proper nouns. There's no way I want some irate community member coming upon this via Google. I simply don't need that kind of attention.

Today I completed my third day on the picket line. The first two days I switched with a co-worker who drew an early shift. It's bad enough I have to make a long drive to walk in a circle for three plus hours... I don't want to get up at 5:30 in the morning to do it. The line outside the main school campus is particularly prone to monotony. There is very little through traffic at the location, and not much to do other than make conversation with those you are walking with. In the years I have been at my job I haven't made any close connections with the staff, and so I mostly walk alone. I have to time my circuits around the little plot given for strikers, so that I can avoid getting bunched up with the others. If I continue quietly and in relative isolation, I am able to access some sort of zone. That describes the bulk of my experience on Monday.

I drive all the way to a rural household owned by a fellow teacher, and park my car. Several non-tenured staff shuttle us to the strike site via SUVs. There is always junk food waiting there for a burst of quick energy. I stop on my way to pick up a high-powered espresso drink, and sweat it out in the unseasonably warm weather. We wear professional clothes (minus a tie), just as if we were reporting normally to work. It's not active wear, so it's a bit uncomfortable. Midway through my shift I walk up the road to a porta-john on the property of a generous parent. I sit on a rock and have a smoke or two, and then get back. At 6PM, the shuttles come and bring you back to the car. This would be a typical day on the line.

Yesterday I went over to the middle/elementary schools in the next town- these facilities sit bestride a high-traffic road, and are staffed mostly by females. There is more anti-union sentiment here, and the home teachers feel more comfortable with additional men at their side. I didn't have to walk in a circle there. We stood in a line facing the passing cars, wearing big signs suspended by string from our necks. Mine says we are looking for a "fair contract". Everyone was very nice, and time passed quickly as everyone socialized amiably. Mostly we looked at drivers and received the full range of reactions one might expect. The vast majority waved at us, smiled, or gave us the thumbs up. I hadn't expected that as the media is presenting a picture of a public very biased for the district and against teachers. From my experience, that isn't the case at all.

We did have an incident though. Late in the day a tall older man with military bearing came over to inquire what we were "protesting about". I sized him up immediately as someone who opposed our cause. I made it a point not to make eye contact with him, but other teachers engaged him. He started angrily interrogating one guy about his salary. When given a handout prepared by the union for such situations, the man angrily shoved it inside the shirt of one of the picketers. I was amazed at the restraint of my co-worker. The policeman who was assigned to ensure order at the scene stepped in and held the aggressor for questioning. He asked if the teacher wanted to press charges, but it was decided that such an action would only aggravate the incident and possibly inflame further conflict. The man was told to stay away or face arrest.

Of course word travels quickly on the lines, and some of the staff knew the threatening individual. It's been suggested that he is unstable. A stressful upheaval of the community is liable to bring out all types of unsavory characters. I had the sense that this one is mildly psychotic, and it has been confirmed that he is an ex-marine. I watched him walk down the street after he was released, and wondered if he'd be waiting later in the parking lot. The police escorted us to our cars when we left. Today when I got off the lines and back to my vehicle I noticed that someone had tied the shed skin of a large snake around my antennae. Naturally my mind flashed to yesterday. At some level I kind of appreciated the creativity of the gesture, but I was moved to report it "just in case". There's no way of knowing who attached this relic, or when they did it. Needless to say it adds a bit of drama.


Tuesday, October 16, 2007

The Code.

Years ago, when I was under the heady influences of my college days, I used to have a strange recurring vision. It was if I was walking on the very edge of a parabola of light. On one side of me was the blackest darkness and on the other was sheer pure energy. I felt as if it was my personal journey to walk the edge between the two. This didn't feel like a transient preoccupation, but rather an eternal path.

This conception became my visual representation of reality. I devised a symbol to represent my orientation. It was the Yin Yang symbol with the chaos symbol (with eight arrows pointing out from its center) superimposed on top of it. To me its interpretation had to do with the resolution (or maybe revocation) of dichotomies. Since that time I have tended to reject absolutes of any kind. I have become an essentially relativistic thinker, with all that entails. The acceptance of this became a form of commitment.

In the intervening years I have found the perpetual reinforcement of this fundamental position. The art projects that I've worked on have incorporated this understanding. My approach to politics, relationships and morality has followed suit. In some ways, it has even seemed like a spiritual enterprise. Although I rarely express it as such, many of the discussions I have with people reflect the basic nature of this.

If there is one single key to understanding who I am, it has to do with the approach I am trying to describe here. I try to synthesize what seem to be apparent opposites. The binary code does not exist, because the concept of "0" (zero) has no true reflection in our reality. Therefore very little of what we experience has any finite parameters. Even the street address of my house reflects my orientation. And so does the formulation of the pseudonym I write under on my blog, which is at once arbitrary yet eerily prescient.

It should come as no surprise that I live very separate lives between work and home. Somewhere in the composite space of those two milieus lies my contemporary existence. Certainly one often bleeds over into the other. But as much as possible I try to introduce a measure of distinction. This becomes difficult because I work with many people in a very public occupation. I have no intention of letting that bleed obviously over into this blog. The freedom of expression that makes continuing this particular project possible requires anonymity, while at the same time exposure gives it purpose. Therefore I ask readers to seek out the space between the lines, for that is the place to which I seek to draw attention.

Major events in both my public and private lives now tempt me to upset the careful balance I've tried to maintain on this space. Yet these preoccupations cannot be given free rein to reveal themselves. It's not the appropriate forum. This internal contradiction makes me understand the allure of split personality. However I understand that such a condition betrays totality. So I ask your forbearance as I continue to seek the proper balance.


Monday, October 15, 2007

ABC's "Lost".

M. and I have decided to do another compulsive marathon viewing of a television series. This time around it is ABC's Lost. Last Thursday evening a friend called to alert me to the closings of two local Hollywood Video stores. They were selling their catalogues at a marked discount, and I was lucky enough to hear about it before all of the good stuff was taken. I came home with 22 additions to my collection, 13 of which comprised the complete sets for the first two seasons of a show I've been intrigued by since I initially became aware of its premise.

For some reason I've always been fascinated by the deserted island scenario. Although I never read Robinson Crusoe, I knew its basic plot from a very early age. The idea of washing ashore and finding myself completely alone was at once frightening and exciting. Would I have what it would take to survive under such conditions? Certainly not... but the challenge is interesting to consider. Those thoughts eventually transformed into reflections of who I would like to have with me on such a journey. I remember taking undergraduate prerequisite courses for a teaching certificate, and designing an assignment wherein I made a list of fictional characters and asked a group of students to decide who they would choose to save from a hypothetical sinking ship. This activity made people look closely at both their personal values and their survival instincts.

In retrospect I suppose it was completely natural that I eventually decided to invest in Lost. Created by J.J. Abrams, Jeffrey Lieber, and Damon Lindelof, the series begins with an awful plane crash and a harrowing scene of survivors on the beach of an unidentified island in the Pacific Ocean. The main players slowly reveal themselves over the first few episodes. Immediately we meet Doctor Jack (Matthew Fox) and Kate (Evangeline Lilly). It's immediately clear that these two characters are going to be with us a long time, and that we are probably going to eventually see them fuck (not explicitly though, as this is prime time network television). They are instantly recognizable as leaders in the initial chaos of the show. But we are also introduced to a host of other folks whose roles are initially unclear. Much of the fun of Lost is found in trying to predict how each one of these people will react to the difficulties that lie ahead.

It's always tricky to write a review of an ongoing series, especially if (like me) you've only watched about 18 episodes of the first season. On one hand you don't want to assume that you know the parameters of the show, but you also have to be careful to avoid spoiling the surprise for people that are moved to check it out after reading the review. So if you have already decided to go ahead and see it, you might want to skip the remainder of the post. Either way, I'll try not to spoil your fun.

As you might expect from a show that already includes four complete seasons, the island setting has a multitude of surprises and mysteries in store for the audience. It's important to note that the group of survivors that we encounter right-off-the-bat numbers around 47 people. If you're familiar with the typical conventions of the medium, you are probably aware that series producers generally limit the amount of characters that they expect viewers to get to know at any particular point in time. So for all intents and purposes, we get a focus on about 14 individuals . These players are revealed through flashback segments that gradually give us insight into their personal histories and circumstances before the tragic plane crash. This device both alleviates the claustrophobia of the prime setting, and helps explain the various motivations and complexities of the varying subjects.

Meanwhile the remaining portion of the main survivor group lurks anonymously in the background. While their absence is sometimes striking, Lost's creators use it to their advantage. These "seldom-seens" comprise a reserve of replacements for deceased main characters, and promise to assume unknown roles in future story arcs. We are even occasionally reminded of their anonymity by satirical comments made by the major figures. There is a running joke whereby a star will refer to an unknown as "Scott" or "Steve" only to be corrected by someone else who informs him/her that they have gotten it backwards. This little joke reinforces the fact that only the merest bit of the complete story has been told. Conversely, the situation of "unknowns" also results in the sinister introduction of enigmatic plot twists.

It becomes clear that the island was not completely uninhabited when the crash occurred. There are "others" and that amps up the creep factor of the show. By necessity the creators left themselves with ample possibilities to explore. I'm told that the Lost concept was presented with the pilot episode and the series conclusion completely worked out. But it was left to a multitude of writers to fill in the bulk of the show. The open-ended nature of that setup suggests that viewers are in for lots of unexpected discoveries along the way. Whether or not Lost will eventually "jump the shark" is yet to be determined. There is ample opportunity for that to happen. Yet so far I have had a lot of fun with it. There's a good balance of emotional tone, and the concept remains intriguing. I'll let you know when I feel differently.


Sunday, October 14, 2007

George Barry, "Death Bed- The Bed That Eats" (1977)

What type of expectations would you have for a movie called Death Bed- The Bed That Eats? That has to be one of the silliest titles in modern cinema. If you do a little surfing, no doubt you can find some other ridiculously-named movies- Cannibal Women in the Avocado Jungle of Death, Bubba Ho-tep, Coyote Ugly and Braveheart were all actual movie names in the past, and reinforce the point that there's no accounting for personal tastes. The truth of the matter is that while certain words are going to be an instant turn-off for some audiences, they are going to necessarily appeal to another group. I wouldn't see a flick called Attack of the 60 Foot Centerfolds, but (believe me) there is a demographic out there that would trip over their own feet on the way to the theater to see it.

So is it really so surprising that I bought Death Bed? If you know my tastes, you are already aware that they I tend to favor the macabre. Additionally, I am constantly seeking out buried obscure treasures to share with others. This movie is one of the lesser known entries in the horror genre. Its creation was begun by George Barry in 1972, and only finished five years later. Not surprisingly the finished product failed to find a large distribution. The director himself fully expected his work to fade into obscurity, and that's exactly what happened. Barry claims that he even forgot about it until he happened to stumble across mention of it on an internet message board in 1997. Apparently it had been pirated and released in several European countries. Realizing its potential, DVD distributor Cult Epics gave it a long-awaited video release in 2004. Now everyone can revel in its glories.

I really had no idea what to expect from the film. Having come across reviews of it on IMDB, I was intrigued by the possibility that I could be missing out on something good (or at least extremely wierd). What seemed like the equivalent of online whisperings was enough to compel me to seeek it out. In truth Death Bed is a unique work, if largely uneven. How would you present a man-eating bed? Barry seems to have hit on the ingenious idea of a vast pit that swallows the hapless victim, as he/she sinks through the covers and into its stomach. It's not especially clear where this pit exists in time and space, because its full dimensions are not shown and the bed's frame is off the floor. But when a yellow foam starts to appear on the surface of the bedspread, the viewer knows that something is about to get devoured.

The method of killing is not the only offbeat element in this film. From start to finish, we see some absurd and surreal stuff. The demon-bed seems to have been able to imprison an early victim, confining him to a space in the wall behind a crude portrait of itself. This guy constitutes the glue of the story, as he serves as narrator. He watches the proceedings hunched up in his little prison, and recounts the history of mayhem that the bed has unleashed in the past. Whatever exposition Barry has decided to serve up comes from this strange presence. From the beginning, we quickly realize that the thread of the plot is going to be woven very loosely throughout. There are strange sounds and inarticulate exclamations coming from the bed as it is apparently prone to indigestion.

I was impressed by the variety of death scenes presented in Death Bed. You'd think that the possibilities would be very limited (considering the relative lack of dynamism of the monster), but a surplus of dark humor keeps things interesting. The camerawork is uneven, the lighting poor, the editing suspect, the performances barely competent, and the dialogue alternatively pretentious and laughable... yet somehow there is entertainment to be had in watching this odd little film. It's evident that Barry was working with an extremely low budget (which could explain the distracting discontinuity of the settings), but he had no shortage of unaccountable imagination. And it would be unfair to hold this film to the standards of serious criticism.

If you were expecting a film called Death Bed- The Bed That Eats to make sense, then your own rationality should probably be called into question. If anything this is a "How-To" movie- demonstrating how (over time and with the perspective gained from the intervening years) an absolutely retarded premise can be transformed into a cult favorite.

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Saturday, October 13, 2007

Sidney Furie, "The Entity" (1981).

During the lead-up to Halloween, both M. and I believe it's only appropriate to watch as many "scary movies" as we have time for. Sadly I am quickly running out of quality horror that we haven't already seen. Although it's always an option to choose from among the numerous titles we have previously watched, there is just something special about seeing one for the first time. The fear of the unknown is a dominant factor in the horror genre, and that means that most of these films are going to lose their impact upon repeat viewings. For the last couple of years I've collected anything along these lines that looked decent- most of what is left falls into the "B-movie" or low budget categories. I still have a lot of movies that were bundled into public domain packages, but many of these approach the unwatchable.

We did find The Entity sitting shrink-wrapped upon the shelf. The packaging made M. think that it was going to be especially frightening, so it seemed like the right selection. Sidney Furie has what is probably the best name for a director in this genre. Still I was completely unfamiliar with his work, besides whatever reviews I had previously read for this very film. It got mildly positive notices, so I had some reason to believe we'd enjoy it. With all the lights off and the volume high, we settled in with high hopes. It didn't take long to show its colors. Lead actress Barbara Hershey is quickly assaulted by an unseen presence. What could be ridiculous if accompanied by poor acting and bad effects was remarkably convincing. The brutal violence of the attack set us immediately on edge.

As the story progresses and the attacks continue, Hershey is finally convinced to seek outside help. While she is the only one to witness the activity of "the entity", her friends and family come to the conclusion that she is suffering from mental illness. Her visits to a psychiatrist (Ron Silver) seem to reinforce this viewpoint. Yet she continues to field visitations, and eventually her kids experience the phenomena firsthand. Her willingness to accept that these events are generated inside herself slowly dissipates, and she is forced to seek help from unconventional sources. This sets off a conflict between the establishment (represented by Silver) and the seemingly suspect academic world of parapsychology. Slowly other people in Hershey's life come to accept the truth of her reports. In the face of direct observation, it is hard to deny the reality of the situation.

What makes The Entity seem vaguely ridiculous is the lengths that paranormal researchers go to document the mystery. It's understandable that these folks would want to validate their work, but the extent to which they are allowed to pursue their experiments strains all credibility. It's fairly obvious that they are exploiting Hershey's sufferings, but she is so desperate that she will submit to extreme lengths to regain control over her life. The interactions between her and "the entity" are (after all) marked by sexual violence, and thus constitute a deep threat to her physical and emotional well-being. The various reactions people have to her plight are portrayed convincingly with the help of excellent perfomances all around.

Most intriguing of all is that its filmmakers claim that The Entity is a fictionalized version of actual events. Viewed in that light, it is quite entertaining to try to separate the embellishments from what could be the historical record. Much of the film is wholly unbelievable. But that's not to say that it's a waste of time. The scenes featuring the effects of "the entity" are quite well done and convincing during the first half of the movie. They are accentuated by odd camera angles in the interim. The resulting effect is the production of viewer disorientation and a high level of sustained anxiety. It's only when the cheesy light effects are introduced that it all seems a bit laughable- as if we stumbled into Spencer Gifts at the mall, or a concert featuring a bad 80's hair-band. Had Furie more confidence in his material and the audience- he might have been able to evoke a creepy fascination in this unusual story. As it is, The Entity remains an offbeat curiosity.

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Friday, October 12, 2007

A Few Words About Teacher Strikes.

Because of personal bias, I really didn't want to get involved in the timely debate over teacher strikes. But it appears that a legislator in the PA state Congress is gearing up to introduce another ban on such actions. Representative Todd Rock had introduced a similar bill earlier this year, and local union activity has brought the issue back to the forefront of public attention. It seems that you can't tune in to a television news program, read a newspaper, or listen to AM radio without hearing plenty of commentary. Of course the vast majority of citizens are not teachers (or closely related to one) and they are understandably most concerned about how teacher salaries affect their property taxes.

Discussions based upon willingness to pay increased taxes are going to naturally be one-sided. While millage rates are not always applicable to all contract negotiations, you can bet that every school board will use them as a hammer to shape public opinion. Regardless of the reality of a district's finances, and whether or not there is a budget surplus in the educational system, the threat of more taxes is always going to be invoked by management. Only when the prospect of higher tax rates is removed from the discussion can we get at the core of people's feelings and thoughts about teacher strikes. Perhaps the underlying cause of a lot of the current invective regarding teacher unions could be mediated by a reassessment of property taxes- which is the primary funding source of public education. However, that entails a deep examination that I am not prepared to initiate here.

So why are most residents concerned about teacher strikes? Is it the pervasive animosity society has been programmed to direct toward all unions and collective bargaining? Less than 12% of American workers are members of unions. Ideas about the "free market" and the private sector have poisoned this society when it comes to the topic of unionization. Because corporations have been so effective in guiding our government toward the disenfranchisement of labor, it is almost impossible to have a rational conversation about what rewards we can expect from our employers. "Free trade" agreements have lowered expectations even further. The average worker salary, adjusted for inflation, has steadily decreased since 1970. The game is all but over, and the robber barons are consolidating their victory.

Consequently teacher unions are among the very last organized groups of professional workers in the nation. They are also (not coincidentally) among the last salaried employees to have adequate health care and pensions built into their contracts. Is it surprising that the most widely educated segment of the American workforce has managed to hold on to these benefits? PA educators are required by state law to be life-long learners. In order to acquire a permanent certification, teachers must earn the equivalent of a master's degree in post-graduate credits. In addition they must accumulate 180 hours of further education every five years to maintain active status. Because of these requirements they have learned to value their worth and significant collective contribution to a progressive and functional society. Their expectations for compensation are commensurate with their role as leading figures in the development of an educated population. To maintain their position they have cultivated a system to ensure their just reward.

Exactly what leverage would teachers have in contract negotiations if striking became illegal? How would they maintain the type of salaries and benefits that attract the brightest minds to the field of education? Being a teacher is a great responsibility on multiple levels. In every way, they are the true role models of society. Yet when they strike, they are accused of using children as hostages for their own advancement. However, this charge is fallacious. Students in PA are mandated by law to receive 180 days of education every year. Every day that teachers spend on strike must be made up during holidays or at the end of the original school schedule.

Critics of strikes claim that teachers get paid despite the fact that they aren't working. This is completely false. Without exception, they still must fulfill the terms of their 180-day contracts. Students don't lose a single day of curriculum. Additionally teachers sacrifice one non-working day for every one they spend on the picket line. They are substituting demonstration for "vacation". And all of this is in the service of just compensation. While it may be "inconvenient" for parents to adjust their schedules to accommodate strikes, it is simply not true that it is the kids that make the ultimate sacrifice. In the end strikes are a direct communication with the population that teachers serve- the parents and taxpayers of a district. You get what you pay for, and teachers are providing for the future. What value do you place on that?

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Thursday, October 11, 2007

Vidocq and the "Rogue Cop" Tradition.

How much confidence do you have in American law enforcement to stick to ethical methods while fighting crime? Obviously we have a very specific legal code which sets limits on what the police are supposed to be allowed to do. On a more fundamental level, all US citizens are granted due process (a guarantee of fair application of the law) by the Bill of Rights. I believe that there are many people who take these rights for granted, and many others who assume that these rights will always be extended if they ever find themselves accused of a crime. Unfortunately, legislation (such as the Patriot Act) has curtailed these essential protections in our modern era. There are many folks who are happy to trade away some essential freedoms for an increase in (perceived) security.

Yet even before 9-11, I think a lot of abuses were perpetrated by authorities on the citizenry. Sometimes these acts came to light through subsequent investigations. Still one would have to be naive to accept the presumption that individual law enforcement agents always play by the rules. The figure of the rogue cop is indeed an iconic archetype in our mass media. In fact, a movie under that title was actually released as early as 1954 (starring Robert Taylor, George Raft and Vivien Leigh). I haven't seen that one, but I'm very familiar with such stories. Abel Ferrara plumbed that vein in 1992 with Bad Lieutenant. In that bleak film, Harvey Keitel stars as a corrupt cop struggling through his life of drug abuse, violence, and sexual exploitation. For the more idealistic amongst us, Keitel's character is an essential wake-up call.

In truth wicked men have walked among the rank and file of law enforcement for hundreds of years. I recently picked up the Memoirs of Vidocq: Master of Crime. One might expect that the author is a notorious criminal- and in fact, they'd be correct. But that's not the whole story. Eugene Francois Vidocq was also one of the most successful and respected detectives of 19th Century France. This symbol of controversy was born in Arras in 1775. As a youth he was inspired to flee his hometown after accidentally killing his fencing instructor. He served in several military units, but continually deserted them after one or another incident of insubordination. From there he graduated to running with gangs of raiders and brigands.

Inevitably Vidocq's life of crime led to a series of imprisonments. He quickly proved himself adept as a prominent escape artist. Despite the occasional attempt to make a bid for the straight life, his penchant for booze, women, and the company of criminals consistently put him back on the path of the outlaw. After being sold out by a conspirator, and in a bid to escape a harsh penalty, he finally decided to volunteer his services to the French Police Inspector M. Henry in Paris. Challenged to demonstrate his sincerity and worth as an informer, Vidocq initiated a campaign of betrayal against his fellow blackguards that astonished and impressed the authorities. His reputation as an underground agent soon eclipsed that of his previous criminal career. After a period of years, he became the legendary head of Brigade de Sûreté (Brigade of Surety)- a plainclothes detective unit.

During a single year (1816) Vidocq made as many as 811 arrests. His facility for catching crooks no doubt rested in his ability and knowledge within the underworld milieu. Notably, Vidocq didn't always go about his work in the most ethical way. He instigated crimes only to later receive credit in reporting them. He also (self-admittedly) employed tactics as diverse as extortion, lying, entrapment, and minor graft in order to "get his man". No doubt he was a con-man, a braggart and a scoundrel- but he was also tremendously successful at putting "bad guys" behind bars. What more could the privileged of French society ask for? No doubt many of them believed that he ends justified the means. And besides... if you weren't doing anything wrong, then you presumably had nothing to fear from Vidocq.

That's a common argument presented by those who would look the other way as law enforcement personnel cut legal corners in order to police society. How do you feel about that? Surely you aren't a criminal, so why do you care? Well... people do sometimes get accused of crimes of which they are innocent. Tough break, huh? What if the authorities decide that they simply don't like you? If they are above the law, then they can hurt you with impunity. You may find all these civil rights inconvenient when other people invoke them, but you may someday benefit from those same rights if they are still respected in our society. Similarly you may trust the current administration, but your enemies may someday seize control and exercise the same powers.

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Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Little Boy Blue...

It's probably natural that I choose to surround myself with people who have vaguely similar values and political beliefs. I would hazard a guess that this applies to most people in our increasingly self-aware and stratified society. Often this means that discussion among friends lacks the enlivening spark of conflict. It's way too easy to talk with the simple purpose of seeking reinforcement. I am too mischievous and provocative to feel contented with "preaching to the choir". As a result I often find myself taking the proverbial "devil's advocate" position. I'll actively seek out the differences in belief among my friends. Some people accept this social manner more easily than others, and it is to those folks who I ultimately feel most drawn.

The downside of these particular habits is that my friends sometimes assume that I am arguing for argument's sake when I am being completely sincere and revealing. This is an understandable reaction, and because I have contributed to that perception I have to make an effort to accept it when it happens. Still it occasionally makes it difficult to convince people that I mean what I say. Additionally I have to combat the ever-present risk that my companions are are merely adapting my conversational style and turning it back on me. Nevertheless I enjoy the resulting talk more often than not.

This past weekend I found myself speculating about parental strategies with a group of friends. Among them there is an approximately even balance of the procreative and childless. Interestingly some of the individuals without children seemed to be the most outspoken in their beliefs. For much of my life I've preferred not to speculate too much about events that have not yet happened to me. I recognize that changes in my life are going to bring new consequences and responsibilities, but I'd rather not dwell on them excessively. I'm going to have to assess all the variables as they present themselves, so why should I form some concrete and/or articulate plan now? That doesn't mean that I won't ever prepare for the future- I like to arrange my life so I have the greatest variety of options as my life progresses. But I won't likely have a straight answer for you if asked how I'll act five years from now. I'll probably just shrug and say, "We'll see."

Given this self-characterization, you may find it surprising to discover that I was actually frustrated while trying to explain my ideas about dressing my future child. I drew a sustained level of criticism for suggesting that I plan to pick out gender appropriate clothing for my son. Somehow my friends got the impression that this had to do with my views on homosexuality. I'll not repeat them in this post because I've already described them in detail previously- but I will point out that I believe that gender identity and sexual behavior are distinct components, while related in some complex way. Specifically, I said I will dress my boy in boy's clothes and then let him choose for himself what he wears only when he reaches the age of thirteen. I'll discourage him from wearing dresses, skirts or pink clothing. Even if he begs me to, I won't buy those things for my kid.

I haven't made this decision because I can't accept gay people. If my son turns out to be queer, then I'll do whatever I can to accept him and help him accept himself. But I see no reason why I should assist in introducing the type of identity problems that wearing girlish clothes will inevitably expose an American boy to. If I can help him avoid being berated as a "sissy" or "fag" before he even gets to high school, then I will do so. And as a father, I believe I have the right to choose what clothing he wears. If my kid wants to wear something I don't approve of, then let him buy it for himself. Why indulge what amounts to a mere preference if it's only going to bring him suffering, confusion, and/or exclusion? This is not to say that I'm going to make him into something he's not... but I don't believe that a permissive fashion sense is worth making your child vulnerable to cruelty and intolerance. Sure, it's perhaps unfortunate that a man somehow will be thought of as less than a man for wearing a skirt... but that's the reality.

I was surprised to discover that many of my friends disagree strongly with my stated position. They seemed to infer that I am a closet bigot. Furthermore they said that I won't be able to control what my child wears. They wanted to know- "Why not let a little boy wear girl clothes if he wants to?" My answers seemed to them to be unduly repressive. Somehow they think that if I restrict my children in what they wear, I will be denying their inborn identity. But I think that is an oversimplification of the situation. The truth is that every parent makes certain concessions based upon social expectations. For instance, they don't send their kids to school naked. Why not? Maybe deep down their kids were just born to be nudists?

No, that's obviously silly. I think my friends were conflating issues. Their support and acceptance of homosexuals (which I share) seems to be confused with external appearances- as if every man who ever wore a dress was gay, or every gay man must wear a dress. In something as superficial as clothing, I'm willing to make a few concessions for the sake of social acceptance. The clothes don't make (or unmake) a man... not really. So why allow your kids to subject themselves to that type of derision just because others "should be beyond" this kind of superficial judgment and intolerance? Why don't you at least let them wait until maturity before allowing them to make decisions that may saddle them with a (perhaps) unnecessary label for the rest of their lives? Otherwise it's ultimately making them suffer for your own idealism. Is that more fair than making an informed choice for them?

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